Some weeks ago one of my followers asked me to make a post about liberti, the Roman freedmen … so here I am: I hope you will like it
Slaves and Freedmen
There is so much to say about slavery in the ancient Rome that talking about it would bring us a bit out of topic. Anyway there were basically two reason why someone became a slave: being captured as a war prisoner or run up debts. Of course also being a slave’s son.
Whatever was the cause, slaves always had the hope to be freed by their master. This could happen usually when the slave was in his thirties and had nothing to do with Romans’ generosity. The reason was mostly financial: a slave was quite a valuable good, hence his death meant a loss of money for his master. To free up a slave was a way to get back part of this money, because the slave must pay his freedom.
The other reason is that the hope for freedom worked as a deterrent against revolts.
Slaves were freed through a legal ceremony called the Manumissio, during which the master gave the slave a special hat called the Phrygian cap, Pileus in Latin, that the freedman always had to wear in public occasions. This oriental hat was originally used by the priests of the God Sun and by the Eastern rulers. We don’t know exactly the reason why it became the freedmen feature, anyway because of this use it also became a symbol of freedom and, with this meaning, it was still used in very modern times…
It was used, for example, during the French Revolution: look this very famous painting: “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugene Delacroix … well Liberty is wearing a pileus! It is also used in the coat of arms of many nations (like Haiti, Cuba, Argentina, El Salvador, Nicaragua, etc.) as in that of many other institutions, including one that Americans know very well: that of the U.S. Senate!
And finally, as I told you already, this is also the typical Smurfs’ headgear … maybe there is a murky revolutionary past behind this little funny characters that we don’t know
Once a slave was freed, he acquired some rights, even if couldn’t be never considered as a born free Roman citizen. Mostly, freedmen hadn’t political rights, that means they couldn’t perform high public offices. This happened because, for the Romans, the most important difference between a slave and a free man was that the first wasn’t supposed to have a soul, the animus. A slave was a man without a moral autonomy: he was totally and completely identified with his master’s will. And, of coursem, a man with no will can’t be a good magistrate … Oh, there is still so much to learn from the Romans!
The Fortuna’s Sons
Freedmen were also dubbed as Fortuna’s son because their sell as slaves determined their future life: they could be forced to work in quarries, with the likely destiny to die for the strain much before they reached their thirties, or become their master’s favourite, with the hope to have the freedom and even an inheritance. This was the case of Clesippus.
Clesippus the Laundryman
The Roman writer Pliny the Elder tells the story of Clesippus, a slave who lived in Rome in the first century BC. We don’t know much about him: where was he from? how did he became a slave? was he white or black? tall or short?… we only know that he was hunchbacked and also “repellent in the rest of his aspect”. What we can deduce is that he probably had some secret virtues … and we’ll soon see which
As a slave, he work in a laundrette. With no washing machines it was really a dirty job: hand-washing was very tiring and this was not the worst part. In launderettes, clothes were also coloured and, without the help of chemical products, colours were fixed with urine! Something that you can really call a shitty job
It happened that the laundrette went out of business hence Clesippus was sold at auction, as the other goods. Actually he was sold in the same batch of a very precious bronze candlestick – and this became the reason of his luck. The cost for both (probably mostly for the fine bronze work) was 50000 sesterces. The batch was acquired by the noble and rich widow Gegania. She was a little bit cruel, too: during a banquet, she was showing the stuff she bought to her friends and, to keep her guests amused, forced Clesippus to undress and show all his deformities. Once Clesippus was naked, Gegania probably saw much more than his hump: in fact … she fell in love with him and became his lover!
This sentiment was so strong, that, after her death, Gegania left him not only freedom but also all her assets making him a rich man! Clesippus was really aware of the fact that all his luck was originally linked to the beautiful candlestick, so aware that he started to worship it as a god.
After his death Clesippus was buried in a magnificent mausoleum, worthy of his richness, on the Appian way, near the modern city of Latina. The funeral inscription tell us that he also performed some public offices (not the higher ones precluded to the freedmen, of course).
An Extra Tip
As I told you already, this post was done on request, therefore is a bit different from the others: it didn’t start with a geographical place or monument. Anyway also in this post I want to leave you with a suggestion about something to see when you’ll finally come to visit Rome: the Columbarium of Augustus’ Freedmen – a burial monument on the Appian way, just outside the city center.
The Columbarium contains about 3000 niches, built to store the deaths’ ashes. The inscriptions found there tells us that this was the cemetery of the slaves freed by the emperor Augustus.
Anyway if you are thinking about an hard walk through the Roman ruin, well, you are totally wrong and this visit maybe much more enjoyable than you can expect. In fact around the year 1730 this place was transformed in a hosteria, a typical Roman restaurant … and that’s what it still is!!! Where else, if not in Rome, can you dine in an ancient cemetery? A little grim maybe…but, well, just avoid dishes with bones
- Roman slaves – CC BY 2.0 – Jun
- “Liberty Leading the People” – Eugene Delacroix, 1830
- View of the Mausoleum of Clesippus – XIX century
- View of the Columbarium of Augustus’ Freedmen – Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1756