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In Roman law, status describes a person's legal status. The individual could be a Roman citizen (status civitatis), unlike foreigners; or he could be free (status libertatis), unlike slaves; or he could have a certain position in a Roman family (status familiae) either as head of the family (pater familias), or as a lower member (filii familias).
In the Roman state, according to Roman civil law (ius civile), only Roman citizens had the full civil and political rights. In regard to status civitatis, in the Roman state, there were cives, Latini and peregrini, and foreigners. Outside the Roman state, there were externi, barbari and hostes.
Status familiae is the legal status of an individual in the family. The pater familias had the authority in the family (patria potestas), and everyone was subjected to him based on adgnatio (kinship only from father's side). This had an impact in private law. There is a distinction between alieni iuris (persons under patria potestas) and sui iuris (persons autonomous of patria potestas, who could only be the pater familias himself). Filius familias had ius suffragii and ius honorum, but in the area of private law he was restricted because of patria potestas.
The social and legal status of slaves in the Roman state was different in different epochs. In the time of old civil law (ius civile Quiritium) slavery had a patriarchal shape (a slave did the same job and lived under the same conditions as his master and family). After Rome's victorious wars, from the 3rd century BC, huge numbers of slaves came to Rome, and that resulted in slave trade and increased exploitation of slaves. From that time on, a slave became only a thing (res)- servi pro nullis habentur.
The legal state of slaves was based on the fact that the slave was not a subject but an object of law. A master had the right of ownership over the slave. He could sell him, give him in pawn but certainly could not harm or kill him. If someone injured his slave, a master could initiate legal proceedings and demand protection. The ownership over the slave was called dominica potestas, and not dominium like the ownership of objects and animals.
In the Roman legal system, a slave did not have a family. His sexual relationships with other slaves was not marriage (matrimonium), but a cohabitation (contubernium), without legal consequences.
Masters could also give over a certain amount of property (such as land, buildings), known as peculium, to a slave for his management and use. This peculium was protected under Roman law and inaccessible by the owner. This was another tool slaves could use to purchase their freedom.
The oldest means of becoming a slave was to be captured as an enemy in war. However, even a foreigner could become free again and even a Roman citizen could become a slave. Slavery was hereditary, and the child of a slave woman became a slave no matter who the father was. However, according to classical law, a child of a slave became free (ingenuus), if his or her mother was free, even for a short period of time, during the pregnancy.
There were a number of means by which a free man could become a slave in Roman society.
After the Punic wars, Rome started the mass exploitation of slaves. However, the development of industry, trade and other branches of economy required skilled free workers that took interest in their jobs.
A slave could get free by the act of manumission, by which a master would release him from his authority. Manumissions were different in different epochs. The old civil law (ius civile Quiritium) recognized three kinds of manumissions:
At the beginning of the empire, because of the number of manumissions, legal limitations of manumissions were made. These limitations were implemented by two laws: Lex Fufia Caninia and Lex Aelia Sentia.
According to Roman law, slaves that were freed (libertinus, in regard to his master libertus) became Roman citizens, but they had many fewer rights than Roman citizens that were born free (ingenuus). The slave's former master now became his patron (patronus), and the libertus still had obligations towards him (this was regulated by law). The libertus had to be obedient and respectful to his patron (obsequium et reverentia). The patron could punish a disobedient libertus, In older times he could even kill him (ius vitae necisque), but later he could not. In some circumstances he could even ask a magistrate to turn the libertus into a slave once again (accusatio ingrati).