This page deals with the teaching of Augustine about the existence slavery in the face of the desired plan of God for humankind.
However strange it may seem to us nowadays, slavery was accepted as something normal and self evident. As an economic and social institution, slavery was not generally contested.
However, it is not true that the Church did nothing at all for the slaves as persons.
The Pauline idea that the relationship between master and slave had to be a relationship of love because we all have only one common Lord through faith (Letter to Philemon ), is echoed by Augustine with the following words: "You (the Church) see to it that the masters are mild towards their slaves out of regard for the one God who is master of both, and you dispose them to look after their interests rather than keep them down by force. You teach that love is due to everyone and that it is forbidden to treat human beings unjustly whoever they may be." (De mor. ecclesiae cath. I, 30, 63. PL 32, 1336).
According to Augustine, slavery is not something natural, that is, it did not belong to the original state of human being. It is a consequence of iniquity, adversity and particularly of war (Quaest. in Hept. I, 153. PL 34, 590).
In his major work, City of God, we read that a just master, who lives on the basis of faith, is the servant of those whom he appears to command, and that he has to be concerned for their interests.
He has to be a genuine father to them.
Obligations arising from the bishop’s tribunal – the audentia episcopalis, a public institution of the
Roman Empire at that time - brought North African bishops of Augustine’s era into direct contact with the legal problems faced by slaves.
Augustine in this public judicial role heard a good number of cases set before him in which confusion arose over a person’s legal and social status because of a lack of clarity over the terms of their sale into slavery, or the agreed length of service.
This sometimes happened because of the trickery and subterfuge practised by the agents who recruited and traded the slaves.
In these matters Augustine sought the help of his friend and fellow bishop, Alypius, who had legal training. He sent Alypius, his friend and fellow bishop, to the emperor Honorious at Ravenna, Italy, to empower the African bishops to prosecute unscrupulous slave traders more effectively.
Augustine sought legal authority for bishops to be able to free persons, especially children, who had been illegally pressed into slavery.
The next page of Augnet illustrates further how desperate the situation regarding slavery had become.
(Continued on the next page.)