Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz, Taxing Freedom in Thessalian Manumission Inscriptions. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 361. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013. Pp. xiv, 176. ISBN 9789004253896. $119.00.

Reviewed by Kostas Vlassopoulos, University of Nottingham (Konstantinos.vlassopoulos@nottingham.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

Manumission inscriptions constitute a fascinating peculiarity of Greek epigraphy. They are extremely rare outside Greek culture among the Romans or in the ancient Near East; and they are found in Greek communities from Apollonia in Albania in the West to Hyrcania in Turkmenistan in the East and from Phanagoria in the Black Sea in the North to Crete in the South. There are hundreds of these documents, recording the manumission of about 4,500 slaves. Thessalian manumission inscriptions, despite the fact that they constitute one of the largest samples, have not attracted the attention they deserve, for various reasons. But a major cause of this relative neglect is undoubtedly their form: while manumission inscriptions from other parts of the Greek world record in often great detail the circumstances and conditions of the manumission, thus offering very important evidence for many aspects of slavery, most Thessalian inscriptions consist of a bare list of names, accompanied by the dating formula and usually the added detail that the manumitted slaves have paid to the polis (or the relevant magistrate) a specified sum of money.

In this useful contribution, Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz, the author of a very important monograph on Greek freedmen, 1 re-examines the Thessalian manumission records in the light of comparative evidence from other areas, in order to establish the nature of this sum paid by Thessalian freedmen: did it constitute a manumission tax, or was it a fee for registering the manumissions? In the process, she examines various aspects of Thessalian slavery and its political, economic and social history.

The introduction (1-13) presents an overview of the history of the Thessalian League and briefly discusses the evidence for the dependent population of the penestai and for chattel slavery in Thessaly. Chapter 1 (15-27) reviews the evidence for indirect taxes in Greek polities, with particular attention to the evidence for taxation regarding slavery. This involved primarily the taxation of slave sales, but also included various other fiscal practices, such as the imposition of poll taxes involving slaves, or the obligatory sale of slaves by private citizens with the profits accruing to the city, as a form of a private loan to the city. Chapter 2 (29-53) moves to examine in detail the Thessalian manumission inscriptions and their references to various payments. Most of these inscriptions take the form of summary lists, which record the magistrates and the dating formulae, the names of manumittors and manumitted slaves and the fact that they have paid the relevant fee to the city, which is always in the amount of 15 staters/22.5 denarii; but some of them note additional details, like the existence of paramone service, or the acquiescence of family members to the manumission. The manumission price is rarely mentioned, but irrespective of the price or whether a slave was manumitted for free the payment to the city remains unaffected.

Chapter 3 (55-69) tries to assess whether these payments constituted a manumission tax, similar to the Roman vicesima libertatis, or a fee for the registration and inscribing of the manumissions. While in many cases the evidence is ambiguous, and it is conceivable to infer Roman influence through Roman interventions in Thessalian affairs, there is unambiguous evidence for registration fees from cities like Hypata and Lamia. The related question whether the payment of the registration fee was obligatory on all manumissions or an optional charge on those freedmen who wanted their manumission act registered and publicised is impossible to answer conclusively on present evidence.

Chapter 4 (71-107) attempts to answer the same question by examining the evidence for payments from manumitted slaves on the occasion of their manumission in the rest of the wider Greek world. Many Greek communities imposed on their manumitted slaves some kind of payment, but in most cases the evidence is ambiguous on whether the payment constituted a registration fee or a manumission tax. In the few cases where the evidence makes inferences possible, registration fees appear in communities like Orchomenos in Arcadia; on the other hand, Ptolemaic Egypt appears to have charged a manumission tax. Particularly interesting in this chapter is the range of ways in which communities exacted payments from manumitted slaves, in addition to the common money exactions: the author discusses the evidence for the conduct of obligatory sacrifices by manumitted slaves in Cos, or the dedication of cups and bowls to deities on the occasion of manumission in various Macedonian communities. In this respect, she also examines the evidence for the notorious phialai records from late-fourth century Athens. Against a recent attempt by Elizabeth Meyer to dissociate these records from acts of manumission, 2 Zelnick-Abramovitz defends the traditional interpretation of these records as phialai dedicated by manumitted slaves; and while she notes that the sum of 100 drachmae paid by the manumitted slaves is more than three times higher than the payments made by manumitted slaves in Thessaly, she persuasively associates this sum with similar sums for phialai dedicated by Athenian magistrates and liturgists on the occasion of their service.

Chapter 5 (109-32) explores the wider historical and economic background in which Thessalian communities decided to exact the manumission fees. After examining the chronological range of the appearance of manumission fees in individual Thessalian communities, Zelnick-Abramovitz concludes that the federal fee was probably instituted in the early second century and seems to have been first applied in Pelasgiotis; but generalisations are difficult, as there are some inscriptions recording manumission fees which appear to date from the third century, and the date at which individual communities chose to apply the fee seems to have diverged. The author goes on to link the institution of this federal fee to two wider motives. The first one is the financial problems created by the political and economic turmoil that affected Thessaly along with other regions of Greece in the first half of the second century BC: the fee would have been a useful contribution to the empty coffers of most Thessalian cities. The second motive, for which though there is rather limited evidence, concerns the presumed interest of Thessalian poleis in monitoring the non-citizen population and preventing them from encroaching on citizen rights. The short conclusion (133-9) recapitulates the main findings, and the book also includes a very useful register of all Thessalian manumission inscriptions.

While this book is a very useful survey of the evidence, it also raises a wider question. Deciding whether the recorded payments are registration fees or manumission taxes begs the question of precisely what function the inscribed documents served. It is normally assumed that the purpose of manumission inscriptions was to achieve the widest possible publication for the act of manumission and thus to safeguard the freedman from seizure and re-enslavement. Manumissions were always witnessed so that in the future there would be persons capable of verifying the status of the liberated slave; by inscribing the manumission record in publicly accessible places, like temples and agoras, knowledge of the manumission would be continuously publicised to a much greater audience than the few witnesses of the act.

The theory sounds plausible, until we examine which Greek communities developed the habit of inscribing manumission acts. One could argue that manumission inscriptions are a characteristic feature of Greek culture in general; but a more careful look reveals that the vast majority of manumission inscriptions occur in central Greece (Boeotia, Phocis, Locris, Aetolia, Thessaly) and northern Greece (Epirus, Macedonia). There are very few manumission inscriptions from the Peloponnese, the Aegean islands and Asia Minor. According to my calculations, around 90% of manumitted slaves recorded in Greek manumission inscriptions come from central and northern Greece.

One would have expected that most manumission inscriptions would be erected in large urban communities, where people would not know each other, and the need to publicise manumissions to a wider audience would be stronger. Surprisingly, the evidence points the other way round. We have no manumission inscriptions from large urban centres like Ephesus and Miletus; thousands of inscriptions from these communities have been preserved, making it improbable that manumission inscriptions once existed but have since vanished. We do not have any manumission inscriptions from large Aegean islands like Rhodes and Chios, where we know thousands of slaves were employed; instead, manumission inscriptions crop up in small island communities like Thera and Calymnos. But the most telling example is that of Athens. There are no manumission inscriptions from any period of Athenian history, with the partial exception of the so-called phialai inscriptions, which are concentrated in the short period between 330-320 BC and do not strictly-speaking record manumissions as such. Publicising manumissions would have been essential in a large urban community like Athens; and yet, the Athenians do not seem to have ever felt such a need. Ironically, it was only the small community of Athenian citizens in the island of Lemnos that felt the need to inscribe manumission acts!3

Most manumission inscriptions come from relatively small communities in central and northern Greece, like Chyretiai, Hypata and Leukopetra. The need to publicise manumission acts cannot therefore sufficiently account for manumission inscriptions. Any account of manumission inscriptions must explain why they are overwhelmingly absent from large urban communities with strong and diversified epigraphic habits, where the problems of publication would be particularly acute, and why they are present where they are. In other words, we need to understand the epigraphic habit, as well as the social dynamics of those communities that set up manumission inscriptions. Answering the question that Zelnick-Abramovitz raises, would involve a number of case-studies of local communities and their epigraphic habits; this important desideratum is perhaps the greatest gap in our knowledge and understanding of post-classical Greek history. This slim but informative volume is a welcome addition towards that end.


1.   Not Wholly Free: The Concept of Manumission and the Status of Manumitted Slaves in the Ancient Greek World, Leiden, 2005.
2.   Metics and the Athenian Phialai-Inscriptions: A Study in Athenian Epigraphy and Law, Stuttgart, 2010. See the review in BMCR 2011.02.48.
3.   L. Beschi, 'Cabirio di Lemno: testimonianze letterarie ed epigrafiche', ASAtene, 58-9, 1996-7, 7-192.

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