Per Caritatem

Does St. Augustine’s theology make him a socio-political passivist?  Many assume it does. However, the fairly recent discovery of almost thirty previously unknown letters of St. Augustine by Johannes Divjak in the early nineteen eighties shows that picture to be false. Moreover, what emerges is a saint, no doubt influenced by his socio-cultural milieu—but then again, if we accept social conditioning, who isn’t influenced in such a way?—nonetheless, Augustine’s relationship to slavery and citizens’ rights manifests itself as a complex, multifaceted, conflicting and even at times contradicting position, yet in no way is it a position of passive resignation to the social evils of this world.[1]

Although scholars disagree over the precise dates of some of the letters, most believe that they were written during the last fifteen years of Augustine’s life (415-430 A.D.).[2] In particular, epistle 10*, written as early as 422 or 423 or, as Claude Lepelley estimates, as late as 428 A.D., sheds light on Augustine and his parishioners’ active involvement in thwarting the lucrative “business” of slave dealers (mangones) in Hippo.[3]

Before discussing passages from epistle 10*, I want to be clear as to the specifics of my claims. Although the contents of the letter reveal that Augustine condemned the kidnapping, violent treatment, and enslavement of free persons in North Africa—most of whom were peasants, women, and children—he does not explicitly speak out against the institution of slavery per se. Nor do Augustine’s rescue operations, as recounted in this letter, seem to include those who are born slaves or those non-Roman citizens enslaved as a result of Roman war victories or other violent means.[4] In other words, Augustine, consonant with the social mores of late antiquity, accepted the institution and its legal distinctions of slave and free citizen.[5] Slaves were, as Peter Brown explains, “seen as objects of compassion by Christians”; however, “[t]he destiny of slaves was held to rest in the hands of their masters and mistresses. It was for the owners of the slaves, and for no one else, to ensure that slaves were fed, clothed, and protected.”[6]

Brown further adds that Christian morality taught that masters ought not treat their slaves with cruelty, nor should they exploit them sexually (both of which were common practices).[7] Likewise, Christian masters were encouraged, if not expected, to manumit their slaves.[8] In sum, qua institution, Augustine and the Christians of his day by and large did not directly challenge slavery, and in that respect were very much products of their social environment. In fact, it was not until the latter half of the eighteenth century that slavery as an institution “came to be regarded as a moral evil of a peculiar kind.”[9] For Augustine, slavery is an unnatural, prelapsarian institution, which God permits as a form of either “reformatory” or “retributive” punishment for sin.[10] Sometimes cultural blindness has a particularly enduring staying power.

Conceding all of the above, nonetheless, what we find in Divjak letter 10* is an Augustine who actively works to subvert the trafficking and enslavement of some of the most vulnerable, albeit free Roman citizens in Hippo. That is, even though our modern and postmodern sensibilities find highly problematic Augustine’s failure to condemn the institution of slavery, nonetheless, his theological commitments—imperfectly inflected and at times refracted through distorted cultural biases rather than theological truth—compelled him to intercede in word and deed on behalf of the poor and powerless.[11] As we shall see, he and his parishioners were willing to risk their lives in order to subvert the violent, self-serving practices of slave-traders in North Africa.[12]


[1] Divjak had been engaged in a project to catalogue all Augustinian texts in France—a significant undertaking, given Augustine’s output! While working in a library in Marseille, he discovered a fifteenth century manuscript of both known and previously unknown letters. As a result, in one unexpected and fruitful finding, almost thirty new letters were added to the Augustinian corpus. The Divjak letters were originally published in 1981 in volume 88 of the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL). (Eno, “Introduction,” in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, 4). For a detailed discussion of the Divjak letters, see Chadwick, “New Letters of St. Augustine.”

[2] Eno, “Introduction,” in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, 5.

[3] Ibid., 75. See also, Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty,” esp. 28. Lepelley also discusses the social landscape of Hippo and its rather large population of beggars; see, ibid., esp., 4–5.

[4] Garnsey enumerates three defining features of slavery: “the slave was kinless, stripped of his or her old social identity in the process of capture, sale and deracination, and denied the capacity to forge new bonds of kinship through marriage alliance” (Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, 1). See also, Patterson, Slavery and Social Death. Patterson gives the following as a preliminary definition of slavery with respect to personal relations and then devotes his first chapter to an elaboration of that definition: “slavery is the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” (ibid., 13, italics in original).

[5] As Weidemann explains, several factors, including new restrictions on “the exploitation of peasant labor,” as well as terminating the practice of debt enslavement, contributed to the formation of more rigid social divide.  “The consequent clear and sharp distinction between the rights of citizens, no matter how lowly, and the rightlessness of chattel-slaves was codified and reinforced by the developments of Roman law” (Slavery, 6). Thus, previously understood intermediate statues were increasingly obliterated, making it all the more urgent to stay on the free side of the divide. As Garnsey explains, although both Athens and Rome were chattel slave societies, one must avoid the temptation to flatten out their differences. On these differences, see Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, esp. 2–9.

[6] Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, 61.

[7] For a detailed and informative study of the violence enacted upon slaves in the ancient period, see Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity. Glancy’s analyses emphasize the “corporeality of ancient slavery,” showing the various ways in which “the bodies of slaves were not themselves neatly bounded nor defined entities. The bodies of slaves were vulnerable to abuse and penetration” (ibid., 3, 12). On the commonly held view that male slaveowners had a “right” to engage in sexual relations wit their female slaves, see Corcoran, Saint Augustine on Slavery, esp. 29–30.

[8] Ibid., 61, 62. Brown further adds that some of the freed slaves were, after careful scrutiny and sufficient time, “received into monasteries or as members of the clergy” (ibid., 62). On the actual frequency of manumission in Rome generally speaking, see Wiedemann, “The Regularity of Roman Manumission.” Wiedemann concludes that though the ideal was that a faithful, loyal slave ought to be freed after a relatively short term of service—perhaps six years with ten years considered rather long—this was not the case in actual practice; rather, “the real world was ruled by self-interest” (ibid., 175). Given Wiedemann’s conclusion, it would be informative to compare, if such is possible, the manumission rates among Christians and non-Christians.

[9] Wiedemann, Slavery, 1.

[10] For this reason, as well as what he believes to be the authoritative teaching of St. Paul (for example, 1 Cor. 7:21–24), one can find many instances in Augustine’s writings where he exhorts slaves unable to obtain their freedom to remain in their condition and to serve their masters “loyally and with a good will” (City of God, 19.15; 944).  One should, however, keep in mind that the New Testament itself presents contrasting and conflicting views on slavery. For example, several scholars interpret St. Paul as exhorting Philemon to manumit Onesimus, Philemon’s slave (and perhaps a fugitive slave), who had converted to Christianity. I describe the latter as a “contrasting case of sorts,” because, depending upon how one interprets these passages, one could argue that the New Testament itself is ambiguous and that those early Christian communities were still very much working out how to deal with the issue of slavery in light of the Christ-event and its individual and socio-political ramifications.

[11] See also, Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty.” Drawing upon the contents of Divjak letter 20*, Lepelley highlights Augustine’s institution in Hippo of a “matricula pauperum, i.e., a list of poor persons supported by the church,” most of whom were “widows and orphans” (ibid., 5).

[12] Against the charge by modern historians that Augustine cared little for the poor, enslaved, and powerless of society and that he was a promoter of colonialism and imperialism, Lepelley argues convincingly based on Augustine’s sermons, letters, and other primary sources that such theories are prime examples of anachronistic readings that have failed to wrestle with Augustine’s texts and the framework of his historical context.  See Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty,” esp. 5–10. See also, Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire.