The Precarious Freedom Of Modestus

Around the 1st and 2nd century, a man named Modestus was held as a slave on the estate of an elderly Roman woman named Sabina. Although slavery is never an acceptable or pleasant situation, Modestus’ unfortunate state was somewhat moderated by Sabina thankfully being a kind and unabusive slaveowner. Depending on how open Sabina was in announcing her long-term wishes, Modestus may have even known that Sabina was planning to eventually give him his freedom. Yet, unfortunately for Modestus, Sabina followed the path of many past slaveowners in deciding to wait until the time of her own death before allowing her slave to be freed. To accomplish this wish, Sabina made it known to her friends and lawyers that, after she inevitably died, it was her will that Modestus be emancipated and also given a legacy of assets that he could use to start a new life. Although Modestus had to wait, freedom was better late than never. Nevertheless, even when Sabina eventually died and her wishes were made known, Modestus’ free future was not certain.

Sabina, as it turned out, made mistakes in her last will and testament concerning Modestus’ freedom. She did direct for a legacy to be given to Modestus, but she (or her lawyers) apparently messed up the specific orders or documentation that would actually set Modestus free from his status as a slave. Therefore, although Sabina had openly expressed that she wished Modestus to be freed and given a legacy, there were enough mistakes and loopholes in Sabina’s will and testament that her heirs, if they wished, could deny Modestus both his legacy and his freedom.

Possibly making matters worse, Sabina’s family situation was complicated. For unknown reasons, Sabina arranged for two specific men (maybe distant relatives) to inherit her estate. One was a certain Statius Sabinus, a prominent Roman citizen from the region of Firmum (Formo, Italy). The other heir was Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), a prominent lawyer and government official from Comum (Como, Italy). Besides his legal career and his terms of service in various government offices, Pliny the Younger was also known as an expert assessor and a specialist in inheritance law and finance. Therefore, Pliny and his colleagues were just the type of people who could spot and utilize, if they so wished, the vulnerabilities and loopholes that were available in Sabina’s flawed will and testament.

When Pliny the Younger became aware of the inheritance that he received from Sabina and gained access to the late woman’s last will and testament, he and his colleagues quickly zeroed in on the errors and vague areas in Sabina’s will that potentially could have kept Modestus from living as a free man. Pliny wrote to his co-inheritor, Statius Sabinus, about the situation, stating, “I understand from your letter that Sabina in making us her heirs left us no instruction that her slave was to be given his freedom, but even so left him a legacy in the words: ‘To Modestus whom I have ordered to be set free’; and you would like to hear my view. I have consulted the legal experts, and it was their unanimous opinion that Modestus should receive neither his freedom, as it was not expressly granted, nor his legacy, as it was bequeathed to him while his status was that of a slave” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 4.10). Such was the peril that Modestus found himself in when Sabina’s last will and testament fell into the hands of the inheritance law experts.

Pliny the Younger, however, let his better conscience guide him instead of greed. Although he made it clear in his letter that he and Statius Sabinus could legally keep Modestus as a slave and reclaim for themselves whatever legacy Sabina had wished bequeathed to him, Pliny ended the letter by saying that he thought that they should nevertheless follow Sabina’s wishes and ultimately free Modestus and grant him the legacy. Pliny the Younger wrote, “I think we ought to act as if she had set out in writing what she believed she had written. I am sure you will agree with me, for you are always most scrupulous about carrying out the intentions of the deceased. Once understood, it should be legally binding on an honest heir, as honour puts us under an obligation as binding as necessity is for other people. Let us then allow Modestus to have his liberty and enjoy his legacy as if Sabina had taken every proper precaution” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 4.10). Unfortunately, Pliny the Younger’s preserved hoard of letters do not divulge if Statius Sabinus decided to go along with his co-inheritor’s conclusion. Nonetheless, one hopes that Modestus received his freedom and his legacy.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



  • The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.

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