Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Slaves, Coloni, and Status Confusion in the Late Roman Empire

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Slaves, Coloni, and Status Confusion in the Late Roman Empire

Article excerpt


From the dawn of the Roman Empire, slavery played a major and essential role in Roman society. While slavery never completely disappeared from ancient Roman society, its position in the Roman economy shifted at the beginning of the period called Late Antiquity (14 CE-500 CE). At this time, the slave system of the Roman world adjusted to a new category of labor. Overall, the numbers of slaves declined, an event that historian Ramsey MacMullen, drawing from legal debates and legislation of the period, attributes to the accumulation of debt and poverty among Roman citizens in the third century CE. One effect of this debt accumulation was that many free individuals sold themselves into an indentured state, particularly during the years 225-325 CE. In so doing, they counteracted the "decline" of slavery with a rapidly expanding body of laborers who were technically "free" but who occupied the social--and eventually the legal--status of slaves (MacMullen, "Late Roman Slavery" 380).

The slave's role in Late Antiquity has been the subject of many past interpretations. Although the later Roman world experienced a decrease in the overall number of slaves, the effect of this decrease was hugely significant in terms of the amount of status confusion it generated amongst the lower classes. Previous generalizations assert that the status of the free poor created somewhat of a semi-servile class. Scholars have recognized that among the slave population existed a great number of slaves who were neither captured in war nor born to slave mothers and so were wrongfully labeled as slaves. An example may be found in the Theodosian Code (CT), a codification of law compiled in 438 AD under the emperor Theodosius II. The law found in CT 5.9.1 explains that should a person raise an exposed child, a child cast out of its home, then that person is free to choose the status of that child, free or poor (109). This law indicates the number of people who counted as slaves but did not actually belong in such a category. Adding to the scholarly discussion of the diminishing status of the free poor in the Roman world, this current study investigates the significance of status confusion that this situation would have had within the lower classes.

Slaves were not absent from the social system of the late Roman world. A large number of people lived at a subsistence level or even lower, thus maintaining an existence that closely resembled that of official slaves. These strictly economic circumstances in effect created a large lower social class that worked alongside slaves. As the two classes mixed among each other, the distinction between free and slave became increasingly muddled, especially within the context of both how large these populations were and how widespread throughout the empire. This muddling manifested itself in different aspects of Roman social life, including the slave's role in the Roman family, the complications surrounding mixed unions, the contradictions of such unions in law and practice, and the emergence of a new labor class, the coloni. Altogether, this confusion of roles demonstrates how the social status and distinct identities of the lower classes became increasingly blurry during the late empire. Though this confusion was most prevalent among the lower classes, it also affected the upper classes.


The debate on the location and the importance of slavery in the Roman world continues despite the general consensus that from its origins in the Republic up into Late Antiquity, slavery remained for the most part an integral component of Roman life. The origins of Rome as a "slave society" are usually traced to the rapid territorial expansion of the Roman state and its constant engagement in warfare from the mid-Republic up through the Empire. This level of war led to a rise of large agricultural estates, which led in turn to a need for a "constant supply of slaves" and thus further warfare (Cunliffe 77). …

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