How numerous the slaves were in Roman society when Christianity made its appearance, how hard was their lot, and how the competition of slave labour crushed free labour is notorious. It is the scope of this article to show what Christianity has done for slaves and against slavery in the Roman world.
How numerous the slaves were in Roman society when Christianity made its appearance, how hard was their lot, and how the competition of slave labour crushed free labour is notorious. It is the scope of this article to show what Christianity has done for slaves and against slavery, first in the Roman world.
The first missionaries of the Gospel, men of Jewish origin, came from a country where slavery existed. But it existed in Judea under a form very different from the Roman form. The Mosaic Law was merciful to the slave (Exodus 21; Leviticus 25;Deuteronomy 15:21) and carefully secured his fair wage to the labourer (Deuteronomy 24:15). In Jewish society the slave was not an object of contempt, because labour was not despised as it was elsewhere. No man thought it beneath him to ply a manual trade. These ideas and habits of life the Apostles brought into the new society which so rapidly grew up as the effect of their preaching. As this society included, from the first, faithful of all conditions — rich and poor, slaves and freemen — the Apostles were obliged to utter their beliefs as to the social inequalities which so profoundly divided theRoman world. “For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13). From this principle St. Paul draws no political conclusions. It was not his wish, as it was not in his power, to realize Christian equality either by force or by revolt. Such revolutions are not effected of a sudden. Christianity acceptssociety as it is, influencing it for its transformation through, and only through, individual souls. What it demands in the first place from masters and from slaves is, to live as brethren — commanding with equity, without threatening, remembering that God is the master of all – obeying with fear, but without servile flattery, in simplicity of heart, as they would obey Christ(cf. Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:22-4; 4:1).
This language was understood by masters and by slaves who became converts to Christianity. But many slaves who wereChristians had pagan masters to whom this sentiment of fraternity was unknown, and who sometimes exhibited that cruelty of which moralists and poets so often speak. To such slaves St. Peter points out their duty: to be submissive “not only to the good and gentle, but also to the forward”, not with a mere inert resignation, but to give a good example and to imitateChrist, Who also suffered unjustly (1 Peter 2:18, 23-4). In the eyes of the Apostles, a slave’s condition, peculiarly wretched, peculiarly exposed to temptations, bears all the more efficacious testimony to the new religion. St. Paul recommends slaves to seek in all things to please their masters, not to contradict them, to do them no wrong, to honour them, to be loyal to them, so as to make the teaching of God Our Saviour shine forth before the eyes of all, and to prevent that name and teaching from being blasphemed (cf. 1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9, 10). The apostolic writings show how large a place slaves occupied in the Church. Nearly all the names of the Christians whom St. Paul salutes in his Epistles to the Romans are servile cognomina: the two groups whom he calls “those of the household of Aristobulus” and “those of the household of Narcissus” indicate Christian servitors of those two contemporaries of Nero. His Epistle, written from Rome to the Philippians(iv, 22) bears them greeting from the saints of Caesar’s household, i.e. converted slaves of the imperial palace.
One fact which, in the Church, relieved the condition of the slave was the absence among Christians of the ancient scorn of labour (Cicero, “De off.”, I, xlii; “Pro Flacco”, xviii; “pro domo”, xxxiii; Suetonius, “Claudius, xxii; Seneca, “De beneficiis”, xviii; Valerius Maximus, V, ii, 10). Converts to the new religion knew that Jesus had been a carpenter; they saw St. Paulexercise the occupation of a tentmaker (Acts 18:3; 1 Corinthians 4:12). “Neither did we eat any man’s bread”, said theApostle, “for nothing, but in labour and in toil we worked night and day, lest we should be chargeable to any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:8; cf. Acts 20:33, 34). Such an example, given at a time when those who laboured were accounted “the dregs of the city”, and those who did not labour lived on the public bounty, constituted a very efficacious form of preaching. A new sentiment was thereby introduced into the Roman world, while at the same time a formal discipline was being established in the Church. It would have none of those who made a parade of their leisurely curiosity in the Greek andRoman cities (2 Thessalonians 3:11). It declared that those who do not labour do not deserve to be fed (ibid., 10). AChristian was not permitted to live without an occupation (Didache, xii).
Religious equality was the negation of slavery as it was practiced by pagan society. It must have been an exaggeration, no doubt, to say, as one author of the first century said, that “slaves had no religion, or had only foreign religions” (Tacitus, “Annals”, XIV, xliv): many were members of funerary collegia under the invocation of Roman divinities (Statutes of the College of Lanuvium, “Corp. Inscr. lat.”, XIV, 2112). But in many circumstances this haughty and formalist religion excludedslaves from its functions, which, it was held, their presence would have defiled. (Cicero, “Octavius”, xxiv). Absolute religiousequality, as proclaimed by Christianity, was therefore a novelty. The Church made no account of the social condition of thefaithful. Bond and free received the same sacraments. Clerics of servile origin were numerous (St. Jerome, Ep. lxxxii). The very Chair of St. Peter was occupied by men who had been slaves — Pius in the second century, Callistus in the third. So complete — one might almost say, so levelling — was this Christian equality that St. Paul (1 Timothy 6:2), and, later, St. Ignatius (Polyc., iv), are obliged to admonish the slave and the handmaid not to contemn their masters, “believers like them and sharing in the same benefits”. In giving them a place in religious society, the Church restored to slaves the family andmarriage. In Roman law, neither legitimate marriage, nor regular paternity, nor even impediment to the most unnatural unions had existed for the slave (Digest, XXXVIII, viii, i, (sect) 2; X, 10, (sect) 5). That slaves often endeavoured to override this abominable position is touchingly proved by innumerable mortuary inscriptions; but the name of uxor, which the slave woman takes in these inscriptions, is very precarious, for no law protects her honour, and with her there is noadultery (Digest, XLVIII, v, 6; Cod. Justin., IX, ix, 23). In the Church the marriage of slaves is a sacrament; it possesses”the solidity” of one (St. Basil, Ep. cxcix, 42). The Apostolic Constitutions impose upon the master the duty of making hisslave contract “a legitimate marriage” (III, iv; VIII, xxxii). St. John Chrysostom declares that slaves have the marital power over their wives and the paternal over their children (“In Ep. ad Ephes.”, Hom. xxii, 2). He says that “he who has immoralrelations with the wife of a slave is as culpable as he who has the like relations with the wife of the prince: both areadulterers, for it is not the condition of the parties that makes the crime” (“In I Thess.”, Hom. v, 2; “In II Thess.”, Hom. iii, 2).
In the Christian cemeteries there is no difference between the tombs of slaves and those of the free. The inscriptions onpagan sepulchres — whether the columbarium common to all the servants of one household, or the burial plot of a funerarycollegium of slaves or freedmen, or isolated tombs — always indicate the servile condition. In Christian epitaphs it is hardly ever to be seen (“Bull. di archeol. christiana”, 1866, p. 24), though slaves formed a considerable part of the Christianpopulation. Sometimes we find a slave honoured with a more pretentious sepulchre than others of the faithful, like that ofAmpliatus in the cemetery of Domitilla (“Bull. di archeol. christ.”, 1881, pp. 57-54, and pl. III, IV). This is particularly so in the case of slaves who were martyrs: the ashes of two slaves, Protus and Hyacinthus, burned alive in the Valerianpersecution, had been wrapped in a winding-sheet of gold tissue (ibid., 1894, p. 28). Martyrdom eloquently manifests thereligious equality of the slave: he displays as much firmness before the menaces of the persecutor as does the free man. Sometimes it is not for the Faith alone that a slave woman dies, but for the faith and chastity equally threatened — “pro fide et castitate occisa est” (“Acta S. Dulae” in Acta SS., III March, p. 552). Beautiful assertions of this moral freedom are found in the accounts of the martyrdoms of the slaves Ariadne, Blandina, Evelpistus, Potamienna, Felicitas, Sabina, Vitalis, Porphyrus, and many others (see Allard, “Dix leçons sur le martyre”, 4th ed., pp. 155– 64). The Church made the enfranchisement of the slave an act of disinterested charity. Pagan masters usually sold him his liberty for his market value, on receipt of his painfully amassed savings (Cicero, “Philipp. VIII”, xi; Seneca “Ep. lxxx”); true Christians gave it to him as an alms. Sometimes the Church redeemed slaves out of its common resources (St. Ignatius, “Polyc.”, 4; Apos. Const., IV, iii). Heroic Christians are known to have sold themselves into slavery to deliver slaves (St. Clement, “Cor.”, 4; “Vita S. Joannis Eleemosynarii” in Acts SS., Jan., II, p. 506). Many enfranchised all the slaves they had. In pagan antiquity wholesale enfranchisements are frequent, but they never include all the owner’s slaves, end they are always by testamentary disposition — that is when the owner cannot be impoverished by his own bounty, (Justinian, “Inst.”, I, vii; “Cod. Just.”, VII, iii, 1). Only Christians enfranchised all their slaves in the owner’s lifetime, thus effectually despoiling themselves a considerable part of their fortune (see Allard, “Les esclaves chrétiens”, 4th ed., p. 338). At the beginning of the fifth century, a Roman millionaire, St. Melania, gratuitously granted liberty to so many thousand of slaves that her biographer declares himself unable to give their exact number (Vita S. Melaniae, xxxiv). Palladius mentions eight thousand slaves freed (Hist. Lausiaca, cxix), which, taking the average price of a slave as about $100, would represent a value of $800,000 [1913 dollars]. But Palladius wrote before 406, which was long before Melania had completely exhausted her immense fortune inacts of liberality of all kinds (Rampolla, “S. Melania Giuniore”, 1905, p. 221).
The Christianity did not attack slavery directly; but it acted as though slavery did not exist. By inspiring the best of its children with this heroic charity, examples of which have been given above, it remotely prepared the way for the abolition ofslavery. To reproach the Church of the first ages with not having condemned slavery in principle, and with having toleratedit in fact, is to blame it for not having let loose a frightful revolution, in which, perhaps, all civilization would have perished with Roman society. But to say, with Ciccotti (Il tramonto della schiavitù, Fr. tr., 1910, pp. 18, 20), that primitive Christianityhad not even “an embryonic vision” of a society in which there should be no slavery, to say that the Fathers of the Churchdid not feel “the horror of slavery”, is to display either strange ignorance or singular unfairness. In St. Gregory of Nyssa (In Ecclesiastem, hom. iv) the most energetic and absolute reprobation of slavery may be found; and again in numerous passages of St. John Chrysostom’s discourse we have the picture of a society without slaves – a society composed only of free workers, an ideal portrait of which he traces with the most eloquent insistence (see the texts cited in Allard, ”Les esclaves chrétiens”, p. 416-23).