Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The Roman slave peculium in social context

How did the slave peculium function in the socio-legal context of the Roman Empire?

Egbert Koops

The Leiden Museum of Antiquities contains a Roman inscription referring to a slave who died age 28, “when he should have been manumitted at 30”. Should have been: in Roman inscriptions from the imperial age, early manumission is the norm, and there are other reasons as well to think the phenomenon was prevalent. The best explanation for this social practice is self-purchase by the use of the slave patrimony (peculium) as a freedom fund. The peculium was a patrimony that legally belonged to the master, but practically belonged to the slave. Hidden behind this legal fiction is a socio-legal world of negotiation and conditional commitment between masters and slaves. Certain bargains were even recognized at law, giving slaves a (tenuous) existence as legal persons.

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