- Who and When?
The ‘Servi Publici: Everybody’s Slaves’ (SPES) research project started on October, 1st 2016. It is supported by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Individual Fellowship (H2020-MSCA-IF-2015), with the School of History, Classics and Archaeology (SHCA) of the Newcastle University as host institution.
A six-month secondment is scheduled from April, 1st to September, 30th 2017 at the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS), which is part of the School of Advanced Study (SAS) of the University of London, under the mentorship of Dr Gabriel Bodard.
The SPES project sets out to provide a full-scale reconsideration of the position of public slaves in the Roman society through a multidisciplinary and comparative study. Its main objectives are:
a) to gather and organize in an on-line database all the available sources (literary, epigraphic and archaeological documents) concerning public slavery in the Roman World;
b) to cross-fertilize the historiography of ancient and modern slavery in order to thoroughly understand the predicament and historical significance of the slaves owned by a community, both in antiquity and in the modern age.
A detail from a Latin inscription from Rome (CIL VI, 2329), which mentions Philippus Rustianus, a public slave in service as a custodian of a shrine dedicated to a deified Emperor
3. Public Slaves: Who Were They?
Slavery played a fundamental role in the Roman economy and society: slaves performed all kinds of manual labour and domestic services, and some of them even carried out highly skilled professions.
Besides private slaves, owned by private masters, and imperial slaves, who were the property of the emperors, there were the so-called public slaves (servi publici): they were non-free individuals owned not by a private person, but by a community, such as the Roman people as a whole or the citizen body of a municipality.
Public slaves were considered as state chattel, much in the same way as it was the case in ancient Greece and in some modern slave-owning societies.
In 5th century BCE Athens, public slaves (dēmósioi) were employed for a variety of lowly, but fundamental administrative tasks and public works.
In the 16th century, Christian and Muslim states in the Mediterranean area used prisoners of war as galley-slaves or public workers.
Analogously, during the 18th and 19th century, in some African and Caribbean regions the so-called ‘government slaves’ were employed on rural estates or as labourers in the various public department.
In the city of Rome, public slaves were under the authority of the Roman Senate. They were mostly employed as attendants of priests and magistrates. Other servi publici also worked as custodians of public buildings (archives, temples, basilicae, and libraries) or carried out generic public works.
In the cities of Italy and the provinces, public slaves were under the power of the local councillors. They were employed for very similar tasks as the ones described for Rome, i.e. as attendants of local magistrates, treasurers, transactors, and archivists. In some cities of the Empire servi publici were entrusted with the task of maintaining the public baths, as well as of producing lead-pipes and bricks.
During the Late Roman Republic and the first three centuries of the Empire (II century BCE – III century CE), a public slave in Rome could be manumitted by a magistrate’s ruling, with the prior authorization of the Roman Senate. After his manumission, a Roman public freedman assumed the name Publicius as a token of his former status (Publicius derives from publicus/-a), or the same name as the magistrate who affranchised him.
In the Italian and provincial cities, public slaves could be freed by the local councillors, by request of one of the magistrates that were elected on a yearly basis. After their manumission, cities public freedmen and freedwomen also assumed the name Publicius or another one derived from the toponym of their city (e.g. Ostiensis, from Ostia).
Roman public slaves, freedmen and freedwomen are mostly attested by epigraphic, juridical and literary sources.