1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Slavery in Ancient Rome: Influence of Christianity.

(Part 10)


Influence of Christianity.

The rise of Christianity in the Roman world still further improved the condition of the slave. The sentiments it created were not only favourable to the humane treatment of the class in the present, but were the germs out of which its entire liberation was destined, at a later period, in part to arise. It is sometimes unreasonably objected to the Christian church that it did not denounce slavery as a social crime and insist on its immediate abolition, that on the contrary it recognized the institution, ecclesiastical persons and societies themselves being owners of slaves. We have seen that slavery was a fundamental element of the old Roman constitution, not only incorporated with the laws, but necessarily arising out of, and essential to the military mission of the state. When the work of conquest had been sufficiently achieved, it could not be expected that a radical alteration should be suddenly wrought either in the social system which was in harmony with it, or even in the general ideas which had grown up under its influence. The latter would, indeed, be gradually affected ; and accordingly we have observed a change in the policy of the law, indicating a change in sentiment with respect to the slave class, which does not appear to have been at all due to Christian teaching, but to have arisen from the spontaneous influence of circumstances co-operating with the softened manners which were inspired by a pacific régime. But the institution itself could not beat once seriously disturbed; it was too deeply rooted and too closely bound up with the whole existing order of things. If it could have been immediately abolished, the results must have been disastrous, most of all to the slave population itself. Before that end could be accomplished, an essentially new social situation must come into existence; society must be organized for defence as it had previously been for conquest ; and this transformation could not be wrought in a day. But in the meantime much might be done towards further mitigating the evils of slavery, especially by impressing on master and slave their relative duties and controlling their behaviour towards one another by the exercise of an independent moral authority. This was the work open to the Christian priesthood, and it cannot be denied that it was well discharged. Whilst the fathers agree with the Stoics of the 2d century in representing slavery as an indifferent circumstance in the eye of religion and morality, the contempt for the class which the Stoics too often exhibited is in them replaced by a genuine sympathy. They protested against the multiplication of slaves from motives of vanity in the houses of the great, against the gladiatorial combats (ultimately abolished by the noble self-devotion of a monk), and against the consignment of slaves to the theatrical profession, which was often a school of corruption. The church also encouraged the emancipation of individual slaves and the redemption of captives. And its influence is to be seen in the legislation of the Christian emperors, which softened some of the harshest features that still marked the institution. There is not, indeed, a uniform advance in this legislation ; there is even retrogression in some particulars under Constantine, as in his renewed permission to fathers to sell their children and to the finder of an exposed child to make it his slave—enactments which it is sometimes sought to excuse by the prevailing poverty of his period. But a stronger influence of Christianity appears in Theodosius, and this influence is at the highest in the legislation of Justinian. Its systematic effort is, in his own words, "pro libertate, quam et fovere et tueri Romania legibus et praecipue nostro numini peculiare est." Law still refused in general to recognize the marriages of slaves; but Justinian gave them a legal value after emancipation in establishing rights of succession. Unions between slaves and free women, or between a freeman and the female slave of another, continued to be forbidden, and were long punished in certain circumstances with atrocious severity. As witness, the slave was still subject to the question ; as criminal, he was punished with greater rigour than the freeman. If he accused his master of a crime, unless the charge was of treason, he was burnt. But he could maintain a legal claim to his own liberty, not now merely through an adsertor, but in person. A female slave was still held incapable of the offence of adultery ; but Justinian visited with death alike the rape of a slave or freedwoman and that of a free maiden. Already the master who killed his slave had been punished as for homicide, except in the case of his unintended death under correction ; Constantine treated as homicide a number of specially-enumerated acts of cruelty. Even under Theodosius the combats of the amphitheatre were permitted, if not encouraged, by the state authorities ; these sports were still expected from the candidates for public honours. Combats of men with beasts were longest continued; they bad not ceased even in the early years of the reign of Justinian. A new process of manumission was now established, to be performed in the churches through the intervention of the ministers of religion; and it was provided that clerics could at any time by mere expression of will liberate their slaves. Slaves who were admitted to holy orders, or who entered a monastery, became freemen, under certain restrictions framed to prevent fraud or injustice. Justinian abolished the personal conditions which the legislation of Augustus bad required to be satisfied by the master who emancipated and the slave who was manumitted, and removed the limitation of number. The liberated slave, whatever the process by which he had obtained his freedom, became at once a full citizen, his former master, however, retaining the right of patronage, the abolition of which would probably have discouraged emancipation.

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