Since Paul mentions the metaphor of “slave” in this paragraph, it’s an opportunity to learn more about the nature of slavery in the Greco-Roman world. Since that metaphor is problematic for all of us who live in the post-slavery reality of the Western world, it is helpful to understand that nature as we decide whether and how to use that metaphor in our own theological reflection and work.
In Paul’s time how did one become an enslaved person? I will share some research I have collected as I’ve studied Paul’s letter to Philemon.
Enslavement was a significant feature of Rome’s political economy and culture. Military campaigns to extend Rome’s sphere of domination resulted in its being the world’s greatest slave society up to that time and for centuries to come. From 30 to 50 percent of Rome’s population consisted of enslaved persons. In earlier centuries most of the enslaved persons were war captives or persons who had been kidnapped and separated from their families. Although a Roman citizen could sink into the unfortunate position of debt enslavement, the vast majority of enslaved persons were not Roman citizens but foreigners who were regarded and treated like a species of property or chattel.
In the Roman Empire, one could become an enslaved person in four ways. A person could sell oneself or be sold into enslavement to satisfy a debt, to escape even worse poverty, or to secure a position in a noble household as a manager, tutor, etc.
A person could be captured in battle and enslaved. Early in the Roman republic and then empire, this was a significant source of enslaved people. As Rome’s political and military dominance increased, the number of captives decreased along with the number of battles.
A person could be abandoned as an infant and then claimed and raised by another person as a slave. Infant exposure was regarded in Greco-Roman culture as a prerogative of men who sired children. Many more girls than boys were abandoned to exposure, because girls were regarded as greater economic liabilities in families. As slaves, however, girls were regarded as more valuable because of their potential as sexual objects and prostitutes.
It seems that the overwhelming majority of exposed infants survived the abandonment and exposure. This was especially the case in Egypt but happened across the Empire. Infant exposure was a major source of enslaved persons by the time of Paul’s writing.
One could be born of a slave mother. By the time of Paul, this was the source of the greatest number of slaves in the Empire. If you were born of an enslaved mother, you were by definition a slave as well. The identity of your father was irrelevant in the matter. So even if a slaveholder fathered child with female slaves, the result of that abuse was simply more enslaved persons.
How could otherwise well-meaning people make sense of and live with the practice of human enslavement? When we treat other human beings as objects, we usually require some kind of story to justify and make sense of that practice. In short, we must come up with a story that describes other individuals as less than human in some way. For those who were sold into debt enslavement, the story was simple. They or their family or their creditor made a choice based on the actions of the now-enslaved person. It was the enslaved person’s own damn fault.
For those captured in battle and then enslaved, the story was equally simple. You lost. You were captured. You could have been killed on the field of battle, but your Roman conquerors found some value in you and kept you alive. So, you should be grateful and shut up. For the women and girls in this story, there was the added benefit (to the slaveholder) that they would produce additional generations of slaves for labor and for sale.
The story connected to infant exposure is more difficult but still congratulates the slaveholder. This story resembles the story for those captured in battle. If the infant had not been “rescued” from the down trash heap, that infant would have died. So, in effect, the slaveholder saved the child from certain death. A lifetime of involuntary servitude was a small price to pay for this “rescue.”
Inherited enslavement was the hardest practice to justify. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, there was no worse fate than to move from free to enslaved. Many ancient thinkers believed that forcing a free person into enslavement was inherently wrong and dishonorable. So, relying on “born” slaves was, on the surface of the argument, preferable to any of the other paths to enslavement. But, in fact, this view just kicked the philosophical can down the genealogical road.
Jennifer Glancy describes the argument from origins made by the ancient writer, Dio Chrysostom. In short, he argued that if you go back far enough in anyone’s family tree, you will find a free person. If you followed that family tree far enough, you “would eventually reach the moment in which a free person had been illegitimately reduced to the status of a slave,” Glancy writes, “most likely by an act of violence.” (Glancy, Enslavement in Early Christianity, KL 1459). So, for some ancient thinkers, born enslavement was not enough of a story to justify the practice.
In Greek philosophy, a slave is not a person. Orlando Patterson (1982) made it clear that to become a slave is to suffer “social death.” He describes this in detail. “Perhaps the most distinctive attribute of the slave’s powerlessness,” he writes in Enslavement and Social Death, “was that it always originated (or was conceived of as having originated) as a substitute for death, usually a violent death.” The cultural rationale was that if the person had not been enslaved, the person would be dead. “Archetypically,” Patterson continues, “enslavement was a substitute for death in war. But almost as frequently, the death commuted was punishment for some capital offense, or death from exposure or starvation.”
Since the enslaved person had died—in principle or theory, at least—the slave could then be treated as having died the death that mattered. “Because the slave had no socially recognized existence outside his master,” Patterson concludes, “he became a social nonperson.” So, enslaved persons in the ancient world are regarded as “bodies” rather than people. Enslaved persons by definition do not have an inner life or what Greek philosophers might regard as a “soul.” Enslaved persons are “animated tools” but have no independent existence. Enslaved persons are regarded as relatively intelligent livestock— “cattle on two feet,” as the Greeks put it.
Harrill notes some development of this idea in Roman law and philosophy. Romans believed that enslaved persons had some measure of interior life, but it was not independent of the wishes and needs of the master. “The Roman notion of mastery,” he writes, “defined the ideal slave not in terms of obedience to individual commands of the master but in terms of having accepted the master’s wishes so fully that the slave’s innermost self could anticipate the master’s wishes and take the initiative” (Harrill, 2006). “Romans,” he concludes, “did not want automatons for their enslaved persons.” They did not, however, want them to be full-fledged persons either.
More on this on Friday…