The Mammi was one of the most prominent families in Herculaneum society. However, this did not mean they were wealthy. We know this because, at one point, members of the family were forced to take out a loan from the owner of The House of the Black Salon, a fashionable and prominent residence on Herculaneum’s main street, the Decumanus Maximus. The details of the loan were recorded amongst thirty-nine legal documents inscribed on wax tablets found in the house when it was excavated. They also give us the name of the house’s owner: Lucius Venidius Ennychus.
Ennychus was a rich man, for besides having spare cash to lend out, he was able to decorate his residence in the latest fashion. The House of the Black Salon was spacious and elegant. Its bedrooms were tastefully decorated with delicate monochrome patterns while its eponymous grand reception room had a dramatic black finish. However, Ennychus was a freedman and that had its disadvantages. But another part of Ennychus’s story also recorded in the tablets shows how ex-slaves could overcome their origins- with enough money and the right backers.
On the face of it, Ennychus had it all. He was wealthy and he could count influential people such as the Mammi amongst his clients. Yet there was one thing he lacked: Roman citizenship. Under Roman law, ex-slaves could not become citizens. This meant they could not hold office and were technically voiceless within Roman society. However, exceptions could be made under a law called the Lex Aelia Sentia.
Under this law, “when a slave below the age of thirty becomes by manumission a Latin, if he take to himself as wife ……. procures attestation by not less than seven witnesses, ….and begets a son, on the latter attaining the age of a year, he is entitled to apply to the praetor, …. if the magistrate to whom the proof is submitted pronounce the truth of the declaration, that Latin and his wife, …, and their son, …, are declared by the statute to be Roman citizens.’ (Institutes of Gaius 1.28).
The documents in the house tell us that in 61AD, a delegation of civic officials was sent from Herculaneum to Rome to petition the praetor Lucius Servenius Gallus on behalf of Ennychus and his wife. By this time, the couple met the requirements of the Lex Aelia Sentia in every respect, except that their child, who was born in 60 AD, was a daughter, not a son. Never the less, the petition for Ennychus and his wife to be recognized as free Roman citizens was granted- no doubt because of the pedigree’s of Ennychus’s backers- and the influence of his wealth.
Elsewhere in Herculaneum, wealth and envy led to a young girl being the center of a dramatic court case