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Freedmen in Ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman freedmen were people who had been raised from slavery and received partial civil rights.

In ancient Rome, liberation (manumissio) was an owner’s act of gratitude for loyal service. Roman law protected slaves from being liberated in the event of sickness, old age or simply when they could not work. The liberated people did not have full rights, only their children acquired the whole of them.

There were two ways of liberation:

  • civil liberation – causes unconditional and forever liberation
  • Praetorian Liberation – causes that a liberated person is treated as a free person only during his lifetime, and after death, as in slaves, his property goes to the former owner.

Ways of civil liberation were the so-called formal methods i.e. required the observance of certain formal rigours for their validity. Therefore, the following were distinguished:

  • manumissio vindicta – liberation performed solemnly before the praetor
  • manumissio censu – liberation consisting of the censor’s entry, with the consent of the owner, of a slave on the list of citizens. A census of citizens (census) was carried out regularly every 5 years.
  • manumissio testamento – testamentary liberation
  • manumissio in ecclesia – granting freedom by making an appropriate declaration to the bishop and the Christian community. Liberation was introduced during the reign of Constantine the Great.

Ways of praetor liberation were the so-called informal ways. They could be carried out in any way and form, only the owner’s will had to be officially and clearly expressed. The following were distinguished, for example:

  • manumissio per epistlum – in a letter addressed to the liberated
  • manumissio inter amicos – among friends, declaration of will made to witnesses

There were many ways of informal liberation, but all of them led to a short-term gain of freedom (for the lifetime of a liberated person). After the slave, his property was taken by its former owner. The situation of the children of the conditionally liberated became difficult, because all the property that the father owned was returned to the former owner, and they were left without a livelihood. This was related to the principle of unity of property in Rome. Those informally liberated were called Latini Juniani, because their legal situation was regulated by Lex Junia Norbana from 19 CE.

Ordinary freedmen (libertini) naturally had a more difficult legal position than those without birth.
The most important restriction of legal freedom was related to the so-called right of patronage (ius patronatus), i.e. the rights that the former owner had over the person he liberated. The freedman was required to obey and respect the patron, he could not sue him without the consent of the praetor, and he was obliged to provide certain free services if promised before liberation. The patron had the right to inherit to a certain extent after the liberator. Apart from the patronage right, there were other detailed legal solutions that put the freedman in a worse situation than a free-born person. For example, senators were forbidden to marry freedmen and thus did not have the legal capacity to be married to a specific group of people. Women free from birth were released from care after giving birth to 3 children, and freed women had to give birth to 4. There are several dozen examples of this. The legal capacity of the freedman was limited.

There was also another term for persons with limited legal possibilities: semi-free persons, i.e. persons formally belonging to the free group but experiencing very serious restrictions on their freedom. Distinguished:

  • Coloni – petty tenants who were attached to the land (glebae adscripti). They were supposed to be free, but what kind of freedom is it if you cannot change your place of residence.
  • Addicti – persons awarded to the creditor. They were indebted people who could not or did not want to pay off their debts, lost the process with the creditor and personal enforcement was applied against them. They were formally free but were actually treated as slaves.
  • Alfoldy Geza, Historia społeczna starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2003
  • Łoposzko Tadeusz, Historia społeczna republikańskiego Rzymu

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