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 in Augustine’s day 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 Honorius 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. Slavery was a grim reality in North Africa when Augustine served there. The recently discovered Letter 10 (one of the "lost letters" of Augustine) gives us a picture of the lamentable situation in North Africa during the last ten years of the life of Augustine. Slave hunting had become a real catastrophe. Criminals were paid to attack isolated places in order to kidnap free citizens by violence in order to sell them to slave traders.
Augustine tells us: "I myself asked one girl of a crowd which had been freed by our Church from this miserable captivity, how she came to be sold to the slave traders. She told me she had been seized from her parents' house. I asked her if she had been alone there. She said her parents and brothers were there. Her brother had come to take her home, and he explained to me how it happened, as the girl herself was still very young. These robbers who came in the night, he said, were such that you would hide from them rather than resist them." Augustine wrote this to his friend, the Bishop of Thagaste, Alypius, who was at that moment in Italy, and he asked him to plead at the Imperial court for a revision of the law concerning slavery. He describes what happened in Hippo: "Some four months ago, there were people brought together from different places, but especially from Numidia, to be deported from the port of Hippo. This was done by Galatians, for it is only they who, out of greed, engage in such business."
"A member of our church became aware of it, and knowing our policy of helping with money in such circumstances, wished to tell us. I was not in Hippo at that time. But immediately our faithful liberated one hundred and twenty people, some from the ship on which they were already embarked, some from private prisons where they were hidden before being put aboard ... I leave it to your imagination to estimate the enormous proportions which the deportation of miserable persons has assumed in other ports. Here in Hippo at least, by the mercy of God, the church is on its guard, so that unfortunate people are rescued from this type of captivity." In the same letter, Augustine writes: "For if we, that is, the bishops, do nothing, will there then be anyone, who has power on the shore, who will not sell these most cruel cargoes, rather than remove one of these unfortunate people from captivity, or stop someone from being put in chains, out of Christian or human compassion?"
Augustine denounces abuses in the field of slavery less than other Fathers of the Church (i.e., famous scholars of the early Christian church). This is certainly due to a better relationship between masters and slaves in North Africa than in other parts of the world. Even so, his preaching on human equality is very clear. It was not the slaves, but rather the little tenant farmers (coloni) and the seasonal workers who hired themselves out as to harvest the wheat, who were the real poor of North Africa in the time of Augustine. The tenant farmers sold their freedom and preferred to become slaves. The alternative was starvation. In such a situation the power of the rich steadily increased, whereas the poor became more and more powerless. The protection of the tenant farmers had faded away. The ancient laws were no longer observed, and supervision by the state had been neglected. The poor were at the mercy of the big landowners, and the coloni could no longer appeal to the state against the abuse of power by the rich. State officials were often corrupt. Indeed, many powerful masters acted on their own authority; they imprisoned slaves, and even carried out capital punishment themselves.
As already noted, the situation of the tenant farmers was often worse than that of the slaves. Augustine himself declares this explicitly: "Do we not see that many slaves are short of nothing, whereas freedmen are reduced to beggary" (Sermon 159, 4, 5. PL 38, 870. S. 302, 6, 5. PL 38, 1387. En. in ps. 36, 1.3,7. PL 36,387). It was often more profitable for slaves to remain in their state than to become free, for in the days of Augustine most slaves had become domestic servants. They were no longer labourers in the fields. That work was now done by the tenant farmers. he slaves lived in the cities, in the houses of their masters. Often they had positions of trust in the family. The faithful female slave functioned as a nurse, and she was responsible for the education of the daughters, as we know from the Confessions of Augustine (IX, 8, 17-18) with regard to his mother, Monica. The male slave accompanied the children going to school. He also guarded the strongbox that held the money belonging to the house. Nearly every family had at least one slave.
Power in a Christian sense means always service. God did not wish one human being to have dominion over another human being. Equality is prescribed by the order of nature, for God created all human beings as equals to one another (XIX, 14- 15. PL 41, 643). Therefore, human being is the common and equal name for all (Ennarationes in Ps. 124, 7. PL 37, 1653). No one is in the full sense of the word master of a human being, even of a slave, for we all are the slaves of one true and unique Master, the Lord our God (En. in ps. 69, 7. PL 36, 872). Masters and slaves are brothers and sisters of one another, for together they must say "Our Father" (Serm. 58, 2, 2. PL 38, 393). Thus, a Christian master is not allowed to possess his slave just as he possesses a horse, money or clothes, for he has to love him as himself and to care for his spiritual well-being (De serm Dom. in monte L, 19, 59. PL 34, 1260). With such principles in mind, we nevertheless see Augustine demanding respect for the social order as it is now after the Fall of Adam. Augustine denounced abuses in the field of slavery less than other Fathers of the Church. This was certainly due to a better relationship between masters and slaves in North Africa than in other parts of the world.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet photo gallery on Pavia and St Augustine’s tomb (including the photos above), click here.