A Priestess’s Manumission

This is sort of a supplement to my book Exilium, so if you've never read it, you may be confused.

But then again, if you know anything about Roman slavery, or have read The Passion of Mary Magdalen, you may know what I'm talking about to some extent.

If you haven't read any of them, not a problem—you're about to get educated. (If you don’t mind spoilers, that is.)

[Caveat: this is a citation-free zone; I'm just going off what Elizabeth Cunningham wrote. If you want to do your own research, I suggest checking her notes section.]

In Roman marriage, ownership of the wife was notionally given to the husband through a document called the manus. (Slaves also had manus, so you can see how much the Romans cared about their women!) There were, however, cases where the manus was retained by the father, who could then manage and punish their daughters as they saw fit.

That's right! If Daddy caught you cheating, he could kick your little ass.

Or kill you, like he did with Paulina's sister in Passion.

(Pardon my spoiler, there.)

I don't know how it actually worked, but in Exilium, I presented an interesting notion about priestesses and their manus. Since I don't think I explained it very well—if at all—I thought I'd make a short post about it.


In Julia's world, a girl's manus was granted to the temple at the time of her initiation. This gave priestesses a wide-ranging set of freedoms, but could also make fathers very angry if, for example, the high priestess declared an orgy—the priestesses' fathers could not punish them for ruining the families’ reputation, because the paterfamilias was now the temple, as personified by the high priestess.

Serving the temple was also the fastest way to manumission, as if the priestess sought to marry a man of whom her high priestess approved, the manus would be burnt in the sacred fire and the priestess would be freed to do as she pleased.

Unfortunately, the temple's ownership could also trip a girl up, as Julia eventually learned.

[Original cover painting for Exilium, which I rendered in black and white.]

If you read the "Not-So-Historical Notes" at the end of Early One Morning, you know what happened to the other priestesses and their manus. But the nature of the kerfuffle over Julia's during Exilium was a little vague.

As high priestess, Julia officially owned her own manus; however, since it was on an institutional basis (as the temple personified, you may remember), she wasn't a freedwoman. In light of this, when Pontius kidnapped her, Livia was automatically promoted to high priestess and the control over everyone’s manus went to her.

Officially, only the Virgo Vestalis Maxima (and the emperor, of course) were superior to the High Priestess of Isis and only they could force Livia to sign over Julia's manus or that of any other priestess. In practice, however, the priestesses answered to the provincial prefect; so when Pontius threatened death or other bodily harm to the priestesses if Livia didn't sign over Julia's manus once he'd decided to keep her as his personal priestess, the high priestess hurried to respond.

Theoretically, once Julia betrayed Pontius and he exiled her, her manus should've been passed to whoever was receiving her in Ireland. However, it somehow got left behind in the rush to kick her out (he likely didn't have his own copy and would've had to go to the provincial record office), so that was the basis of the upset—Julia's manus being on file without a change of possession meant that Pontius still owned her and could do what he pleased. Without her manus, Lucius had no recourse against Pontius forcing Julia into marriage, which is why Lucius paid two hundred denarii and agreed to take as her his concubine. An executor was never appointed, of course, which is how Lucius was able to marry Julia without legal repercussions.

Though if you read the book, you know that Pontius got his way in the end.

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