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Fitting In: Freedmen Adaptation in the Roman World

Marc Kleijwegt

University of Wisconsin – Madison

Studies on freedmen in the Roman world have focused extensively on the legal process of manumission and on the standing of freed slaves in the community.  I am much more interested in how slaves experienced the transition from slave to freedman and what they did in order to fit into their – new or old – environment once they had gained their freedom.  Within that period of uncertain length it is unknown how they were treated by their fellow-citizens.  If they were artisans, did they perhaps suffer loss of income because freeborn customers declined to pay?  In The interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Gustavus Vassa the author reports that a free black carpenter was put in jail for asking for his payment from a ‘gentleman’ for whom he had worked.  Later the carpenter was chased out of Georgia on the false accusation that he had threatened to set fire to the ‘gentleman’s’ house.  It is not unreasonable to assume that freedmen in the Roman world were treated to similar acts of hostility, but this cannot be ascertained because the evidence is not there.  What is there are satirical attacks on the wealth and pretensions of freedmen.  We can rightly assume that former slaves married other freed slaves, or their own slaves, and engaged in social and economic activities together with other freedmen, but it is largely uncertain how they attempted to adapt themselves to the larger world as citizens of their communities.  This paper will discuss one possible avenue that freed slaves explored in a number of cities in the Western part of the Roman Empire.  Amongst dedicators of votive dedications to the Genius of the city there is a remarkably high number of freed slaves, which may suggest that freedmen and freedwomen claimed a place by involving themselves in the religious cult that conveyed most powerfully the idea of living together.

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Roman Freedmen

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