Servi Publici in Rome: Regular or Privileged Slaves?

Three important occasions for disseminating the preliminary outcomes of the Servi Publici: Everybody’s Slaves’ (SPES) research project took place over the last few months.

Dr Franco Luciani, the SPES project Fellow, attended the International Conference ‘Romains ordinaires / Regular Romans /Romani ordinari. La fragmentation socio-économique de la plèbe romaine’, which was held in Rome at the École Française de Rome and the Academia Belgica on October, 17th-18th 2016.

His paper was entitled Les esclaves publics chez les Romains, 120 anni dopo Halkin’.


Some notes proposed on that occasion were also presented in a seminar for MA students, PhD candidates and staff, at the Department of Humanities of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, which was held on January, 30th 2017, and finally in one of the so-called ‘Director’s Seminars’, organised at the Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Studies, University of London (June, 17th 2017).

The titles of those two seminars were ‘Gli schiavi pubblici a Roma’ and Servi publici in Rome: ‘Privileged’ Slaves?’.

A revised English version of the paper presented on these three occasions will be published as Servi Publici in Rome: Regular or Privileged Slaves?’, in an internationally peer-reviewed journal.

Through the analysis of literary, legal, epigraphic and iconographic sources, this paper re-evaluates the notion of public slaves as privileged individuals within the slave population. The phenomenon of public slavery in Rome requires in fact a reassessment in light of the most recent epigraphic and archaeological evidence, as well as the emergence of new methodological approaches.

In particular, the role of public slaves within the broader context of slave labour and civic life in Rome should be reconsidered, together with the opportunities for their social advancement.

Since legal texts are known, apparently granting them some privileges, such as the right to a lodging, or to board and clothes, it is generally held that public slaves in Rome enjoyed a higher status than the private ones, and they have been considered as privileged individuals within the slave population.

Nevertheless, it is well known that the first of these ‘benefits’, i.e. the right to a lodging, was also granted to private slaves.

The sole difference – or privilege, in some way – concerned the type of accommodation. Private slaves, in fact, must live in their masters’ house, whilst public slaves had lodgings in public spaces at their disposal, where they probably lived together: a contubernium, according to Tacitus (hist. I, 43).

The other two presumed privileges, such as the right to board and clothes, were not exclusive of public slaves. In fact, providing clothes and food for a slave fell within a master’s duties, as made clear by Seneca (benef. 3, 21) as well as by a passage of the Digest (7, 1, 15, 2).

The only difference possibly lies in the fact that, besides receiving their daily board, public slaves also drew a yearly salary (annua, according to Frontinus) from the public treasury.

However, it was also common practice for private masters to offer a money allowance to their slaves (peculium).

The large number of unions between public slaves and free or freed women attested by many inscriptions from Rome was also interpreted as proof of their privileged condition.

Nevertheless, private slaves could also partner with free or freed women. At the same time, neither public nor private slaves had the right to a legal marriage (iustum matrimonium).

The only real privilege for public slaves was the right to leave to the heirs half of their peculium in their will (according to Ulpian).

But is it accurate to say that public slaves stood out among the slave population?

They probably did not use their money to pay for freedom. In Rome, manumission of public slaves seems to be extremely rare: very few inscriptions mentioning public freedmen are attested.

Without any easy opportunity of reaching freedom, it seems difficult to argue that public slaves enjoyed a privileged position within the slave population.

They were mostly born – or, in the best case scenarios, became – and died as slaves.

More likely, they used their part of peculium to buy inscribed funerary monuments for their family and themselves.

When partnering with free or freed women, they could give birth to free sons, who became their heirs.

Therefore, the possibility to stand out among the lower levels of the Roman society was reserved to the free offspring of public slaves, rather than to themselves.



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