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The legal situation of slaves

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Gladiator helmet
Gladiator helmet

The basic social and legal division in Rome was between free citizens and slaves-the basic element of legal capacity was therefore freedom. This is one of the darkest pages in the history of the Roman Empire.

Slaves were not treated as subjects but as objects of the law, although their situation changed in different periods of Rome, this was the basis of their situation. To make matters worse, if a slave owner died even without heirs, the slave didn’t automatically gain freedom. He then became a “nobody’s thing” and could be appropriated by another person. According to the law, a slave could not own anything, could not be a creditor, sue in a lawsuit or be sued, and his owner could decide his life and death. The slave owner could give part of his property to him to manage, but the income derived from it belonged to the slave owner, so this legal institution of the so-called peculium was a material incentive to work more efficiently for the benefit of the owner since there was often freedom as a reward for successful management of the property.

From the reign of Marcus Aurelius onwards, such a promise was actionable and the slave could claim to keep the contract. Slavery was extinguished by liberation in several ways including: in the presence of a praetor, the slave owner and a witness, by the owner’s enrollment of the slave as a citizen, or by granting freedom in a will. Towards the end of the Republic, the number of liberations increased dramatically, causing Augustus to limit these rights to slave owners explaining his concern for the ethnic purity of Rome.

Author: Sebastian Gruszka (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Władysław Rozwadowski, Prawo rzymskie, Zarys wykładu wraz z wyborem źródeł, Poznań 1992

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