This paper investigates the distinctiveness of Roman freedmen (liberti) in provincial contexts where Roman-style manumission contrasted with local customs. I suggest that manumission may have functioned as a marker of political and cultural identity for patrons and freedmen alike. Greek discussions of the Roman slave system emphasize the unique practice of enfranchising slaves who had been liberated through formal channels (SIG3 543; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 4.22). Latin authors also convey an awareness that the enfranchisement of liberti set Rome apart from its neighbors and, moreover, link this idea to core questions of self-definition (Livy 1.8.6 and 2.5.9; Tac. Ger. 25). In such contexts, liberti are distinguished above all by their level of integration into the Roman community.
The literary ethnography of manumission in turn prompts the question of how these differences were perceived on the ground. Using procedures like vindicta required access to Roman law. Manumission therefore had the potential to distinguish individuals with Roman standing from peregrini, as well as to separate former slaves according to the process through which they had gained their freedom (as suggested by IGRR 3.801-802). It is in this context that Pliny asks Trajan to bestow Roman citizenship on several ex-slaves, including the physician Arpocras, who is described as peregrinae condicionis manumissus a peregrina (Ep. 10.5). Reflecting similar concerns, an epikrisis document from Egypt asserts citizen status for the son of a woman who had been manumitted by vindicta (PDiog. 6-7).
In addition to affecting juridical standing, participation in Roman modes of manumission indicates an engagement of Roman culture. To provide one example of this phenomenon, I examine representations of the patron-freedman relationship in military tombstones. Josephus noted both the size of the legions’ servile component and the training that these slaves received (BJ 3.69). His comments indicate that slaving practices distinguished the Roman army in certain provincial settings. Although soldier-freedman commemorations are relatively infrequent (they comprise 3-10% of relationships attested among military populations in the regions studied by Saller and Shaw 1984), close analysis of the relevant artifacts offers a glimpse into how manumission interacted with other cultural markers. I argue that both patrons and liberti capitalized on the ethnographic significance of Roman manumission to stage identities in death.