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A case-study of intergenerational participation in Roman professional associations

Jeffrey Easton

University of Toronto

Membership in a professional association was an essential component in the social and economic advancement of sub-elite Roman families during the Principate. In addition to facilitating economic activities, professional associations offered to their members a meaningful way of engaging in the civic life of their community (Tran 2006: 61-88). Such memberships were also crucial for the way practitioners formulated their identity within the community (Joshel 1992: 62-91). For ex-slaves, who were barred from a political career, such enterprises were especially important, often representing the only avenue for civic prominence. One additional aim of Roman associative life was to forge connections in society at large in the hope of laying the groundwork for the social ascent of freeborn descendants. In many cases, maintaining a presence in these professional colleges was in itself a coveted outcome in a family’s long-term trajectory.

The model that is often envisioned for this type of social mobility entails an ex-slave who had become established in a trade and received a push from his patron into a local association. This foothold would then open up access to his own sons and grandsons and his own freedmen as the family rose through the ranks. The inscriptions documenting Roman professional associations offer glimpses at this model, but it is often difficult to find material that permits us to reconstruct how it actually played out in the short and the longer term.

One segment of the Roman sub-elite population that offers a rare insight into this topic is the ex-slaves who were owned and eventually manumitted by the towns of Italy, called municipal freedmen (liberti publici). As municipal slaves performing a variety of functions for the local administration, they enjoyed a high status and privileges normally not shared by private slaves (Halkin 1897: 107-36; Weiss 2004: 163-79). Yet those slaves who were eventually manumitted by the local council of decurions had no personal patron and lacked the social and economic benefits that often accrued to private freedmen (Bruun 2008: 551-3). Another consequence of their manumission was that they acquired their gentilicium from their town’s name. The freedmen of Ostia, for example, were named Ostiensis, while in some towns the freedmen took the generic gentilicium Publicius, meaning ‘son of the public.’ These rare gentilicia cohered among their descendants, and thus function as a methodological tool for tracking a family’s progress in inscriptions across multiple generations. Unlike private families that might die out after several generations, moreover, lines of municipal freedmen’s families were constantly renewed through manumission, thus increasing the chances that they would persist in the epigraphic record and provide ample material for studying such themes as the intergenerational participation in professional associations.

My study of municipal freedmen signals a very limited presence in these associations. Just four of 208 known freedmen participated in a local college. This low turnout in the wider economic landscape of their communities carried over into later generations as well. Among their 464 male descendants, only 25 (c. 5%) performed an independent occupation or held membership in an association. One of the most telling cases comes from Ostia, where the vibrant economy of the late first and second century provided fertile ground for occupational endeavors. Yet only three descendants of ex-slaves of the colony found a place in this milieu. This pattern calls into question the assumption that the municipal freedmen’s links to municipal authority guaranteed post-manumission success for themselves and their descendants (e.g., Weiss 2004: 163-79). In any prosopographical study of a discrete social group one expects to find a few members at the top of the social hierarchy – among senators, equestrians, the municipal elite – but a substantially larger group in the ‘middle,’ among the ranks of occupations and professional associations. This ‘middle’ group is missing here. From a broader perspective, this study also illustrates how the lack of an ancestor who gained a foothold in a trade could ripple down through a family’s trajectory.

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Political Enculturation

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