Per Caritatem

In epistle 10*, addressed to Alipius, the bishop of Thagaste, Augustine brings to Alipius’s attention his concerns regarding the activities of slave dealers in his region. As Augustine explains, these “businessmen” are “draining Africa of much of its human population and transferring their ‘merchandise’ to the provinces across the sea.”[1] These traders and their hired thugs preyed upon the poorest of Roman citizens, kidnapping them and then selling them as slaves.[2] As he emphasizes throughout the letter, the situation at Hippo Regius had become increasingly violent. With the most vulnerable terrorized, and receiving little or no protection from Roman officials, they turned to the church for help.

In the midst of this violence, Augustine and his church intervened. Not only did Augustine investigate Roman law in order to find potential loopholes to help put an end to this criminal activity,[3] but he and his church actually physically rescued captives from slave ships and hid them away—actions which put their own lives at risk. Augustine recounts to Bishop Alipius one such rescue mission, in which over one hundred individuals captured by Galatian merchants were rescued by parishioners from Augustine’s church.[4]

There was not lacking a faithful Christian who, knowing our custom in missions of mercy of this kind, made this known to the church. Immediately, partially from the ship in which they had already been loaded, partially from the spot where they had been hidden prior to boarding, about 120 people were freed by our people […] Your Holy Prudence can imagine how much similar trafficking in unfortunate souls goes on in other coastal areas, if at Hippo Regius, where in God’s mercy, the great vigilance of the church is on the watch so that poor people can be freed from captivity of this sort and these people who carry on such a trade, though far from suffering from the severity of this law, are nevertheless punished, at least by the loss of the money they originally spent, so great is the greed of these people.[5]

Even though prior to the discovery of Divjak epistle 10* scholars such as Claude Lepelley and Peter Brown have argued, drawing heavily on Augustine’s homilies and Scripture commentaries, that Augustine evinced extraordinary concern for the downtrodden and destitute,[6] the Divjak letters provide additional strength to such claims and reveal the degree to which Augustine and his congregation were actively involved in socio-political projects on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and exploited. In addition, Divjak letter 10* reveals Augustine’s concern for political or citizen freedom—even though incomplete and in need of revision. This suggests that Augustine was not unaware of the connection between political freedom and metaphysical freedom—a connection commonplace in Franciscan tradition.[7] (In future posts, I hope to revisit, in particular, John Duns Scotus’s views on freedom and slavery).

Notes 


[1] Augustine, “Divjak Letter 10*,” in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, edited by Eno, 75–6.

[2] For additional study of the social setting of Augustine’s day, see Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty.” Lepelley discussion how the status of the coloni had become de facto (though not de jure) “a kind of serfdom” (ibid., 6). See also, Brown, “Augustine and a Crisis of Wealth.” Brown argues against two common misconceptions of modern historians regarding the socio-political and economic constitution of the Catholic church of Augustine’s day.  First, Brown contends that the Catholic church at that time “was not a rich church, nor was it necessarily a church exclusively of the rich. It was not until the early sixth century that any church in the Latin West came to hold properties which equaled in their extent and income the estates of the great secular landowners. Up to then, the Catholic church had remained overshadowed by the truly wealthy—and the church of Africa seems to have been no exception to this rule. Second, […] the Catholic church in Africa was not a state church, securely established by imperial fiat at the top of African society. […] The newly-discovered Divjak letters, in particular, tell a dismal story. Bishops frequently found themselves unable to protect those who had fled to sanctuary in their churches. There was a constant shortage of clergymen. Heavy taxation had impoverished the urban classes from whom the clergy was most often recruited, and the imperial government systematically restricted the tax benefits of those who served the church. Rather than being a church of the upper classes, the social composition of the Catholic church was little different from that of its Donatist rival” ibid., 6–7).

[3] In paragraphs three and four, Augustine informs Bishop Alipius that he had come across a law decreed previously by emperor Honorius to suppress these activities and to punish the perpetrators (see, Augustine, “Divjak Letter 10*,” 77–8). Chadwick conjectures that Augustine perhaps learned of this decree through his friend Eustochius. The latter is the addressee of Divjak letter 24*, whose content focuses primarily upon complex legal and practical questions Augustine had to address with respect to children sold into slavery (“New Letters of St. Augustine,” 433).

[4] Commenting on this remarkable event, Lepelley notes that the gangs employed by the Galatian slave traders often had as their target peasants—in this case, impoverished Numidian peasants. Appealing strategically to Roman law and employing Roman honor and freedom rhetoric (see paragraphs 5 and 6 of “Divjak Letter 10*,” in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, edited by Eno, 78–9), Augustine intercedes on their behalf. As Lepelley observes, “[t]hese peasants, Augustine said, were still Roman citizens and had the right to be protected by the imperial authorities. Unfortunately for them, in 428, when this letter was written, the Western Roman Empire was collapsing” (“Facing Wealth and Poverty,” 7).

[5] Augustine, “Divjak Letter 10*,”in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, edited by Eno, 79–80.

[6] See, for example, Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty,” esp. 4–10; Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, esp. 63–4.

[7] This is not to suggest that Augustine’s notion of metaphysical freedom, or political freedom for that matter, is precisely the same as, for example, John Duns Scotus’s notion.

 


2 Responses so far

Cynthia: I’m traveling, so I can’t recall this right now, but I seem to remember a separate incident somewhere in all of my reading when Augustine took all of the money that the church had at the time and went down himself to free a ship of slaves by purchasing them (perhaps glossed in PB’s biography, or Possidius?). Do you remember seeing that, or have I simply misremembered something?

If that is the case, it appears that he sees at least two methodologies as permissible in political activism. If I have remembered this incorrectly, I apologize. (I will try to double-check this when I get back home to my books).

Also, how do you feel about Markus’ interpretation of Augustine in Saeculum? The event described in Ep. 10* would seem to confirm Markus’ reading that Augustine’s focus was on individuals acting as Christians within a neutral government, rather than the existence of such a thing as a “Christian government”.


Hi Brian, I am also away for a few days traveling; I’ll get back to your question on the 6th or so. Thanks for the comment.