A Roman Slave’s Life After Freedom

From the Lecture Series: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
The imaginary scene of re-creation of Roman life.
Freedom of a Roman slave could be granted in exchange for an amount of money that they saved or as per the will of the owner. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Freedom of a Roman slave could give them a life like they weren’t ever a slave. They could enjoy all rights that a Roman enjoyed. It took until the mid-first century A.D. for the Romans to give some legal rights to the slaves, but once they did, freedom could even bring along citizenship for the slaves. Emperor Claudius decreed that an abandoned, sick slave was automatically freed. After that, Emperor Hadrian abolished ergastula, the slave prisons used for agricultural and industrial slaves.

Fears of a Roman

Rich Roman men drink wine on sunbeds, they are served by young slaves, in whose hands a silver tray and amphora with wine
Usually, the worst thing that Roman slaves would do was to initiate rumors and gossips about their owners to take revenge for the sometimes-cruel behavior. (Image: Yulliii/Shutterstock)

Some scholars have suggested that the Romans lived in perpetual fear of their slaves. There was even a Roman proverb which stated: “Every slave we own is an enemy whom we harbor.” The fear was not of being murdered in their sleep. That was a remote possibility. The very real fear of being the object of constant gossip by their slaves because they would have known all their sordid little secrets.

A more rational concern would have been slaves running away. Putting up public notices to find runaway slaves was common. Apparently, many slaves managed to avoid arrest and take refuge in alleged safe houses and underground railways. Those who were arrested were heavily punished, marked on the face, and required to wear a metal collar around the neck.

Even the highest Roman intellectuals did not think of life without slaves. It was too common to be noted and questioned. However, a philosophical movement called Stoicism began to change things.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Stoicism and Slavery

Stoicism appealed specifically to the Roman elite and urged them to be kind to everyone, including slaves. Seneca, also a Stoic, wrote in one of his letters: Servi suntImmo homines, which translates, “They are slaves. On the contrary, they are men.” This was not even close to the abolition of slavery.

Seneca’s statement most probably referred to the small group of literate slaves that helped Romans in management and other sophisticated tasks. There was even a former slave among the leading philosophers called Epictetus, but neither he nor any other person in the ancient world suggested the abolition of slavery. Neither did the Christian Church. Despite this, freedom of a Roman slave was more probable than slaves of other nations.

Learn more about being a poor Roman.

Manumission: Freedom of a Roman Slave

A domestic slave had a small wage called peculium. A slave could save the peculium for some years, hand it over to their owner, and ask for their freedom. The savings were, in fact, compensation to the loss of a slave and investment to get a new one. This faded the urge for revolting, at least among domestic slaves.

The process of granting the freedom of a Roman slave was called manumission, meaning “to send away or dismiss with the hand.” When the master or mistress agreed to grant the slave’s freedom, there was a formal process to free the slave. The freedom had to be granted in the presence of a magistrate known as a praetor, who would grant a cap of freedom to signal the new status. The owner could voluntarily free the slave too.

When Brutus killed Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., he minted coins depicting a cap of freedom between two daggers to indicate that they had rid Rome of a hated master.

Learn more about being a Roman soldier.

What after freedom?

A freedman would take the name of his previous owner and live almost like a Roman citizen. The owner turned into the patronus, i.e., stand-in father. The freed slave still had to work for the previous owner several days per year – called obsequium – and support their progress.

Part of an unattributed mosaic in Zippori Archaeological National Park depicting revelers and attendants of a Dionysus party.
Roman slaves could work independently and earn a fortune, but still they had to support their former master and work for him several days a year. (Image: William Hammer/Shutterstock)

The freedom could be revoked if the former slave treated the former master disrespectfully. Thus, it was conditional freedom, but if they maintained it, they could live a normal life, working and earning a living. The skills were the only limit to a slave’s fortune and success, and there were no legal boundaries anymore.

Perhaps, there were many awfully rich freedmen like Trimalchio, the vulgar, boastful, and uneducated wealthy freedman in Petronius’ novel the Satyricon.

A former slave could never hold official posts and would always be avoided by most Romans. However, if they had children after freedom, the child would be a Roman citizen without bearing any of the parents’ restrictions.

For example, Horace, the poet, was the son of a freedman. The historian Tacitus claims that most knights and many senators were descended from slaves. Thus, freedom of a Roman slave could bring them a better life, but only their children could be seen and treated like real free Romans.

Common Questions about Freedom of a Roman Slave

Q: Could Roman slaves be freed?

Yes, and it was not uncommon in Rome. The freedom of a Roman slave could totally change their life and bring every legal right to them that their former masters had.

Q: What is manumission?

The process of granting the freedom of a Roman slave was called manumission. It literally means “to send away or dismiss with the hand:” mitto, “I send,” manu, “from the hand.”

Q: Did Romans fear their slaves?

Yes, but the fear was very irrational in some cases as the dangers usually stayed at the level of gossips. For example, sometimes, they were afraid that a slave might kill them in their sleep, but the fear was not strong enough to buy the freedom of a Roman slave or cost them their life.

Q: What name would a freedman bear after freedom?

Freedom of a roman slave meant that from the first day of their freedom, they would take the name of their last owner. After that, they could live almost like a Roman citizen and had most of the rights that a native Roman had.

Keep Reading
Slaves, the Unsung Heroes of Ancient Greece
British Abolitionists Against the Slave Trade
The Slave Trade: From Europe to the Americas