Nexum was a form of mancipatio, a symbolic transfer of rights that involved a set of scales, copper weights, and a formulaic oath. Under the nexum contract, a free man became a bond slave, or nexus, until he could pay off his debt to the creditor, or obaeratus. Varro derives the word nexum from nec suum, "not one's own," and although this etymology is incorrect in light of modern scientific linguistics, it illuminates how the Roman understood the term.
It remains unclear whether debtors entered into a nexum contract initially with their loan or if they entered voluntarily after they could not pay off an existing debt, though the former seems more likely to be the case. Additionally, there is no single formal nexum contract that all nexi entered – it is possible that there were many variations of the nexum contract, and that the details of nexum contracts were worked out on a case-by-case basis.
Debt-bondage existed in the early Republic largely as a result of increasing control over the ager publicus, or public land, by individuals who acquired disproportionate wealth and power and distorted the republican ideal of a commonwealth. As farmers and laborers lost access to the land that theoretically was held in common by the Roman people (populus Romanus), they were unable to earn a living, and nexum was resorted to as security for debts.
Despite constraining a free person's liberty (libertas), nexum contracts were a preferable alternative to slavery for debtors, since slaves could be sold or killed by their masters at will. Though nexi were often beaten and abused by their obaerati, they maintained (if sometimes only in theory) their Roman citizenship and rights. Creditors might profit more from a nexum contract, as they received a motivated contractual worker instead of a slave. An indebted paterfamilias, or legal head of the Roman household, might offer his own son for nexum instead of himself.
According to the Augustan-era historian Livy, nexum was abolished because of the excessive cruelty and lust of a single usurer, Lucius Papirius. In 326 BC, a young boy named Gaius Publilius was guarantor to his father’s debt, becoming the nexus of Papirius. (In another version, Dionysius of Halicarnassus records that Publilius borrowed the money for his father’s funeral.) The boy was noted for his youth and beauty, and Papirius desired him sexually. He tried to seduce Publilius with “lewd conversation,” but when the boy failed to respond, Papirius grew impatient and reminded the boy of his position as bond slave. When the boy again refused his forceful advances, Papirius had him stripped and lashed. The wounded boy ran into the street, and an outcry among the people led the consuls to convene the senate, resulting in the Lex Poetelia Papiria, which forbade holding debtors in bondage for their debt and required instead that the debtor’s property be used as collateral. All people confined under the nexum contract were released, and nexum as a form of legal contract was forbidden thereafter.
Varro alternatively dates the abolishment of nexum to 313 BC, during the dictatorship of Gaius Poetelius Libo Visolus. Poetelius, after whom the Lex Poetelia Papiria is named, held his third consulship in 326 BC, the date that Livy records.
Cicero considered the abolishment of nexum primarily a political maneuver to temporarily appease the plebeian masses, who by Cicero’s time (almost 300 years after the Lex Poetelia Papiria) had carried out three full-scale secessions:
When the plebeians have been so weakened by the expenditures brought on by a public calamity that they give way under their burden, some relief or remedy has been sought for the difficulties of this class, for the sake of the safety of the whole body of citizens
- Speake, Graham. A Dictionary of Ancient History. Basil Blackwell Ltd. Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1994. pp. 392, 436
- Varro. On the Latin Language: Book VII. Trans. Roland G. Kent. On the Latin Language I: Books V-VII. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1938. pp 359-361
- The Cambridge Ancient History 2nd Ed. Vol. VII Vol. II: The Rise of Rome to 220 BC. Cambridge University Press. Great Britain: 1990. p 215
- The Cambridge Ancient History 2nd Ed. Vol. VII Vol. II: The Rise of Rome to 220 BC. Cambridge University Press. Great Britain: 1990. p 330
- The Cambridge Ancient History 2nd Ed. Vol. VII Vol. II: The Rise of Rome to 220 BC. Cambridge University Press. Great Britain: 1990. p 331
- The Cambridge Ancient History 2nd Ed. Vol. VII Vol. II: The Rise of Rome to 220 BC. Cambridge University Press. Great Britain: 1990. p 209
- Watson, Alan. Rome of the XII Tables: Person and Property. Princeton University Press. Princeton, N.J: 1975. p 115.
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Roman Antiquities: Book XVI. Trans. Earnest Cary. Roman Antiquities Vol. VII: Books XI-XX. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1950. pp 323-325
- Although slaves were subject to sexual use by their masters, citizens who fell into debt bondage were not supposed to surrender the physical autonomy that protected the free from corporal punishment or sexual abuse; see discussion of master-slave sexual relations in ancient Rome.
- Livy, History of Rome VIII.28, "The Perseus Digital Library". Retrieved on May 10, 2007.
- Cicero. The Republic II. Trans. Clinton W. Keyes. On the Republic. On the Laws. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1928. p 171
- Brunt, P.A. Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic. Chatto & Windus Ltd. London: 1971. pp 56-57
Livy, "History of Rome VIII.28", "The Perseus Digital Library". Retrieved on May 10, 2007.