The Freedman in the Roman World
Also in this review:
Free at Last! The Impact of Freed Slaves on the Roman Empire. Edited by Sinclair Bell and Teresa Ramsby. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012. xii + 212 pp. $130.00 [reviewed hardback; paperback, $39.95]
The Freedman in Roman Art and History. By Lauren Hackworth Petersen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xviii + 294 pp. $52.00
Most students of the Bible are aware of the distinction between slaves and free people. Fewer are aware of a third classification of people called “freedmen” (Latin: libertus [plural liberti] or libertinus [plural: libertini]) within the latter group. Fewer still are aware of the significance of such a position and the freedman’s role in Roman society. As former slaves now free, freedmen were similar to and distinct from both slaves and freeborn people. Their status in society demanded different relationships with many with whom they had contact. A simplistic approach to this group has contributed to its neglect in both classical and New Testament studies.
With an abundance of primary source material and an enhanced emphasis on ancient slavery, one would expect freedmen to receive more scholarly attention. This has not been the case. Henrik Mouritsen suggests that reasons for modern scholarly neglect of freedmen include a concern about appearing to be apologetic towards slavery (presumably because study of freedmen would tend to place a focus on ancient freeing of slaves). Meanwhile, freedmen appear to have had a “lack of ‘class’ solidarity” with those remaining in slavery and they may have even owned slaves themselves (p. 4–5). Thus they are a difficult group for the modern student to understand.
Neglect of them is unfortunate because their presence in the first century was significant, and they must have been an important part of the early church. They are mentioned specifically in the New Testament only twice (“synagogue of freedmen,” Liberti'no", Acts 6:9; ajpeleuvqero", 1 Cor. 7:22), but it is likely that some people mentioned in Acts and in the Epistles were freedmen. Freedmen of emperors held positions of importance and influence. For example, Felix, the governor of Judea (Acts 23:24–24:27) was a freedman (Suetonius, Claudius 28) and Felix’s brother Pallas was an influential freedman with an important post in Claudius’ government. Further, the founding of the Roman colony of Corinth by Julius Caesar involved a significant contribution by freedmen (Mouritsen, p. 52). If Paul’s appeal to Philemon was successful, Onesimus would have become a freedman. Thus, a better understanding of this class of people will result in a better understanding of the New Testament and early Christianity.
The last full-length book on the subject for the Roman republic was written in 1969, and it has been even longer for the imperial period, 1928 (Mouritsen, p. 1). Fortunately, this situation has changed. The three volumes reviewed here provide the modern reader with an excellent introduction and substantive discussion of the subject.
Henrik Mouritsen’s Freedmen in the Roman World comprehensively discusses the subject for both the republic and imperial periods. A brief but helpful introduction orients the reader to issues involved in understanding freedmen generally (pp. 1–8) and provides an overview of the volume (pp. 8–9). Chapters 2–4 (pp. 10–119) explore a number of issues that are quite foreign to modern readers. Freedom from slavery could result in Roman citizenship (pp. 68–70). Freedom, however, did not necessarily mean a completely new life. The freedman carried an apparently indelible stain from slavery, often associated with the “servile” nature of the slave state (pp. 11–33). In fact, despite the freedman’s new (and legal) status as “free,” because of his past, he was never fully free in the sense that a free born individual would experience freedom (p. 66; see also pp. 248–49).
The Roman relationship between the former owner and former slave was unique among slave societies; the power structure remained in place, but the relationship was redefined in the form of a patron and a dependant client (pp. 36–42). The freed slave in practice still owed much to his master (pp. 53–65). It appears he became part of the familia (wider family unit under the authority of a paterfamilias) (pp. 26, 36–46, 58, 98, see also, p. 159). This sounds appealing (and was preferred to slavery), but it meant that the freed slave was still under the authority of the former owner (pp. 36–37), and freed slaves were rarely ever made heirs (see p. 157 n. 171, but see also p. 240–42). The freedman’s son, however, was not bound by the same restrictions (see pp. 261–78). Finally, Mouritsen explores the power and status of freedmen in relation to the rest of society (pp. 66–119). For the reader familiar with ancient slavery, these chapters provide a glance at this institution from a different perspective.
Chapter 5 is an excellent chapter. It examines which slaves were freed and when and why they were freed (manumission) (pp. 120–205). Mouritsen challenges assumptions in this area. For example, self-purchase (providing funds with which the owner could replace the slave) and testamentary freedom (declared free in the owner’s will) occurred but were not so common as once was thought (pp. 159–80, 180–85). Instead, a crucial factor in potential freedom was the trustworthiness and responsible nature of the slave (pp. 200–2). This produced good freedmen (p. 202). Slaves with more contact with their owners and his family were more likely to be freed than those without such access (pp. 196–99; e.g., rural slaves, p. 199). Again, against common belief, many young slaves and many women were freed (pp. 186–90, 190–92), which suggests that future reproduction was not an important consideration for the masters (p. 202).
Mouritsen’s arguments are convincing and supported extensively with primary source material (e.g., see his discussion on the literary evidence, inscriptions, and legal texts concerning self-purchase, pp. 162–80; this type of argumentation is seen throughout the volume). Lest this sustained discussion of freeing slaves might lead some to misinterpret Roman slavery, Mouritsen cautions, “There is no denying that the Romans freed large numbers of slaves, who were often treated handsomely. But what emerges from this interpretation of Roman manumission is not a ‘humane’ form of slavery. For the majority of slaves the implied selection process would have been profoundly demoralising” (pp. 203–4). A slave was powerless and had no control over whether he or she was freed or not.
Chapters 6 and 7 consider the freedman in relation to society (pp. 206–78). The freedman had a unique status in the Roman world. He came from a class that contributed significantly to the economy of the empire, but this class could not reproduce itself (p. 208). Slaves and free born people could have children who were born into their status. The children of freedmen were usually free and not considered freedmen (pp. 208, 261–78). As noted, the economic impact of freedmen was significant (pp. 206–47). Here again Mouritsen demonstrates his careful scholarship. Although there is truth in the traditional assumption that trade was looked down upon by the elite and so was an area in which freedmen excelled because they had no honor to defend (pp. 208–9), Mouritsen clearly shows that many elite were also involved in commerce in some manner (pp. 208–12). Finally, despite many obstacles and rules that forbade participation in the most important aspects of public life, there were outlets for freedman to pursue their ambitions (pp. 248–61).
The final chapter explores how a freedman experienced life (pp. 279–99). A freedman’s life was complex. It included great benefits but also had difficulties because the stain of slavery remained. One benefit that cannot be overvalued is the freedman’s potential to have a secure family under Roman law (pp. 286–88). Mouritsen suggests this may have been the most important force contributing to a slave’s desire to become free (p. 286).
Mouritsen has a mastery of both primary and secondary sources, and this book is more than an introduction. It challenges old assumptions and convincingly argues for a new understanding of a number of established conclusions. The volume concludes with a 35-page bibliography (pp. 300–34) and a ten-page general index (pp. 335–44). A comprehensive index of ancient sources would have been a valuable addition.
Mouritsen’s book is an excellent overview of freedmen. Bell and Ramsby’s edited volume Free at Last! collects seven articles that explore specific areas of freedman research, and it has a concluding response essay. The purpose is to highlight accomplishments of freedmen (p. 1). The editors recognize that their work, the first edited volume devoted to freedmen, complements Mouritsen’s volume (p. 2). Bell and Ramsby’s volume helps to show how this amazing class of people contributed to the Roman world. If this volume were one’s only source on the subject, however, it would be easy to miss the horrible experience of slavery and the stain it left on people (something the editors seem to realize, p. 3). Mouritsen’s more comprehensive volume exposes the reality of slavery more clearly.
All of the articles in Bell and Rambsy’s collection are excellent. Koenraad Verboven’s contribution, “The Freedman Economy of Roman Italy” (pp. 88–109) discusses the considerable role that freedmen played in the Roman economy. He goes so far as to suggest that it may be as accurate to describe the Roman economy as a “freedman economy” as it is to describe it as a “slave economy” (p. 88). Marc Kleijwegt sets forth a research agenda for Roman freedwomen that includes an emphasis on New World slavery in “Deciphering Freedwomen in the Roman Empire” (pp. 110–29). This is an underserved area, and Kleijwegt uses his method “to discover how manumission affected freedwomen in their personal and family lives” (p. 111). What Kleijwegt proposes and describes as the life of a freedwoman can generally be summarized as complex. It is admitted that ancient evidence is sparse and Kleijwegt emphasizes the ancient; whether adding modern evidence from different societies can be very helpful is uncertain. The danger of reading information from the modern into the ancient is possible without any means of knowing whether such information is relevant. Nevertheless, with great caution and humble conclusions, this approach can provide insightful information.
Some articles in this collection have application beyond the subject of freedmen. For example, Barbara E. Borg’s article, “The Face of the Social Climber: Roman Freedmen and Elite Ideology” (pp. 25–49) discusses the interpretation of Roman art. Although the main focus is on art associated with freedmen (a group that seems to have been very interested in commissioning art), insights here can be applied to the broader subject of Roman art, especially sculpture. For example, Borg warns against reading modern understandings of the individual into artistic renderings (“biographical fallacy,” p. 39). Certainly, there are important motifs with which the artist wanted to communicate; however, they might be rather focused, they needed to be interpretable to the ancient viewer, and they might involve a commonly identifiable characteristic. For example, portraits of Augustus with his wavy hair do not mean that he did not use a comb. Rather, it is likely that these portraits copied a feature of portraits of Alexander the Great, with whom Augustus wished to be associated (pp. 32).
Other articles on ancient freedmen cover communication (Pauline Ripat, “Locating the Grapevine in the Late Republic: Freedmen and Communication,” pp. 50–65), Petronius’s fictional freedman, Trimalchionis (Teresa Ramsby, “ ‘Reading’ the Freed Slave in the Cena Trimalchionis,” (pp. 66–87), and burials (Carlos R. Galvao-Sobrinho, “Feasting the Dead Together: Household Burials and the Social Strategies of Slaves and Freed Persons in the Early Principate,” pp. 130–76). In addition to the articles on the ancient situation, Michele Valerie Ronnick contributed an interesting piece detailing the trials, successes, and select history of ancient-language teaching among freed African-Americans (“ ‘Saintly Souls’: White Teachers’ Advocacy and Instruction of Greek and Latin to African American Freedman” [pp. 177–95]). The volume concludes with an essay that interacts with the articles in the collection (Eleanor Winsor Leach, “Response Essay: What Has Pliny to Say?” pp. 196–210). Each contribution includes a helpful bibliography, and the book itself includes an all-too-brief two-page general index (pp. 211–12).
Finally, Lauren Hackworth Petersen’s The Freedman in Roman Art and History discusses “freedmen art.” Petersen is an associate professor of art history and provides yet another perspective on freedmen. Her book covers freedmen’s public presentation (chapters 1–3) and their private, home presentation (chapters 4–6). That freedmen were active patrons of the arts seems to be the case, but Petersen challenges various conclusions, resulting in a more carefully constructed picture of freedmen and their use of art. She challenges the notion that “freedmen art” can be easily defined, and she suggests that this classification is problematic (pp. 2, 10–13). Her goal “is to explode the category of ‘freedmen art’ while adding another layer to the story of Roman art and history” (p. 12).
Petersen refuses to accept a simple reading of the evidence. For example, she devotes an entire chapter to the tomb of the baker named Eurysaces outside Rome (chapter 3, pp. 84–120). This has been commonly assumed to be the tomb of a freedmen based not on inscriptional evidence but on circumstantial evidence: Eurysaces is a Greek name (p. 87); he was a baker, which was a common occupation of freedmen (p. 87); it is assumed that mention of employment on tombs identified freedmen (p. 114); the tomb is ostentatious, which reveals freedmen’s taste (or more specifically, lack of taste) (pp. 87–88). These considerations have resulted in the freedman identification, and this may be correct, but it cannot be assumed with confidence. Examination of funerary art of a clearly identified magistrate reveals significant similarities (pp. 119–20).
Beyond freedmen, Petersen’s description of homes is helpful: “Not intended for the owner’s gratification exclusively, the Roman house was viewed by a number of visitors and could function as a public index of acculturation” (p. 123). Given all the types of activities that took place in the house, the house functioned as an ancient form of Facebook. Petersen continues, “It [the house] was instrumental in shaping his [the owner’s] public persona” (p. 123). She examines in detail the way in which freedmen used art as well as the art itself. By looking at art that is explicitly from freeborn people as well as art from those whose status is unknown, she places freedman’s art in its larger context. This has the added benefit of providing a detailed analysis of aspects of Roman art more generally. The volume concludes with a tightly packed thirteen-page bibliography (pp. 275–87) and a six-page general index (pp. 289–94). For the student of the New Testament, this book offers more than its stated aims. It provides a striking personal glimpse of freedmen through the art associated with them. The book assumes some knowledge of the topic, and although it can read alone with benefit, one would be better equipped to read this after reading Mouritsen.
Anyone interested in an updated scholarly discussion of the group called freedman will be well served by these volumes. Mouritsen’s readable volume will provide an excellent introduction and an in-depth analysis of the group. For those desiring to go further, Bell and Ramsby’s collection of articles provides a nice supplement on select topics. Finally, Petersen’s contribution with its visual aids helps the reader get to know the freedman on a more personal level. These volumes contribute to New Testament studies by providing insight into the experiences of a group of people of whom the modern reader is mostly unaware, though this group certainly contributed greatly to the early church.
About the Contributors
Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God’s Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ’s love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. Dr. Fantin’s research interests include the first-century world, Greek language and linguistics, exegetical method, and exegesis of the prison epistles. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.