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‘And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born’

Acts 22: 28


THE SLAVE LEADER of a rebel army, Spartacus has become an icon of liberation. By his strength and wit he humiliated the Roman state. From 73 to 72 B.C. his rough band of gladiators and peasants defeated legions of trained soldiers in pitched battle. The events recorded by the historians Appian and Plutarch two thousand years ago, and since given a glossy Hollywood interpretation, still have the power to draw a cinema crowd and sell comic books. It is an appealing story – the underdog, prey of a cruel society, defeats his masters and wins his liberty. (It says much for the morality of Spartacus: after defeating him, the Romans crucified 6,000 of his men; afterwards 3,000 Roman captives were found, unharmed, in his camp.)


Tales such as this are comparatively rare in the history of slavery. Subjugated peoples have, for the most part submitted – albeit unwillingly – to their masters. All civilisations have practised slavery to some degree. The most detailed records are handed down to us from Greece and Rome, whose captive workforce was fundamental to the prosperity and breadth of empire.


Despite the folklore, it was not all hard labour – the cliché galley of hunchbacked slaves rowing to a drum beat, whipped to the rhythm by the stocky slave driver, is a cinematic invention. In Greek and Roman times slaves were often trusted servants, educated and well treated. Most had lost their freedom through war or misfortune.


Ownership of Men

The word ‘servant’ comes from the Latin servare to be ‘severed’ or ‘spared’. Victorious Roman armies had power over the conquered to kill them or let them live, and those chosen for servants were spared from the sword. Such enslavement was seen as a mercy. Indeed, the Roman view was that the captive owed his master a debt of service in return for his life. Others who fell into debt, or were deprived of a living by misfortune, had little choice but to seek the guardianship of another and become a servant.


Roman Law made the servant the property of the master. This was a legal state of ownership, not merely an obligation to render obedience. The slave’s person was considered part of his master’s estate, and was sold or inherited as such. The right to command and subject another’s mind and body as one pleased gave many weak-minded men the liberty to abuse and mistreat their charges. The fruit of this evil is given adequate testimony in the records of Rome’s decline and fall.


Vedius Pollio, a wealthy Roman knight and acquaintance of Caesar, was renowned for his cruelty. Cassius Dio (also known as ‘Dio’ or ‘Dion’ Cassius) wrote of him, circa the second century BC:


He kept in reservoirs huge lampreys that had been trained to eat men, and he was accustomed to throw to them such of his slaves as he desired to put to death. [fn1]


These extremes of cruelty were not limited to the fringe of the wealthy elite. The historian Diodorus Siculus, writing about the same time as Cassius Dio, gives an account of slave labour in the Roman silver mines.


First worked by single prospectors, the profits from the excavations attracted business men, who used teams of slaves to dig for the precious ore. Siculus describes the brutal conditions:


The men engaged in these mining operations produce unbelievably large revenues for their masters, but as a result of their underground excavations day and night they become physical wrecks and because of their extremely bad conditions, the mortality rate is high; they are not allowed to give up working or have a rest but are forced by the beatings of their supervisors to stay at their places and throw away their wretched lives as a result of these horrible hardships. Some of them survive to endure their misery for a long time because of their physical stamina or sheer will power; but because of the extent of their suffering, they prefer dying to surviving.[fn2]


This condition of forced possession is repugnant to the modern mind, and though the ancients were accustomed to it, they still regarded slavery as against the natural order – in which man’s ideal state is one of libertas – the ability to do whatever one pleases unless prevented from doing so either by force or by law.


A Servant Not Above His Master

A slave’s standard of living and personal treatment varied according to the dignity of the master. An old Greek maxim held that a slave could not but be worse than his master; that is, when one submits to another, the submission itself necessarily defines the limits of attainment. The same principle, but from a different standpoint, was stated by Jesus in Matthew 10: 24 (NIV-UK) – ‘A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master’; if the Master is persecuted for righteousness, so will it be with the servants (vs. 22, 23, 25).


Harsh indignities like those endured in the mines did not extend to all slaves. The Mariandynians of ancient Greece are an example of voluntary submission. These people placed themselves under the control of those of Heraklea, vowing to serve them for ever, so long as their masters provided for them and protected them.[fn3]


The arrangement was convenient to both parties. Perhaps outpaced by the rivalries between the Greek city states, the Mariandynians found the Herakleans to be capable benefactors. Their slavery freed them from economic struggles, but confined them and their descendants to a life of service. It is a mode of living common to all generations and successively adapted to fit the vicissitudes of the day.


The Feudal System

Today most are bound to a 9-to-5 job, earning a wage in exchange for their time and often in debt to a bank for the land on which they live. In the Middle Ages, the mode of service was a fiefdom, where the vassal served his lord in return for protection and maintenance. The vassal was a tenant on the lord’s land and paid tribute from the proceeds of any farming or business in which the land was employed. The lord, in an oath of fealty, or loyalty, swore to defend his tenant’s livelihood and rights – necessary in a time of roving bandits and border skirmishes.


The mediaeval feudal arrangement was a grand hierarchy, in which tenants had sub-tenants, and lords had lords. At the top of this pyramid, pope and emperor were considered vassals of God. To be free from any bond or service was rare.


Civilisation was not always this way. When the Celtic tribes spread westward over Europe they divided the land among the families and clans proportionately, and every man was free to sustain his life according to his own industry. The later Angles and Saxons followed the same pattern. To be a freeman implied a definite legal status; that of a servant, another. In fact, freedom was the reason these nations migrated and settled in foreign lands. The same pattern can be seen in European migration to North America beginning in the seventeenth century.


The society of these early peoples, loose-knit and free, stratified after their first liberties became eroded and entangled in debts of loyalty. The various fortunes of each freeholder saw some prosper and others fail. A poor harvest, sickness or accident, would lead to one family borrowing from another. Wars and border disputes accelerated the loss of liberty, as in the time of King Alfred who, preparing to repel the Viking invasion, divided his kingdom into three groups – working men, praying men, and fighting men. Maintaining an army often required some to be freed from husbandry of the land and others to labour harder to support them. (The Levites were a ‘praying’ class, who owned no land and who were supported by the nation of Israel by a system of tithing (Numbers 2: 33; 18: 23, 24)).


The Modern Service Economy

The development of a nation establishes the organs of government and consequently increases the mutual obligations of free men. Those elected to power and relieved from a life of self-sufficiency, are duty-bound to work for the good of those who support them. While those who by their taxes fund the state have a duty to abide by the laws and customs arranged for their good. It is inevitable that as society advances, the intricacies of sharing a common living space reduce the liberties of men and women compared to what they might choose were they without personal or social obligations.


It is a neat paradox. The freedoms lost in an ordered society through submission to the law, the payment of taxes, and an orderly deference to the state, are substituted with rights which bring other freedoms – healthcare, education, social welfare, housing, free access to the marketplace, legal aid – and so on. Those tired of the ‘rat race’, and who yearn for a return to Eden – be it in the ‘hippy’ movement of the 1970s, or in the ‘green’ movement of the 1990s – must weigh the loss of these rights against the individual liberties offered by independence.


In Tranquility of the Mind, the Roman philosopher, Seneca, echoes this condition of the restless spirit captive to the State:-


We are all fettered to fortune. For some, the chain is made of gold, and is loose, for others it is tight and filthy – but what difference does that make? All of us are surrounded by the same kind of captivity, and even those who hold others bound are in bonds themselves, unless you happen to think that the handcuff the guard wears on his left wrist hurts less than the prisoner’s. Public offices hold one man captive, wealth another; some are disadvantaged by high birth, some by humble birth; some have to put up with other people’s commands, some with their own. Some have to stay in one place because they’ve been exiled, others because they’ve been appointed to a priesthood – all life is slavery.


Seneca states his maxim bitterly, but the truth of it is plain – all seek the freedom of self-determination. No man is an island, and an uncertain world forces each one of us to make some unfortunate alliances. In binding himself to another, each individual becomes prey to his fellow, rather than Nature. In an ordered society, self-interest makes even the lightest bonds chafe.


Servitude in the Bible

In the Bible, the land of Egypt stands as a figure – or type – of the world at large, man’s corrupt society. Founded upon the fertile flood-lands of the Nile delta, Egypt is considered by many historians the first civilisation. Her pyramids, temples, canals and advanced agriculture were the classic markings of a structured society. Pharaoh was at the head, and he hand-picked officers for his government from noble families. Under his authority they enforced laws which encouraged trade and so made Egypt rich.



The story of Joseph in Genesis illustrates how a wealthy Egypt provided for the surrounding nations in a time of famine. Such hospitality is a hallmark of an advanced nation. The Egyptians peacefully accommodated Jacob’s family and evidently the benevolence and civil order was sufficient for these seventy souls to remain and prosper within Egypt’s borders. After a few hundred years, Jacob’s descendants numbered at least two million. (According to Exodus 12: 37 there were 600,000 men, in addition to women and children).


Whoever the pharaoh was that favoured Joseph, there came to power one of an opposite disposition. This pharaoh enslaved the Israelites, probably for political reasons, exploiting the widespread jealousy and fear of the rapidly-multiplying Hebrews. The Egyptian citizen would no doubt assert his or her rights above those of the interlopers and come to resent the foreigners (not unlike the current debate in Britain over immigration).


This deft manoeuvre by Pharaoh to insinuate that Jacob’s descendants were a fifth column, intent on usurping Egyptian sovereignty, would have united public opinion against the Israelites. The lines of race and tradition were clear enough that the Hebrew families could be singled out and forced into slavery. Egypt, once a nation that welcomed immigrants, had fallen into a corrupt and selfish patriotism.


Why was there no Israelite rebellion, or no Egyptian movement of compassion? As the Bible goes on to show, to be another’s servant was not considered unjust, or even extraordinary. Indeed, Moses, the one who had delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage, later instituted laws which governed the buying and selling of servants, their treatment and their liberation. Moses delivered the Israelites from the cruel treatment, not from service.


Biblical Slavery

Under Mosaic law, a servant’s term of service was limited to six years. Both master and servant were bound by the Ten Commandments and sundry regulations governing their fair treatment of each other. An evidence of the benign nature of the relationship is indicated in Exodus 21: 1-11. Verses 5, 6 allow a servant who loved his master to voluntarily continue in service beyond the end of the statutory six years. Such an arrangement was marked by the servant’s ear being prepared for an earring – the sign of an indentured servant – by boring it through with an awl.[fn4]


The liberated thinker who casts aside the Old Testament because he mistakes service for slavery, and slavery for cruelty, is robbed of a precious truth. Today’s free society, born out of the twentieth century’s political renewal and a retrospective view of the tumult of four centuries of enlightenment, believes all that is old is worn out or broken. And in a world in which you can ‘be your own boss’ it is considered unambitious and degrading to be servant to another. This approach is more permissive than liberated, for the end of it is competition and anarchy. No great work can be achieved by a wholly selfish pursuit of one’s own interests.


From Democracy to Dystopia

The scroll of history records civilisations of every hue, from democracy to dictatorship. Human nature is malleable enough to be fashioned to extremes of meekness and tyranny. Since all nations are constituted of the same material, how can such different organisations arise? One explanation is that these apparent opposites – democracy and autocracy – are but the early and later developments of the same thing – different ages of the same body. Mankind’s intentions start out well, but after a time, and by degrees, the system goes rotten. Tyranny and dictatorship often follow if the more liberal form of government has failed. For example, the Roman Republic preceded the autocracy of the Caesars. In the beginning, people will choose fair government through consensus and council. Then, as the group dynamic proves slow and ineffectual, a crisis often puts the power into the hands of a special few to ‘get the job done’. One need only reflect on the abridgement by government of certain civil liberties in our own country, a response to the duress created by threats to national security and perceived social disorder. This is not to suggest that Britain has become an autocracy, but to illustrate the tendency for an impatient world to favour expediency over liberty.



To Be Continued




Citations to Web pages are correct as of the dates retrieved, but sites may expire or be moved.


[fn1] Cassius Dio, Roman History (Loeb, 1917).

The text is taken from volume 6 of the Loeb Classical Library edition and is in the public domain, available online here: -

< http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/54*.html#23.5 > (retrieved 7 November, 2010).

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[fn2] Thomas Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery: A Sourcebook (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), 177.

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[fn3] Thomas Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery: A Sourcebook (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), 81. Wiedemann quotes the Greek Stoic Poseidonios from book 11 of his Histories. Athenaeus, another Greek, quotes from the same in book 6 of his work The Deipnosophists – available online here: -

< http://www.attalus.org/old/athenaeus6d.html#263 > (retrieved 7 November, 2010 ).

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[fn4] ‘Indenture’ was common in other historical settings as a contract of fixed term, between three to seven years, in which one party voluntarily committed himself in servitude to another. This resembles the more modern practice of the apprenticeship. It may also refer to the ancient contract written on one sheet, which was then cut in two in an indented fashion. One half was kept by each of the contracting parties. The matching indentations confirmed the validity of the document and served to guard against fraudulent duplication.


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Article copyright August 2010 by ukbiblestudents.co.uk

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