It is still unclear whether debtors entered in a nexum contract initially with their loan or if they entered voluntarily after they could not pay off an existing debt, though the former seems more likely to be the case. Additionally, there is no single formal nexum contract that all nexi entered – it is possible that there were many variations of the nexum contract, and that the details of nexum contracts were worked out on a case-by-case basis.
Debt-bondage existed in early Rome largely as an answer to the patrician’s increasing control of the ager publicus, or public land. As many plebeians had no access to the ager publicus, which was largely under the control of a small group of wealthy aristocrats, nexum became an unavoidable security on debts.
Still, nexum contracts were an attractive answer to debtors considering the alternatives – slaves were subject to death or sale across the Tiber at the hands of their masters. Though nexi were often beaten and abused by their obaerati, they maintained (if sometimes only in theory) their Roman citizenship and rights. Creditors also profited more from a nexum contract, as they received a contractual worker instead of a slave to execute or sell.
Varro alternatively dates the abolishment of nexum in 313 BC, during the dictatorship of Gaius Poetelius Libo Visolus. Poetelius, from where Lex Poetelia Papiria is derived, was in his third consulship in 326 BC, the date that Livy records.
Cicero considered the abolishment of nexum primarily a political maneuver to temporarily appease the plebeian masses, which by Cicero’s time (almost 300 years after the Lex Poetelia Papiria) had carried out three full-scale secessions:
When the plebeians have been so weakened by the expenditures brought on by a public calamity that they give way under their burden, some relief or remedy has been sought for the difficulties of this class, for the sake of the safety of the whole body of citizens
Though nexum as a legal contract was abolished, debt bondage persisted in the case of defaulting debtors, where a court could grant creditors the right to take insolvent debtors as bond slaves.