Roman Slavery and the Rate of Manumission


A Roman slave medallion at the
Baths of Diocletian venue of the
National Museum of Rome.  Photographed
by Mary Harrsch © 2005

It seems that very time the Roman Empire is discussed someone always points out the number of slaves that were exploited by Roman citizens as if the Romans invented slavery. One thing that was unique about Roman slavery compared to slavery in other parts of the ancient world is the Romans had a structured process of social advancement that provided a means for slaves to become freedmen through the procedure called manumission. Scholars have debated just how often manumission was used in Roman Society and how many slaves were freed as a result.

Today, I noticed this post up at About: Ancient History:

“In 357 BCE Rome passed a law called the Lex Manlia imposing a manumission tax. Freeing slaves from then on would incur a 5% fee. Because 5% is one twentieth, the tax was referred to as a Vicesima. (Livy VII.16)


This 2nd century BCE relief depicting a Greek banquet includes an attending slave.  His lower social status is indicated by
his difference in scale.  Photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, CA by Mary Harrsch © 2014

This legislation was initially proposed by the consul Gnaeus Manlius Capitolinus while encamped with his army so it is said to have been passed “in castris.”  The purpose of the law was to reduce the number of manumissions, both the freeing of slaves and the manumission of children since it was feared some families would use manumission of their minor children to gain access to more land since there was also a 500-acre limit per male head of household specified in another law included in the Leges Liciniae Sextiae passed at that time..

H.H. Scullard, in A History of the Roman World 753-146 BC (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1980) says that based on records of these taxes, by 209 B.C.E., an estimated 1350 slaves may have been manumitted each year.”

Theoretically, both Greeks and Romans used the prospect of manumission to encourage loyal service from their slaves but only Roman law granted citizenship (albeit with some restrictions) for manumitted slaves.


Gravestone of a high status woman with her slave attendant Greek 1st century BCE Marble.  Photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2014

The most common form of manumission was termed the Manumissio vindicta.

“In this, the most commonly practiced form of manumission, the master, the slave, a third party, and a praetor gather to manumit the slave. The third party member lays a freedom rod, called a vindicta , on the slave pronouncing the slave free. The master then follows suit by placing his or her vindicta on the slave while the praetor witnesses both performing this action to the slave.” – Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

Another common method of manumission was called the Manumissio testamento.

“In this form one of two things can happen: In the first condition, a slave is set free by a proclamation to do so in the master’s will. In the second condition, the master entrusts his slave to another freeperson on the grounds that upon doing so, the slave be set free by the new master. In the second condition, the slave may not be immediately set free because the slave will only be freed when the new master frees him or her, and, until the slave is freed, the slave is classified as a statuliber.” – Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

Apparently, freeing slaves in an individual’s will had become so widespread in the late Republic that in 2 BCE the Lex Fufio-Caninia was passed limiting the number of slaves a citizen could free in their wills.

“The Fufia Caninia made the number of testamentary grants of freedom permitted to cives Romani dependant upon the total number of slaves owned by any one Roman citizen master.  One who owned from three to ten slaves was permitted to manumit one half of them in his will;  one who owned eleven to thirty, one third of the total.  If the slaves of the Roman citizen numbered from thirty-one to one hundred, he might free one fourth of them; if their numbers ran one hundred to five hundred only one in five or twenty percent, might be freed by testamentary manumission.  The law further provided that no Roman citizen could free by testament more than one hundred, however many slaves he might have.” – William Linn Westermann, The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity.

Six years later this law was further amended by the Lex Aelia-Sentia that restricted the rights of Roman youths under the age of 20 to free their slaves and specified that only slaves over 30 years of age could be freed although there was a mitigating provision that an exception could be granted of approved by a committee of ten persons made up of five senators and five equites. Modern scholars think Augustus promulgated these laws due to the influence of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.  The esteemed historian Dionysius had pointed out that many freedmen were enriching themselves from sordid occupations such as robbery and prostitution and emphasized the danger of allowing their proliferation in the city of Rome.  Being a Greek, Dionysius probably ascribed to the Athenian perspective on slave manumission.  In Athens, slaves could be manumitted but were not granted citizenship as under Roman law.  Athenian freedmen could not partake in government or bear free children.


Bust of a Roman slave boy from the Trajanic Period 98-117 CE
Photographed at The Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2006

Under Roman law, although freedmen were barred from the cursus honorum, they could vote in city assemblies and their children would be considered free citizens with full rights of Roman citizenship. The isus sacrum which allowed slaves to practice certain aspects of religion, to be properly buried and to join certain religious associations was further amended to allow freedmen to become priests in the emperor cult.  These religious magistrates became known as the Augustales.

Like most things in life there was a major exception to the granting of these rights, however.

“The Lex Aelia Sentia requires that any slaves who had been put in chains as a punishment by their masters or had been branded or interrogated under torture about some crime of which they were found to be guilty; and any who had been handed over to fight as gladiators or with wild beasts, or had belonged to a troupe of gladiators or had been imprisoned; should, if the same owner or any subsequent owner manumits them, become free men of the same status as subject foreigners (peregrini dediticii)… ”


Gladiator helmet depicting scenes from the Trojan War recovered from Herculaneum 1st century CE
Photographed at “Pompeii: The Exhibit” at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington
by Mary Harrsch © 2015

“…’Subject foreigners’ is the name given to those who had once fought a regular war against the Roman People, were defeated, and gave themselves up….”

“…We will never accept that slaves who have suffered a disgrace of this kind can become either Roman citizens or Latins (whatever the procedure of manumission and whatever their age at the time, even if they were in their masters’ full ownership); we consider that they should always be held to have the status of subjects.” – Selections from the Lex Aelia Sentia

The third method of manumission was known as Manumissio censu.  

“In this form the slave goes before the censor and proclaims to be a freedperson  [with witnesses and/or evidence], at which time, if the censor agrees, the censor will record the slave’s name down as a freedperson, and thus the slave will be manumitted.” – Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

Roman slaves were allowed to manage some personal property, often a small wage, called a peculium.


Roman coin bank depicting a beggar girl 25-50 CE.
Photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2014

“This peculium could consist of a myriad of things including money and a slave’s slave called a vicarius.  The peculium could be used by the slave in many ways, but the slave was restricted in that all contracts entered by the slave involved the master, and the slave could not give his peculium to someone else so that the other person might use it to buy the slave’s freedom. The slave could save peculium and buy its freedom, but this usually only happened when the peculium outweighed the slave’s value.” – Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

Although manumission was treated as a sought after privilege, it was not always altruistically granted.  Elderly slaves were sometimes manumitted because they were no longer productive and their masters no longer wished to provide for them.  If a slave was privy to incriminating information, a master might manumit them to avoid the slave providing incriminating information under torture. Slaves were also sometimes promised manumission if they served as soldiers in civil insurrections.

By Mary Harrsch © 2015
Historian, Presence from the Past
Roman Times