What’s a vicarius? Or how “true meaning” can mislead you: development and typology of subowned slavery in Rome (212 BC-AD 235)
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Lewis, Juan Pablo
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Modern studies of Roman slave subownership have been heavily influenced by Erman’s seminal study on slave vicarii. Based on the etymology of the word vicarius, Erman argued that initially the main function of vicarii was to be substitutes of other slaves. Only in the late Republic did the word vicarius also start to denote a slave that was part of another slave’s peculium. This thesis challenges Erman’s dichotomist view of the historical evolution of the Roman vicariat by arguing that the semantics of the word vicarius was already fully developed in the earliest stages for which written records have survived, and that it remained unchanged during the whole central period of Roman history (212 BC-AD 235). There was always only one type of slave vicarius: a slave who was part of another slave’s peculium. The term used to denote this type of slave has little historical relevance, as their purpose was not to replace the slaves they were subordinated to in the service of the master. If they ever performed tasks in lieu of their superiors, it was a consequence of being subordinated to them as independently controlled property. Chapter One focuses on the semantics of the word vicarius in literary sources. It shows that the term had two different meanings depending on whether it was used in relation to free people or to slaves, and that the semantic and syntactic context made the two meanings always distinguishable. Chapter Two deals exclusively with legal sources. It argues that, in the writings of the jurists, a slave vicarius was always an asset of another slave’s peculium, regardless of the tasks they performed. Chapter Three focuses on epigraphic texts produced by slave vicarii themselves or by the people who were closely related to them. It shows how slaves used the title vicarius to mark their permanent personal relationship to another slave. It also discusses the criteria used by Erman and Weaver in their unsuccessful attempts to distinguish between different types of vicarii in the sources. Finally, a short postscript provides a concise description of the semantic change the word vicarius went through in the fourth century AD, and it assesses the possibility that slave subownership survived in late Antiquity even though no slave vicarii are attested sporting the title.