Date of Degree
Liv Mariah Yarrow
Dan-el Padilla Peralta
Ancient History, Greek and Roman through Late Antiquity | Classical Literature and Philology | Other History
Manumission, slavery, race, social death, unlivable life, Hegel
Roman manumission was at the center of three different groups: the Roman state, Roman slave-owners, and freeborn Romans who did not own slaves. I draw upon G.F.W. Hegel, Orlando Patterson, Judith Butler, and Pierre Bourdieu to describe Roman manumission as a ritualized practice that transforms a slave’s life from unlivable to livable. The term “unlivable” comes from the philosopher Judith Butler, who developed it in conversation with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic and the term “social death,” which sociologist Orlando Patterson used to describe slavery. Hegel and Patterson’s thoughts on the movement and experience of freedom are useful for theorizing Roman slavery precisely because they constructed their universalized ideas out of the particulars of Roman history, including slavery and manumission. This framework of ritualized practice brings to the fore the Roman state’s stake in manumission. On the one hand, the state taxed and regulated manumission, processes that depended on the “state’s sight”, a term that I take from anthropologist James Scott but augment with Michel Foucault’s thoughts on the intersection of sight and power. The connection between the state’s sight and the surveillance of manumission appears both in the movements and words that made up the action of manumission and in the stories concerning the origins of manumission that survive in Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Plutarch. Manumission also contributed to what it meant to be a slave-owner. Roman slave-owners negotiated the expectations of other slave-owners as part of their competition with other slave-owners, including their own family members. Philip V and Dionysius of Halicarnassus point to how Greeks commented on Roman manumission. Such Greek thought influenced Roman conception and evaluation of manumission, which in turn formed the social terrain upon which Roman slave-owners—both historical, such as Cicero, and fictional, such as the characters in the works of Plautus and Terence—surveilled and competed with each other. In order for manumission to have the power to free slaves, freeborn Romans, ones who did not own slaves, had to recognize the freedom that manumission granted. They recognized the freedom of manumission, but did so while distinguishing themselves from former slaves. This distinction from former slaves was connected to slavery providing them with a “psychological wage”, a term that I take from W.E.B. Du Bois. In their plays, Plautus and Terence reproduce the distinction between former slaves and freeborn Romans through the level of language and also the level of performance, most especially the masks that the actors wore during the performance. Livy likewise reproduces this distinction in his description of the manumission of volones and the freeing of captive freeborn Roman soldiers. In Rome, the state, slave-owners, and those who were freeborn but who did own slaves benefited from making slaves’ lives unlivable and, therefore, had an interest in guarding the boundaries of manumission.
Husby, Tristan, "Recognizing Freedom: Manumission in the Roman Republic" (2017). CUNY Academic Works.