Cultural Exchange in Roman Society: Freed Slaves and Social Values

Cultural Exchange in Roman Society: Freed Slaves and Social Values

By Rose B. MacLean

PhD Dissertation, Princeton University, 2012

Abstract: Although slavery was a widely accepted practice throughout the ancient Mediterranean, the Roman system was distinctive for its high rates of manumission and grant of citizenship to slaves manumitted through official channels. This dissertation sheds new light on the role of ex-slaves in Roman society by examining the cultural exchange that took place between members of this population and the ruling orders. Rather than reproduce ancient stereotypes, on the one hand, or idealize the level of agency that freedmen enjoyed, on the other, I focus on the dialogue between status groups and on the media through which that conversation occurred. Particular attention is given to the interaction between literary and epigraphical writing.

I argue that during the early Empire, when elite values were being reconfigured to accommodate the rise of monarchy, freed slaves offered constructive models of behavior even as they were subject to intense social prejudice. Inscriptions are our best source of evidence for the beliefs and practices of Roman freedmen, and I analyze these texts alongside the literary sources to show how the virtues of deference and industry were adapted from freed culture by members of the imperial elite as they renegotiated traditional concepts of honor and glory. Using a similar method, I demonstrate how the familia Caesaris came to symbolize the principate and to propagate the ideology of empire. The ways in which freedmen represented the individual life course in their commemorative monuments are studied as a basis for the emergence of alternatives to the cursus honorum, primarily in Stoic and early Christian thought. Finally, freed slaves’ inclusion in the citizen body and their complex responses to enfranchisement are shown to have been integral to the development of the Roman citizenship and to the definition of the civic community.

I conclude that freed culture did not simply imitate that of the ruling orders but rather participated in a dialogue about social values, and that this dialogue was instrumental in shaping elite ideology under the Principate.

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