History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 20. Social Reforms. The Institution of Slavery.

4. The institution of slavery194194   Comp. vol. i. § 89, and the author’s “Hist. of the Apost. Church,” § 113. remained throughout the empire, and is recognized in the laws of Justinian as altogether legitimate.195195   Instit. lib. i. tit. 5-8; Digest. l. i. tit. 5 and 6, etc. The Justinian code rests on the broad distinction of the human race into freemen and slaves. It declares, indeed, the natural equality of men, and so far rises above the theory of Aristotle, who regards certain races and classes of men as irrevocably doomed, by their physical and intellectual inferiority, to perpetual servitude; but it destroys the practical value of this concession by insisting as sternly as ever on the inferior legal and social condition of the slave, by degrading his marriage to the disgrace of concubinage, by refusing him all legal remedy in case of adultery, by depriving him of all power over his children, by making him an article of merchandise like irrational beasts of burden, whose transfer from vender to buyer was a legal transaction as valid and frequent as the sale of any other property. The purchase and sale of slaves for from ten to seventy pieces of gold, according to their age, strength, and training, was a daily occurrence.196196   The legal price, which, however, was generally under the market price, was thus established under Justinian (Cod. l. vi. tit. xliii. l. 3): Ten pieces of gold for an ordinary male or female slave under ten years; twenty, for slaves over ten; thirty, for such as understood a trade; fifty, for notaries and scribes; sixty, for physicians, and midwives. Eunuchs ranged to seventy pieces. The number was not limited; many a master owning even two or three thousand slaves.

The barbarian codes do not essentially differ in this respect from the Roman. They, too, recognize slavery as an ordinary condition of mankind and the slave as a marketable commodity. All captives in war became slaves, and thousands of human lives were thus saved from indiscriminate massacre and extermination. The victory of Stilicho over Rhadagaisus threw 200,000 Goths and other Germans into the market, and lowered the price of a slave from twenty-five pieces of gold to one. The capture and sale of men was part of the piratical system along all the shores of Europe. Anglo-Saxons were freely sold in Rome at the time of Gregory the Great. The barbarian codes prohibited as severely as the Justinian code the debasing alliance of the freeman with the slave, but they seem to excel the latter in acknowledging the legality and religious sanctity of marriages between slaves; that of the Lombards on the authority of the Scripture sentence: “Whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

The legal wall of partition, which separated the slaves from free citizens and excluded them from the universal rights of man, was indeed undermined, but by no means broken down, by the ancient church, who taught only the moral and religious equality of men. We find slaveholders even among the bishops and the higher clergy of the empire. Slaves belonged to the papal household at Rome, as we learn incidentally from the acts of a Roman synod held in 501 in consequence of the disputed election of Symmachus, where his opponents insisted upon his slaves being called in as witnesses, while his adherents protested against this extraordinary request, since the civil law excluded the slaves from the right of giving testimony before a court of justice.197197   Comp. Hefele: “Conciliengeschichte,” ii. p. 620; and Milman: “Latin Christianity,” vol. i. p. 419 (Am. ed.), who infers from this fact, “that slaves formed the household of the Pope, and that, by law, they were yet liable to torture. This seems clear from the words of Ennodius.” Among the barbarians, likewise, we read of slaveholding churches, and of special provisions to protect their slaves.198198   Comp. Milman, l.c. i. 531. Constantine issued rigid laws against intermarriage with slaves, all the offspring of which must be slaves; and against fugitive slaves (a.d. 319 and 326), who at that time in great multitudes plundered deserted provinces or joined with hostile barbarians against the empire. But on the other hand he facilitated manumission, permitted it even on Sunday, and gave the clergy the right to emancipate their slaves simply by their own word, without the witnesses and ceremonies required in other cases.199199   In two laws of 316 and 321; Corp. Jur. l. i. tit. 13, l. 1 and 2. By Theodosius and Justinian the liberation of slaves was still further encouraged. The latter emperor abolished the penalty of condemnation to servitude, and by giving to freed persons the rank and rights of citizens, he removed the stain which had formerly attached to that class.200200   Cod. Just. vii. 5, 6; Nov. 22, c. 8 (a.d.536), and Nov. 78, praef. 1, 2 (a.d.539). The spirit of his laws favored the gradual abolition of domestic slavery. In the Byzantine empire in general the differences of rank in society were more equalized, though not so much on Christian principle as in the interest of despotic monarchy. Despotism and extreme democracy meet in predilection for universal equality and uniformity. Neither can suffer any overshadowing greatness, save the majesty of the prince or the will of the people. The one system knows none but slaves; the other, none but masters.

Nor was an entire abolition of slavery at that time at all demanded or desired even by the church. As in the previous period, she still thought it sufficient to insist on the kind Christian treatment of slaves, enjoining upon them obedience for the sake of the Lord, comforting them in their low condition with the thought of their higher moral freedom and equality, and by the religious education of the slaves making an inward preparation for the abolition of the institution. All hasty and violent measures met with decided disapproval. The council of Gangra threatens with the ban every one, who under pretext of religion seduces slaves into contempt of their masters; and the council of Chalcedon, in its fourth canon, on pain of excommunication forbids monasteries to harbor slaves without permission of the masters, lest Christianity be guilty of encouraging insubordination. The church fathers, so far as they enter this subject at all, seem to look upon slavery as at once a necessary evil and a divine instrument of discipline; tracing it to the curse on Ham and Canaan.201201   Gen. ix. 25: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” But Christ appeared to remove every curse of sin, and every kind of slavery. The service of God is perfect freedom. It is true, they favor emancipation in individual cases, as an act of Christian love on the part of the master, but not as a right on the part of the slave; and the well-known passage: “If then mayest be made free, use it rather,” they understand not as a challenge to slaves to take the first opportunity to gain their freedom, but, on the contrary, as a challenge to remain in their servitude, since they are at all events inwardly free in Christ, and their outward condition is of no account.202202   1 Cor. vii. 21. The Greek fathers supply, with μᾶλλον χρῆσαι, the word δουλείᾳ(Chrysostom: μᾶλλον δούλευε); whereas nearly all modem interpreters (except De Wette, Meyer, Ewald, and Alford) follow Calvin and Grotius in supplying ἐλευθερίᾳ. Chrysostom, however, mentions this construction, and in another place (Serm. iv. in Genes. tom. v. p. 666) seems himself to favor it. The verb use connects itself more naturally with freedom, which is a boon and a blessing, than with bondage, which is a state of privation. Milman, however, goes too far when he asserts (Lat. Christianity, vol. i. 492): “The abrogation of slavery was not contemplated even as a remote possibility. A general enfranchisement seems never to have dawned on the wisest and best of the Christian writers, notwithstanding the greater facility for manumission, and the sanctity, as it were, assigned to the act by Constantine, by placing it under the special superintendence of the clergy.” Compare against this statement the views of Chrysostomand Augustine, in the text.

Even St. Chrysostom, though of all the church fathers the nearest to the emancipation theory and the most attentive to the question of slavery in general, does not rise materially above this view.203203   The views of Chrysostomon slavery are presented in his Homilies on Genesis and on the Epistles of Paul, and are collected by Möhler in his beautiful article on the Abolition of Slavery (Vermischte Schriften, ii. p. 89 sqq.). Möhler says that since the times of the apostle Paul no one has done a more valuable service to slaves then St. Chrysostom. But he overrates his merit. According to him mankind were originally created perfectly free and equal, without the addition of a slave. But by the fall man lost the power of self-government, and fell into a threefold bondage: the bondage of woman under man, of slave under master, of subject under ruler. These three relations he considers divine punishments and divine means of discipline. Thus slavery, as a divine arrangement occasioned by the fall, is at once relatively justified and in principle condemned. Now since Christ has delivered us from evil and its consequences, slavery, according to Chrysostom, is in principle abolished in the church, yet only in the sense in which sin and death are abolished. Regenerate Christians are not slaves, but perfectly free men in Christ and brethren among themselves. The exclusive authority of the one and subjection of the other give place to mutual service in love. Consistently carried out, this view leads of course to emancipation. Chrysostom, it is true, does not carry it to that point, but he decidedly condemns all luxurious slaveholding, and thinks one or two servants enough for necessary help, while many patricians had hundreds and thousands. He advises the liberation of superfluous slaves, and the education of all, that in case they should be liberated, they may know how to take care of themselves. He is of opinion that the first Christian community at Jerusalem, in connection with community of goods, emancipated all their slaves;204204   Homil. xi. in Acta Apost. (Opera omn., tom. ix. p. 93): Οὐδὲ γὰρ τότε τοῦτο ἧν, ἀλλ ̓ ἐλευθέρους ἴσως ἐπέτρεπον γίνεσθαι. The monk Nilus, a pupil of Chrysostom, went so far as to declare slaveholding inconsistent with true love to Christ, Ep. lib. i. ep. 142 (quoted by Neander in his chapter on monasticism): Οὐ γὰρ οἷμαι οἰκέτην ἔχειν τὸν φιλόχριστον, εἰδότα τὴν χάριν τὴν πάντας ἐλευθερώσασαν. and thus he gives his hearers a hint to follow that example. But of an appeal to slaves to break their bonds, this father shows of course no trace; he rather, after apostolic precedent, exhorts them to conscientious and cheerful obedience for Christ’s sake, as earnestly as he inculcates upon masters humanity and love. The same is true of Ambrose, Augustine, and Peter Chrysologus of Ravenna († 458).

St. Augustine, the noblest representative of the Latin church, in his profound work on the “City of God,” excludes slavery from the original idea of man and the final condition of society, and views it as an evil consequent upon sin, yet under divine direction and control. For God, he says, created man reasonable and lord only over the unreasonable, not over man. The burden of servitude was justly laid upon the sinner. Therefore the term servant is not found in the Scriptures till Noah used it as a curse upon his offending son. Thus it was guilt and not nature that deserved that name. The Latin word servus is supposed to be derived from servare [servire rather], or the preservation of the prisoners of war from death, which itself implies the desert of sin. For even in a just war there is sin on one side, and every victory humbles the conquered by divine judgment, either reforming their sins or punishing them. Daniel saw in the sins of the people the real cause of their captivity. Sin, therefore, is the mother of servitude and first cause of man’s subjection to man; yet this does not come to pass except by the judgment of God, with whom there is no injustice, and who knows how to adjust the various punishments to the merits of the offenders .... The apostle exhorts the servants to obey their masters and to serve them ex animo, with good will; to the end that, if they cannot be made free from their masters, they may make their servitude a freedom to themselves by serving them not in deceitful fear, but in faithful love, until iniquity be overpassed, and all man’s principality and power be annulled, and God be all in all.205205   De Civit. Dei, lib. xix. cap. 15.

As might be expected, after the conversion of the emperors, and of rich and noble families, who owned most slaves, cases of emancipation became more frequent.206206   For earlier cases, at the close of the previous period, see vol. i. § 89, at the end. The biographer of St. Samson Xenodochos, a contemporary of Justinian, says of him: “His troop of slaves he would not keep, still less exercise over his fellow servants a lordly authority; he preferred magnanimously to let them go free, and gave them enough for the necessaries of life.”207207   Acta Sanct. Boll. Jun. tom. v. p. 267. According to Palladius, Hist. c. 119, St. Melania had, in concert with her husband Pinius, manumitted as many as eight thousand slaves. Yet it is only the ancient Latin translation that has this almost incredible number. Salvianus, a Gallic presbyter of the fifth century, says that slaves were emancipated daily.208208   Ad Eccles. cath. l. iii. § 7 (Galland. tom. x. p. 71): “In usu quidem quotidiano est, ut servi, etsi non optimae, certe non infirmae servitudinis, Romana a dominis libertate donentur; in qua scilicet et proprietatem peculii capiunt et jus testamentarium consequuntur: ita ut et viventes, cui volunt, res suas tradant, et morientes donatione transcribAnt. Nec solum hoc, sed et illa, quae in servitute positi conquisierant, ex dominorum domo tollere non vetantur.” From this passage it appears that many masters, with a view to set their slaves free, allowed them to earn something; which was not allowed by the Roman law. On the other hand, very much was done in the church to prevent the increase of slavery; especially in the way of redeeming prisoners, to which sometimes the gold and silver vessels of churches were applied. But we have no reliable statistics for comparing even approximately the proportion of the slaves to the free population at the close of the sixth century with the proportion in the former period.

We infer then, that the Christianity of the Nicene and post-Nicene age, though naturally conservative and decidedly opposed to social revolution and violent measures of reform, yet in its inmost instincts and ultimate tendencies favored the universal freedom of man, and, by elevating the slave to spiritual equality with the master, and uniformly treating him as capable of the same virtues, blessings, and rewards, has placed the hateful institution of human bondage in the way of gradual amelioration and final extinction. This result, however, was not reached in Europe till many centuries after our period, nor by the influence of the church alone, but with the help of various economical and political causes, the unprofitableness of slavery, especially in more northern latitudes, the new relations introduced by the barbarian conquests, the habits of the Teutonic tribes settled within the Roman empire, the attachment of the rural slave to the soil, and the change of the slave into the serf, who was as immovable as the soil, and thus, in some degree independent on the caprice and despotism of his master.

5. The poor and unfortunate in general, above all the widows and orphans, prisoners and sick, who were so terribly neglected in heathen times, now drew the attention of the imperial legislators. Constantine in 315 prohibited the branding of criminals on the forehead, “that the human countenance,” as he said, “formed after the image of heavenly beauty, should not be defaced.”209209   Cod. Theod. ix. 40, 1 and 2. He provided against the inhuman maltreatment of prisoners before their trial.210210   C. Theod. ix. tit. 3, de custodia reorum. Comp. later similar laws of the year 409 in l. 7, and of 529 in the Cod. Justin. i. 4, 22. To deprive poor parents of all pretext for selling or exposing their children, he had them furnished with food and clothing, partly at his own expense and partly at that of the state.211211   Comp. the two laws De alimentis quae inopes parentes de publico petere debent, in the Cod. Theod. xi. 27, 1 and 2. He likewise endeavored, particularly by a law of the year 331, to protect the poor against the venality and extortion of judges, advocates, and tax collectors, who drained the people by their exactions.212212   Cod. Theod. I. tit. 7, l. 1: Cessent jam nunc rapaces officialium manus, cessent inquam! nam si moniti non cessaverint, gladiis praecidentur. In the year 334 he ordered that widows, orphans, the sick, and the poor should not be compelled to appear be. fore a tribunal outside their own province. Valentinian, in 365, exempted widows and orphans from the ignoble poll tax.213213   The capitatio plebeja. Cod. Theod. xiii. 10, 1 and 4. Other laws in behalf of widows, Cod. Just. iii. 14; ix. 24. In 364 he intrusted the bishops with the supervision of the poor. Honorius did the same in 409. Justinian, in 529, as we have before remarked, gave the bishops the oversight of the state prisons, which they were to visit on Wednesdays and Fridays, to bring home to the unfortunates the earnestness and comfort of religion. The same emperor issued laws against usury and inhuman severity in creditors, and secured benevolent and religious foundations by strict laws against alienation of their revenues from the original design of the founders. Several emperors and empresses took the church institutions for the poor and sick, for strangers, widows, and orphans, under their special patronage, exempted them from the usual taxes, and enriched or enlarged them from their private funds.214214   Cod. Theod. xi. 16, xiii. 1; Cod. Just. i. 3; Nov. 131. Comp. here in general Chastel: The Charity of the Primitive Churches (transl. by Mathe), pp. 281-293. Yet in those days, as still in ours, the private beneficence of Christian love took the lead, and the state followed at a distance, rather with ratification and patronage than with independent and original activity.215215   Comp. Chastel, l.c., p. 293: “It appears, then, as to charitable institutions, the part of the Christian emperors was much less to found themselves, than to recognize, to regulate, to guarantee, sometimes also to enrich with their private gifts, that which the church had founded. Everywhere the initiative had been taken by religious charity. Public charity only followed in the distance, and when it attempted to go ahead originally and alone, it soon found that it had strayed aside, and was constrained to withdraw.”

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