Augustine of Hippo Against the Slave-Trade

Augustine of Hippo Against the Slave-Trade

When we think of Christians who opposed the slave trade, William Wilberforce or John Newton may come to mind. But they were certainly not the first. Back in the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo reacted strongly to this widespread problem.

            Slavery is such an ancient practice that most people in Augustine’s time (and earlier) took it for granted. Most slaves were prisoners of war or indebted people who had no way to pay, and this was seen as a necessary evil or an unfortunate consequence of poverty and war. Even Christian writers, including Augustine, justified it as such.

            The only existing sermon opposing the practice of slavery in late antiquity was preached by Gregory of Nyssa,[1] but there is no reason to believe that his was the only voice. The Egyptian abbot Isidore of Pelusium, for example, set himself as an intercessor for slaves and an advocate for a mild and generous treatment of transgressors. In one occasion, he expressed his surprise when a slave asked him to intercede with his Christian owner. Isidore couldn’t understand how a Christian, “a lover of Christ, conscious of that grace that has claimed all to freedom,”[2] could enslave or keep anyone enslaved.

            The fact is, slavery existed and many realized it could be a source of financial profit through the abduction of free people to be sold as slaves in foreign country. This was the case, for example, with the raiders who kidnapped Patrick of Ireland.[3]

Augustine’s Reaction

            Back in Hippo, Augustine expressed his concerns about this cruel trade in a letter to Alypius, a friend from his youth who was with him at the time of the Tole Lege revelation and stayed with him through the early phases of his Christian journey.

            In Hippo, where Augustine was bishop, slave traders were known as mangones and were considered a scourge. They arrived in large numbers and bought slaves from locals who had kidnapped them.

            In a few rare cases, children were sold by their parents. It was actually common (and lawful under Roman laws) for indigent parents to sell their children as servants for a period of twenty-five years. But the mangones would resell the children as permanent slaves. This, as well as slave trafficking in general, was illegal (Emperor Constantine had specified the horror of this trade when it affected children), and transgressors were punished harshly with a led-tipped whip. The few who survived this harsh treatment were stripped of their goods and exiled for life.

            In spite of these laws, many locals had joined the trade as kidnappers – either by enticing people into their homes with an excuse or by organizing violent raids on isolated locations. Since kidnapping by enticements was not specifically included in the law, they often got away.

            These kidnappers, Augustine said, were blinded by greed and infected by what he considered a strange illness. He mentioned with astonishment a woman in Hippo who enticed other women with the pretense of wanting to buy wood, then locked them up and sold them.

            Women and children were in fact the preferred prey, because they could not fight back as easily as the men. Children could be easily trained, and women served more than one purpose.

            A girl who had been rescued from her kidnappers told Augustine that she was taken in front of her parents and brothers who stood there watching. Everyone knew that resisting violent raiders was of no avail. These kidnappers usually killed anyone who tried to stop them. The girl in question was later rescued by one of her brothers (Augustine doesn’t explain how).

Rescue Missions

            Whenever they were alerted, Augustine and his congregation organized rescue missions, which were usually successful simply by threatening to enforce the law. Once the victims were rescued, however, Augustine discouraged his congregants from reporting the mangones to the authorities because he couldn’t have that terrible punishment on his conscience. In fact, he asked Alypius to do what he could to advocate a less brutal punishment while exhorting the authorities to do more to prevent the slave trade and to stop the mangones before they sailed away.

            Augustine gives an example of a church rescue mission which had taken place only four months earlier, when a large group of people from different places (mostly from Numidia) were captured by merchants from Galatia (where most slave traders operated). The traders were ready to embark when a Christian who was aware of the practices of Augustine’s church alerted the congregation.

            “Immediately our believers – I was not there – freed about 120 people,” Augustine wrote, “some from the ship where they had embarked and some from an isolated location where they had been hidden while waiting for their turn to board. Only five or six of these captives had been sold by their parents. As for the others, those who heard of their painful journey from swindlers to looters to the Galatians could hardly hold back tears.”[4]

            Rescuing slaves could be dangerous. “The Galatians have their patrons who assist them in reclaiming as their property the same people the Lord has freed through the Church’s intervention. They do this even when these people are back with their families who had been looking for them and who had come to us with letters from their bishops. Even now, as we are dictating these words, they have begun to harass some of our faithful children who have hosted a few of the freed captives (since the Church is not able to support them all). Even though the authorities have sent a letter which could have caused them to fear, they have not ceased to reclaim.”[5]

            Augustine’s letter to Alypius is our only source of information about his actions against the slave trade, but they were probably frequent. As for those who had been enslaved through other means, Augustine followed Paul and other Christian teachers in recognizing the church’s limitations. All they believed they could do was recommend mutual love, patience and long-suffering, looking forward to the age to come where all believers will be truly and forever free. 

[2] Salvatore Taiano, La schiavitù secondo i padri della chiesa, Roma: Tipografia dell’Unione Cooperativa Editrice, 1904, 38, my translation.

[4] Augustine of Hippo, Letter 10*, 7,, my translation.

[5] Ibid., 8


Simonetta Carr