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THE AMERICAN CATHOLIC
VOL. XIII.-OCTOBER, 1888.-No. 52.
THE RELATIVE INFLUENCE OF PAGANISM AND
CHRISTIANITY ON HUMAN SLAVERY.
Letter of Our Most Holy Father, Leo XIII., to his Venerable Brethren,
the Bishops of Brazil. African Slavery, a Conference delivered in the Church of St. Sulpice,
Paris, by Cardinal Lavigerie.
HE two important papers, quoted above, will be briefly re
ferred to in the course of this article. They do not bear condensation. Even a summary analysis of them would but feebly convey an idea of their transcendent merit. Every lover of humanity should read them entire.
The Encyclical of the Holy Father and the Discourse of the Cardinal, both of which have appeared within the last few months, are an eloquent plea in the cause of human liberty, and an earnest denunciation of the inhuman traffic in flesh and blood which, in our own day, is industriously carried on in Africa by the followers of Mohammed.
We shall use these two documents as an appropriate text, to demonstrate the relative influence of Paganism and Christianity on human slavery.
We venture to hope that the present article will be regarded as specially opportune by the simple statement that, after a struggle for nineteen centuries in the cause of human freedom, this is the first year that Christendom can boast of being without a slave.
At the dawn of Christianity, slavery was universal.' Although some Pagan philosophers, like Seneca, declared that all men are by nature free and equal, still by the law of nations slavery was upheld in every country on the face of the earth; and it was an axiom among the ruling classes that "the human race exists for the sake of the few.” Aristotle maintained that no perfect household could exist without slaves and freemen, and that the natural law, as well as the law of nations, makes a distinction between bond and free. Even Plato avowed that every slave's soul was fundamentally corrupt, and that no rational man should trust him.'
The proportion of slaves to freemen varied, of course, in different countries, though usually the former were largely in excess of the free population. In Rome, for three hundred and sixty-six years, from the fall of Corinth to Alexander Severus, the slaves, according to the testimony of Blair, were three to one. Her bondmen were recruited from Britain, Gaul, Germany, Scandinavia, in fact, from every country into which her army or traders could penetrate. At one time, they became so formidable in Rome that the Senate, fearing that, if conscious of their own numbers, the public safety might be endangered, forbade them a distinctive dress.
In Greece, also, the number of slaves was far greater than that of the free population. Attica had 20,000 citizens and 400,000 slaves, females not included. Sparta contained 36,000 citizens and 366,000 bondmen. The number of slaves in Corinth was 460,000, and in Egina, 470,000.- In Tyre, they were so numerous at one time that they succeeded in massacring all their masters. The Scythians, on returning from a hostile invasion of Media, found their slaves in rebellion, and were compelled for a while to abandon their country. Herodotus remarks with quaint humor that, after vainly attempting to conquer the slaves with spears and bows, the Scythians cast these weapons aside, and armed themselves with horsewhips. The slaves, who fought like heroes when confronted with warlike arms, lost heart and fled before the lash.”
By far the greatest number of slaves were acquired by military conquest, perpetual bondage being the usual fate of captives. Many others were purchased in the slave-market, or obtained by kidnapping. Children were frequently sold by impoverished or sordid parents, men were sold for debt or for the non-payment of taxes, and certain crimes were punished by perpetual servitude.
The head of the family was absolute master of his slaves, hav
2 Polit., i. 3.
1 “ The Gentile and the Jew,” ii. 265.
The Gentile and the Jew,” ii. 227.
Legg., vi. p. 277. 5 Bk. IV. No. 3.
ing over them the power of life and death. This atrocious law was modified by Hadrian, the Antonines, and Alexander Severus in the latter days of the Empire. But the imperial clemency was rendered almost nugatory by a provision which declared that the master could not be indicted for the murder of his slave, unless the intention to kill could be proved. Mr. Lecky thinks that barbarity to slaves was rare in the earlier days of the Republic; but the reasons which he assigns for his assertion are hardly conclusive.
When a slave gave testimony in a court of justice, his deposition was always accompanied by torture, a practice approved by Demosthenes, Lycurgus, and other Attic orators. What the oath was to the freeman, the torture was to the slave. Female slaves when giving testimony were subjected to the same inhuman treatment.
An atrocious law ordained that if a master was murdered, all the slaves of his household, excepting those in chains and helpless invalids, should be put to death. On one occasion, four hundred slaves of Pedanius, the Prefect of Rome, were ruthlessly executed, to avenge their master's assassination.
Aged and infirm slaves were habitually exposed to perish on an island in the Tiber. The elder Cato, whe lived under the Republic and who may be regarded as a type of the Roman nobility of his time, considered slaves simply as machines for acquiring wealth, to be cast aside in decrepid old age like worthless lumber. And, indeed, freedom would be but a poor boon to them in sickness and infirmity, since they had neither hospital nor asylum to receive them, nor self-sacrificing nurse to assuage their sufferings. Death was, therefore, a merciful relief to them.
When condemned to execution for a crime, their last moments were embittered by the most excruciating tortures, the usual death penalty being crucifixion until, out of reverence for our Saviour, it was abolished by Constantine.
The marriage of slaves was not recognized by law. Their union was regarded only as a concubinage or a contubernium; hence, they had no parental rights over their offspring, who belonged exclusively to their master. The words adultery, incest, polygamy, had no meaning for them.
Roman fugitive slaves were usually branded on the forehead, and the punishment due their offence redoubled. Sometimes they were thrown to the wild beasts in the amphitheatre.
The wretched condition of slaves in Pagan times was rendered more intolerable by many aggravating circumstances. Many of them had once enjoyed the blessings of freedom, but had been reduced to bondage by the calamities of war.
Unlike the negro
? Tacit. Annal. xiii. 32 et seq.
1 “ Hist. of Europ. Morals,” I. 301, 3 Gell. v. 14.
slaves of America, they were usually of the same color as their masters; and, in many instances, better educated, more refined, and of a more delicate frame than those whom they served. Epictetus, one of the ablest of the Stoic philosophers, was a slave.
Slavery exercised, also, a most injurious influence on the free population. It degraded labor, increased idleness, and fostered immorality. Contempt for work and a propensity to idleness formed a characteristic vice among the ancients, because they associated toil with slavery and idleness with freedom. "The Germans," says Tacitus, “cannot endure repose, and yet are fond of inactivity. They consider it dishonorable to earn by the sweat of their brow what they can win by the sword." The Gauls, also, looked upon all labor, agriculture included, as degrading. Hatis, the first lawgiver of Tartessus, in Spain, forbade citizens to perform any kind of manual labor, which was reserved for slaves. The Lusitanians and Cantabrians subjected their wives and slaves to incessant drudgery, living themselves by plunder. Herodotus says: “The Greeks, Thracians, Persians, Lydians, and almost all barbarous nations hold in less honor than their other citizens those that learn any trade, but deem such as abstain from handicrafts noble." In Sparta and other States tradesmen were excluded from political privileges. The free laborer was lowered in the eyes of his fellow-citizens by having slaves for competitors. Even the Romans did not regard any labor, agriculture excepted, as respectable. Cicero declared all mercenary trades to be sordid and dishonorable, and pronounced the workshop unworthy of the dig. nity of a freeman.
The obvious result of this unhealthy sentiment was, that mechanical and manual labor, agriculture, artistic work, the practice of medicine, and the instruction of youth, were relegated to slaves. Even trade and commerce were carried on by them under the supervision of their masters.
Slavery engendered idleness and poverty among the free citizens. Thousands were daily congregated in the streets of Rome, occupying their time in frequenting the baths; in discussing politics; in selling their votes to the highest bidder during the days of the Republic; in paying homage to their patrons during the Empire, when they had no votes to sell; and in witnessing the slaughter of their fellow-beings in the amphitheatre, depending on the public distribution of money and corn for their support.
In Julius Cæsar's time 320,000 persons in Rome derived their support from imperial largesses. And notwithstanding all the efforts of Augustus to reduce the number of idle citizens, he was
1 Germ. xiv. 15.
? Justin, xliv. 4.
6 Sueton., xli. 421.