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Freedmen as Magistrates in the Late Roman Republic and Empire

Amanda Coles

Illinois Wesleyan University

Although handbooks on Roman freedmen deny that libertini could hold a political magistracy except in Caesarian colonies (e.g. Mouritsen 2011), freedmen outside of such colonies occasionally achieved civic office through the High Empire.  This paper argues that these extraordinary individual achievements demonstrate that imperial laws were not uniformly enforced everywhere and in perpetuity after they were enacted.  From the Late Republic to High Empire, epigraphic and literary evidence attests to seventeen freed magistrates, including quaestors, aediles, duoviri, quatuorviri, and octoviri (two, four, and eight-man boards of magistrates), from colonies, towns, and municipalities in Greece, Macedonia, Illyria, Africa, and Italy. This paper places these magistrates in the chronological context provided by Roman municipal and colonial charters to determine how freedmen could attain office in contravention of Roman custom. A close contextualization of the inscriptions proves that Roman custom and law were not transferred exactly and equally to all colonies or municipia throughout the late Republic and Empire, especially in the qualification expectations for the highest magistrates.  Thus, there was latitude for meritorious freedmen outside of Rome to win powerful positions in smaller towns, positions which would be unavailable to them in the capital city. 

Recent articles on freed magistrates focus on local settings, e.g. Corinth (Millis 2014); Narona (Lindhagen 2013); Dion (Demaille 2008); and Carthage, Clupea, and Formiae (Le Glay 1990).  These articles observe that the localities privilege commercial prominence over the Roman ideal of the farmer-soldier and that freedmen relied on powerful patronage and courted the favor of their fellow colonists through public benefactions.  The current paper builds on these conclusions about the social factors behind freedmen’s electoral success by examining the legal changes in electoral opportunities for libertini over time and throughout the empire. The Julian municipal law (80-45 BCE) did not exclude freedmen in Italy from the magistracies, and indeed a few freed quatuorviri or octoviri served their Italian communities. The Urso Charter (c. 45 BCE) establishes the precedent that Caesar allowed freedmen to hold magistracies in his Spanish colony. Strabo (8.6.23, 17.3.15) confirms the preponderance of freedmen in Corinth and Carthage, where inscriptions attest to freed duoviri and aediles.  This paper argues, however, that duoviri in Clupea and Curubis should not automatically imply that these two places were Caesarian colonies (contra Mommsen). One of Caesar’s freedmen served as duovir in Lissus, an oppidum (town) rather than colony. While Caesar’s influence on the political opportunities of these freedmen is obvious, the colonial status of their homes is less so. 

The lex Visellia of 24 CE (Cod. Just. 9.21.1), which penalized freedmen who usurped the privileges of the free-born without imperial permission, has traditionally served as a terminus ante quem for dating any imperial inscriptions belonging to freed magistrates. The Flavian municipal law (80-91 CE) seems to confirm an empire-wide ban on freedmen holding office. A Latin inscription in Trajanic Nicopolis ad Istrum (CIL III 12435), however, cannot be dated before the lex Visellia, and the freedman, to whom the inscription belonged, boasted no known connection with the emperor from which imperial permission might be inferred.  This example also casts new doubt on the date of P. Anthestius Amphio, a politically active freedman in Dion (AE 1998: 1209), who has been placed before 24 CE despite the 2nd century CE context of his benefactions in the colony.  Roman law, therefore, did not strictly govern elections in some eastern colonies by the High Empire. Rather, the local situation shaped electoral success: in Rome, the entrenched connection between high office and military activity debarred freedmen from office, but in colonies and municipia, whose magistrates did not lead Roman armies or govern provinces, aristocratic birth was less important for holding political power.  In short, although freedmen rarely won high office in the empire, the fact that they occasionally could and did is significant because it demonstrates the flexibility of Roman imperialism.

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Political and Social Relations

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