Book Reviews

Gender, Manumission, and the Roman Freedwoman.

Matthew J. Perry New York October 31, 2013

Ancient Roman slaves were property. Unlike citizens, they did not possess personal agency, bodily integrity, legitimate family, or identity, and were therefore subject to insufferable violence, sexual exploitation, and every kind of humiliation. “The slave defined what a citizen was not, and vice versa” (1). However, unlike other slave societies, the Roman process of freeing slaves, or manumission, led in many cases to citizenship. Essentially, manumission “reconciled the categories of ‘slave’ and ‘citizen,’ which were otherwise in a dialectical relationship” (1). Although not necessarily a smooth transition, a male’s path to citizenship was rather straightforward and has been the subject of some scholarly discussion. (For a review of three books on freedmen, see Bibliotheca Sacra 171 [2014], 373–77.)

This was not the case for women. Roman attitudes about sexuality, roles, and social status made it difficult to reconcile the experiences that a woman may have had as a slave with what a citizen was supposed to be. Essentially, “the sexual identities of a female slave and a female citizen were incompatible, as the former was principally defined by her sexual availability and the latter by her sexual integrity” (1). To be fair, sexual conduct was important for Roman males, and women were valued for other reasons as well (1–2); however, Perry maintains that “sexuality was a singularly important factor in judging female value and standing in the classical world” (2).

Matthew Perry’s study is a revised PhD dissertation. It attempts to explore why women were manumitted and why they were given citizenship during the period from 200 BC to AD 235 (2). Little is known about manumitted women, and there are few sources available, especially from a woman’s perspective; Perry’s sources (mainly elite) are literary texts, legal texts, and inscriptions (mainly funerary) (2). Perry examines Roman beliefs, assumptions, and desires concerning this subject (3). He finds that sources reveal “pervasive anxieties among the Roman elite regarding their success at transforming ex-slaves into authentic citizens” (3).

The book’s introduction is short and gives a helpful overview of the entire study. The main body of the work consists of five chapters. Chapter 1 covers foundational ground regarding gender, sexuality, and status. It describes the sexual roles of slaves and other classes of women in light of an honor and shame cultural model. In a culture based on honor and shame, a slave woman’s sexual activities were without shame (because slaves could have neither honor nor shame); however, a slave could be degraded (22). Nevertheless, it appears that within a household, a slave could function in a relatively respectable sexual role (40–41). This appears to result in a contradiction in which “for female slaves, sex within the household could simultaneously be disgraceful and respectable” (42). It is this apparent but accepted contradiction that opens the door for a manumitted female slave to be accepted as a citizen (42).

Despite great strides in recent decades, women’s work remains largely undervalued, even today. Things were no different in the ancient world (44–48). Chapter 2 explores views on labor and the value placed on women slaves. Clearly the elite males who are responsible for extant sources “trivialized” and “undervalued” the work done by female slaves (43, 48); however, the women’s reproductive abilities were “an essential component of their worth” (49). By imperial times (including the time of the composition of the New Testament), the most common means of slave acquisition was though birth (49). Slaves born within the household were seen “as being more loyal, trustworthy, and productive than slaves purchased from outside the household,” and such slaves were considered “of a superior quality” (49). Further, in reproductive roles, slave women could function in ways similar to free women and thus perform citizen-like activities (67–68). Although manumission was never assured because of the control of the master, it served as a motivation for slaves to work hard (53). Slaves closest to the family were most likely to be manumitted (54), and a sexual relationship with the master was the most effective means by which a female slave could “gain favor” with her owner (51). Some were even freed to become the master’s (or another free person’s) wife (54–55). A slave could offer money for his or her freedom (the master was under no obligation to agree [59]); however, financial assistance was usually necessary for women, in part because few opportunities existed for them to make money outside of entertaining and prostitution (56–57). No clear example exists of a female slave purchasing her freedom exclusively from her own funds (57). Interestingly, manumission had a communal function. It served as a means of rewarding and preparing deserving slaves for citizenship (61). When a Roman citizen formally freed a slave, that slave was a citizen (59, 61). Informal manumission was practiced, but unfortunately Perry does not pursue this (60–61, n. 93 [200]). Formal manumission was a means to “produce new citizens in order to increase the strength of Rome” (62). Given the importance of citizenship to towns and cities, freeing one’s slave(s) could be seen as a way of helping the entire community (although this was not without some criticism, restrictions, and abuse) (62–65).

Chapter 3 focuses on laws related to freedwomen. An essential component of Roman society was the benefaction system of mutual support between a patron and a lower-status client. Such relationships benefitted both parties and were generally voluntary; however, in the case of freedwomen, this relationship was “compulsory” (69). A freedwoman was under obligation to her former owner for life, but the former master had responsibilities as well (69). These laws were in some sense oppressive (see 70), exploitive (93), and open to abuse (e.g., 72–73, 89–91). However, it appears that these laws were intended to protect the freedwoman’s “sexual integrity” and her ability to marry, essentially to assure that she could become a respected Roman matron (71). The chapter explains the laws and the obligations of each party in this relationship. For example, a former master could not demand sexual favors from a freedwoman (80), nor could he make her take an oath not to marry (89). These laws seem positive; however, given the power make up of ancient Rome, one wonders how strictly they were enforced and how much abuse occurred.

Chapter 4 examines inscriptions, especially funerary, and considers how patrons of freedwomen and freedwomen represented the freed slave. Freedwomen’s slave pasts were a source of prejudice, but they used their free status to help define themselves (passim, 128). Appendixes B and C include lists of inscriptions that support this chapter (162–66).

The final main chapter explores how freedwomen compared with freeborn women. Throughout Roman history, from a legal perspective, freeborn women were viewed as higher socially and had more rights than freedwomen; however, freedwomen were permitted to attain honor and status that came with citizenship (130–38). In contrast, Roman literature generally portrayed freedwomen negatively, often involved in inappropriate sexual activity (138–48). Perry qualifies this by noting that “Roman literature does not prove that all freedwomen were low, sexually promiscuous individuals as much as it indicates that authors and their readers found it useful to represent freedwomen in this manner” (146). Both legal and literary texts wrestle with how to reconcile an unacceptable sexual history as a slave with the status of citizenship the freedwoman now possessed. It seems like the way the elites solved this problem was through marriage (or acceptable concubinage), which made it possible for the freedwoman to become a Roman matron (148–53). She was still not afforded all the rights and privileges of a freeborn woman, but marriage made her “worthy” of Roman citizenship (154).

One cultural concept of interest that comes out of this study is the value placed on marriage in ancient Rome. The final sentence of the conclusion places issues of slavery, freedom, and marriage into perspective: “While manumission released a freedwoman from bondage, transforming a woman from property to person, it was marriage that ultimately completed her transformation from slave to citizen” (159).

The book inconveniently uses endnotes (167–236). The drawback of endnotes is evident when during Perry’s discussion of formal and informal manumission, he includes an endnote that informs the reader that in the remainder of the discussion “manumission” refers only to “formal” manumission (61, n. 93 [200]). This is an important clarification that affects the reading of the book. If one is not motivated to turn to page 200, this will be missed.

Perry’s excellent study is helpful in a number of ways. In addition to giving scholarly attention to freedwomen and their unique circumstances, it advances the study of slavery, manumission, citizenship, marriage, and gender in ancient Rome. The focus on the under-represented freedwoman provides valuable insight on these areas and gives us a more detailed view of Roman culture than often presented. Also, it shines a light, albeit a small one, on the experiences of these women who have been almost completely lost in related discussions. It is likely there were many such individuals in the time of the New Testament and earliest churches.

Before concluding, it is worth noting that the existence of manumission should not detract from the horror of slavery. Manumission appears to have been “routine and commonplace” (5). However, this is not spelled out specifically in Perry’s work, and it is unclear whether Perry is considering both formal and informal manumission. Informal manumission lacked many of the rights of formal manumission, and the owner maintained more control. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the slave had any power in the process. Any act of freedom, formal or informal, demanded the consent of and initiation by the master (53, 59). Additionally, freedwomen remained dependent upon their former masters. Much of the discussion here surrounds household slaves who had significant access to their masters. One wonders about the potential for freedom for the countless slaves who worked in mines and other remote places and had little contact with their masters.

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