In this paper I seek to bring a fresh perspective to an old debate in Roman social history, namely, how successful the descendants of ex-slaves were in reaching their municipal council of decurions. This type of social mobility represented the pinnacle of honors in the Roman municipal context. Although local families with a long aristocratic pedigree often controlled the council and the highest offices for generations, demographic and social realities also made it necessary to recruit new members ‘from below,’ including the families of prominent local freedmen. These freeborn descendants faced no legal obstacles of office-holding, but they were often held back by the ‘stain of slavery’ (macula servitutis), which even as ingenui they inherited from their ex-slave progenitors. Nevertheless, some inevitably reached the decurionate, and although scholars have developed useful techniques for identifying them as they slowly climbed the social ladder (e.g., Garnsey 1975; Mouritsen 2011), our understanding of this group’s full impact on local power structures remains lacunose, particularly regarding how frequently such cases occurred, and, more importantly, what factors weighed most heavily on the process.
One segment of Rome’s ‘servile’ population whose potential contribution to this theme of social mobility has been little utilized consists of the descendants of municipal freedmen (liberti publici), who were manumitted by the administrations of Italian towns. They were something of a paradoxical group. As slaves of their town, they had performed high-level tasks and enjoyed certain privileges not shared by their private counterparts (Weiss 2004: 163-79). Yet those who were eventually manumitted by the town council were left without a personal patron and the corresponding social and economic benefits. On balance, some of these ex-slaves nonetheless amassed considerable wealth, and many also maintained informal affiliations with municipal elites. Both factors would seem to make their freeborn descendants ideal recruits for the decurionate. This group’s nomenclature also functions as a rare methodological tool for tracking a family’s progress in inscriptions across multiple generations, another reason it constitutes such a valuable case-study. The municipal freedmen, in fact, took their gentilicium from their town’s name. Thus, the freedmen of Ostia were called Ostiensis, while in some towns the freedmen acquired the generic gentilicium Publicius, meaning ‘son of the public.’
Using examples from my research on these municipal freedmen’s descendants, I present a systematic analysis of the factors that enabled families with ‘servile origins’ to penetrate the ranks of the municipal council. To cite just the contours of the argument, 36 of 470 freeborn and incertus male descendants in this group reached the decurionate (7.6%), a somewhat higher proportion than expected (cf. Duncan-Jones 1963: 171). Yet even more interesting is where these 36 newcomers became decurions. Three-quarters are found in smaller Italian towns or in provincial towns. The large urban centers of Italy were thus a much less enviable location, and some descendants even migrated from larger to smaller towns in search of the decurionate. This concentration in smaller towns may reveal the dynamics behind the process. Control of the government in such places was in the hands of a small circle of aristocratic families, and this type of council suffered the most when families died out or elite young men were drawn off into imperial administration. Exacerbating this reality was the need to ensure the steady flow of the summa honoraria, the compulsory euergetism mandated for incoming magistrates that municipal government came to rely on so heavily (Lex Coloniae Genetivae 70-71). Working with a more limited pool of recruits in a less competitive environment, small-town elites seem likely to have ignored concerns connected to the macula in order to replenish their ordo. This conclusion fits closely with Mouritsen’s recent paradigm of social mobility and promotion (2011: 276-8): prominent freedmen’s descendants did not often force their way into the local elite only on their own merits, but rather, upward mobility probably still depended on the established elites actively promoting new members through informal patronage.