VERNAE

tombstone
Slaves on the front left relief panel of a marble sarcophagus for a freeborn child

A slave born of a slave mother in a familia and raised in that household was known as a verna, thus distinguished from those slaves who were purchased or inherited. Although the Latin noun is feminine in gender, it was used for both female and male slaves who were born and bred in the domus. The fathers of vernae were likely to be slaves in the familia who were given permission by their owner to engage in sexual union for the purpose of procreating slaves to enlarge the household. Since the master of the domus had the right of complete sexual access to his slaves, it is possible that some vernae were products of such access. Since the distinction between homebred and bought slaves can be found both in literature and inscriptions, it is possible that the Romans considered vernae in a special light, as perhaps more loyal and more trustworthy than purchased slaves. It is certain, however, that when an owner's slaves were called as witnesses or punished in the event of his injury or death, vernae received no special treatment or exemption.

The closer relationship with their owners and any affection the latter might have towards a verna depended to a large degree upon association and the size of the household. In large estates, both urban and rural, the number of slaves, whether vernae or not, precluded most from coming into regular contact with the dominus or domina, unless the slaves were personal attendants. In smaller familiae there was more opportunity for contact, which could increase the chances of vernae receiving special treatment, such as being trained in a trade or given the chance to earn their freedom. Even after manumission, the separate status of vernae in the slave familia is attested by the frequency with which the term appears in funerary inscriptions (see the phrase verna liberta in the inscription for Dorcas below). Yet we know that not all vernae remained in their birth household for the whole of their slave lives; economics, not sentiment, prevailed, as some were sold away for profit and others were included in the dowries of daughters upon marriage. For more information on vernae, see Rawson (in Dasen) in the Bibliography.

Inscription CIL 6.15459: dedicated by Claudia Helpis for Veneria (Rome, 2nd century CE)

Veneria was a verna, a slave born in the house of Claudia Helpis, who had herself once been a slave, freed by a member of the gens Claudia (see names of freedpersons). Depending on their size, households might have several vernae: the poetic epitaph of Caecinnia Bassa gives evidence of at least three other vernae in her household (see line 11). That some owners, like the poet Martial, would mourn and pay the funeral expenses for his young verna Erotion (see Epigrammata 5.34), including her cremation (see Epigrammata 5.37) and a burial plot for her stone memorial along the Via Appia (see Epigrammata 10.61), is testimony to the affection owners could feel for their young vernae. However, many children of Roman slaves and the poor never received formal burial, but were wrapped and placed in a shallow pit anywhere, with perhaps a wooden marker.
inscription
Marble funerary tablet from Via Appia, 2nd century CE
CIL 6.15459

   

DIS MANIB[us]

               CLAVDIA

                 HELPIS

         VENERIAE VERN[ae]

         SVAE KARRISSIM[ae]

         [hoc monumentum fecit]

     V[ixit] A[nnos] X M[enses] V D[ies] XXV

Inscription CIL 6.17431 for Eutychia (Rome)

The child Eutychia died at an even earlier age than Veneria (see above). There is no mention of a dedicator in the inscription: since her parents were slaves and, if living, were without resources, it is probable that her memorial was provided by Eutychia's master/mistress. The small funeral tablet simulates a tombstone; its pediment is incised with a simple drawing of a funeral garland tied with a ribbon (see the relief on the monument for Aurelia Nais).
inscription
Marble funerary tablet, Rome CIL 6. 17431

   

   

D[is]       M[anibus]

      EVTYCHIAE

      VERNAE

      VIX[it] ANN[os]

      VI

Inscription CIL 6.14099: dedicated by M. Ulpius Nicanor for Timothea (Rome)

Syrian Cult of Sol Invictus adopted by the Romans (coin personification, votive relief, marble votive altar dedicated to the gods Jupiter, Sol, and Sarapis by the augur Scipio Orfitus): hands depicted in pediment on top of tablet: another example of a funerary tablet containing hands for the deceased woman Severa. In both cases the god Sol is enjoined to avenge the unnatural death of the deceased. The dedicator is Timothea's master, Nicanor,who was a freedman (see names of freedpersons), probably of Marcus Ulpius Traianus Maior (c. 30-100 CE), a Roman senator and natural father of the Emperor Trajan. Found on the Appian Way.
inscription
Marble funerary tablet, Rome CIL 6.14099

 

 

D[is]       M[anibus]

TIMOTHEAE

M[arcus] VLPIVS

NICANOR

VERNAE

SUAE F[ecit]

SOL, TIBI COMMENDO

QVI MANVS INTVLIT EI

Inscription CIL 6.8958 for Dorcas (Rome, 14-42 CE)

Dorcas was born on the imperial estate of the Emperor Tiberius on the island of Capri and trained to be a personal assistant (ornatrix). As she was freed by Livia, wife of Augustus (see names of freedpersons), Dorcas may well have arranged the hair of the first empress. The pride that Dorcas and Lycastus felt in their service to the imperial house and in their Roman marriage (matrimonium), which was only possible after they had both been manumitted, is revealed in the words chosen for the epitaph. Dorcas is memorialized as a freed verna with a domestic profession; Lycastus, also a freedman of the imperial house and an official (rogator), dedicated the plaque to his legal wife (coniugi). This elegant funerary tablet is deeply inscribed in Augustan capital letters, the inscription framed by a relief carving in the form of a small temple facade whose two Corinthian columns support an empty pediment.
tomb
Marble funerary tablet, Rome, early 1st century CE
(CIL 6.8958)

   

      IVNONI

    DORCADIS

  IVLIAE AVGVSTAE L[ibertae]

    VERNAE CAPRENSIS

ORNATRICIS

  LYCASTVS CONLIBERTVS

    ROGATOR CONIVGI

    CARISSIMAE SIBI

   [fecit hoc monumentum]

Inscription CIL 14.1642 for Stratonice (Ostia, 1st century CE)

Stratonice, a verna of the imperial house, died young, as many Roman children of all classes did in classical times, from disease or accident. Both parents were slaves who had Greek names, as did their daughter; possibly they originated in Greece or in a Greek-speaking area of the Empire. They seem to have served in the same household and to have lived with their daughter, for whom they express great affection (dulcissimae). Either because of their position as imperial slaves or because they saved the money to do so, they arranged for their child's burial and dedicated a substantial epitaph for her, which is unusual for the children of slaves. The epitaph presents an anomaly in that both "parents" have male names, formed from Greek adjectives (philotechnos and eutyches). It is possible that the stonecutter made a mistake, but since both names have Latin male endings, it is probable that were indeed men. They both may have been sexually involved with Stratonice's mother, who is unnamed and may have died in childbirth or at least before Stratonice, and thus both men claimed paternity and paid the child's funeral expenses. This monument attests to the family affection that could exist among slaves and illustrates how a slave could negotiate servile status to satisfy the human desire for family. CIL 14.1642.

D[is] M[anibus]

STRATONICE AVG[usti]

VERNAE VIXIT AN[nos] I

MENS[es] I D[ies] IIII

PHILOTECHNVS ET

EVTYCHVS PARENTES F[iliae]

DVLCISSIMAE FECER[unt hoc monumentum]

Inscription ILS 8438 for Alimma (Locri, Greece, 1st century CE)

Alimma is not expressly identified in her funerary inscription as a verna, but it seems to be a safe inference. Her single slave name indicates that she was never freed. She lived to a good age for a Roman woman, most of whom succumbed early in life to death from childbirth. She was survived by her father, who was also a slave in the same household; no mother is mentioned, which suggests she had already died. The epitaph contains an unusual statement, that the dominus/a gave his permission -- perhaps as much for the expression of her lifelong dedication as for the memorial itself. Alimma was fortunate to live with her slave father all her life and to have formed a union with a fellow slave; many slaves did not experience such familial stability. ILS 8438.

D[is] M[anibus] S[acris]

  ALIMMA QVAE IN VI-

TA SVA SVMMA DISCIPV-

LINA SERVAVIT VIX[it] ANN[os]

XXXI M[enses] IIII CVI DE PERMISSV

DOMINI FECERVNT PATER KA-

RISSIMVS ET CONSERVVS PI-

ENTISSIMAE BENE MERENTI

Deed of Manumission AE 1904.0217 for Helene (Hermopolis Magna, Egypt, 221 CE)

diptych
Example of a Roman diptych and stylus. Princeton University Library
Graphic Arts Collection, Department of Rare Books and Special Collection.

Helene, the home-born slave of Marcus Aurelius Ammonion, resided in Hermopolis Magna in Egypt. When Helene was 34 years old, she was released from her master’s potestas and given her freedom, for which Ammonion received ample compensation from Aurelius Ales, son of Inarous, of the village of Tisicheos, in the nome (district) of Hermopolis. The document clearly states that Ales gave the cost of her manumission to Helene without stipulation, but it doesn't explain why he did so. He may have sought to free her so that they could marry legitimately under Roman law. As Helene was freed by Ammonion with only his friends as witnesses rather than before a magistrate, she would have received Roman citizenship as a Junian Latin, a category of citizenship that was limited but included the right of conubium. The tablets were presumably given over to Helene as legal proof, if she ever needed it, that she was a Roman citizen.

This unique deed of Roman manumission is written on all four sides of two sycamore wood tablets about seven inches high and six inches wide, punched with three holes on the left, bound together and sealed (the seal and fastenings of the diptychon are now lost). The signatures of the witnesses are written sideways on the top half of the front cover (see drawing), while the signatures of the parties involved appear similarly on the back cover. The document is bilingual, written in Roman capitals, the texts only slightly variant: the Latin text is written in the third person, while the Greek text is written in the first person by Ammonion and by Aurelius Ales, Helene's benefactor, who, being illiterate, was represented by Aurelius Ammonius, son of Herminus. The statement of manumission was written twice in both languages, on the outer sides (pages 1,4) with a reed in black ink and on the inner sides (pages 2,3) with a stylus on black wax inlaid in the wood (the ink and wax writing were, even in 1904 when the text was published, too faint to be photographed).

Located on the border between Upper and Middle Egypt, Hermopolis is called by Ammonion antiqua et splendida (see history of the site). In ancient Egypt the city was called Khumn, a center of the worship of Thoth, the patron god of scribes and a god of healing, magic, and wisdom. Because the Greeks identified Thoth with Hermes, they renamed the city Hermopolis during the Ptolemaic period. Its religious significance increased in the 3rd century CE when Thoth/Hermes became an important deity in Neoplatonism. All that remains of its Roman period are the ruins of the Forum (the Brooklyn Museum has fragments from its pharaonic period). For further information on the deed, see De Ricci's articles in the Bibliography. AE 1904.0217.

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MARCVS AVREL[iu]S [A]MMONION LV-

PERGV SARAPIONIS EX M[atr]E TERHEVTAE

AB HERMVPOLI M[aio]R[e] ANTIQVA ET SPLEND[ida]

HELENEN ANCILLAM SVAM VERNAM

ANNORVM CIRCITER X[x]XIIII INTER AMI-

[c]OS MANVMISIT LIBERAMQVE ESSE IVS-

[si]T ET ACCEPIT PR[o] LIBER[t]ATE EIVS AB

AVRELIO ALETIS INAROVTIS A VICO TISICHEOS

NOMI HERMVPOLITV DR[achmas] AVG[ustas] DVA MILLIA

10DVCENTAS QVAS ET IPSE ALES INAROVTIS DO-

NAVIT HELENE LIBERTA[e] SVPRASCRIPTA[e]

ACTVM HERMVPOLI MAIOR[e] ANTIQVA

ET SPLEND[ida] VII KAL[endas] AVGVSTAS GRATO

ET SELEVCO CO[n]S[ulibus] ANNO IIII IMP[eratoris] CAESARIS

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15MARCI AVRELI ANTONINI PII FELICIS AVG[usti]

MENSE MESORE DIE I

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