POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

"You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody” Greco-Roman Slavery and the Early Church - Guest Article by Benjamin Hicks...

When studying the relationship of Christian slaves and their Christian masters in a first century Greco-Roman context I turned to my friend Ben Hicks to give us some background on the subject. Ben was a PhD candidate in classics at Rutgers University at the time.


“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ”

A standard trope of the New Testament epistles is for the author to open a letter by calling himself “a servant of Jesus Christ.” But here our English translations often deceive us, or at least soften the language with the euphemistic “servant.” The word used in the Greek, doulos, is the common word for any sort of slave or bondservant, whether for temporary debt servitude or those born or taken into the condition of slavery.2

We see the language of servitude throughout the Gospels, as well. Christ (Mt. 6:24; Lk. 16:13) speaks of how we can only serve one master, and at Philippians 2:5-9, the Savior’s coming is likened to Him taking the form of a slave. To our modern sensibilities, the emphatic use of the language of slavery to speak of our relationship to Christ might seem odd, but its meaning would have been clear to Paul’s readers in Christian communities throughout the cities of the Roman Empire in the mid-first century AD. Slavery was very much a fact of day-to-day life, and so it was inevitable that within a church congregation that slave and master might both find themselves new Christians.

Slavery in the Ancient World

As early as the Odyssey, the Homeric epic detailing the hero Odysseus’ return from the Trojan War (composed c. 725 BC), we find the assertion that “far-sounding Zeus takes away half a man’s virtue when the day of slavery comes upon him” (17.322f). Slavery was regarded as an intrinsic outcome to human conflict but also an ill to be avoided if at all possible. Greek city-states generally had populations of both privately held slaves and also public (demosioi) slaves. One of the best-known groups of slaves in antiquity, the Spartan helots, were an entire people (the Messenians) who had been subjected to slavery.

If I had to discuss the many variations of each Greek state on this topic, we would have a never-ending Junk Drawer for this week since each Greek community had its own laws. Paul, however, was writing to a community under the Roman legal regime for slaves, and this simplifies things immensely. Slavery also existed at Rome from the beginning of its recorded history. Indeed, the Romans of the late republic and early empire witnessed several slave revolts on the latifundia, large plantations worked primarily by slave labor. Slaves were also common in urban areas, acting as domestics, conducting business for their masters, or even serving as tutors if they were literate. To give some numbers, from 200 BC to AD 200, by one estimate slaves comprised around 5-10% of the population.3

Legal Status of Roman Slavery

Roman law regarding slaves was without doubt harsh. A master held his slaves as possessions and was therefore entitled to the fruits of all their labor and increase, including children from female slaves. He could also buy or sell slaves as possessions. Slaves were also generally regarded as being at the service of their master sexually, whether male or female. The Roman charge of sexual misconduct (stuprum) only attached if someone took liberties with another man’s slave, in effect causing harm to someone else’s property. The Latin term familia, which encompassed all members of a household under the legal authority (potestas) of the father, included the household slaves and in practical usage referred primarily to the slaves almost exclusively. Further, in legal proceedings, slaves were subject to torture to extract information.

The question of slave status, however, never turned on issues of race as it did in English and American law. Slavery was an imposed status, whether through capture by ransom, birth to a mother who was a slave, or subjection through debt bondage (in which case the slave was regarded as a pignus, or pledge of security) and the rare cases when one voluntarily entered slavery in hopes of future citizenship or securing basic provisions for life. Masters also possessed a right to free their slaves, either by bringing them before a competent magistrate or through a will, though legislation under the empire placed restrictions on both of these methods.4 Freedmen and women (liberti/ae) could eventually obtain citizenship after reforms under the emperor Augustus, and they often had a surprising amount of financial and civil success, though they could not be elected to high offices.5 The priesthoods of the imperial cults (i.e. the priesthoods dedicated to emperors who had been “deified” upon their deaths) were open to them and the freedmen of the familia Caesaris (the emperor’s household), exercised a great deal of influence in the administration of the state. In at least one instance the emperor Nero, while attending games in Greece during the year AD 67, left the city of Rome under the charge of his freedman Helios.6

This made the wealthiest and most successful freedmen as objects of envy and lampoon by the upper classes. The largest surviving chunk of the literary work of Petronius, a prominent member of Nero’s court, is a fictional account of a garish, tasteless dinner given by the freedman Trimalchio. In spite of this prejudice, freedmen and women recorded their achievements and familial successes through epitaphs and other inscriptions with nearly ubiquitous frequency. Their children were considered freeborn and had the full legal privileges obtaining to whatever citizenship rights their parents had possessed, though the social stigma of servile birth might persist for a few generations.

Under the Roman Empire, the law did eventually provide some legal protections to slaves. The lex Petronia forbade a master from putting his slave up to fight with wild beasts without first consulting a magistrate, and a constitution (that is, a legal formulation) of the emperor Antoninus (ruled AD 138 – 161) subjected a master to legal penalties if he put one of his slaves to death without proper cause. Also by the early second century AD, in cases of disputed manumission or servile birth, the general legal principal known as the favor libertatis (the “preference for freedom”) dictated that the presiding magistrate favor the interpretation of evidence most favorable to the claim for freedom.

Slavery and the Early Church7

The Christian church, with its emphasis on the equality of all believers before God, was popular among the slaves throughout the Greco-Roman world. Aside from evidence in the epistles (such as Eph. 6:5-9) and Paul’s letter to Philemon on behalf of the slave Onesimus, we have the case of two “deaconesses” (ministrae, the Latin equivalent of the Greek word from which deacon derives) whom Pliny the Younger tortured during his governorship of Bithynia (AD 111-113, part of modern-day Turkey). In his letter to the emperor Trajan asking for guidance on how to handle the problem of Christians in his province, Pliny also calls the deaconesses slaves. Thus we can see not only the presence of slaves in the early church, but their equal participation in worship. The passage in Ephesians which we are looking at today was written to address the relationship between slave and master within the context of Christian behavior. It maintains the earthly status of masters and slaves by enjoining the latter to obey their masters “with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ” (Eph. 6:5). However, it also enjoins masters to treat their slaves equally well, and instructs them to “stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (6:9). Paul, in his epistle to Philemon argues similarly, if not more forcefully. In it, he encourages Philemon to accept Onesimus (a runaway slave of Philemon’s who had been of service to Paul) not as a slave but “as a beloved brother” (1:16) and includes a not-too-veiled threat that he will be checking up on the matter personally (1:21-22).

This tension between the earthly existence of slavery and the ideal of equality before Christ as the ultimate sovereign (kurios) of all mankind posed a difficult problem for the early Church. The problem of appropriate conduct for a slave in service to a pagan master, who might ask his servant to carry out sacrifices or other practices a Christian would find objectionable, was also nettlesome. As a general rule, the church did not engage in actions that would have compromised a master’s legal rights to the slave’s service, but slaves who entered the church with their master’s consent could and did rise to positions of authority. A bishop of Rome in the early third century, Callistus, was himself an ex-slave.

Perhaps the most important “take-away” for believers in our own time and place, rather than the imperfect attempts to mold ancient practice into accord with Paul’s concern for the treatment of slaves, is the uniquely Christian notion of slavery, both earthly and spiritual, being the consequence of sin (among the church fathers, see Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians-40.6; Gregory of Nyssa, In Ecclesiasten 4; Augustine, City of God 19.15). The radical notion in the hymn at Philippians 2:5-9 that Christ “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” shocked Roman sensibilities as blasphemous, inspired early believers who were themselves bound by earthly servitude, and challenges believers today to strive—like Paul—to find freedom by being servants to Christ Jesus.


1. With profuse apologies to Bob Dylan (“Gotta Serve Somebody,” http://www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/gotta-serve-somebody).

2. The opening of an epistle as a “slave of Christ/God” occurs in Romans, Titus, Philippians, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation. Doulos most properly means someone born into slavery rather than taken, but by the time of Paul’s writing, it had simply become a generic term encompassing a wide variety of servitude.

3. Niall McKeown, The Invention of Ancient Slavery? (London: Duckworth, 2007).

4. Another method existed whereby the master could have a slave enroll during a census of the population, provided the slave either gained or was supplied sufficient property in order to do so.

5. Augustus extended a more limited set of rights to freedmen, but they could under some circumstances gain citizenship after being manumitted. Citizenship as a result of manumission became the norm as citizenship rights became more universal in the later Roman Empire.

6. We get this from the Roman biographer Suetonius’ life of Nero (23.1).

7. For a more thorough discussion that was very helpful to me in preparing this section, see I.A.H. Combes, The Metaphor of Slavery in the Writing of the Early Church (Sheffield: 1998).

8. All translations are from the ESV.