The ‘Loyal Slave’ Trope, or When a Familiaris is a Famulus…

By James Burns

A Merovingian sword (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Surrounded by his enemies, the sixth-century prince and rebel Merovech handed his blade to Gailen, and asked him to kill him.

Almost every book on early medieval slavery begins by noting the ambiguity of relevant terms: is that puer a boy or a slave; is that servus a slave or a servant? Context, we are told, is everything. But when even context does not provide a clear solution, we are left asking our reader, first, to see interpretations of unfree status as no more unjustified than interpretations of free status; and, second, to experiment with our reading to see how it changes their understanding of a source. We wish to minimise the controversy of our interpretation while emphasising its implications. 

One Latin term where a translation as ‘slave’ can dramatically alter our view of a text is familiaris. Like famulus, familiaris can refer generically to someone who is part of a household. But familiaris has a particular connotation of intimacy and friendship, which creates an added difficulty. The online Latin dictionary, Whitaker’s Words, states that famulus means ‘slave (male); servant; attendant’, while translating familiaris as ‘member of household (family/servant/esp. slave); familiar acquaintance/friend’.  

In Gregory of Tours’ Histories (V.18), Gailen, the puer of the rebellious sixth-century Merovingian prince Merovech, is called familiaris. Elsewhere in Gregory’s works, familiaris sometimes appears to denote a person’s close friends. This has perhaps inclined certain scholars to stress Gailen’s dedication to Merovech. Samuel Dill labelled Gailen a ‘faithful squire’ and ‘a poor victim of loyalty to a Merovingian’. For when Merovech wished to avoid torture at the hands of his enemies, he called Gailen over, and said that, although they have always been of one mind, now Gailen should take his sword and kill him; Gailen acted without hesitation, only to be brutally mutilated and executed himself.  

Yet if we interpret familiaris (and indeed puer) as ‘household slave’, we cannot seperate Gailen’s ‘loyal’ actions—which risked punishment for treason against the King and Queen, as well as punishment for killing his master who was also a prince—from the coercive authority which Merovech had over him. And Merovech’s invocation of shared purpose seems more like a reminder for Gailen to subordinate his agency to his owner than a commemoration of friendship. 

We are still left asking why Gregory called Merovech familiaris rather than famulus. But perhaps the answer here is that, for contemporaries, the dual meanings of familiaris created few problems of interpretation. The trope of the ‘loyal slave’ was an old one, and the Roman writer Valerius Maximus (Memorable Deeds and Sayings, 6.8) had exemplified it with slaves who obliged their owners’ requests to die. Some slaveholders probably wanted to explain the obedience of their slaves as resulting from affection, rather than fear and violent domination. But behind the stereotype lay the very plausible possibility that some masters relied on their slaves for advice and consolation, just as they relied on their labour; and that, for the enslaved, trying to cultivate a positive relationship with their owner could have been one strategy for ameliorating the constraints and hardships of servitude. 

There is a broader lesson here. Historians must always sound a note of caution when confronted with ambiguous terminology. That very ambiguity, however, gives us an opportunity to interrogate the assumptions and dynamics of slaveholding societies. Rather than agonise over whether an enigmatic familiaris was a ‘close companion’ or a ‘slave’, we can think about the extent to which, in Late Antiquity, these readings could be complementary.