Status in Roman legal system

In Roman law, status describes a person's legal status. The individual could be a Roman citizen (status civitatis), unlike foreigners; or he could be free (status libertatis), unlike slaves; or he could have a certain position in a Roman family (status familiae) either as head of the family (pater familias), or as a lower member (filii familias).

Giovane con rotolo
A fresco portrait of a man holding a papyrus roll, Pompeii, Italy, 1st century AD

Status civitatis

In the Roman state, according to Roman civil law (ius civile), only Roman citizens had the full civil and political rights. In regard to status civitatis, in the Roman state, there were cives, Latini and peregrini, and foreigners. Outside the Roman state, there were externi, barbari and hostes.

Status familiae

Status familiae is the legal status of an individual in the family. The pater familias had the authority in the family (patria potestas), and everyone was subjected to him based on adgnatio (kinship only from father's side). This had an impact in private law. There is a distinction between alieni iuris (persons under patria potestas) and sui iuris (persons autonomous of patria potestas, who could only be the pater familias himself). Filius familias had ius suffragii and ius honorum, but in the area of private law he was restricted because of patria potestas.

Status libertatis

The social and legal status of slaves in the Roman state was different in different epochs. In the time of old civil law (ius civile Quiritium) slavery had a patriarchal shape (a slave did the same job and lived under the same conditions as his master and family). After Rome's victorious wars, from the 3rd century BC, huge numbers of slaves came to Rome, and that resulted in slave trade and increased exploitation of slaves. From that time on, a slave became only a thing (res)- servi pro nullis habentur.

Legal status

The legal state of slaves was based on the fact that the slave was not a subject but an object of law. A master had the right of ownership over the slave. He could sell him, give him in pawn but certainly could not harm or kill him. If someone injured his slave, a master could initiate legal proceedings and demand protection. The ownership over the slave was called dominica potestas, and not dominium like the ownership of objects and animals.

In the Roman legal system, a slave did not have a family. His sexual relationships with other slaves was not marriage (matrimonium), but a cohabitation (contubernium), without legal consequences.

Masters could also give over a certain amount of property (such as land, buildings), known as peculium, to a slave for his management and use. This peculium was protected under Roman law and inaccessible by the owner. This was another tool slaves could use to purchase their freedom.[1]

Means of becoming a slave

The oldest means of becoming a slave was to be captured as an enemy in war. However, even a foreigner could become free again and even a Roman citizen could become a slave. Slavery was hereditary, and the child of a slave woman became a slave no matter who the father was. However, according to classical law, a child of a slave became free (ingenuus), if his or her mother was free, even for a short period of time, during the pregnancy.

There were a number of means by which a free man could become a slave in Roman society.

Æris confessi rebusque iure iudicatis XXX dies iusti sunto.
A person who admits to owing money or has been adjudged to owe money must be given 30 days to pay.
Post deinde manus iniectio esto. In ius ducito. Ni iudicatum facit aut quis endo eo in iure vindicit, secum ducito, vincito aut nervo aut compedibus XV pondo, ne maiore aut si volet minore vincito. Si volet suo vivito, ni suo vivit, qui eum vinctum habebit, libras faris endo dies dato. Si volet, plus dato.
After that, the creditor can lay hands on him and haul him to court. If he does not satisfy the judgment and no one is surety for him, the creditor may take the defendant with him in stocks or chains...
  • Also citizens involved in the false presentation of slavery for benefit could become slaves. If a free man were sold as a slave, then after proving that he is free he shared proceeds from the sale with the party that sold him. A praetor could deprive the seller of his freedom (vindicatio in libertatem).
  • Convicts (most of them sentenced to death), could become slaves and their property would belong to state.
  • A female Roman citizen could become a slave (under senatus consultum Claudianum form 52) if she had "mutual living" (contubernium) with another man's slave despite the master's objection.

Termination of slave status

After the Punic wars, Rome started the mass exploitation of slaves. However, the development of industry, trade and other branches of economy required skilled free workers that took interest in their jobs.

A slave could get free by the act of manumission, by which a master would release him from his authority. Manumissions were different in different epochs. The old civil law (ius civile Quiritium) recognized three kinds of manumissions:

  • Manumissio censu, was done by a master in the time of the Centuriate assembly. A master wishing to free his slave needed only to enter him in the censor's list as a citizen.
  • Manumissio vindicta, was the liberation of a slave by a fictitious plea for freedom (vindicatio in libertatem). It was done before a magistrate when some citizen (adsertor libertatis) touched a slave by a stick (vindicta), and by right words said that the slave is a free man. If a master did not object to that claim (in iure cessio), a magistrate would validate the slave's freedom (addictio). This had been done under the old civil law (ius civile Quiricium)
  • Manumissio testamento, was the liberation of a slave by a will. In a will master usually said "Stichus servus meus liber esto", and the slave would be free and without patron.
    • Manumissio testamento fideicommissaria, was when a master asked his successor to release a slave. If that slave was made free, the man who released him became his patron.
  • Manumissio inter amicos, was liberation of a slave by a statement in front of friends. Praetors protected these free slaves (by the Lex Junia Norbana, these people lived as free but died as slaves). This kind of manumission originated at the end of the republic.
    • Manumissio per epistulam, same as above, just done by a statement in a letter.
  • Manumissio per mensam was similar to the above manumissions. This one was not as formal as manumissions in time of old civil law, but had the same value as praetoric manumissions. Manumissions of this kind originated in the time of empire.
  • Manumissio in ecclesia, were manumissions made in the time of Christian emperors in front of a priest.

At the beginning of the empire, because of the number of manumissions, legal limitations of manumissions were made. These limitations were implemented by two laws: Lex Fufia Caninia and Lex Aelia Sentia.

According to Roman law, slaves that were freed (libertinus, in regard to his master libertus) became Roman citizens, but they had many fewer rights than Roman citizens that were born free (ingenuus). The slave's former master now became his patron (patronus), and the libertus still had obligations towards him (this was regulated by law). The libertus had to be obedient and respectful to his patron (obsequium et reverentia). The patron could punish a disobedient libertus, In older times he could even kill him (ius vitae necisque), but later he could not. In some circumstances he could even ask a magistrate to turn the libertus into a slave once again (accusatio ingrati).


  1. ^ Temin, Peter (2006). "The economy of the early Roman Empire". Journal of Economic Perspectives. 1. 20: 133–151. doi:10.1257/089533006776526148.

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Lex Aelia Sentia

Lex Aelia Sentia was a law established in ancient Rome in 4 AD. It was one of the laws that the Roman assemblies had to pass (after they were asked to do so by emperor Augustus). This law (as well as Lex Fufia Caninia), has made limitations on manumissions. Manumission, or the freeing of a slave, became increasingly important by the early empire. Augustus sought to enact a series of restrictions on the practice. This law stated that for a manumission to be valid a master had to be at least twenty years old and a slave at least thirty. These limitations on manumissions were made when the number of manumissions were so large (at the end of republic and the beginning of empire), that they even questioned the social system of the time.

This law had several provisions. One such provision stated that certain slaves who were manumitted could not become full Roman citizens, but rather would become members of a lower class of freedmen (Peregrini dediticii). If a manumitted slave was under age thirty, he could only achieve full citizenship after a legal proceeding (a "consilia") similar to a family law trial. These legal proceedings were to be held at pre-determined times in the provinces and in Rome. Any slave under the age of thirty could achieve full citizenship rights without the need for a consilia if his master was insolvent and agreed to free him. If a slave was freed under the age of thirty, but was not granted full citizenship rights upon his manumission, he could be granted those full citizenship rights if he married a Roman freedwoman or freewoman, and had with this woman a child who was, at the time, at least one year of age. If he could prove this to a magistrate or governor, he, his wife, and his child, would all become full citizens. If the father had died before this had occurred, the mother could accomplish the same result. This provision was inserted by Augustus to increase the rate of marriage and childbirth, which, at the time, were both in decline. Augustus also believed that public morals were in a state of decline during his reign, and so by encouraging marriage especially, Augustus was attempting to "restore" the degree of virtue that he believed had existed under the republic.

If a master manumitted his slave in order to defraud his creditors (slaves could be pledged as collateral), the manumission was invalid. A person under the age of twenty could only manumit a slave if he went through the ordinary legal proceeding (consilium). This provision, and several other provisions did not apply to slaves who had been given membership in certain lower classes of freedmen. These classes were included in these provisions, however, upon a decree of the senate during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. By the time of the late empire, this law had little importance. This law was passed by virtue of the constitutional forms at the time of Augustus, when the status of a Civis had not yet lost its value, and a semblance of the Constitution of the Roman Republic still existed (Ulp. Frag. tit. 1; Dig. 28 tit. 5 s57, 60; Dig. 38 tit. 2 s33; Tacit. Ann. XV.55).

Lex Fufia Caninia

In ancient Rome, the lex Fufia Caninia (also Furia ~ or Fusia ~, 2 BC) was one of the laws that national assemblies had to pass, after they were requested to do so by Caesar Augustus. This law, along with the lex Aelia Sentia, placed limitations on manumissions, as to how many slaves could be freed at one time. In numerical terms, this meant that a master who had three slaves could free only two; one who had between four and ten could free only half of them; one with eleven to thirty could free only a third, and so on. Manumissions above these limits were not valid.

The limitations were established at the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, at a time when the number of manumissions was so large that they were perceived as a challenge to a social system that was founded on slavery.

Lex Junia Norbana

In Roman Law, Lex Iunia Norbana of 19 AD classified all freedmen into two classes according to their mode of enfranchisement: enfranchised citizens, (freedmen who enjoyed Roman citizenship) and enfranchised Latini (freedmen who had only Latin rights).Freedmen would be granted only Latin rights if the manumission of the slave failed to meet any of the conditions set out by the Lex Aelia Sentia of 4 AD for it to confer Roman citizenship. This provided that for the freedman to acquire Roman citizenship a slave had to be manumitted at the age of 30 or older, the owner had to have quiritary ownership and the ceremony had to be public. For slaves under the age of thirty, the manumission had to be approved by a special council. The manumission of slaved who had been enslaved because of crimes would raise them only to the position of dediticii (war captives). Thus, the Lex Iunia Norbana made the slaves who were not eligible for Roman citizens as per the lex Aelia Sextia enfranchised Latins. The law retained the dediticii. A clause of the law "took away from these Latini Juniani, as they were called, the capacity of making a testament, taking under a testament, and being appointed tutores by a testament."The Institutes, which were part of the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law) commissioned by Justinian I in the sixth century, recorded that in previous times there were three form of freedmen: those who became Roman citizens, those who acquired inferior freedom as Latins as per the Lex Junia Norbana and those who obtained still less freedom as dediticii as per the Lex Aelia Sentia. This last status had decayed and the Latini had become rare by then. The Institutes also noted that two edicts corrected this situation. One abolished the dediticii and the other “rendered all freedmen Roman citizens without making any distinction with reference to age, the mode of manumission, or the authority of the manumitting party, as was formerly the practice.”

Outline of ancient Rome

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to ancient Rome:

Ancient Rome – former civilization that thrived on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world.

Outline of classical studies

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to classical studies:

Classical studies (Classics for short) – earliest branch of the humanities, which covers the languages, literature, history, art, and other cultural aspects of the ancient Mediterranean world. The field focuses primarily on, but is not limited to, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during classical antiquity, the era spanning from the late Bronze Age of Ancient Greece during the Minoan and Mycenaean periods (c. 1600-1100 BCE) through the period known as Late Antiquity to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, c. 500 CE. The word classics is also used to refer to the literature of the period.

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