Slavery and the Colonate in the Late Roman Empire


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Slavery and the Colonate in the Late Roman Empire

  1. 1. 1Julia MuhlnickelTerm PaperAncient SlaveryDecember 12, 2011 The Colonate and Slavery in the Late Roman Empire “Granted that they seem, in status, to be free men, nevertheless they arethought to be slaves of the ground for which they have been born and they have notthe capacity of departing whither they wish.”1 This imperial decree under Honoriusand Theodosius in the late Roman Empire describes the status of the colonate, ajuridical class of tenant farmers often compared with slaves that was defined in thefourth century. While no clear legal definition was ever given for coloni, laws andlegal communications defined many parameters of their residency. For example, theprevious quote speaks of the colonate much like they were slaves. They are called“slaves of the ground” and have no ability to leave. Here is the key differencebetween slaves and coloni; where slaves were bound to their masters, coloni werebound to a piece of land. At first glance the status of the colonate seems to be quitecomparable to the status of slaves, but the intricacies reveal that coloni were verydifferent from slaves and clearly a separate class. Who was part of the colonate? Recent debates over terminology questionwhether the coloni should be considered tenant farmers or estate workers.2However, we do know that these individuals were rural farm workers originallybound to the land they worked through the capitatio, a tax based on the Roman1 William Linn Westermann, "Between Slavery and Freedom," American Historical Review50, no. 2: page 223, Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2011), page 153-155.
  2. 2. 2census. The capitatio, enacted by Diocletian, required workers to pay taxes based ontheir place of origin.3 In the early stages of the Roman Empire, the coloni weresimply farmers who had legal contracts to work their land called locatio-conductio.Most scholarly work, however, focuses on the rise of the colonate in the laterempire, when the colonate was seen as comparable to, and debatably replacing, theinstitution of slavery. Technically free, a colonus was allowed to marry, have afamily, and live without fear of his landlord. However, the purpose of his life was toproduce harvests and pay taxes to the state and rent to his landlord, not to pursuehis own happiness.4 There were three ways a laborer could become a colonus. Originally, if onehad a single parent who was a colonus, or if both parents were, then the child wouldalso become part of the colonate. Children were not forced to pay the capitatio taxfrom birth, but were instead listed on the census when they were born and beganpaying the tax when they came of age. After inheritance, the colonus status wasnearly impossible to remove. From 419 until the reign of Justinian, the rule of thirtyyears’ prescription allowed tenants that were freed from their land by their landlordfor thirty years to become free of the colonus bond. Valentinian III adjusted the ruleso that a colonus who left his farm with the approval of his landlord would simplybecome a bound tenant of whoever was his new landlord. Justinian finally abolished3 A.H.M. Jones, "The Roman Colonate," Past and Present Society, no. 13: page 3, C.R. Whittaker and Peter Garnsey, "Rural Life in the Later Roman Empire," in The LateEmpire, A.D. 337-427, ed. Peter Garnsey and Averil Cameron, vol. 13 of Cambridge HistoriesOnline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), page 287-292, accessed November27, 2011, doi:1017/CHOL9780521302005.010.
  3. 3. 3the rule in the entire empire, and the only way one could obtain relief from hiscolonus status was by becoming a bishop.5 Anastasius passed another law of thirty years, stating that a tenant whostayed on a parcel of land for thirty years would become a colonus of the land.6 Thestatus could also be legally imposed. For example, some immigrants and prisonersof war were allowed to be residents of the Roman Empire. They were legally tied tothe land in their admission and their landlords were not allowed to exploit them likeslaves. The state could also impose coloni status on beggars, vagrants, andnonconformist residents.7 The creation of a colonate began with the empire, government, taxes, andneed for revenue. Agriculture and rural lands were a key part of taxation for thestate. Although many taxes were paid in cash, in kind payments were common andnecessary for food supply, particularly in Africa and Egypt. Diocletian imposed anannona taxation system with guidelines that accounted for the type of crop, thequality of the land, and the region’s agricultural productivity. Landowners paid thetax based not on their actual production of goods, but on the classification of theland they owned. These owners were also then tied to their land, for they could notescape paying taxes by not growing crops or by leaving. Under the system of thecolonate, the same owners had to pay taxes on the land they owned which was5 A.H.M. Jones, "The Roman Colonate," Past and Present Society, no. 13: page 8-9, Ibid, page 9.7 C.R. Whittaker and Peter Garnsey, "Rural Life in the Later Roman Empire," in The LateEmpire, A.D. 337-427, ed. Peter Garnsey and Averil Cameron, vol. 13 of Cambridge HistoriesOnline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), page 290-291, accessed November27, 2011, doi:1017/CHOL9780521302005.010.
  4. 4. 4cultivated by the colonate as well as the capitatio tax for each colonus on their land.If the coloni frequently moved and deserted their landlords, the owners would nothave any way to pay taxes to the government, producing a domino effect ongovernment revenues. To ensure stability of revenue, the state prohibited the colonifrom moving away from their farms. They would have to remain there and stayactive in keeping crops productive.8 Gradually in the fourth century, legal texts restricted the coloni themselves topieces of land. Individuals became registered as coloni, which meant they would paytheir capitatio taxes themselves. Constantine, in his constitution of 332, outlined thefirst restrictions of coloni and landowners. It became illegal to rent land to a tenantwho was a colonus to another landowner, and coloni could not legally leave the landto which they were bound. The landowner who originally controlled the desertingcolonus had the legal ability to recall him. Although the Roman rulers placed theserestrictions on the fundamental rights of the coloni to decide where they lived, theyalso created codes to help the colonate adhere to necessary taxation. These ruleswere set primarily to benefit the state in terms of gaining revenue, but they alsobenefitted the individuals of the colonate by aiding agricultural productivity.Farmers were exempt from any supplementary state and liturgical duties if theywere generating crops. Anyone who removed oxen from the property of farmers forpublic use was punished. Farmers also did not have to pay import taxes onagricultural equipment. Constantine in particular emphasized the importance ofagricultural production and in times of harvest and sowing exempted farmers from8Dennis P. Kehoe, Law and the Rural Economy in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor: Universityof Michigan Press, 2007), page 163-167.
  5. 5. 5all liturgical duties. An intriguing rule under Honorius involved the debts of coloni; ifsuch debts existed the coloni were to prioritize agriculture over the debts and werenot allowed to be called away to pay the debts. Loans and grants were even given tosome coloni to purchase domesticated animals or equipment.9 Several scholars argue that the status of the colonate was significantlydiminished in the fourth and fifth centuries. Called “slaves of the land” in 393,10 thecapitatio tax was removed but because coloni were coloni, they still had no right tomove between lands. After this statement, one quote from Justinian asked if therewas a difference between coloni and slaves. Rights the colonate previously enjoyedwere taken away, such as “to dispose of their own property or marry as theywished.”11 The coloni began to resemble slaves as the landowners became more likemasters. It appears that the restriction of these sorts of freedoms would not impactthe ability of the state to collect taxes, so there had to be another reason for them.Peter Garnsey and C.R. Whittaker refute the idea that the decline in slavery andfurther decline in labor supply was the cause. They propose that the limitations oncolonate rights were an attempt to appease landowners and encourage them to takeon new “emphyteutic” land leases.12 Emphyteutic leases required the landowner tomake improvements to the property,13 which would be a disincentive to maintainthese leases as rents paid by coloni were fixed. Landowners would be more easily9 Ibid, page 168-173.10 C.R. Whittaker and Peter Garnsey, "Rural Life in the Later Roman Empire," in The LateEmpire, A.D. 337-427, ed. Peter Garnsey and Averil Cameron, vol. 13 of Cambridge HistoriesOnline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), page 288, accessed November 27,2011, doi:1017/CHOL9780521302005.010.11 Ibid, 289.12 Ibid, 288-290.13 Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. "Emphyteutic," accessed November 27, 2011.
  6. 6. 6persuaded to adopt the system if they had more control over the lessees.Additionally, according to Pliny, short-term contracts were becoming overwhelmingand complicated from debt. Legislation restricting coloni was further supported bythe actions of wealthy landowners who took in fugitive coloni. This violation harmedeither the previous landlord of the colonus or the state by tangling the chain of laborand revenues.14 In Justinian’s codes, clear differences are named between the “free” colonateand the adscripticii, which was a lower class of coloni with many less rights. The“free” coloni were obligated to live on their leased land and farm it, paying their owntaxes. They were tied to the land, but had few other restrictions. The adscripticii, incontrast, were in a position of involuntary servitude, nearly slaves. Besidesperforming duties on the estate and remaining on and working the land, anadscripticius also could not litigate against his landlord or hold a peculium, meaningthat his property was not his own. Rather, it was the property of his estate owner.He and his family also had to be under the potestas of his landlord.15 The landlord’s power over the coloni was unlimited in that the coloni had towork the land, but also limited in that he was not their master. If a landownerwished to sell his estate, he would relinquish control over the coloni, who stayed onthe land. Even when it was not profitable for the landlord, he was required by law tokeep the coloni on his land. In addition, when land was sold, the new owner had to14 C.R. Whittaker and Peter Garnsey, "Rural Life in the Later Roman Empire," in The LateEmpire, A.D. 337-427, ed. Peter Garnsey and Averil Cameron, vol. 13 of Cambridge HistoriesOnline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), page 288-291, accessed November27, 2011, doi:1017/CHOL9780521302005.010.15 A.J.B. Sirks, "The Colonate in Justinians Reign," Journal of Roman Studies, no. 98: page 134,accessed November 27, 2011, doi:10.3815/007543508786238987.
  7. 7. 7accept all coloni already residing there. These laws provided a benefit for thecolonate in that they could not be taken away from their land at the owner’s will, asa slave could be. The rent the coloni had to pay also could not be raised by theowner, which irritated colonus-landowner relations. Landowners did not see areason to improve their properties, as they could not gain more income from doingso. They tried to force the coloni to work harder, but the coloni would gain nothingfrom cooperating and would lose nothing by not cooperating. The coloni could,essentially, use the land as they saw fit as long as their taxes were paid. Thedeteriorated relationship of the colonus and landowner was probably a reason itwas necessary for the state to create a large amount of legislation on what wouldhappen if coloni left the land to which they were bound. Because the originallandowner could be held responsible for capitatio taxes on the coloni, if theseworkers left the land the landowner may have no way of paying the tax. In turn,whoever the coloni left to work for would not have to pay the tax but would begaining laborers, and the entire system would be compromised. With so many faultsin the coordination and enforcement of the colonate, the state had to improveconditions for all drastically. In 419, for example, the law under Honorius created athirty-year statute of limitations for penalties against fugitive coloni and their newlandlords.16 In a pessimistic view, the conditions created by the state, landlord, andcolonate reacted against each other with tension evident of the declining economiclandscape of the Roman Empire.16Dennis P. Kehoe, Law and the Rural Economy in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor: Universityof Michigan Press, 2007), page 171-185.
  8. 8. 8 If the colonate had certain rights, but were limited in others, how similarwere they to slaves of late antiquity? Several important differences separate thecolonate from slaves, both figuratively and in practice. Kyle Harper calls Romansociety “a society familiar with slavery as a matter not only of commodification, butalso of dishonor and domination.”17 The sale of a slave defines slavery for some; saleof a slave is taking action that requires the belief that a human body is property.Originally the rationalization for slavery was that military conquests allowedmasters to “save” slaves instead of killing them, but this façade was not a permanentjustification as masters continued to sell human bodies. In Rome and its empire,commercial markets were a natural, matter-of-fact place for slavery to take place.The slave’s body was not his own; it belonged to his master.18 The sale of slaves and the conversion of a human being to property was aplace of dishonor in Roman society. Honor was incredibly important in Romanculture. Slaves were subject to a position even below dishonor; they wereconsidered outside the entire hierarchy of honor. The core symbol of identity, aname, was taken away and replaced. Both genders experienced dishonor, but indifferent ways. A male slave was not allowed to be seen as masculine, and a femaleslave could not keep her body for herself, the ultimate dishonor.19 Daily life wassaddled with moments of involuntary inferiority, constantly reminding the slavethat he or she had no honor.17 Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2011), page 36.18 Ibid, page 34-36.19 Ibid, page 36.
  9. 9. 9 Domination was a third major part of the identity of a slave. The Roman juristFlorentinus defined slavery for the law as “an institution of the law of nations, bywhich one person is subjected against nature to the dominium of another.”20Florentinus admitted that slavery was against nature, but accepted it as part ofRoman society. A Roman master had complete and utter control over his slave’s life,peculium, family relationships, and work duties. The slave, in a master’s eye, solelyserved the purposes of the master. Whether the slave was an important figure inworking the land, running a master’s business, or simply as a symbol of wealth, theslave was dominated. Rome and its empire became a total slave society, withcomplete control over slaves’ lives.21 There is often debate over the status of helots as a category of slaves. This isnot the case for the colonate. Coloni have attributes very distinct from thecharacteristics of slaves. Taking into consideration the three traits ofcommodification, dishonor, and domination, the only one that may be borderline forcoloni is domination. The colonate was certainly not viewed as a commodity in itself.While coloni had restricted mobility for the reason of raising revenue for the state,unlike slaves they could not be bought or sold. The “master” of a colonus, the land,was even permanently attached to the colonus; land to which a colonus was boundcould not be sold away from the colonus. The colonate was also not innatelydishonorable, as slaves were. Coloni could definitely commit acts that would makethem dishonorable, but legislators speak of them of as a class completely aboveslaves. Except for the later antiquity adscripticii, there was a significant gap between20 Ibid, page 34.21 Ibid, page 34-38.
  10. 10. 10the honor of slaves and the colonate. Much of the dishonor of slaves also had to dowith their inability to control their sale; again, the colonate was not subject to thatcommodification. In terms of domination, the coloni did have to adhere to somelimitations. They were restricted to the land, and they had to pay taxes to the stateas well as paying rent to the landlord, whether this was in cash or in kind. However,the few kinds of control the landlord did have are compared to those of a creditorover a debtor.22 The landowner did not have the right to physically punish thecolonus as he could a slave, could not separate the colonus from his family, andultimately did not have the absolute control masters had over slaves. The onlymaster a colonus may have had was the land, but the land is unable to dominate ahuman laborer both mentally and physically as a master could a slave. Another characteristic worth considering is the origo of a coloni. The origowas a binding region for all Romans, not simply the colonate. Although modernscholars may interpret “bound to the land” as a harsh restriction on the freedom ofthe colonate, the term is relatively understood. Romans of every class wereconsidered part of their hometown, or patria, for public tasks. The local governmentcould call Romans back to their origo for certain duties or for the legal system. Evenwealthy landowners had a specific place of registration.23 So although in thecontemporary world such a constraint appears overly severe for someone not aslave, it was simply a part of the world of Rome.22Dennis P. Kehoe, Law and the Rural Economy in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor: Universityof Michigan Press, 2007), page 171.23 A.J.B. Sirks, "The Colonate in Justinians Reign," Journal of Roman Studies, no. 98: page126, accessed November 27, 2011, doi:10.3815/007543508786238987.
  11. 11. 11 Therefore the colonate was a group distinct from slaves, but what was theirinteraction with slavery? Several historians see the colonate as a type ofreplacement for slavery as slavery in the empire declined in late antiquity. However,the evidence does not show that the absolute number of slaves decreased. Slaveryon farms, where the colonate worked, was most prevalent in Italy itself, but not verycommon in the surrounding Roman Empire. Frequently slaves were used asbusiness managers for the wealthy and as domestic workers in more urban areas. InItaly, slaves did perform farm labor. Sources such as Symmachus’s letters and theEdict of Theodoric imply that the prevalence of slavery in Italy was still strong in thelater empire, without hint of decline at all, much less a decline due to the rise of thecolonate. However, slaves were beginning to be used in different ways. They becamemore like the colonate in that many were used as tenants. Some had families andlived in their own homes, paying rent instead of being worked as hard as the masterdesired. The slaveowners with the largest holdings, such as Melania and Pinarius,had enormous amounts of slaves spread over many different villulae. In an extremeview, Palladius is thought to have believed that slaves and coloni performed thesame kind of work and were treated in the same way as tenants. Whittaker andGarnsey do believe, however, that the centralized villa system of working slaves asexisted in earlier Rome still had many participants in the late empire. They cede thatthe general tendencies shifted to a more tenant-focused structure of slavery.2424C.R. Whittaker and Peter Garnsey, "Rural Life in the Later Roman Empire," in The LateEmpire, A.D. 337-427, ed. Peter Garnsey and Averil Cameron, vol. 13 of Cambridge HistoriesOnline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), page 294-296, accessed November27, 2011, doi:1017/CHOL9780521302005.010.
  12. 12. 12 The existence of the colonate in the late empire necessarily brought aboutchanges in how landowners sought to work their land. Harper distinguishes thethree kinds of labor available: slavery, tenancy (including the colonate), and wagelabor. While slavery allowed intense control over the labor force, it was costly forowners to buy the slaves and maintain the kind of control needed. Tenancy did notafford some owners enough control, while wage labor was also expensive.25 . Harperbelieves that many estate owners found slavery the most beneficial, leading to apeak of agricultural slavery in the fourth century.26 His desire to leave the colonateout of his argument (due to its supposed overexposure in academia) left gapingholes in his model for the rural labor force. How did the Roman Empire’s creation of the colonate as a juridical classaffect the empire as a whole, then? Numerous theories have been proposed andsubsequently discarded. We have already seen how Harper refutes the hypothesisthat the colonate grew as slavery declined, forming a replacement in labor for theinstitution of slavery. Other scholars believed that the colonate represented atransition to medieval serfdom, caught between the slave society of Rome and thefeudal systems of the Middle Ages. Today, however, nearly all agree that Jean-MichelCarrie significantly undermined these concepts.27 Whether one takes a pessimisticor optimistic view of the colonate’s role in late antiquity is now vital. On the surface,the colonate can certainly be seen as just one way in which Rome over-governed itscitizens. Too frequent restrictions may have led to increasing tension that the25 Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2011), page 153-155.26 Ibid, page 178-9.27 Ibid, page 154.
  13. 13. 13empire simply could not overcome. However, the way Dennis Kehoe explains thestate’s actions portrays Rome in a much better light. If the restrictions on thecolonate did not exist, the taxation system would be compromised. In order for thegovernment to run smoothly, the requirement that landlords pay taxes for theirtenants must be feasible. In a period of decline, the state had to create new ways ofmaintaining government. If it had not, the empire may have imploded much morequickly. The Roman emperors, in binding coloni to the land, were not entangling theempire in red tape, but smartly adapting legislation to very real changes in the ruralsystem.2828 Dennis P. Kehoe, Law and the Rural Economy in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor: Universityof Michigan Press, 2007), page 180-181.