Obedience, Submission, and “Slave Morality”

According to Orlando Patterson, the Roman mime-writer Publilius Syrus wrote, “The height of misery is to live at another’s will” (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 77). In this statement, Publilius, a former slave from Syria, had in mind the lot of a Roman slave.

To the Roman mind, living “at another’s will,” in submission and obedience to another, was miserable not because the one obeyed was necessarily harsh or unkind, but because living in this way was itself dishonorable. In effect, the slave had no life of her own; her life was a mere expression of the master’s life. Her actions expressed the master’s desires, and her very existence was dependent on the master. As Patterson puts it, “The dishonor the slave was compelled to experience sprang…from that raw, human sense of debasement inherent in having no being except as an expression of another’s being” (78). In contrast, to be a Roman slaveholder, with others subjected to your will, contributed to one’s honor.

As Patterson notices (78), this Roman view of honor and dishonor is wrapped up in a picture of the good on which power is central. He quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome” (Nietzsche, The Antichrist). Anachronism aside, I suspect many Romans—slave and free alike—would have endorsed Nietzsche’s idea.

Of course, the Christian picture of the good could not be more different. Continue reading

Was Roman Slavery Kinder and Gentler than American Slavery?

I’m writing a historical novel that tells the backstory of Paul’s little New Testament letter to Philemon. The letter is written to a Christian slaveholder in Colossae (Philemon), and it asks the slaveholder to forgive and welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, who has been attending to Paul while he is in prison.

The letter is rarely taught these days, probably owing in part to the difficult questions it raises about slavery. For example, what is a Christian doing owning slaves? And why would Paul blithely encourage Onesimus to return to his bondage rather than keep running? The letter also has the dubious reputation of being used by antebellum American slaveholders and their sympathizers to justify the practice of slavery in the American South. After all, it can seem that by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul implicitly accepts (endorses?) the institution of slavery. These are just a few of the issues I plan to tackle in the novel.

In researching interpretations of Philemon and the institution of slavery in the First-century Roman Empire, I have noticed that part of the contemporary Christian defense of Paul’s actions in Philemon often includes the claim that First-century Roman slavery was generally kinder and gentler than antebellum American slavery. Continue reading