Contubernium meant a ‘dwelling together’, as of soldiers or animals, but referred especially to a quasi-marital union between slave and slave or slave and free. Since a slave lacked juristic personality, a contubernium was not a marriage but a factual situation, at the pleasure of the slave-owner, creating no legal consequences despite the use of such words as uxor, maritus, or pater, even in legal texts. Children were the property of the mother's owner; no slave-woman could be guilty of adultery; manumission of one or both parents need not extend to their issue. Sepulchral inscriptions indicate that contubernia were highly valued. But how widespread de facto slave ‘families’ were and which social contexts best favoured them cannot be accurately known. Slave-owners always retained the right to separate slave family members, and commonly did so to judge from records of slave sales and bequests.
For bibliography see
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