Slavery in the Greco-Roman world (Philemon 1)

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Slavery was practiced throughout the Greco-Roman world, and there were several categories of slaves:

  • The helot was a citizen of a city that was in permanent subordination to another state. A famous example is Messenia, a Greek city-state subdued by Sparta and then reduced to peasant status and forced to serve the needs of Sparta’s military culture. The people of Gibeon are an analogous example from Israelite history; they served as menial workers for the sanctuary (Joshua 9).
  • The indentured servant was reduced to slavery by debt but could obtain remission by working off that liability.
  • The chattel-slave was quite simply the property of his or her master.

People fell into slavery by various reasons. As mentioned above, unresolved debt could lead to this condition. Large numbers of people became slaves throughout conquest. Victorious armies would sell captured people into slavery, and these wretched souls typically never again saw their homelands. Frequently slavers would simply kidnap people, take them far away and sell them. Ancient pirates regularly practiced this, and the Roman government from time to time sought to clear the seas of pirate fleets. In addition, the children of a slave woman were born into slavery, regardless of the status of their father. Slavery was not racially based, although people generally preferred not to enslave others of their own ethnic group (e.g. Greeks typically enslaved non-Greeks, whom they considered “barbarians”).

The degree of hardship related to slavery also varied considerably. No doubt the worst lot fell to those who worked in mines and similar labour-intensive industries. Slightly better was the situation of peasant-farmers, with household slaves experiencing an easier life still. The most desirable position for a slave was that of a teacher, scribe or clerk, but even such a situation could be miserable if the master was harsh. Slaves were considered non-persons and thus enjoyed no rights – including privacy or control over their own sexual lives. Not surprisingly, an enormous number of slaves ran away, particularly if they had no hope of obtaining manumission. The flight of Philemon’s slave Onesimus, then, was not a peculiar occurrence. Occasionally outright rebellion occurred, the most spectacular example being that of the Spartacus slave revolt of 73 B.C. Passive resistance (e.g. by working slowly) was more common.

The New Testament does not condemn slavery outright or demand that Christian slaveholders emancipate their slaves. On the other hand, the pressure Paul applied to Philemon to release Onesimus was exemplary, and Paul elsewhere urged Christian slaves to obtain manumission if at all possible (1 Corinthians 7:21). Paul undermined the foundation of slavery – the notion that slaves were non-entities – when he made the declaration that in Christ there is no distinction between slave and free (Galatians 3:28).


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