The ‘Servi Publici: Everybody’s Slaves’ (SPES) Project

  1. 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.

Dr Franco Luciani is the Fellow, Dr Federico Santangelo is the Principal Investigator. The duration of the project is two years.

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.



2. What?

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.

cil_vi_2329A 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.


Britain-Nepal 200 – Celebrating two hundred years of Himalayan history

Brian Hodgson%2c portrait 1892 (1)
Brian Hodgson (1801-1894) photo courtesy of Royal Asiatic Society

David Lowther

Visiting Library Scholar, Zoological Society of London, 2014-2015
PhD Candidate

2016 is the bicentenary year of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Britain and Nepal. Although beginning in the aftermath of war and in an atmosphere of mutual distrust, strong and reciprocal cultural, intellectual and political bonds have been forged between the two nations, which in 2016 will be celebrated in a series of collaborative events in both London and Kathmandu.

Under the aegis of the British Council, the Britain Nepal 200 organising committee has drawn together officials from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office; the British Army; the Nepali Embassy and Foreign Ministry; former and current British Ambassadors to Nepal; the Royal Botanic Gardens (Edinburgh); Natural History Museum; Linnean Society of London; Zoological Society of London; Royal Asiatic Society; Britain Nepal Society; Britain Nepal Medical Trust; and independent researchers.

My own participation in Britain-Nepal 200 stems from researching the Brian Houghton Hodgson collection of zoological paintings and manuscripts now held by the Zoological Society of London. A high-ranking diplomat resident in Kathmandu between 1820 and 1843, Hodgson (1801-1894) was a passionate and highly skilled naturalist, the first European to study Himalayan animals scientifically and a key figure in Anglo-Nepali intellectual history. Hodgson figures prominently in the Britain Nepal 200 programme, both for his key diplomatic role in establishing warmer relations between the two countries, and for his extraordinary work discovering and describing Nepalese animals, which even today remains the bedrock of Himalayan zoology. His greatest legacy is the collection of around 2000 watercolour paintings of birds and mammals which now bears his name. Commissioned from Nepalese and Indian artists, many of these, as the photos show, are artworks of stunning beauty as well as sources of scientific authority. On March 4 2015, representing the Zoological Society of London and Newcastle University, I attended a Round Table meeting of the committee at the headquarters of the British Council in London.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs well as reporting on the current status of the ZSL’s wildlife and habitat conservation programmes in Nepal, and the ZSL Library’s efforts to conserve and make available for research the Hodgson manuscripts, I emphasised the desirability of developing links with postgraduate researchers and academics from UK HEIs. With that firmly in mind, I am keen to involve other researchers with an interest in any aspect of Anglo-Nepalese history and so – hopefully – establish and develop a vibrant and inter-disciplinary research community which can build upon the events planned for 2016. If this grabs your interest, then please do get in touch with me, or have a look at the websites of any of the institutions involved. Britain-Nepal 200 will have its own website up and running in the next month.

Upcoming Lecture on Brian Hodgson


On March 13 I will be giving a public talk at the Great North Museum (Hancock) on the naturalist and diplomat, Brian Houghton Hodgson (1801-1894), and the beginnings of Himalayan zoology. This builds upon work done over the past year or so on the Hodgson Collection of paintings and manuscripts at the Zoological Society of London and is in association with Britain-Nepal 200, established to celebrate the bicentenary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Britain and Nepal. See this link for calendar.

The lecture will last about 45 minutes, with questions afterwards. Admission is free, although donations to the Natural History Society of Northumbria, which is hosting the event, are always welcome. Tea and coffee will be provided.