And an owner could set his slave free as a reward for that slave's noble service, transforming this piece of property into a human being with a touch of the hands and a few words.
Plautus depicts the absurdity of this legal reality with a humorous edge, but his humor has a great deal of societal bite. Plautus' most famous play, which provides the plot of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," is entitled "Pseudolous." The main character and incidentally the main character in Stephen Sondhiem's musical. Pseudolous means false or "trickster" and Pseudolous is indeed a mendacious individual. However, Pseudolous is also part of a mendacious Roman society, a society which denies him rewards equal with his intelligence and his cunning and rewards the falsely pious can't of the young man's father he is attempting to help.
Plautus deals with this issue even more explicitly in some of his other works. In his play, "Prisoners of War," he details the fate of individuals who have been enslaved as the result of a military conflict. The commonness of this practice, and of using slaves in wartime is reflected in historians of the period as well, as in Livy's analysis of military conscription in Book 39 of his Histories:
levy was ordered, and all from seventeen years upwards were enrolled, some even younger; out of these recruits four legions were formed and 1000 cavalry. They also sent to the Latin confederacy and the other allied states to enlist soldiers according to the terms of their treaties. Armor, weapons, and other things of the kind were ordered to be in readiness, and the ancient spoils gathered from the enemy were taken down from the temples and colonnades. The dearth of freemen necessitated a new kind of enlistment; 8000 sturdy youths from amongst the slaves were armed at the public cost, after they had each been asked whether they were willing to serve or no. These soldiers were preferred, as there would be an opportunity of ransoming them when taken prisoners at a lower price.
Human beings had a monetary value, even when fighting for the glory of Rome. Plautus, given a certain dramatic liberty, is able to depict in dialogue the reality of this military situation. In another of Plautus' plays, enslaved prisoners debate their moral dilemma, namely would it not be stealing money in the form of human capitol to escape rather than to wait to be ransomed and bought back by their families? This exchange is used by Plautus to highlight the absurdity of slavery in Roman society. The character and body of these individuals has not really undergone a change, only the fact that they have been captured and designated with the label of slaves. But their status and selves have been transformed.
Even Plautus was not always so daring in his depiction of Roman identity. In Plautus' "The Rope" the young hero of the piece is in love with a foreign slave. The young man seeks to buy her to marry her. However, at the end of the play, girl supposedly was born a free, Roman woman but was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. This suggests that being a slave does not completely change a person. It also suggests that there is still an uncertain hierarchy of birth and freedom in constructing Roman identity. Slavery is a porous status, anyone taken prisoner or in debt could conceivably become a slave. Slavery and freedom, is so porous and so undefined by the body in Roman society that society must be especially rigorous in maintaining the barriers that surround it.
The uncomfortable nature of what was supposed to be a core, inflexible Roman identity was further rendered uncertain by the increasing extension of citizenship to Roman citizens in the farthest reaches of the burgeoning empire. The Romans were extremely proud of the uniqueness of their nationality. There was always a certain sense of 'Manifest Destiny' in their attitude towards their conquering of other peoples. As stated by the historian Polybius:
besides, by this time the acknowledgement had been extorted from all that the supremacy of Rome must be accepted, and her commands obeyed.... Not does any man of sense go to war with his neighbors for the mere purpose of mastering his opponents nor go to sea for the mere sake of the voyage; nor engage in professions and wages for the sole purpose of learning them. In all these cases the objects are invariably the pleasure, honor, or profit which are the results of the several employment.... (Polybius Histories Book 1. Sec1-2)
Rome wished not merely to master her opponents, but to educate, to win pleasure and honor and profit from the diversity of new culture, and to introduce aspects of 'Romaness' into these far provinces. Romans were willing to bring 'others' or alien peoples