Manumission

Manumission

[man-yuh-mish-uhn]
Manumission is the act of freeing a slave, done at the will of the owner.

Motivations

The motivations of slave owners in manumitting slaves were complex. Three strands may be detected, though they cannot always be disentangled from each other.

Firstly, manumission may present itself as a sentimental and benevolent gesture. One typical scenario was the freeing in the master's will of a devoted servant after long years of service. This kind of manumission generally was restricted to slaves who had some degree of intimacy with their masters, such as those serving as personal attendants, household servants, secretaries and the like. In some cases, master and slave had had a long-term sexual relationship, perhaps with tenderness felt on one or both sides. Some manumitted slaves were the offspring of such sexual encounters. While a trusted bailiff might be manumitted as a gesture of gratitude, for those working as agricultural labourers or in workshops there was little likelihood of being so noticed.

Such feelings of benevolence may have been of value to slave owners themselves as it allowed them to focus on a 'humane component' in the human traffic of slavery. A cynical view of testamentary manumission might also add that the slave was only freed once the master could no longer make use of them. In general it was also much more common for old slaves to be given freedom, that is to say once they have reached the age where they are beginning to be less useful. Legislation under the early Roman empire puts limits on the number of slaves that could be freed in wills (Fufio-Caninian law 2 BC), suggesting a pronounced enthusiasm for the practice.

At the same time freeing slaves could also serve the pragmatic interests of the owner. The prospect of manumission worked as an incentive for slaves to be industrious and compliant, the light at the end of the tunnel. Roman slaves were paid a wage (peculium) with which they could save up to, in effect, buy themselves. Or to put it from the master's point of view, they are providing the money to buy a fresh and probably younger version of themselves. (In this light, the peculium becomes an early example of a "sinking fund".) Manumission contracts found in some abundance at Delphi specify in detail the prerequisites for liberation. For instance, a female slave will be freed once she has produced three children over the age of two. That is to say, the slave is freed after having replaced herself. Any slave could be manumitted for performing a heroic deed, as in one slave was qualified for manumission after saving his masters family from a burning house. Many slaves had to be released in manumission through will, but this rarely worked.

Status after manumission

Greece

Greek slaves generally became metics upon being manumitted. That is, they became resident aliens, non-citizens in the city where they lived. The freedom they attained, however, was not absolute. At Athens, freeborn metics were required to nominate a sponsor or patron (prostates): in the case of freed slaves this was automatically their former master. In their case, this relationship entailed some degree of continuing duty to the master. Failure to perform this could lead to prosecution at law and re-enslavement. Continuing duties specified for freed slaves in manumission agreements became more common into the Hellenistic era, but it might be that these were customary earlier. Sometimes extra payments were specified by which a freed slave could liberate themselves from these residual duties. One standard requirement was that the freed person continue to live nearby their old master (paramone). Since ex-slaves failing in these duties might be subject to beatings, it has been asked whether they should be called free at all. But certainly ex-slaves were able to own property outright, and their children were free of all constraint, whereas those of slaves were simply the further property of the master. Furthermore, even free individuals could be subject to paramone.

Rome

In Rome former slaves became freedman (liberti), usually taking the family name of their former master as their own, and though they were no longer seen as an object in the eyes of the law, they still did not gain all the rights of a Roman citizen. Freedman could not follow the Roman political career or cursus honorum; however, they could become a wealthy tradesman or a member of the priesthood of the emperor - a highly respected position. A highly successful freedman could become an advisor to the emperor himself, a tradition started by Augustus and fostered by his successors.

In both Greek and Roman societies ex-slaves required the permission of their former master to marry.

United States

Manumission by American slaveholders was restricted by laws in many states.

References

  • Bradley, K. R. 1984, Slaves and masters in the Roman Empire.
  • Garlan, Y. 1988, Slavery in Ancient Greece. Ithaca. (trans. Janet Lloyd)
  • Hopkins, M. K. (ed) 1978, Conquerors and Slaves.

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