‘He lived 5 years, 2 months, 6 days, 6 hours’ – The Roman child-slave and the woman who loved him

In 1667, Henry Howard, grandson of Thomas Howard 2nd Earl of Arundel, presented Oxford University with a collection of inscriptions which today belong to the Ashmolean Museum. Among the collection is ANChandler.3.90, a badly worn marble tombstone from Rome. While the inscription is in a sorry state, by combining old readings with Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), we can still make out the text which records the death of a Roman boy, and includes a very surprising last line:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge


d(is) m(anibus) / L(ucio) Annaio Firm(—) / vixit annis ° V / m(ensibus) II . d(iebus) °VI . h(oris) ° VI ° /5 qui ° natus est / nonis °Iuliis / defunctus / est °IIII idus / Septembres /10 Annaia Feru-/sa vernae su-/o karissimo

 Translation :

‘To the spirits of the dead. For Lucius Annaius Firm(ius?), who lived 5 years, 2 months, 6 days, 6 hours, who was born on the 7th July and died on the 10th September. Annaia Ferusa set this up for her dearest household slave.’


Born a slave

The inscription was not set up by a mother for a son, but a mistress for a slave. The Latin word she uses to describe him is a verna, usually used to describe slaves who were born and brought up within a household. If an enslaved woman had a child, that child was also a slave and part of the master or mistress’ household property. Child-slaves were a familiar part of Roman life but not a group which often appear in Latin literature.

Some masters may have seen vernae as a convenient way of increasing their stock of slaves. Once child-slaves reached the age of five, they took on a monetary value, meaning that they could be counted among the master’s assets, and even be sold. But it’s also clear from many texts that some masters formed a particular attachment to the slave-children they saw growing up in their household. The last line of our inscription describes just this. It tells us that the little boy had been born a slave in the household of Annaia Ferusa, and it was she who set up his tombstone.


Dying free

But, reading between the lines, the text also tells us that he didn’t die a slave.

The tombstone gives him three names: the praenomen Lucius, the nomen Annaius, and a cognomen beginning with the letters FIR, perhaps short for ‘Firmius’, meaning ‘Steadfast’. But the three-name format was the mark of a Roman citizen, a free man. Slaves usually only had one name.

When they were freed, slaves added part of their master’s name to their own slave name. In this case, the feminine name of his mistress, Annaia, became Annaius for the little boy, and was added before his slave-name, ‘Fir…’. He had become a libertus, a freedman.

So there seems to be a bit of a mix-up in the text. We can tell from his name that he was free when he died, but his mistress still calls him her ‘dearest household slave’. One solution may be that Annaia Ferusa was using the world verna to show how close she was to the little boy, to explain why she, of all people, was qualified to set up his tombstone. Another solution might be that the Romans sometimes used the word verna to describe a person’s origins, no matter what happened to him later in life. Or it might be that his freedom was such a recent event that Annaia Ferusa simply hadn’t got used to the idea of calling him anything else.


‘He lived 5 years, 2 months, 6 days, 6 hours’

A libertus, a freedman, of only five years old is unusual. The majority of slaves had to reach the age of thirty before they could be granted their freedom. But, importantly for this little boy, different rules applied to slaves born into a household as vernae: they were allowed to be freed much younger. But for how many of his five years of life had L. Annaius Fir. been free? If we think that Annaia Ferusa was still calling him her verna because she wasn’t yet used to him being a freedman, the answer is probably ‘not long at all’. One of the more likely (and most poignant) scenarios is that she freed him on his death bed, giving the little boy his citizen name so that that he could die free.


This last-minute grace would be entirely in-keeping with a mistress who was clearly paying close attention to what happened to the little boy. Although it was commonplace to include the age of the deceased on a Roman tombstone, inscriptions usually only include years and months. Annaia Ferusa, on the other hand, knew to the hour how long he had lived. With heart-breaking precision, she recorded exactly how long he had been in her household and so in her life. She described him as karissimus (a Greek-influenced spelling of carissimus), her ‘dearest’ or ‘most beloved’, and inscribed it on a marble tombstone. It is a monument which testifies to the emotional realities which blurred the strict legal lines between slave and free. It is also an important reminder that sometimes it’s the least attractive artefacts that tell the most beautiful stories.


c. 2nd centuries AD (?), from Rome. Ashmolean Museum ANChandler.3.90. H. 0.38, W. 0.21, D. 0.4. Currently in storage at the Ashmolean Museum.

A more detailed discussion of the plaque, with full bibliographic references, will appear in the new catalogue of the Ashmolean Latin Inscriptions, which will be freely available online before 2016.


Related Objects

This beautiful funerary portrait of a child-freedman from elsewhere in the Roman Empire, this time from Egypt, can be seen on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Further Reading

  • Chandler, R. (1763) Marmora Oxoniensia (Oxford, Clarendon Press)
  • Herrmann-Otto, E. (1994) Ex Ancilla Natus (Franz Steiner: Stuttgart) (in German)
  • Prideaux, H. (1676) Marmora Oxoniensia ex Arundellianis, Seldenianis aliisque conflata (Oxford)
  • Weaver, P. (2001) ‘Reconstructing lower-class Roman families’, in S. Dixon, ed. Childhood, Class and Kin in the Roman World (Routledge: London and New York) 101-14
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