Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Regarding Roman Slaves

In pagan Rome slavery was not only a reality, but it was such a reality that no one considered that there was any alternative to a slave-owning society. It was just the way of things. We in our society have a very different view of the matter, and in no way do I wish to speak to America's moral issues with its history of slavery. Rather, for the purpose of further grasping the world in which the New Testament Church was introduced I think it is important to outline a couple of realities (taken from "A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium," p.51ff):
  1. A slave was unquestionably considered an inferior being, and this according to fate's ordering (for free men could be sold into slavery, thus making them subhuman).

  2. A slave was a member of his master's family, whose relationship was defined by obedience. In the context of a slave's obedience the master would paternally love or punish.

  3. A slave was not a thing but a human being, for they were expected to be loyal and devoted.

  4. A slave was simultaneously a possession.

  5. Slaves fulfilled many different roles in Roman society, from the lowliest of manual labor to the heights of social and political position. Some were richer than free men.

  6. Slaves could not marry until later in Roman social development (it was new around AD 200). Their children were property of their master directly.

  7. Most artisans and traders were slaves or former-slaves, working either for their master's benefit or having gained through freedom through a business arrangement with their (former) master.

  8. Slaves slept near their master's bed or bedroom.

  9. A slave could be set free at any time by his master. If this was done while the master still lived the freedman was expected to pay daily homage to his former master (who had become his patron). If this was done at death through the master's will this would then reflect positively on the deceased-master's social reputation.

  10. A slave was usually called "little one" or "boy" no matter how old.

  11. A slave could practice his own religion. "Away from home a slave might well serve as the priest of some sect or even of the Christian Church..." (p.62).

  12. Romans looked down on slaves and their personal lives as if Romans were adults and slaves childish.

  13. A slave found identity through his master.

There is a lot more in the chapter beyond the above outline.

Reading about slavery in pagan Rome leads me to reflect on St. Paul's letter to Philemon. St. Paul begins by placing Philemon with him in the context of slavery (servitude) to God, a context which is made new from within by the very person and work of Jesus Christ whom Philemon and St. Paul are united to in the Holy Spirit. St. Paul also very wisely focuses on Philemon's goodness towards the saints, which will become the very thing that is tested once St. Paul presents Onesimus as a newly illumined saint.

St. Paul also makes another deft move: he speaks of Onesimus as his son. Adoption in Roman society was a common thing, but it was illegal to adopt a slave. However, this is not the sort of adoption to which St. Paul is referring, yet the force of the words is similar: Onesimus may be your slave deserving of harsh discipline (or maybe even death at the hands of the city executioner), but he is now my son - as you are. While Philemon is the paterfamilias of his own household (which includes Onesimus), holding supreme rule over everyone in the household, St. Paul here shrewdly reminds him that he is Philemon's paterfamilias in the household of God - the Church.

But St. Paul does not resort to threats, but instead appeals to love and respect. What is transpiring in this epistle is a classically Roman situation: Philemon is socially expected to uphold both the kindness AND the severity of the Master class vis a vis his slaves. Normally, though, in order to be lenient a master should not come up with the idea on his own, otherwise the severity mask is damaged. A slave like Onesimus was in serious trouble unless someone in the household should suggest leniency. Onesimus, the thief, turns not to anyone in the house, but to a faraway friend. Here Paul Veyne's treatment on the subject is appropriate (p.65),
Roman law did not regard as a fugitive a slave who fled in order to ask a friend of his master to beg indulgence of the latter. A master could be severe in individual cases without damaging the reputation for kindness of the master class as a whole. For clemency could be requested and decided only between peers. A slave who asked for clemency would have been regarded as impudent for having taken it upon himself to prejudge which of the two paternal masks the master would choose to wear.

St. Paul, in one sense, is treating Philemon as a peer ("fellow servant"), but in another sense reminds Philemon of his authority over him in the Church. Philemon's vocation as paterfamilias of his own household is recognized by St. Paul, and the Apostle approaches the issue in such a classically Roman way that Philemon's standing in society is not jeopardized. Philemon is both cooled by the Apostle and given an open door to leniency and kindness toward Onesimus.

In the end St. Paul continues the duality between being a fellow worker with Philemon (a peer) and expecting due obedience from Philemon (a master to a servant). He also throws in some weighty names, including two Gospel writers, to let Philemon know that, just as Philemon's slave problems are most likely known in the city where Philemon resides, so also Philemon's spiritual situation is known among the leaders of the Church. Given the opening and ending of the epistle, it is my private opinion that Philemon was a bishop.

Today we would expect St. Paul to lobby for the abolition of slavery. It was different then. As said above, slavery was so matter-of-fact that it was hard to conceive of not having slaves. Freeing slaves was not what the Gospel was about. St. John Chrysostom writes regarding the service of slaves, perhaps meaning Christian slaves:
Thirdly, that we ought not to withdraw slaves from the service of their masters. For if Paul, who had such confidence in Philemon, was unwilling to detain Onesimus, so useful and serviceable to minister to himself, without the consent of his master, much less ought we so to act. For if the servant is so excellent, he ought by all means to continue in that service, and to acknowledge the authority of his master, that he may be the occasion of benefit to all in that house. Why do you take the candle from the candlestick to place it in the bushel? [Homily on Philemon - Argument]
He goes on to emphasize that what is important is not removing slaves from servitude, but that through the circumstances of slavery each slave gives witness to the Gospel of Christ - specifically by showing obedience with love and affection, benefiting the household in the fear of God. At the end of this sermon St. John Chrysostom adds one more thing: that masters should not look down on their slaves (as was the absolute norm), but regard them after the fashion of St. Paul toward Onesimus. In this way, from this single example, we see that much of the harshness and dehumanizing aspects of slavery were nullified by Christianity's devotion to faith and love in Jesus Christ.

Our opposition to slavery today is more about the morality of all men being created equal and the expression of that in the creation of society. For the first Christians it was not in dispute that all men are created equal - but that equality was one of being in the image of God and being held in slavery to sin, death, and the devil. The witness of the Gospel did not demand the release of all slaves, but rather that the light of spiritual release from mortality, sin, and the demonic forces should be carried into all aspects of life - including slavery. Thus slavery's dehumanization should have been supplanted among the Christians on the societal level, and the personal dehumanization that each slave identified himself with was supplanted by communion with dignified, royal, Divine Humanity of Jesus Christ.

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