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Legal status

According to the jurist Gaius, the essential distinction in the Roman "law of persons" was that all human beings were either free (liberi) or slaves (servi). The legal status of free persons might be further defined by their citizenship. In the early Empire, only a relatively limited number of men held full rights of Roman citizenship that allowed them to vote, run for office, and enter state priesthoods. Most citizens held limited rights (such as the ius Latinum, "Latin right"), but were entitled to legal protections and privileges not enjoyed by those who lacked citizenship. Free people not considered citizens, but living within the Roman world, held status as peregrini, non-Romans. In 212 AD, by means of the edict known as the Constitutio Antoniniana, the emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all freeborn inhabitants of the empire. This legal egalitarianism would have required a far-reaching revision of existing laws that had distinguished between citizens and non-citizens.
 
Women as legal entities
 
Freeborn Roman women were considered citizens throughout the Republic and Empire, but did not vote, hold political office, or serve in the military. A mother's citizen status determined that of her children, as indicated by the phrase ex duobus civibus Romanis natos ("children born of two Roman citizens"). A Roman woman kept her own family name (nomen) for life. Children most often took the father's name, but in the Imperial period sometimes made their mother's name part of theirs, or even used it instead.
 
The archaic form of manus marriage in which the woman had been subject to her husband's authority was largely abandoned by the Imperial era, and a married woman retained ownership of any property she brought into the marriage. Technically she remained under her father's legal authority, even though she moved into her husband's home, but when her father died she became legally emancipated. This arrangement was one of the factors in the degree of independence Roman women enjoyed relative to those of many other ancient cultures and up to the modern period: although she had to answer to her father in legal matters, she was free of his direct scrutiny in her daily life, and her husband had no legal power over her. Although it was a point of pride to be a "one-man woman" (univira) who had married only once, there was little stigma attached to divorce, nor to speedy remarriage after the loss of a husband through death or divorce.
 
Girls had equal inheritance rights with boys if their father died without leaving a will. A Roman mother's right to own property and to dispose of it as she saw fit, including setting the terms of her own will, gave her enormous influence over her sons even when they were adults.
 
As part of the Augustan programme to restore traditional morality and social order, moral legislation attempted to regulate the conduct of women as a means of promoting "family values". Adultery, which had been a private family matter under the Republic, was criminalized, and defined broadly as an illicit sex act (stuprum) that occurred between a male citizen and a married woman, or between a married woman and any man other than her husband. Childbearing was encouraged by the state: a woman who had given birth to three children was granted symbolic honours and greater legal freedom (the ius trium liberorum).
 
Because of their legal status as citizens and the degree to which they could become emancipated, women could own property, enter contracts, and engage in business, including shipping, manufacturing, and lending money. Inscriptions throughout the Empire honour women as benefactors in funding public works, an indication they could acquire and dispose of considerable fortunes; for instance, the Arch of the Sergii was funded by Salvia Postuma, a female member of the family honoured, and the largest building in the forum at Pompeii was funded by Eumachia, a priestess of Venus.
 
Slaves and the law
 
At the time of Augustus, as many as 35 percent of the people in Italy were slaves, making Rome one of five historical "slave societies" in which slaves constituted at least a fifth of the population and played a major role in the economy. Slavery was a complex institution that supported traditional Roman social structures as well as contributing economic utility. In urban settings, slaves might be professionals such as teachers, physicians, chefs, and accountants, in addition to the majority of slaves who provided trained or unskilled labour in households or workplaces. Agriculture and industry, such as milling and mining, relied on the exploitation of slaves. Outside Italy, slaves made up on average an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the population, sparse in Roman Egypt but more concentrated in some Greek areas. Expanding Roman ownership of arable land and industries would have affected preexisting practices of slavery in the provinces. Although the institution of slavery has often been regarded as waning in the 3rd and 4th centuries, it remained an integral part of Roman society until the 5th century. Slavery ceased gradually in the 6th and 7th centuries along with the decline of urban centres in the West and the disintegration of the complex Imperial economy that had created the demand for it.
 
Laws pertaining to slavery were "extremely intricate". Under Roman law, slaves were considered property and had no legal personhood. They could be subjected to forms of corporal punishment not normally exercised on citizens, sexual exploitation, torture, and summary execution. A slave could not as a matter of law be raped, since rape could be committed only against people who were free; a slave's rapist had to be prosecuted by the owner for property damage under the Aquilian Law. Slaves had no right to the form of legal marriage called conubium, but their unions were sometimes recognized, and if both were freed they could marry. Following the Servile Wars of the Republic, legislation under Augustus and his successors shows a driving concern for controlling the threat of rebellions through limiting the size of work groups, and for hunting down fugitive slaves.
 
Technically, a slave could not own property, but a slave who conducted business might be given access to an individual account or fund (peculium) that he could use as if it were his own. The terms of this account varied depending on the degree of trust and co-operation between owner and slave: a slave with an aptitude for business could be given considerable leeway to generate profit, and might be allowed to bequeath the peculium he managed to other slaves of his household. Within a household or workplace, a hierarchy of slaves might exist, with one slave in effect acting as the master of other slaves.
 
Over time slaves gained increased legal protection, including the right to file complaints against their masters. A bill of sale might contain a clause stipulating that the slave could not be employed for prostitution, as prostitutes in ancient Rome were often slaves. The burgeoning trade in eunuch slaves in the late 1st century AD prompted legislation that prohibited the castration of a slave against his will "for lust or gain."
 
Roman slavery was not based on "race" in the modern sense. During the period of Republican expansionism when slavery had become pervasive, war captives were a main source of slaves. The range of ethnicities among slaves to some extent reflected that of the armies Rome defeated in war, and the conquest of Greece brought a number of highly skilled and educated slaves into Rome. Slaves were also traded in markets, and sometimes sold by pirates. Infant abandonment and self-enslavement among the poor were other sources. Vernae, by contrast, were "homegrown" slaves born to female slaves within the urban household or on a country estate or farm. Although they had no special legal status, an owner who mistreated or failed to care for his vernae faced social disapproval, as they were considered part of his familia, the family household, and in some cases might actually be the children of free males in the family.
 
Talented slaves with a knack for business might accumulate a large enough peculium to justify their freedom, or be manumitted for services rendered. Manumission had become frequent enough that in 2 BC a law (Lex Fufia Caninia) limited the number of slaves an owner was allowed to free in his will.
 
Freedmen
 
Cinerary urn for the freedman Tiberius Claudius Chryseros and two women, probably his wife and daughter
Rome differed from Greek city-states in allowing freed slaves to become citizens. After manumission, a slave who had belonged to a Roman citizen enjoyed not only passive freedom from ownership, but active political freedom (libertas), including the right to vote. A slave who had acquired libertas was a libertus ("freed person," feminine liberta) in relation to his former master, who then became his patron (patronus): the two parties continued to have customary and legal obligations to each other. As a social class generally, freed slaves were libertini, though later writers used the terms libertus and libertinus interchangeably.
 
A libertinus was not entitled to hold public office or the highest state priesthoods, but he could play a priestly role in the cult of the emperor. He could not marry a woman from a family of senatorial rank, nor achieve legitimate senatorial rank himself, but during the early Empire, freedmen held key positions in the government bureaucracy, so much so that Hadrian limited their participation by law. Any future children of a freedman would be born free, with full rights of citizenship.
 
The rise of successful freedmen—through either political influence in imperial service, or wealth—is a characteristic of early Imperial society. The prosperity of a high-achieving group of freedmen is attested by inscriptions throughout the Empire, and by their ownership of some of the most lavish houses at Pompeii, such as the House of the Vettii. The excesses of nouveau riche freedmen were satirized in the character of Trimalchio in the Satyricon by Petronius, who wrote in the time of Nero. Such individuals, while exceptional, are indicative of the upward social mobility possible in the Empire.
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