Roman Slavery and Christian Charity



by Christian Schaller

Of the friction between two world views in late antiquity

According to former German President Theodor Heuss, there were “three hills from which the Occident took its starting point.”  He was referring to the Acropolis in Athens, the symbolic cradle of democracy and philosophy and thus of European culture and civilization as a whole, but also to the Capitol in Rome and the hill of Golgotha near Jerusalem. The Capitol symbolized the spirit and work of the Roman Empire, while the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion symbolized the origin of Christianity. With the expansion of their sphere of influence, the Romans became increasingly Hellenized, i.e. they received Greek culture.  In late antiquity, Christianity finally gained power. Ancient Roman culture with its traditional values clashed with the new ethos of Christianity. The decades-long clashes between the different worldviews and philosophies ultimately led to the unprecedented rise of the Roman Catholic Church in the crumbling Roman Empire. In this era, which was to mark the end of antiquity, a new zeitgeist had emerged. However, this did not mean the immediate end of the old order.

Since the first advanced civilizations, slavery had been an important factor in the social and societal fabric of the Mediterranean, and in the Roman Empire it even constituted an essential pillar of the economy. Slavery generally refers to the condition in which people are treated as the property of others. Slaves were not considered human beings. Bondage had been documented in the ancient Near East since the third millennium BC. In most ancient Mediterranean cultures, it became established as a fixed, legal institution. A slave in antiquity was usually by captivity, deportation, and also by birth, that is, for several generations. It was possible to be freed, and subsequent integration into society was not impossible. Slaves could perform many different professions, from simple servants to teachers and craftsmen to state and temple offices.

But how was the preached morality of the new, strengthening denomination Christianity in late antiquity compatible with the typical old Roman slavery? How did the new power factor, the church, with its ideology of charity, react to that old, firmly established institution? This article is dedicated to this clear point of friction between the two ideologies of late antiquity and tries to answer the question how the relationship between church and bondage looked like in late antiquity.

Vatikan, Rom; © clarencealford

The Roman Empire and the development of slavery

Since the fall of the Republic by Caesar and the time of the first Roman Emperor Augustus, the Roman Empire had consistently extended its influence to the Mediterranean and surrounding regions. As a world empire, it was the bearer of an understanding of values that reached the provinces in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa through the military and trade. But after the economy and culture flourished in the first two centuries after Christ, Rome faced numerous problems in the third century. The era of rapidly changing soldier emperors began. External enemies continually threatened the borders and brought military defeats to the empire.  The crisis also had far-reaching effects on the economy of the empire. Significant inflation can be recorded, there were numerous money confiscations and a growing trend toward rural exodus. In fact, this so-called imperial crisis of the third century was a complex, protracted process. Only Emperor Diocletian was able to restore a certain stability and prosperity to the Empire towards the end of the century. In addition, he initiated the last great persecution of Christians. With his reign, the imperial crisis could gradually be considered overcome – the era of Late Antiquity began. Diocletian’s successor was Constantine the Great, the first Roman ruler to give imperial support to Christians. The rise of Christianity in the fourth century will be discussed in more detail in the chapter after next. In addition, the fourth century saw the beginning of the Migration Period, and the Roman Empire was split into two parts in 395 for more effective administration. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476 – which is sometimes regarded in research as the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

In the early Roman Republic (ca. 750 to 300 B.C.), slavery was not yet widespread. This changed as a result of the expansion of the Roman sphere of influence during the middle and late Republic (c. 300 to 30 BC). In addition to an increased demand for service personnel, slaves were needed primarily for Rome’s now restructured agriculture, which henceforth focused on extensive livestock farming as well as wine and olive oil production. Unfree people thus became a significant factor in an almost capitalist pursuit of profit, mere factors of production. Major slave revolts were rare, mainly because of the prospect of manumission and inclusion in the Roman civic body. In the century before the turn of the century, captivity gradually replaced traditional debt bondage as the most common cause of bondage in Roman society. This changed again in the imperial period from Augustus onward. After the end of the great Roman expansions, the number of home births now increased sharply instead. Slaves were most frequently mentioned in legal texts, for example in the late antique law collections mentioned at the beginning. These compiled the existing laws and resolutions and thus also regulated the institution of slavery. Over the centuries, there was also a partial humanization of the ancient bondage, also due to philosophical and religious discourse – but it was almost never fundamentally questioned.

In summary, the Roman population faced numerous problems and changes in the transition to late antiquity.

Forum Romanum; © vikgr

However, the imperial crisis as a defining event cannot be interpreted only as a sign of Roman decline. Rather, the ancient world was in the process of fundamental change and thus also bridged the gap to the approaching Middle Ages. Slaves and bondage were still economically significant in the late ancient Roman world. State laws regulated slavery, but also made it more humane over time. At the same time, however, a comprehensive transformation of the institution of bondage began.

Christianity and the development of the early church

The early history of the Christian faith in the first decades after the death of Jesus of Nazareth lies largely in the dark and is characterized by a lack of sources and the subsequent creation of legends.  The great missionary journeys of the theologian Paul of Tarsus and other so-called “Hellenists” resulted in successful church formations throughout the Roman Empire. Paul transformed the existing Jewish theology, seeing in Jesus not only a prophet but the Son of God. He interpreted the crucifixion and resurrection of the Jewish itinerant preacher as a salvation event and built his doctrine of redemption on it. This Pauline early Christianity was Hellenized.  This means that, on the one hand, pagan ideas as well as elements from other religions and cults can be found in Christianity, but on the other hand, Hellenization also contributed to its spread and ultimately to its multi-layered rise as a world religion. Until the third century, the church was able to develop almost undisturbed. State persecutions of Christians took place mainly in the second half of the third century, the largest and last under Emperor Diocletian around 300 AD. The infamous persecution under Emperor Nero in 64 can almost be called atypical.

By the time of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337), Christians already made up more than ten percent of the empire’s population. Members were mainly to be found in poorer classes.   Constantine secured religious freedom for Christians through the Milan Agreement in 313 and also benefited himself through the Council of Nicaea in 325, as the growing church was an effective integrating factor and the emperor wanted to ensure the unity and stability of his empire.

However, Constantine’s general religious policy, his personal beliefs and especially his relationship to Christianity are still controversially discussed in research today. Nevertheless, the emperor and the church practically formed an alliance. Christianity gained influence and gradually replaced the old cults and gods. Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the de facto institutionalized state religion in 380. The church had established itself and was able to register an ever-increasing fortune as well as land ownership. In late antiquity, missionary work and the Christianization of large parts of Europe finally began, a process that would not be completed until the High Middle Ages.

In summary, the church in late antiquity developed from a persecuted sect to a significant power factor. As the new state religion, Christianity was henceforth able to exert influence on the emperor and the empire and thus – also with regard to the longer-term historical context – on the politics and economy of Europe.

Lateranbasilika, eine der fünf Papstbasiliken Roms; © Kosobu

Slavery versus charity

Institutionalized bondage thus faced numerous complications in late antiquity, and the demographics of slaves changed fundamentally from the imperial period onward. There were fewer prisoners of war and more and more home births. From the second century, numerous legal measures were adopted and bondage was gradually humanized and thus stabilized. Slaves were able to have their voices heard, the rights of masters were restricted, but bondage itself was never challenged. The understanding for the slaves grew, on the other hand they were still treated badly and inhumanly in some places. This behavior was widespread among all so-called pagans, i.e. Germanic peoples as well as non-Christian Romans, as well as among Christians – up to the ranks of the bishops.

The relationship of the young church to bondage in late antiquity can be described as almost phlegmatic. Christianity initially remained largely inactive on the slavery issue. Theological justification for this was that slavery was bad in itself, but the return of the Savior and the end of the world were imminent anyway, and abolishing slavery was therefore unnecessary effort. Slavery was considered a divine order of creation and was thus morally and theologically justified.  Moreover, it already found approval in the Bible.  In order to connect this thinking with historical reality, one must bear in mind that the prestigious “holy and eternal” Rome was conquered by the Visigoths in 410. The appearance of the Germanic tribes was interpreted as the beginning of the end of the world. Many slaves welcomed the effects of the beginning migration and fled from their masters in the chaos. The church, on the other hand, advocated security and order. For its part, it defended slavery in order to preserve the Roman Empire. The Church was itself a great slaveholder. The barbarian Germanic tribes with their system of feudal rule were considered by her to be the work of the devil. The church identified Christianity with truth, order and civilization and thus equated it in certain parts with the old “Romanism”, i.e. also with the Roman views of master claim and concept of property. To side symbolically with ancient Rome and thus, at least indirectly, with slavery, was a purely political decision of the church.

The Christian bishops of late antiquity were of course charitable, but this was often directed only to the poor. Slaves, as poor as they were, were still not officially considered fully human and therefore could not receive donations from the church.  Only the cooperation and understanding for the slaves was promoted. The bishops wanted to alleviate and end the terrible lot of the slaves, who were still largely without rights. Nevertheless, the right of the masters always remained; the church itself also owned numerous slaves. There were few satisfactory improvements in the Western Church, and virtually no clear words against slavery.

Vatikan Rom; © valy270

Christianity could not change the foundations of the late ancient world. The end of the Roman Empire did not mean the immediate end of slavery.  Traditional class boundaries continued to be very much upheld, even by the church. The Church moved closer to the law and to the imperial court in Rome, trying to bring the two worlds closer together in this way.

Colonies and Colleges – the “New” Lack of Freedom in Late Antiquity

From the third century onward, slavery declined, which can also be attributed to a fundamental social change in Roman society. Roman citizenship increasingly lost prestige and value, the legal community desolidarized, and the empire became more and more a coercive state. New forms of bondage emerged, the colons and colleges.

Originally, the colone was a legally equal, though economically dependent, contracting party who had to pay rent to the landlord, but in principle was a free owner of the land. This concept had already proven itself in the late Roman Republic, in which more and more latifundia, i.e. large estates, were established. Slaves were also used as so-called quasi-colons, often a precursor to manumission. In addition, there were also freedmen who already worked as colonists and thus found themselves in a lifelong relationship of loyalty and patronage to their patron. In the third century, the Roman Empire had stabilized again after the reforms of Emperor Diocletian and Emperor Constantine the Great. Rome now approached an absolute military monarchy, and bureaucratization and militarization progressed ever further. A legally fixed land bond for the colonies had become desirable, as it allowed the Roman state to secure agrarian revenues. The colonial economy had become indispensable and was now favored by the state over slavery. The Constantinian Edict of 332 marked an important step in the internal evolution from a colony economy to a colonate. It criminalized the flight of the colonies and was intended to ensure a steady flow of taxes. The colonies were not slaves, but they were now tied to the soil. There was an unlimited and hereditary land lease instead of the previous contractual lease. This development probably occurred for purely financial and economic reasons.

The colleges in the cities, on the other hand, were mostly professional associations in crafts and trade founded on their own initiative, which were granted a certain degree of personal responsibility in order to relieve the main government. The association system showed clear parallels in its internal structure and also in the order of offices to the centuries-old municipial system, the Roman municipal administration. In the later imperial period, the colleges were also entrusted with rights and duties, i.e. privileges and public tasks. In the course of the Roman imperial crisis there was a real flight of associations. There were riots and an economic decline, an increasing burden on the economy and, consequently, stricter supervision. Therefore, the state finally decided, just as it had done with the colonists, to bind the individual with his fortune to the profession. In the fourth century, the professional associations were already compulsory state institutions. Professions were hereditary. In parallel, new members were forcibly recruited from the previously unaffiliated population.

Basically, one can speak of a change in unfreedom between the third and sixth centuries. A completely new system of graduated bondage emerged, in which the slaves, who still existed and were perceived as a scarce economic good, now formed the lowest level.  Fixing the individual in his place was supposed to end the fundamental crisis of the ancient social order.

This was intended to preserve the old order, but with the colonate and the colleges it also gave rise to a new form of bondage, which henceforth existed alongside slavery. The fall of the Western Roman Empire and the end of antiquity by no means meant the end of bondage. The Merovingian kings in the early medieval Frankish Empire, the other Germanic empires, and the Byzantine emperors in the East also still continued slavery. The systems that emerged in late antiquity eventually led to the medieval principles of serfdom and guilds.

Notre-Dame de Paris; © SatyaPrem


The Roman Empire had survived numerous crises and changes in the transition to Late Antiquity. At the same time, a comprehensive transformation took place within society, which did not omit the traditional institution of slavery and transferred the Roman population into a new system of graduated bondage. Meanwhile, the Christian Church had risen to become a significant power factor that was to decisively shape and direct the destinies of Rome and later large parts of Europe.

For example, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), church father and theologian, also represented a thoroughly patriarchal basic pattern, which he, however, interpreted as practiced charity and social solidarity. Whoever cared for the neighbor should also determine. He saw the existence of slavery as part of God’s will and even advocated it within earthly life, as long as the master’s care for his slaves surpassed the negatively afflicted vice of “imperiousness.” Augustine often maintained a certain balance between a logical pragmatism and an idealistic Christian attitude in his words and deeds. His works were very influential and his theological-philosophical views influenced the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages and into the Reformation era.

Christianity, which had become powerful, integrated itself into the late antique world. It acted in a practical manner and in accordance with the prevailing spirit of the times. However, this also meant that at no time did it take effective action against slavery. Therefore, serfdom and the guild system were able to emerge gradually and relatively unhindered from the bondage of late antiquity, the colonate and the colleges. They were to become characteristics of medieval and early modern Europe, shaping society until the beginning of the modern era.

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