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Slavery in the Roman Empire during the First Century

Julian Spriggs M.A.

A slave was a person owned by another, and considered as part of their owner's property. In Greek thinking, the institution of slavery was taken for granted, and never questioned. They saw a natural order of slaves, who were not normally considered to be human beings. The institution of slavery was dehumanising and degrading.

Jewish slaves had certain privileges and were under legal protection. The Jews prided themselves in the fact that they never treated their slaves with cruelty. Slaves under non-Jewish peoples did not necessarily receive such care or protection.

The Greek civilisation was built on the existence of the institution of slavery. According to a census made in Attica in 309 BC, there were 21,000 male, free citizens of full age, compared with 400,000 slaves. Another estimate gives the total population as 500,000: 90,000 of whom were citizens, 45,000 resident aliens, and 350,000 slaves. Greek slaves were used for industrial purposes and worked in the mines in terrible conditions. Many died as a result of these poor working conditions.

Roman slaves were considered the legal property of their master, but could obtain freedom and legally become a person. They were generally used in houses and farms. A slave could not legally be married or own property, and any children born to a female slave would automatically become the property of her master. The slave labour-force was both a cause, and an effect of the expansion of the Roman Empire. The slave trade financed the army and released men and women from the more mundane tasks of running households and family businesses to attend to the more important matters of state. As slaves grew in number in society, the social structure and the whole economy became dependent on slave labour. Slaves were the machines of their day, freeing Romans to continue the expansion of the Empire. In the Roman empire, there were about sixty million slaves, about one person in five. In the city of Rome, the ratio was about one in three. Caesar's household contained about 20,000 slaves. The average land-owning family (like Philemon) owned around eight slaves.

The institution of slavery underwent dramatic changes from the foundation of the Roman Empire in the third century BC, to the time of Christianity. As legislation was introduced which gave rights to slaves, their conditions improved as masters came under certain obligations enforced by the state. Under a good master, slaves could enjoy a reasonably good life, but under a bad master, life would be a nightmare. They possessed no legal personality. However the position of slaves was not as severe as it has been at other periods of history.

Status of slaves

Cruelty was condemned by the growing sentiment of common humanity, and in some cases legally controlled. Roman laws were passed to protect slaves and to allow rights, even of private possessions, which were sometimes used to ransom the slave and his family.

By the first century AD, a slave had most of the legal rights which were granted to a free man. Many had a considerable amount of money at their disposal and had rights to a wife and family. In AD 20, a decree of the Senate specified that slave criminals were to be tried in the same way as a free man. In AD 61 the family of a slave owner attempted to use the old prerogative: the execution of all of the slaves of the master, who had been killed by one of them. When the family of Pedanius Secundus ordered this, so great a riot broke out when the report reached Rome that troops had to be called in to stop it, and the slaves were not killed.

The living conditions of many slaves were better than those of free men who often slept in the streets of the city or lived in very cheap rooms. There is considerable evidence to suggest that slaves lived within the confines of their master's house.

The slave was not inferior to the free man of similar skills in regard to food and clothing. The free labourer in NT times was seldom in better circumstances than his slave counterpart. The average free labourer in Rome and in the provinces could expect to earn about one denarius a day, or over three hundred denarii a year, if he worked six days a week. Nearly all of these would be spent on basic necessities. However, the slave, in addition to being provided with these basic necessities, was given five denarii a month as spending money. From this, one can only conclude that the average free man lived no better than a slave. In fact, in time of economic hardship a free man was not guaranteed the necessities of life for himself and his family. A master was required to look after those who were sick or those beyond usefulness as in retirement. A slave was considered an asset for his owner, to be looked after and cared for. Some masters treated slaves' wills as valid.

Although the conditions for slaves had improved greatly by the first century, a slave was still regarded as property and required to do his master's will to the fullest extent of his abilities and wholly serve his master's interests. Disobedient slaves were at the disposal of their master , literally. The penalty for rebellion or running away was crucifixion until the time of the Christian emperors in the fourth century. If not, runaway slaves were branded in the forehead with the letter 'F' (for fugitivus, meaning runaway). If a person aided a runaway slave, he was liable to pay the owner for each day's work that had been lost. Slaves were under the absolute power of their masters, who could use, abuse, or execute them at will. Pliny tells that after a slave broke a crystal goblet, his master had him immediately thrown into a fish pond, where the slave was eaten alive by lampreys (an eel-like carnivorous fish).

Entering slavery

There were two main ways of becoming a slave, either by being born a slave, or being sold into slavery. Under Roman law, a child acquired its mother's status at the time of birth, so if a child was born to a slave mother, then that child inherited slavery. A person could be sold into slavery a number of different ways. The most frequent was being captured and sold as a prisoner of war, for example, when the Emperor Titus sole 90,000 Jews into bondage after his Palestinian campaign. People were also seized illegally by pirates and sold to slave traders; others were bred and sold by slave traders. Sometimes as many ten thousand slaves were imported and sold in one day at a slave market. Slavery was also a way out of debt, it was possible to sell yourself into slavery. Unwanted children were frequently abandoned, and were then available to be taken as a slave by anyone who cared to rear them. It was even possible to sell your own children into slavery.

Length of slavery

Information regarding the length of time a slave had to wait for his freedom is scarce. It is cited, however, that a worthy slave could expect his freedom in about seven years. it would seem that many slave served their masters for a much longer time than this, although at some point a slave was often given the choice between his manumission (freedom) or continuation as a slave.

Runaway slaves

If a slave ran away, his master was entitled to pursue him wherever he was able or pleased to pursue. It was the duty of the civil authorities to aid in the recovery of slaves when possible. Some citizens made it their business to capture and return runaway slaves for a profit.

It was a serious criminal offense to harbour runaway slaves, as it was the equivalent of being a receiver of stolen property. Severe penalties were exacted from those who harboured deserting slaves, and Roman law required that whoever gave hospitality to a runaway slave was liable to the slave's master for the value of each days work lost.

Termination of slavery

The only ways to escape slavery was death, or bring freed as an act of manumission. This could be arranged at any time that the owner wished. In later times legal limits had to be placed on the release of slaves to prevent too rapid an integration of foreigners into Rome. In Greek states emancipated slaves became resident aliens of their former master's city, but at Rome they automatically received citizenship. As a result, there was a great flow of slaves to Italy, especially in the last two centuries BC. This could, perhaps, account for the reason Onesimus went to Rome. he was probably aware that there were many freed slaves in the city and perhaps he considered that they would offer him assistance.

Slavery had become a well-travelled road to Roman citizenship throughout the empire by the first century AD. Captives were educated and trained in Roman ways before becoming citizens. A master could free his slave for citizenship to fulfil obligations to the state, like military service. A slave could also buy his freedom by saving his weekly allowance and doing extra labour. Freedom could also be granted gratuitously by his master. Perhaps the master had a good week of business, and decide to free his slave. Another way was by a law passed in 2 BC which stipulated that a master could arrange for a portion of his slaves to be freed upon his death. Between 81 - 48 BC, 500,000 slaves were freed (population of Rome = 800,000).

Through the ceremony of manumission, if properly performed, a slave was given both freedom and citizenship. He became a 'freedman', his former owner became a 'patron', and a legal relationship continued between them. A relationship of this kind could only be terminated in exceptional circumstances by the civil authorities intervening for a good reason. Neither patron or freedman could destroy that legal relationship. This automatic continuing link was peculiar to Roman law. When applying this to the church, Paul wrote this, "Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ." (1 Cor 7:21-22). Slaves often changed their names to Roman names after coming free.

Status of freedmen

Manumission was normally final. The patron retained many rights and privileges to which the freedman was bound. Normally this consisted of a certain number of days of work per week, month, or year for his patron. A patron could not just dump his slave at the end of his usefulness by granting him his freedom, but was obliged to continue to care for his freedman if the need arose. As patron could never be a witness against his freedman in criminal matters. These obligations on both sides could be annulled in certain exceptional circumstances. It became the common practice of Romans to free their slaves and then to establish them in a trade or profession. Many times the former slave became wealthier than his patron.

Slavery in church history

Slaves could not be baptised without the master's testimony if the master was a Christian. Nor could the slave be ordained unless his master was a Christian and allowed his slave freedom to serve. Similarly, the slave could not marry or enter a monastery unless the master permitted. Easter was an occasion when slaves were frequently freed in celebration of the resurrection of Christ.

New Testament view of slavery

The early church did not directly attack slavery as an institution. However, it did reorder the relationship between slaves and masters, as in the case of Philemon. Paul called on Philemon to welcome his runaway slave with the new status as a fellow believer, even to welcome him as you would welcome me (Phm 18). In his letter, Paul is certainly asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but also most likely that he was also requesting that Philemon set Onesimus free from slavery.

The NT indicates that in God's sight there is neither "slave nor free" (Gal 3:28). Paul teaches that slaves are to obey their masters (Eph 6:5, Col 3:22-24). Peter also teaches that slaves are to be submissive to their masters, even to masters who mistreat them (1 Pet 2:18-20). Paul also teaches that masters are to grant their slaves fairness and justice, for they too have a Master in heaven (Col 4:1). Both slaves and masters are accountable to God (Eph 6, Col 3:22, 4:1). Christ seemed to be more concerned about slavery to sin than slavery in the sense of human bondage. He said, "Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin" (John 8:34). He went on to explain that true freedom could be found only in himself, "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free ... If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:32,36). The NT does not explicitly oppose the institution of slavery, but rather opposes its abuses by either slave or master.