I’ve been doing a bit of research into this matter lately and found some wonderful videos by Thomas Sowell. If you have not heard this man talk about slavery, please look him up. Anyway, I was more interested in Biblical, or first-century slavery and this distinction the Christians always try to make. Was slavery different in the first century?
Well, there were many ways to become a slave, your parents could sell you into slavery as a child. You could be captured in a war. You could be abandoned as a baby. You could be sentenced as a criminal. You could be born into it. You could also sell yourself into slavery. You could be kidnapped and sold into slavery. One good thing about being a Roman slave is that most people spoke the language. Still, once you were a slave, there were ways to let the people around you know that you were property and no longer a human being.
All slaves were “property,” by Roman Law. Their owners did with them whatever they wanted. That included torture, sex, or anything in between. So where did this Christian idea of ‘Good Slavery’ come from?
Well, in fact, there were many forms of slavery. When a neighboring country was conquered and its population enslaved, Musicians, Craftsmen, Equestrians, Soldiers, Educators, Masons, and all manner of the populace became slaves. An educated slave could bring a higher price on the sales block if he was killed in an area some wealthy land owner thought could be useful. These slaves obviously got better appointments. It did not change the fact that they were property. They were generally identified by a metal collar around their neck that had a tag. On the tag it would say, “Hold Me, and return me to; and then the name of their owner.” We are all, also familiar with the reference to the piercing of the ears, also to be tagged as a slave. Any slave that tried to run away would be tattooed across their forehead with the same message. It was not until 316 CE that Constantine outlawed the tattooing of slaves across their foreheads. And these were the skilled slaves. The cream of the crop.
All the other slaves found themselves in the mines, quarries, or in fields. These conditions were certainly no better than conditions in the USA, or throughout the Middle East whose slave trade lasted much longer than that of the USA. Anyway, the point is, yes, some slaves were skilled and were able to secure positions of skilled labor. The majority were not. Most slaves in Rome, worked the mines, the fields, or the quarries and they did so without breaks until they died and were replaced with new slaves.
Regardless of ‘Good Slavery,’ slaves were the property of their owners and the owners did with their slaves as they wished, including selling them, sending them to the mines, chopping off hands or feet, tattooing, and yes killing. Slaves had no rights. NONE They were property, regardless of the job they were enslaved to do.
It’s a good read for the next time you hear that Christian pipe up and tell you how different slavery in the time of Jesus was.
EDIT:: If you don’t want to do all the reading - What It Was Like to Be a Roman Slave - YouTube