National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version

Spring 2017


Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Spring/Summer 2017, Volume 18. Number 1.


Copyright 2017 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


From the dawn of the Roman Empire, slavery played a major and essential role in Roman society. While slavery never completely disappeared from ancient Roman society, its position in the Roman economy shifted at the beginning of the period called Late Antiquity (14 CE–500 CE). At this time, the slave system of the Roman world adjusted to a new category of labor. Overall, the numbers of slaves declined, an event that historian Ramsey MacMullen, drawing from legal debates and legislation of the period, attributes to the accumulation of debt and poverty among Roman citizens in the third century CE. One effect of this debt accumulation was that many free individuals sold themselves into an indentured state, particularly during the years 225–325 CE. In so doing, they counteracted the “decline” of slavery with a rapidly expanding body of laborers who were technically “free” but who occupied the social—and eventually the legal—status of slaves (Mac- Mullen, “Late Roman Slavery” 380).

The slave’s role in Late Antiquity has been the subject of many past interpretations. Although the later Roman world experienced a decrease in the overall number of slaves, the effect of this decrease was hugely significant in terms of the amount of status confusion it generated amongst the lower classes. Previous generalizations assert that the status of the free poor created somewhat of a semi-servile class. Scholars have recognized that among the slave population existed a great number of slaves who were neither captured in war nor born to slave mothers and so were wrongfully labeled as slaves. An example may be found in the Theodosian Code (CT), a codification of law compiled in 438 AD under the emperor Theodosius II. The law found in CT 5.9.1 explains that should a person raise an exposed child, a child cast out of its home, then that person is free to choose the status of that child, free or poor (109). This law indicates the number of people who counted as slaves but did not actually belong in such a category. Adding to the scholarly discussion of the diminishing status of the free poor in the Roman world, this current study investigates the significance of status confusion that this situation would have had within the lower classes.