1. Universal prevalence in the Apostolic Age.-Slavery was a conspicuous and unchallenged feature of the social order into the midst of which Christianity was born. Modern readers easily fail to realize its presence in the background of the NT Scriptures, so great are the social changes that have been brought about in the course of time, and so much is the harsh fact softened by the phrasing of our versions. The Authorized Version ‘servant,’ with its present connotation, is a very mild equivalent for δοῦλος; the Revised Version ‘bond-servant’ is clearer, but is still a euphemistic substitute for ‘slave’-the term which exactly represents what the δοῦλος of the NT really was. In the only instance in which the English Versions use the term ‘slaves’ in the NT (Revelation 18:13
) it represents a late but significant use of σῶμα (‘body’). Similarly, the English Versions ‘master’ stands for terms (whether δεσπότης or the commoner κύριος) that imply ownership. The existence of slavery must have lent special vividness and point to the early use of redemption as a figure to describe the experience of salvation.
In the old civilization of the world slavery appears as a most natural and inevitable fact. The well-known Code of Hammurabi, fragmentary as it is, affords us considerable insight into the social conditions of Babylonia as existing more than twenty centuries before the Christian era. Therein we have a number of remarkable laws regulating relations between slaves and their owners, side by side with others dealing with the wages payable for the employment of different kinds of free labour. And, most probably with a real relation to this older legal system, we have at a later period the Mosaic legislation similarly embodying slave laws, slavery having been just as much a recognized part of the system of things among the Hebrews as among other ancient peoples. Only the Pentateuchal Code (or Codes) must be admitted to be marked by a conspicuous humanity in this as in some other respects, and especially in the Deuteronomic form (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 15:12
ff.). The existence of slavery, indeed, was so old and general a phenomenon in human history that St. Augustine could explain it only as a result of sin, so sure was he that it was not the Divine intention that man should own and lord it over his fellow-man (de Civ. Dei, xix. 15). (St. Chrysostom takes a similar line in Hom. xl. ad 1 Cor. x. 5.) Incidentally he comments more suo on the fact that the term ‘servus’ first appears in Scripture in the strange Genesis story of the curse of Canaan (Genesis 9:25
)-a source whence, curiously enough, many a Christian owner of negro slaves in modern times has derived ‘flattering unction’ in defence of his position.
But never was slavery more conspicuous as a social institution than it was in the Roman Empire in the 1st cent. a.d. Numerous wars of conquest had swollen the numbers of the slave class to an enormous extent: for all prisoners of war were made slaves as a matter of course. Slave-dealers followed the armies on their campaigns and purchased on the spot those who were taken captive. Indeed, St. Augustine (loc. cit.) gives currency to a popular etymology of the term ‘servus,’ deriving it from the verb ‘servare.’ The servus was a man who might justly have been slain, but was preserved alive by the conqueror, though inevitably doomed to lose his freedom. There was, moreover, a regular slave-trade carried on in the East, the markets being abundantly supplied from the barbarous tribes of Western Asia. Barbarians were regarded as being naturally designed to be the slaves of their superiors-a sentiment not wholly wanting even yet in many white people towards the ‘inferior races.’
As in the Greek States at an earlier period the slaves numbered four or five times as many as the citizens proper, so the proportion in the Roman Empire must have been similarly great. Thus Pliny (Historia Naturalis (Pliny) xxxiii. 47) mentions a wealthy Roman, named Claudius Isidorus, of the time of Augustus, who left by will 4116 slaves as part of his possessions. When, too, it was proposed that slaves should wear a distinctive dress, the proposal was abandoned lest this should reveal their strength; and Roman history had already furnished evidence of grim possibilities in the serious slave wars of Sicily which occurred in the latter part of the 2nd cent. b.c. Similar considerations caused the enactment of severe laws that supplied drastic in terrorem methods for keeping slaves in subjection. Tacitus mentions the case of Pedanius Secundus, prefect of the city, who had been murdered by one of his slaves, and under a law requiring that, should a slave kill his master, all the slaves of the same household should forfeit their lives, some 400 of the culprit’s fellow-slaves were put to death at Rome a.d. 61 (Ann. xiv. 42).
2. The ‘libertini.’-As an outcome of the system of slavery, the class of libertini or freedmen, which formed so conspicuous a feature of Roman society, calls for passing notice. These were citizens who either had actually been slaves themselves aforetime or were the immediate descendants of freed slaves. They must have far outnumbered the free-born, and possessed overwhelming influence in the State. Manumission was of frequent occurrence. The enormous numbers of captives reduced to slavery after every war, and the frequent fluctuations in great Roman establishments, all tended to make manumission easy. Many slaves were permitted by their masters to accumulate savings and purchase their freedom with the money. Sometimes the enfranchisement was accomplished by the solemn rite of fictitious purchase on the part of some divinity. The slave first paid the purchase money which he had saved into the treasury of some temple: then owner and slave went together to the temple, and the latter was supposed to be sold to the god, the price being duly paid to the master. The slave became technically the property of the god (and was indeed regarded as his protégé), but was to all intents and purposes, and especially as regards his former master, a completely free man. In inscriptions and papyri frequent references are to be found to slaves who had been bought by this or that god for freedom. The practice sheds much light on the argument pursued by St. Paul in Galatians 4, 5 (see A. Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East
). Manumission was often regarded as a normal result of faithful service. A man would emancipate slaves in individual cases during his own life-time, whilst very commonly a master would set a multitude at liberty on his death-bed or by will. But such wholesale emancipation was attended with evils of its own. One result was to flood the citizens’ roll with crowds of ‘undesirables.’ On this account Augustus ordained (lex Furia Caninia, a.d. 8) that in no case should more than 100 slaves be emancipated by will.
When a slave was set free not by a legal but by an extra-legal process, i.e. by a simple exercise of authority on the part of his master, a kind of feudal tie still united the two. The freedman was his master’s cliens, his master being now known as his patronus. A Roman noble depended very much on the multitude of his ‘clients’ for his political and social importance. Only in the third generation did these restrictions disappear and the family of the freedman come into the enjoyment of complete liberty. But the power possessed by this class in the early Christian period was very great: emancipated slaves or their descendants occupied all kinds of State offices. The libertini, too, prospered greatly in trade and commerce, being, indeed, as a class notorious for their ambition to amass wealth. The literature of the early Empire exhibits many of them as playing the part of the nouveaux riches and vulgarly emulating the luxury of aristocratic palaces.
3. Evils of slavery.-The evils of slavery were manifold, deep-seated, far-reaching. If, as Matthew Arnold puts it,
‘On that hard Pagan world disgust
And secret loathing fell.
Deep weariness and sated lust
Made human life a hell’
(Obermann once More, lines 93-96),
the evils of slavery contributed materially to that result.
(a) The slave population was necessarily a hot-bed of vice, contaminating all who came into contact with it. Moral excellence was not expected in a slave. He was only ‘an animated chattel’ (κτῆμα ἔμψυχον): a tool could similarly be described as ‘an inanimate slave’ (ἄψυχος δοῦλος). (Cf. Varro’s classification of implements, in de Re rust. I. xvii. 1: (1) those with voice and speech, e.g. slaves; (2) those with voice but not speech, e.g. oxen; (3) those without voice, e.g. wagons.) The term ‘slaves’ occurs only once in English Versions of the NT, viz. in Revelation 18:13
as a crowning item in Babylon’s merchandise: and there it represents σώματα (‘bodies’). How significant that σῶμα thus came to denote a slave! The somewhat similar use of the term ‘hands’ in modern industrialism-with subtle possibilities of suggestion lurking in the use-has often been remarked upon. Vast numbers of slaves hailed from Greece, from Western Asia, and from Egypt, whose great cities were the notorious seats of the wildest abominations; and their vices flourished with unimpeded growth.
(b) Luxury and extravagance increased in society as slaves increased in numbers and were more easily acquired. Friedländer points out that in great houses large numbers of slaves were kept merely for ostentatious display. Their service was often limited to ridiculously insignificant functions. Some had only to act as torch-bearers, or as street-attendants: there were instances in which slaves had merely ‘to serve as clocks and announce the hours’ (Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire, ii. 219). Masters and mistresses were thus spared every kind of personal exertion. Clement of Alexandria gives a scathing account of these evils in PCEdagogus, iii. 4.
(c) A tyrannical and ferocious spirit found easy development in the masters. There was always the temptation to treat slaves worse than dogs. Moreover, an iron rule seemed the only means of keeping slaves in subjection and guarding against outbreaks of violence. Masters could not feel perfectly sure even of slaves born on their estates, how much less of those who could be described as a rabble of various nationalities! (Tacitus, Ann. xiv. 44). This state of things gave rise to the proverb: ‘Quot servi, tot hostes.’ The master might reckon every slave he had as a foe.
(d) The economic influence of slavery was disastrous. Trade and labour came more and more to be carried on by slaves. Poor citizens found themselves almost entirely excluded from ways of getting an honourable livelihood, and suffered degradation in consequence. Many even came to regard trade with repugnance. They betook themselves to corrupt and corrupting occupations, as actors, pantomimes, hired gladiators, political spies, and the like. Large numbers lived in idleness, having corn given them as a right and amusements gratuitously provided (‘panem et circenses’).
(e) Friedländer and others emphasize as the most revolting feature of slavery its ‘contemptuous disregard of human dignity’ (op. cit., p. 221). But this is to speak from a modern point of view. We may well agree with J. S. Mill that what most injures and dishonours a country is ‘the personal slavery of human beings’; but it has taken the world many centuries to realize this. The average Roman citizen of the 1st cent. would be incapable of such a sentiment.
4. The better side of things.-There must, however, have been not a few lights to relieve the heavy shadows of such a system. Instances are not wanting of kindly affection in masters and of loyal devotion in slaves. Tacitus tells of the slave-girls of Octavia who braved torture and death in defence of her good name (Ann. xiv. 60). Slaves were to be found who preferred to remain slaves even when offered the chance of manumission (see the case of a slave belonging to the famous Maecenas referred to by Suetonius, de Gramm. Illustr. 21). Deuteronomy 15:16
f., it may be remembered, provides for such a case as a quite possible thing as regards slavery among the Hebrews. There must have been many houses like that of the younger Pliny, in which, as Seneca says, slaves were regarded as ‘humble friends and real members of the family’ (Ep. 47. See also de Benef. iii. 21). Inscriptions, again, often reveal a better side of slave life, testifying to mutual love between master and servant, and also to faithful love between slave-husband and wife, even though de iure slaves could not occupy the status of matrimony (Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, p. 117).
Many a slave found some amelioration of his lot in being (with his master’s permission) a member of one of the numerous collegia or sodalities which formed such a feature of plebeian society in those days. These clubs or unions, as an institution, were of great antiquity, and were maintained ‘for protection against oppression, for mutual sympathy and support, for relief from the deadly dulness of an obscure and sordid life’ (Dill, op. cit., p. 256). In their gatherings fraternity found expression: slave could meet with freeman on equal terms and fully share in the same rights and privileges. Such gilds, indeed, most probably furnished to some extent the model on which the first societies of Christians were formed.
It must also be said that from the time of Augustus onwards a growingly humane sentiment made itself felt in legislation which decidedly improved the condition of the slave. The fact, also, that many people of superior ability, such as physicians, sculptors, and littérateurs, were of this class made legislative reforms urgent. The mass of laws dealing with slavery was immense (see Buckland, The Roman Law of Slavery). By the changes that were made from time to time the absolute power of masters over slaves for life or death was curtailed. Thus, the Lex Petronia (in the time of Augustus or Nero) prohibited masters from condemning slaves to fight with wild beasts unless with judicial sanction. Under Nero, a special judge was appointed to hear complaints of slaves, and now masters could be punished for ill-treating them. There is on record a case in which Hadrian exiled a Roman lady for five years for treating her slaves with atrocious cruelty.
5. Christianity and slavery.-One thing is clear, however surprising it may seem to some: it was no part of the Christian propaganda to attack slavery as a system and seek its overthrow. But, as B. F. Westcott incidentally remarks, ‘the abolition of slavery would have seemed in the first age more impossible than universal peace’ (Lessons from Work, London, 1901, p. 179). The existing social order was accepted as a fact. The Christian message addressed itself primarily to men in themselves. It had nothing to say as to their environment, their social status, the government and laws under which they lived-except so far as there were usages and characteristics of society to be denounced (e.g. idolatry, impurity, cruelty) as in deadly conflict with the cultivation of Christian character. So far from directly advocating efforts to effect social changes, Christianity rather counselled its adherents to acquiesce in their condition, though, as far as the servile class was concerned, their lot too commonly was degraded and hopeless.
Jesus Himself used the relation of master and slave to illustrate His teaching, without any word condemning slavery as an evil in itself (see, e.g., Matthew 18:23
ff.). So, too, St. Paul in his Epistles has nothing to say against the institution. Indeed, in one important passage (1 Corinthians 7:20-24
) he definitely counsels slave converts to stay contentedly in their lot, even if they should have an opportunity to become free. The rendering of the English Versions (‘use it rather’) is enigmatical; and certainly from early times some have understood the Apostle’s phrase (μᾶλλον χρῆσαι) thus rendered to mean, ‘take your freedom, if you can get it,’ but there is more to be said for viewing it as counselling them to stay as they were. (Revised Version margin dimly indicates this.) Again, in his letter to Philemon (that little classic in the literature of slavery), St. Paul does not dream of suggesting that Onesimus should be set at liberty because he has become a Christian. Nor is this attitude to be explained merely by the fact that St. Paul was absorbed in the expectation of the Parousia and the break-up of all society in the near future (as A. E. Garvie suggests in Studies of Paul and his Gospel, London, 1911, pp. 73, 304). Rather, surely, slavery was so ancient and established a feature in the social framework as to be regarded as quite natural. Besides, in the Apostle’s eyes, a slave could be as good a Christian as a freeman. The life of faith, the spiritual experience, was the one thing that mattered; and ‘in Christ’ the distinction between slave and freeman, like other distinctions, was of no moment (Colossians 3:11,
etc.). And then, did not the Lord Himself assume the μορφὴ δούλου?-a consideration repeatedly used by the Fathers of the Early Church in consoling and encouraging believers who were slaves.
From the first both slaves and slave-owners were found in the ranks of the Christian society. No doubt the greater proportion of converts to the Faith came from the servile class-witness St. Paul’s references in 1 Corinthians 1 and elsewhere; but, as Friedländer says, the evangel ‘certainly penetrated often enough from the cell of the slave to the house of the master’ (op. cit., iii. 195). There was many another Philemon as well as many another Onesimus. Otherwise there would be little point in the reiterated NT counsels addressed to masters and slaves. Athenagoras, the 2nd cent. apologist, mentions as a simple matter of fact: ‘We have slaves, some more and some fewer’ (Apol. 35). In the persecution at Lyons, a.d. 177, pagan slaves gave evidence against their Christian masters (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) v. 1). And, again, from Constantine’s time onwards we find numerous laws in operation dealing with the case of Christian slaves. Thus, Jews (against whom, especially as proselytizers, strict laws also existed in the Early Empire) were forbidden to possess such.
Yet the principles of Christianity were bound in time to act as powerful solvents on this institution. They contributed to its ultimate downfall. For one thing, Christianity set up a new order of relations that did not recognize class-distinctions. Master and slave sat together at the Agape, received the sacred elements together, and joined together in public worship. The Epistle to Philemon, though written to restore a runaway slave to his master, had within it the seeds of revolution in the words, ‘No longer as a bondservant, but … a brother beloved’ (v. 16). In penitential discipline, wrongs done to a slave were not distinguished from wrongs done to a freeman. Church legislation carefully guarded the chastity of female slaves. Slave-birth was no bar to admission to the priesthood; e.g. Callistus, a 3rd cent. bishop of Rome, was originally a slave. Many names of slaves appear in the roll of the martyrs, and the memories of such as Blandina, Felicitas, and Vitalis, who suffered in the persecutions of the first two centuries, received highest honour.
Again, Christianity placed a high value on what might be called servile virtues-the qualities that any master would esteem as most desirable in his slaves. Humility, obedience, patience, gentleness, resignation are cardinal virtues in a Christian. Jesus said to His disciples, when speaking of the high-handed exercise of authority and power in the world, ‘Not so shall it be among you’ (Matthew 20:26
), and apostolic teaching followed the same line. It emphasized qualities that paganism neglected or under-rated, as was only natural since Roman society in general held slaves in utter contempt.
Primitive Christian teaching, however, in relation to the various duties of life, kept the balance even as between masters and slaves. That teaching in its essence still supplies the fundamental principle for regulating similar relations (masters and servants, employers and employees) under whatever changed conditions they may continue to exist. Masters were warned against a tyrannical spirit, a disdainful inhumanity; slaves were counselled to avoid ‘eye-service’ and do their work as for Christ (Ephesians 6:5
ff.), and even to be patiently submissive towards hard masters (1 Peter 2:18
). So also the Didache (4) exhorts Christian masters not to show harshness towards their slaves, ‘whose hope is in the same God,’ and slaves to submit to their lords as being a type, or copy, of God. The regulating consideration for both parties is summarily given in the so-called Apostolic Constitutions (iv. 12); it is their common humanity-‘even as he is a man.’ The warning addressed to slaves in 1 Timothy 6:1
f. is noticeable, and by no means superfluous, human nature being what it is. If their masters were fellow-believers, they were not to despise them, ‘because they are brethren.’ similarly Ignatius (Ep. ad Polyc. 4): ‘Do not despise slaves, yet neither let them be puffed up with conceit, but rather submit themselves the more (sc. as Christian slaves with Christian masters) for the glory of God.’ He adds: ‘Let them not long to be set free at the public expense, lest they be found slaves to their own desires.’ With the continuance of slavery in the Christian era the need for such counsels continued. How imperfectly Christians sometimes followed them may be gathered from the simple fact that the Synod of Elvira (circa, about a.d. 300) could legislate for the possibility that a Christian mistress might whip her handmaid to death (Canon v.).
The Church also in the course of time sought to bring about practical ameliorations of the state of servitude. A surprising illustration of this is afforded by Apostolic Constitutions, viii. 33, where it is laid down that slaves are to be exempt from labour at all the great ecclesiastical seasons, on the days of apostles and martyrs, and on both the Jewish Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. The reference to enfranchisement ‘at the public expense’ found in the quotation from Ignatius given above points also to the encouragement given by Christianity to the liberation of slaves as its influence increased. Christian slaves, as such, had no claim to help from the Church in order to purchase their freedom, yet cases occurred in which such help was given. After the time of Constantine still more is heard of the manumission of slaves by Christian masters. It came to be regarded as a meritorious, and even expiatory, act.
It must be fully admitted that in the ancient non-Christian world there were those who felt the manifold evils of slavery. Sentiments of enlarged philanthropy were not wanting. Among the Jews, the community of the Essenes, with their interesting experiment in social reconstruction, must not be forgotten. Philo says: ‘There is not a slave amongst them, but all are free’ (Quod omnis probus liber, 12). The Stoics held the fraternity of mankind. ‘We are members of one great body,’ says Seneca (Ep. 95), and the same spirit breathes in many of his writings. Cicero, too, emphatically proclaims universal brotherhood (see, e.g., de Officiis, iii. 6). Still, such voices were comparatively rare. Men for the most part acquiesced in the system: some argued for its necessity. It is idle to ask if humaner sentiments would have gained force in time and brought about the overthrow of slavery, had Christianity not emerged. All that we know is that Christianity, with all its imperfections, is the one power that has most effectively led to such a result.
6. In no instance has the incubus of slavery been easily or speedily removed. Serfdom, that modified form of slavery, lingered in Europe well into the last century. In Scotland colliers were legally serfs up to the end of the 18th cent.; and Archibald Geikie (Scottish Reminiscences, Glasgow, 1904, p. 341) speaks of having talked in his boyhood with men and women who had been born in servitude and had worked as serfs in the pits of Midlothian. And long after the system itself in any particular instance has disappeared, its baneful effects are clearly traceable, sometimes in conditions of national decadence, as Wallon says regarding Greece: ‘degradation of the man, disorganization of the family, ruin of the States-these were the certain effects of slavery’ (Histoire de l’esclavage dans l’antiquité, i. 452). Our very language, too, bears witness to long-lingering legacies in character and temper derived from this source, e.g. in ‘servility’ and a ‘domineering’ spirit-both hateful things.
Slavery still exists in various parts of the world, and anti-slavery campaigns are not unnecessary. The sons of freedom themselves sometimes succumb to the temptation to make slaves practically of their weaker fellow-men. If the cause of worldwide liberty for men is to prosper, the teaching of the NT must have full effect given to it. Christians have, indeed, sometimes defended slavery (as in America), and often failed to carry out the Christian doctrine of brotherhood: but the doctrine is there, and its corollary is liberty. Nor has Christianity wholly failed in exemplifying both brotherhood and the passion for freedom. It is surely bias that makes I. Benzinger hold up Islâm and ancient Israel as perfect examples of ‘the brotherhood in the faith,’ and declare that this ‘has come to be, in the Christian world, a mere empty phrase’ (article ‘slavery,’ in Encyclopaedia Biblica iv. 4658; also in his Hebräische Archäologie2, Tübingen, 1907, article ‘sklaven’).
Literature.-H. Wallon, Histoire de l’esclavage dans l’antiquité2, 3 vols., Paris, 1879; W. W. Buckland, The Roman Law of Slavery, Cambridge, 1908; L. Friedländer, Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire (translation from Die Sittengeschichte Roms7, Leipzig, 1901), 3 vols., London, 1908-1909; S. Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, do., 1904; W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals7, 2 vols., do., 1886; J. B. Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, do., 1879, Philippians 4, do., 1878 (Excursus on ‘Caesar’s Household’).
J. S. Clemens.