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date: 29 November 2020

The lex Poetelia Papiria was a law that abolished the contractual form of nexum (debt bondage). Livy 8.28 dates the law to 326 bce, during the third consulship of Gaius Poetelius Libo Visolus and the first of L. Papirius Cursor, although Varro (Ling. 7.105) dates it to 313 bce, during the dictatorship of Poetelius’s son. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (16.5) and Valerius Maximus (6.1.9) appear to favour a date after the Caudine Forks (321 bce).

Livy 8.28 says that the law was passed because of the cruelty and lust of a particular creditor. A young boy named Gaius Publilius was working as a labourer for Lucius Papirius (Valerius Maximus calls them T. Veturius and P. Plotius, respectively) to pay off his father’s debt. Papirius desired Publilius sexually because of his beauty and tried to seduce him. Publilius refused, and Papirius had him flogged. The wounded boy ran into the street, causing an outcry among the people. Eventually the Senate ordered the consuls to bring a measure before the people, and the lex Poetelia Papiria was passed.

The law forbade debtors to be held in bondage for their debt; instead, the debtor’s property should be used as collateral. Everyone still serving as a nexus was released, and the binding of persons in cases of nexum was forbidden thereafter. This law thus forbade taking a person as a slave in order to solve his debts, but instead imposed the confiscation of his property. Varro (Ling. 7.105) adds that the nexi who were freed at this time had to swear an oath, possibly about the value of their possessions. However, this was most likely a retrojection based on Caesar’s lex de pecuniis mutuis of 49 bce, since it is not clear what the oath actually involved.

Although the description of the lex Poetelia as given by Livy 8.28 seems rather straightforward, the question of what nexum actually was has raised much debate. Most scholars agree that it did exist in some form. According to the sources, nexum was a very old legal transaction, which was carried out “by the copper and the scales” (per aes et libram), that is, a form of mancipatio. Some later writers, such as Cicero (Rep. 2.59), still use the term nexum. This is rather confusing, since nexum was supposed to have been abolished in 326 bce, so it is unclear what it meant in later periods. Most likely, at this time it could have been used as a synonym of mancipatio, although originally these two terms probably did not have the same meaning.

Through nexum, someone subjected himself to somebody else’s power of seizure. Originally, its purpose seems to have been to ensure the repayment of a loan: if the borrower defaulted, the lender could make the debtor work for him or even have the debtor executed, possibly without a lawsuit.

It should be noted that developments surrounding nexum were closely related to developments in the Roman economy. After the restrictions placed on interest rates by a series of laws in the 4th century bce, culminating in a complete prohibition in 342 (see Genucius, Lucius), it was no longer possible to compel a debtor to work for a creditor. Instead, the legis actio per manus iniectionem iudicati had to be applied, by which the debtor became a iudicatus, not a nexus. The debtor could be sold as a slave, as long as this happened “abroad, across the Tiber,” that is, outside Roman territory. The creditor could even kill the debtor (XII Tab. 3.1–6, as cited in Aulus Gellius, 20.1.46–49; Livy, 2.23–32; Dion. Hal., 2.27.2–4).

Furthermore, a second form of bondage, often also called nexum, became more common. This nexum was used by debtors in order to acquire a loan in the first place, by voluntarily agreeing to work for the creditor for a prearranged period of time, without the loan actually being paid off at all. Patres familias could give their sons as labourers to pay off the debt. Whether it was also possible to pay off the debt in money is uncertain. This arrangement meant that the creditor did not have the right to sell the debtor as a slave or to kill him. More importantly, this was a way to avoid laws on maximum interest rates; because no actual money (or items up to a particular value, since coined money had not yet been introduced in Rome) changed hands, debtor and creditor could agree to conditions which would otherwise have been illegal.

Importantly, such nexi were legally free, since they retained their Roman citizenship and remained sui iuris; as Varro (Ling. 7.105) points out, they were not technically slaves. The term “debt slavery” is therefore misleading; nexi were not comparable to actual slaves, as their legal position in society was very different. They could expect to be treated reasonably. For example, they were not normally put in chains like slaves, and it was not acceptable to abuse them physically, as appears from Livy’s story about Gaius Publilius. Nexi were in a state of servitium rather than slaves as such.

The abolition of nexum in 326 (or 313) bce should be connected to changes in the Roman economy. In the 5th and early 4th centuries, slavery was not as yet widespread in Roman society. This meant that nexum was the most convenient way for large landowners to find labourers for their lands. From the mid-4th century onwards, the number of slaves in Roman society grew quickly, especially from prisoners made during the Samnite Wars. At the same time, the availability of confiscated land (ager publicus) made it possible to give poor Roman citizens land on which to live, making it less necessary for them to borrow money. By 326 bce, therefore, nexum had become much less important and could be abolished without greatly upsetting Roman society or the economy.

Nevertheless, debt bondage remained a possibility in the case of defaulting debtors, since it was still possible for the courts to grant creditors the right to take insolvent debtors as indebted labourers through addictio and iudicatio. The lex Poetelia Papiria had apparently abolished only voluntary nexum, but not the possibility of making debtors work for their creditors. In the future, loans were arranged by mutuum, a more flexible method of contracting between debtor and creditor.

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