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Manumission is the act of freeing slaves, done at the will of the owner.


The motivations of slave owners in manumitting slaves were complex. Three strands may be detected, though they cannot always be disentangled from each other.

Firstly, manumission may present itself as a sentimental and benevolent gesture. One typical scenario was the freeing in the master's will of a devoted servant after long years of service. This kind of manumission generally was restricted to slaves who had some degree of intimacy with their masters, such as those serving as personal attendants, household servants, secretaries and the like. In some cases, master and slave had had a long-term sexual relationship, perhaps with tenderness felt on one or both sides. Some manumitted slaves were the offspring of such sexual encounters. While a trusted bailiff might be manumitted as a gesture of gratitude, for those working as agricultural labourers or in workshops there was little likelihood of being so noticed.

Such feelings of benevolence may have been of value to slave owners themselves as it allowed them to focus on a 'humane component' in the human traffic of slavery. A cynical view of testamentary manumission might also add that the slave was only freed once the master could no longer make use of them. In general it was also much more common for old slaves to be given freedom, that is to say once they had reached the age where they were beginning to be less useful. Legislation under the early Roman empire put limits on the number of slaves that could be freed in wills (Fufio-Caninian law 2 BC), suggesting a pronounced enthusiasm for the practice.

At the same time freeing slaves could also serve the pragmatic interests of the owner. The prospect of manumission worked as an incentive for slaves to be industrious and compliant, the light at the end of the tunnel. Roman slaves were paid a wage (peculium) with which they could save up to, in effect, buy themselves. Or to put it from the master's point of view, they are providing the money to buy a fresh and probably younger version of themselves. (In this light, the peculium becomes an early example of a "sinking fund".) Manumission contracts found in some abundance at Delphimarker specify in detail the prerequisites for liberation.

In the USA, manumission had two main motivations. The first was linked to a self purchasing agreement between the slave and his/her owner. This agreement awarded the slaves his/her freedom while still allowing the owner to make a profit. The slave would agree to market farm produce or do additional employment somewhere else. Secondly, slaveholders would free slaves if they were changing their cash crop. When switching from tobacco to wheat, a slave holder would need fewer slave hands because the crop would not need year-round service.

Status after manumission

Ancient Greece

Greek slaves generally became metics upon being manumitted. That is, they became resident aliens, non-citizens in the city where they lived. The freedom they attained, however, was not absolute. At Athensmarker, freeborn metics were required to nominate a sponsor or patron (prostates): in the case of freed slaves this was automatically their former master. In their case, this relationship entailed some degree of continuing duty to the master. Failure to perform this could lead to prosecution at law and re-enslavement. Continuing duties specified for freed slaves in manumission agreements became more common into the Hellenistic era, but it might be that these were customary earlier. Sometimes extra payments were specified by which a freed slave could liberate themselves from these residual duties. One standard requirement was that the freed person continue to live nearby their old master (paramone). Since ex-slaves failing in these duties might be subject to beatings, it has been asked whether they should be called free at all. But certainly ex-slaves were able to own property outright, and their children were free of all constraint, whereas those of slaves were simply the further property of the master. Furthermore, even free individuals could be subject to paramone.

Ancient Rome

In Rome former slaves became freedman (liberti), usually taking the family name of their former master as their own, and though they were no longer seen as an object in the eyes of the law, they still did not gain all the rights of a Roman citizen (though their children did, if born free). Freedman could not follow the Roman political career or cursus honorum; however, they could become a wealthy tradesman or a member of the priesthood of the emperor - a highly respected position. A highly successful freedman could become an advisor to the emperor himself, a tradition started by Augustus and fostered by his successors.

In both Greek and Roman societies ex-slaves required the permission of their former master to marry.

Islamic world

The Qur'an and Hadith, the primary Islamic texts, make it a praiseworthy act for masters to set their slaves free. There are numerous ways in which a slave may become free. One way is through expiation for certain sins committed by the master, such as involuntary manslaughter or perjury. Other ways include emancipation through becoming an umm walad, who is freed upon her master's death along with her children, or an independent act of piety by the master, as recommended by the Qur'an. It is also commendable to manumit a slave who demands his freedom and is considered worthy of it. Another method is the mukataba contract: Levy states that "the slave may redeem himself if his master agrees and contracts to let him go on payment of a stipulated sum of money, which may be paid in two or more installments, or on the giving of stipulated services or other consideration. If the consideration is a sum of money, the master must grant the slave the right to earn and to own property."

The Islamic prophet Muhammad encouraged manumission of slaves, even if one had to purchase them first. On many occasions, Muhammad's companions, at his direction, freed slaves in abundance. Muhammad personally freed 63 slaves, and his wife Aisha freed 67. In total his household and friends freed 39,237 slaves. The most notable of Muhammad's slaves were: Safiyya bint Huyayy, whom he freed and married; Maria al-Qibtiyya, given to Muhammad by a Byzantine official, whom he freed and who may have become his wife; Sirin, Maria's sister, whom he freed and married to the poet Hassan ibn Thabit and Zayd ibn Harithah, whom Muhammad freed and adopted as a son.

Within Islamic jurisprudence, slaves were excluded from religious office and from any office involving jurisdiction over others. Freed slaves are able to occupy any office within the Islamic government, and instances of this in history include the Mamluk who ruled Egypt for almost 260 years and the eunuchs who have held military and administrative positions of note.

United States

Manumission by American slaveholders was restricted by laws in many states.


  1. Levy pp. 80-81
  2. Brunschvig. 'Abd; Encyclopedia of Islam
  3. 'Human Rights in Islam'. Published by The Islamic Foundation (1976) - Leicester, U.K.
  4. Nadvi (2000), pg. 453
  5. from "Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir" (Book of the Major Classes) by Ibn Sa'd's
  6. Aydin, p.17 (citing Ibn Abdilberr, İstîâb, IV, p. 1868; Nawavî, Tahzib al Asma, I, p. 162; Ibn al Asîr, Usd al Ghâbe, VI, p. 160)
  7. Hughes (1996), p. 370
  8. Lewis 1990, page 7
  9. Schimmel (1992) p. 67


  • Bradley, K. R. 1984, Slaves and masters in the Roman Empire.
  • Garlan, Y. 1988, Slavery in Ancient Greece. Ithaca. (trans. Janet Lloyd)
  • Hopkins, M. K. (ed) 1978, Conquerors and Slaves.

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