Tag Archives: via appia


Kissed by Fortune: Freedmen in the Ancient Rome

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 :D

Click to Tweet this: Did you know that #Smurfs could have a murky revolutionary past? http://wp.me/p4k861-9m #history #archaelogy #phrygiancap via @talesofrome


The Status

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 :D

Click to Tweet this: Where else, if not in #Rome, can you dine in an ancient cemetery? Just avoid dishes with bones :D  http://wp.me/p4k861-9m via @talesofrome

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Pictures Credits:

  • 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

Ancient Rome: No country for Women. The story of Cecilia Metella

Women’s day is coming and so, this time, I would like to tell you the story of a Roman woman, Cecilia Metella.

Who was Cecilia?

She likely lived and died around the half of the 1st century BC and soon after her death her family built for her the amazing mausoleum still preserved on the via Appia.
The via Appia was the first road projected and built by the Romans in 312 BC, connecting Rome with Brindisi, the main harbor in South Italy to Greece. Because of its antiquity and importance this was known by the Romans as the Regina Viarum, the queen of the streets.


Cecilia’s mausoleum was built in the first highest and most prominent spot of the via Appia outside the ancient city walls: hence it was the most visible and majestic tomb of the first and most important Roman road.
Said this, a romantic soul could think that this could be considered a monument to Love, a kind of Roman Taj Mahal: a mausoleum built by an inconsolable husband for the loss of his only love. It would be nice, but, unfortunately, it’s not. Let’s see why.

Piranesi-cecilia metella

The tomb is decorated in the upper part with a low relief with wreaths and oxen skulls, both a reference to religious sacrifices (flowers and oxen were offered to the gods). But the most interesting part is the relief in the central part: here there is an helmet, shields and a prisoner…Quite strange for a woman’s tomb, isn’t it? But it’s not enough: on the front side there is a huge inscription:

Caeciliae Q. Cretici F(iliae) Maetellae Crassi
Cecilia Metella, Quintus Creticus’ daughter, Crassus’ wife”.

And that’s the point: we don’t know anything about her, nothing in the inscription, nothing in the Latin writers. She was two eminent men’s daughter and wife, and that’s all! Both men were famous Roman generals, but there’s not a word about the woman… neither a stupid and false adjective like loving, beloved … nothing at all! She was just men’s possession, and she is defined just by this.
And that’s not enough: the inscription give us also the opportunity to talk a little bit about the Roman naming system, that says a lot about women position in Roman society.

The Roman naming system

She was Cecilia Metella. Nowadays Cecilia is quite common female name in Italy, and we are tempted to think that this was her first name, while Metella was the surname. No way! Roman naming system was called system of the tria nomina, or three names. Cecilia’s father, for example, was Quintus Caecilius Metellus…are you starting to understand? His first name was Quintus, then Caecilius was the name of the gens, the clan, last name we could say, and finally Metellus was the cognomen, the name of the family line, a kind of second last name. And that’s the point: Cecilia Metella has no first name! No, not because she was a bad girl, unworthy of a personal name: this was the system for all Roman women. ALL the women of the family had the SAME name: in this case all were Cecilia Metella! Well, now imagine a mother who has to call all the daughters: quite easy :) Yes, convenient but confusing, hence usually they had a kind of nicknames, like First, Second, and so on, or Elder, Younger etc.
Are you starting to think that Romans were too lazy to name all the daughters? Sadly this was not only indolence, there was a clear idea behind this: for a Roman woman the glory consists in no one who pronounces her name! A Latin writer, Macrobius praises a woman saying that she was so prudish that no one knew her name. The message is clear: woman wasn’t and didn’t have to be a person, but only a passive and anonymous part of the family!

So, why this huge tomb?


Said all this, why build a so huge monument for a woman, if she wasn’t important? Because – sadly to say but that’s it! – her death was just a pretext to celebrate the greatness of the family, during an historical period when Rome was afflicted by the civil wars and there was need and will to show off the power of the most eminent families. Cecilia Metella’s tomb is simply a way to celebrate the glory of the family men, whose names are in the inscription.

Another woman’s story: Annia Regilla

This beautiful and pleasant place is connected also with another woman…sorry, not happier story, but I told you: no country for women!
In the 2nd century this place became part of Herodes Atticus‘s property.


He was a rich senator and a philosopher from a glorious and ancient Roman family. When he was 40 years old married the 14 (yes, 14!) years old Annia Regilla, from another rich and glorious family. Thanks to her dowry they bought the propriety on the via Appia.
It happened that while she was pregnant of her sixth son, was killed, kicked to death to her abdomen, by an Herodes’ freedman. The husband was immediately accused to be responsible for the murder.
He had a process and was acquitted. Anyway people didn’t believe to his innocence – corrupt judges was frequent and easy for rich people. The public opinion was so important for a Roman that he had to do something to change people’s opinion. Hence he started to show off is sorrow: painted his house in black and began to built monuments and temples dedicated to Annia. The property on the via Appia became a huge sanctuary sacred to Demeter and its boundaries were marked by two columns bearing this inscription:
To the memory of Annia Regilla, wife of Herodes, the light and soul of the house, to whom these lands once belonged”.
Well, she was luckier than Cecilia and had at least some adjectives…anyway not so great reward for having been murdered by her own husband!

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Pictures Credits:

  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella- All rights reserved, with permissions – Andrea Moro
  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella – CC BY-SA 2.0 – Carole Raddato
  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella – Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1756
  • Via Appia mit dem Grabmal der Caecilia Metella – Oswald Achenbach, 1886
  • Portrait of Herodes Atticus – CC BY 3.0 – Marie-Lan Nguyen