The crossing of basic boundaries is a source of considerable anxiety in most societies, and in the Roman world few distinctions were more fundamental and sharply drawn than that between free and unfree. The jurists divided the whole of humanity into these two basic categories. As Gaius stated, ‘all people are either free or slaves’, and libertas and servitus were defined as the direct negation of each other. Moreover, freedom was, like servitude, conceptualised as a natural state. Thus, it was in principle, if not quite in practice, impossible to surrender one's freedom, except in very special cases. As one Roman orator declared, ‘What nature gave to the freeborn cannot be snatched away by any injury of fortune.’ Roman law thus considered free status inalienable, as illustrated by the prescriptions concerning self-sale. In principle no one could sell himself or herself into slavery, and formal loss of freedom only happened if the buyer believed the person to be unfree, and the person sold himself in order to gain from the sale. This was clearly a muddled compromise between the principle of inalienability and the reality of Roman society, where self-sale might be an attractive option under certain circumstances. Ordinary people, ignorant of the law, may have tried to gain a better life, but the jurists insisted on the essential difference between slave and free, a distinction which an open recognition of self-enslavement would have undermined.
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