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.

The horrors of American slavery are, of course, well known today. Slaveholders were free to whip, beat, and sexually abuse their slaves with impunity. American slaves often lived in conditions of poverty while their slaveholders dwelled in opulent estate houses. Slaves did the hard and dangerous labor while slaveholders enjoyed the wealth it generated. Additionally, American slaveholders were free to buy and sell slaves as they pleased, treating human beings as mere useful objects, pieces of property. I could, or course, keep going with the litany of injustices.

Now, if Paul was sending Onesimus back to this sort of life, we’d probably be pretty worried. In response to this kind of worry, some New Testament scholars suggest he was doing nothing of the sort. For example, Achtemeier, Green, and Thompson state the following:

The status of slaves was quite different in the Roman Empire than it was, say, in the antebellum South in the United States…Conditions for slaves who worked the mines or plied the oars on ships of war were of course appalling, and the mortality rate was high for those punished with such assignments. The lot of those who worked on the great farms of wealthy owners was less onerous, and the lot of those who worked within households was often quite tolerable. Some were given great responsibility within those households (see Matt 24:45-51; Luke 16:1-13; translations soften these parables by translating “servant” instead of the more accurate “slave”). Most urban and domestic slaves could look forward to freedom by the time they turned thirty, at which time they frequently were awarded Roman citizenship. Many slaves were paid wages…and many purchased their freedom from their owners. Large numbers of people sold themselves into slavery to better their economic position, and people often moved in and out of slavery as their economic condition changed. (Achtemeier, P.J., J.B. Green, and M.M. Thompson, Introducing the New Testament, p. 425)

Now, I don’t mean to dispute every one of the claims in this passage; slavery in the Roman Empire was, of course, different in many ways from American slavery given the cultural divide between ancient Rome and the antebellum U.S. However, the passage above seems overly rosy to me given the New Testament evidence alone.

Consider the parable of the unmerciful slave in Matthew 18:23-35. In this parable, a king purposes to sell a slave and all of the slave’s family members (probably each to different owners) to compensate for a huge debt the slave owed him. However, the slave begs for leniency and the king has mercy on him, forgiving his debt. After this, the slave confronts a second slave who owes the first a small debt. When the second slave can’t pay and asks for leniency, the first slave has him thrown in debtor’s prison. When the king finds out, he confronts the first slave with whom he had been merciful and reverses his initial decision, handing the slave over to be tortured until he can pay his debt in full.

Jesus typically used everyday examples that people could relate to in his parables. Thus, I take it that the picture of slavery in this parable reflects the institution of slavery in his time.  In this parable, the first “unmerciful” slave is clearly a household slave with a lot of responsibility; if he were not, it seems unlikely that he would have had the kind of access to the king’s resources required to run up such a large debt.

But, as we can see, even a slave in this position of responsibility was vulnerable to being sold at will and to being tortured. Indeed, we see the same thing with high-level managerial slaves in several of Jesus’s parables in Matthew (compare Mt. 21:33-41, 24:45-51, and 25:14-30). Indeed, in the parable of the wicked tenants (Mt. 21:33-41) we see managerial slaves subject to uncompensated abuse and murder even when they do their job properly.

In addition to this New Testament evidence, Jennifer A. Glancy marshals evidence from extra-biblical ancient sources suggesting that manumission at age thirty was hardly the norm (p. 95)—even for a faithful slave—that it was actually very rare for people to voluntarily sell themselves into slavery (pp. 80-85), likely due to the brutality of Roman slavery, and that the sexual use and abuse of slaves was commonplace (pp. 50-57).

Thus, it seems to me the case that slavery in ancient Rome was kinder and gentler than American slavery is actually pretty weak. And this conclusion renews my worry about Paul sending Onesimus back to Philemon.

Now, this is not to say that I think there is nothing to say in defense of Paul’s action here, or that the only defensible reading of Philemon entails that Paul has done something immoral. Indeed, I think there are things we can say that help us understand Paul’s actions in a better light. But, I just think claiming that Roman slavery was kinder and gentler than antebellum American slavery is not one of them. In future posts I hope to think further about what acceptable grounds Paul might have had (if any) for encouraging Onesimus to return to his master.

What do you think?

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