Voluntary entry into unfreedom in late antiquity and the early middle ages has tended to be interpreted as anything but voluntary: instead, self-sales and autodeditions have been seen mostly in terms of coercion, whether by force or by necessity, and associated with particular moments of social crisis. This article argues that the sensitive nature of the topic resulted in an exceptionally misleading representation of self-sales in the legal and literary sources, albeit in divergent ways. Roman and Byzantine law treated self-sale as illegal, while at the same time leaving room for manoeuvre in practice, and took a very judgemental view of self-sellers. Early Christian sources, on the contrary, took them as emblematic of the oppression of the poor, and harnessed them for political admonishment, presenting self-sellers as passive victims of rapacious buyers and bad governance. While diametrically different in their presentation of the moral significance of self-sales, law and literary sources both therefore contribute to the impression that the distinction between free and unfree was the most important social divide. Documentary sources, by contrast, present a very different picture, suggesting a higher degree of continuity (and perhaps frequency) in this practice, but also that it could be the object of active and careful negotiation and bargaining, with people in different social and economic circumstances using free status as an asset for a variety of purposes and in a very instrumental way, far removed in its concerns from the elite discourse which took freedom as an essential value.


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pp. 661-685
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