Wednesday, August 17, 2016


Matthew J. Perry, Gender, Manumission, and the Roman Freedwoman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. ix, 269. ISBN 9781107040311. $99.00.

Reviewed by Anise K. Strong, Western Michigan University (

Version at BMCR home site


This book explores the fascinating and complicated liminal space between slave and citizen in the Roman world through focusing on the status of freedwomen in Roman laws and epigraphy. While it primarily addresses what Perry terms the "gendered ideology" of manumission of women, rather than the actual lived experiences of such freedwomen, the text helps illuminate just how much ambiguity and anxiety surrounded this social class. Perry's thoughtful grasp of both the legal texts and the nuances of Roman grave inscriptions brings to life Roman attitudes towards this doubly marginal group of people. In particular, he argues that Roman society used freedwomen's marriage as a means to assimilate them safely into citizenhood and to cover any shame imputed to such women's previous sexual availability as slaves.

Perry begins by outlining the sexual degradation of Roman female slaves and their almost inevitable rape by their masters. He claims that the honor-shame model is indeed applicable to Roman society, which is a matter of much scholarly controversy. On this point, the fact that most of his epigraphical and literary data refers to women within highly urban, cosmopolitan contexts could have been considered more carefully, as one of the principal objections to this model's utility is that it was constructed for small rural Mediterranean villages.1 The power of fama and pudor may be significantly dispersed when a potentially shamed woman can move easily into a new neighborhood where no one knows her past. In any case, Perry convincingly outlines both the Roman contempt for sex with female slaves and our limited evidence for its ubiquity. He also discusses the lowly status and lack of bodily integrity possessed by female slaves.

Perry turns next to the question of non-sexual labor by female slaves and the process of female manumission; elite authors and jurists rarely valued female labor. The crucial role of the nursemaid (nutrix), the most commonly freed female slave and a person who frequently had significant emotional ties to the freeborn members of the family, might have benefited from further examination and development here.2 Freedwomen ex-nurses also complicate Perry's overall argument about the importance of marriage for assimilating female slaves into the Roman citizenry, as generally they seem not to have been freed for this purpose.

One of Perry's most striking conclusions is that he finds no evidence of women being able to purchase their own freedom without outside help, whether from a master, romantic partner, or other family member. The labor of female slaves may thus have been less remunerative as well as less socially valued than that of their male counterparts. This evidence is consistent with our data from the Greek world, such as the case of Neaira, although Perry does not address comparative evidence within the confines of this monograph.3

In subsequent chapters, Perry focuses on the evidence for freedwomen's status in legal texts and in inscriptions. He demonstrates that the patron-freedwoman relationship seems to have been considered more important than the freedwoman's subsequent familial relationships. For instance, in eighty-seven percent of the inscriptions he studied, the word "patron" preceded "husband"; a similar ratio is evident for "freedwoman" and "wife." While this marker of former servile status thus remained key, texts about freedwomen also emphasized their freedom and citizen status. However, "freedwoman" was still a disparaged and highly sexualized category. Marriage became a key means of bridging this ambiguity and recasting the former slave as a potential mater familias. Freedwomen themselves used marriage as a means of legitimizing unofficial relationships, often with their former masters.

This book is an excellent interdisciplinary answer to a narrow question. It engages with the multiple subfields of Roman slavery studies, gender studies, and legal history. The sharp focus makes it not very suitable as a text for undergraduate courses, especially since it assumes a fairly extensive knowledge of Roman social and legal history. However, excerpts could be very useful in a graduate course on ancient slavery or social history. Further work might profitably expand on the general ideological representation of Roman freedwomen. This text or its sequels would also benefit from more inclusion of visual evidence, material culture and of less elite literary texts such as novels and plays. We are left with a clear sense of elite male anxiety over the problematic ambiguities of freedwomen's legal and sexual status, but we are still only one step closer to imagining productively how Roman freedwomen themselves negotiated their social roles.


1.   S. Treggiari, Roman Marriage: Iusti coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford University Press, 1993): 439-83; T. McGinn, Prostitution, sexuality, and the law in ancient Rome (Oxford University Press, 2003): 10-14.
2.   S. Joshel, "Nurturing the Master's Child: Slavery and the Roman Child-Nurse." Signs 12, no. 1 (1986): 3-22.
3.   D. Hamel, Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. (Yale University Press, 2003).

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