Enslaved and Freed Persons in Roman Military Communities Under the Principate (27 BCE–284 CE)

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This dissertation explores the lives of persons enslaved or formerly enslaved to soldiers and veterans of the Roman imperial armies (27 BCE–284 CE). Previous scholarship on the subject has been sparse and one-sided, mostly mirroring the perspective of the elite literary sources on which they are based. They are mainly concerned with the role of slaves in the overall operation and organization of Rome’s armies. Such approaches fall short of informing us about the social location and lived reality of individual slaves and ex-slaves. We set out to close this knowledge gap here by leveraging epigraphic, papyrological, legal, and archaeological sources.After exposing the elite bias of the literary sources, we turn to the extant stone inscriptions featuring slaves and ex-slaves of soldiers and veterans, a corpus of over 900 texts at present. First, a large-scale quantitative survey of the material uncovers general patterns relevant to this much-neglected population. Then follows an archaeologically and historically contextualized consideration of a smaller selection of data from Britain and Pannonia, including inscriptions and wooden writing-tablets, in an effort to retrieve and recount in as much detail as possible a few of the experiences and circumstances of these individuals. Finally, we discuss testamentary manumission as a characteristic feature of slave life in military communities. The evidence presented here corroborates our argument that the lives and narratives of individual enslaved persons can and should be retrieved. Quantitative analysis underscores the pervasiveness of slaveholding in the Roman military across many dimensions, including space, time, service branch, rank, and service status. In fact, my calculations show that in regions where reliable overall quantifications of the epigraphic material are available roughly 10% of the inscriptions involving active or retired soldiers mention slaves or ex-slaves. Such findings clearly elevate slaves in military contexts above the marginal status that is implied by the limited amount of scholarly attention they have received. Close scrutiny and careful contextualization of several altars, epitaphs, and writing tablets from Britain and Pannonia underscore my conclusion that we are subscribing to a partial and impoverished view of the Roman military by keeping slaves and ex-slaves out of view. They were essential to life in the military and their presence was viewed as normal.





Linden-High, Adrian C. (2020). Enslaved and Freed Persons in Roman Military Communities Under the Principate (27 BCE–284 CE). Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/22214.


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