Thus, even so early as the third and fourth century of our era, slavery was gradually but certainly ceasing to be the dominant economic force in the Roman Empire. That is now clear to us. It was not appreciated at the time. Rarely in history did any ruling minority understand the stage at which it arrived in the inevitable process of its own decay. Still more rarely does the dominated majority apprehend the real causes of its own subjection, or comprehend the level to which it risen as the result of its wholly unconscious social development. So with slaves and slavery. The slaves revolted often and fought bravely to shake off the chains of intolerable economic, social and personal oppression. But even when they temporarily succeeded they saw no way of escape from the system which crushed, tortured and butchered them, save by putting their masters under the same dictation from which they had suffered themselves. Their revolts were in the main unsuccessful, because the time was not ripe for their emancipate They sacrificed themselves bootlessly, in the long record of the martyrdom of man to the ignorance and cruelty of his own species, unconsciously and horribly working its way onward and upwards to a final relief from subjection. But this development could only come centuries upon centuries later, under economic conditions which the ablest brains of all time could not anticipate; conditions which we ourselves can barely grasp even when we have the entire system functioning around us.
What, however, the most justifiable, well-organised and well-led upheavals of the slaves in Italy, Sicily, Gaul and elsewhere could not achieve, notwithstanding the courage displayed and the greatness of the gladiator Spartacus, was brought about in the course of hundreds of years by the unseen growth of economic and social forces below. Slavery was slowly eaten out, though not only serfdom, its successor, but actual slavery itself, has survived, even in Europe, to modern times. The economic causes of decay and downfall were constantly at work, while the Empire still maintained an aspect of grandeur and permanence which deluded even the invaders who were compassing its final destruction.
The causes of the decay and downfall of Roman slavery may be thus summed up in brief:
The consequent return to natural and family economy on the land by free farmers and free coloni, the latter being the runners of the serfs. These farmers on participation in product were in all senses free, when their dues were paid to the proprietors, and their services had been performed for the State. 9. [?] The enormous cost of transport which increased as roads into disrepair and rendered production by slaves of luxuries for sale more and more unprofitable.
Simultaneously with this enfeeblement and decay of the slave system the whole economic arrangements of the Empire were undergoing a slow but relentless process of change. On the other hand, the scarcity of money increased the power of those who possessed it; and thus, more especially in relation to land, enhanced the crushing weight of mortgages and put the debtor at the mercy of the creditor, while the value of the land was diminished. On the other hand, this very scarcity of money forced the return to small cultivation and rendered inevitable, as we have seen, payment in kind. Produce by degrees replaced money for all purposes of payment. Taxes in kind. Tributes in kind. Landlords’ dues in kind. Land tax in kind. Salaries in kind. General payments in kind. And while all this was going on organisation was deteriorating, and roads were becoming steadily worse. The flourishing Rome of the Republic and early Empire was falling into a ruinous state. The East was gaining ground upon the West, and the removal of the capital of the Empire by Constantine was only a more complete announcement of the policy of neglect of Rome, which had been pursued by his predecessors; while the civil wars for personal dominance served to deepen still further the increasing poverty of the State. Slavery was by no means dead; there was wealth still in the Eastern Empire; but a completely in new social organisation was growing up out of the downfall of the old, when the succession of barbarian invasions brought a new and, economically and socially speaking, reactionary element into play. The old Rome was virtually in ruins, and reconstruction had begun, when successive tidal waves of barbarian tribes and hordes flooded in upon all portions of the Empire – probably a result of a turnover on its side of the huge giant we know as China; a movement of Asian humanity whose cause we still do not comprehend.
It has been common practice to take it for granted that the incoming of these peoples, with their fine physical energy and unexhausted vigour, breathed new life into the decadent economic and social forms of a great civilisation in decay. Even Marx and Engels were of that opinion. But it seems to me that this view is incorrect. The Huns, the Goths, the Franks, the Visigoths and the rest of the invaders, who themselves held slaves, were admittedly at a lower stage of human development than the populations whose armies they rarely defeated in the open field, but whose social organisation was no longer sufficiently powerful to resist persistent attacks by overwhelming numbers. These great tribes were all of them still in the status of gentile development; they had none of thei reached the point of civilisation. Not only so, but their whole social system was incapable of absorbing into itself the much more highly advanced organised community upon which they used [?] themselves. Consequently, their influence upon the populations which came under their domination was in no sense progressive, but on the contrary reactionary. The conquered, far from being absorbed by the conquerors, in the long run absorbed and civilised them. But this was the work of centuries. And it is the extreme difficulty of following the steps of this long process which renders the history of the so-called Dark Ages so obscure even now.
The complete overthrow of slavery seems to have been checked, rather than hastened, by the advent of the barbarians. The free peasant farmers, the coloni and the free workers of the cities, who were going forward hand in hand into a fresh combination, the details of which we can now only surmise, found themselves submerged by an influx of uncultured and barbarous strangers, whom they could not understand, and whose methods of warfare entailed in many instances wholesale destruction of what was most useful and beautiful even in the decadent period of their own civilisation. Not until the medley of races and systems thus jumbled up together was clarified, in some degree, by the quasi-civilising of the invaders, did the advance recommence. This was, in fact, what might have been expected. A higher development of human society may conceivably influence, transform and by degrees uplift a lower, but there is no instance in the history of the race where the imposition of a lower form upon a higher has aided progress. Nor is there any more convincing instance of the latter truth than the successful invasion of the Roman Empire in its decline by the barbarians from without. This has always been the popular idea, and the growing science of sociology, in this as in some other cases, confirms the popular instinct.
Out of this period of barbarian conquests the next form of human servitude, feudalism and serfdom, gradually established itslef; though in Gaul, long prior to these conquests, a somewhat similar form of social relations had grown up. The coloni and even the small free cultivators were at hand to constitute the basis of such a system of personal opposed to slave, or pecuniary, domination, as the prevailing form of human exploitation, even though both forms existed at the same time. Just as one important section of the historians of economic and social development seem to have gone wrong about the beneficent effect of barbarian influence upon populations which had attained to the level of civilisation, so another set of annalists, belonging to a very different school, have accepted a view which is demonstrably erroneous about the power exercised by Christianity in the whole of the earlier period of the decline of slavery. The freedom looked for by the Christians was not of this world. It was an individual emancipation from all material forms of existence, to be realised on the coming of the Christ, which they confidently expected would occur within a reasonable period, nearly always within the lifetime of Christians then in existence. Their hopes ascended to the heavens and disdained aspirations which were of the earth earthy. This spiritual consolation of eternal bliss hereafter far transcended any gratification to be derived from such a transitory advantage as manumission or complete liberty here. There were some fanatics, of course, who took a more natural view of things and desired to achieve a more tangible success, or even to inflict a justifiable punishment upon their persecutors, by direct action of a purely sublunary kind. Whether or not these zealots had anything to do with the burning of Rome under Nero, they probably had a hand in the three attempts made to burn down Diocletian’s palace; while their unconcealed glee at the ugly end of his co-Emperor, Galerius, showed that they cherished a bitter hatred against those who despitefully used them. In fact the usual incapacity to divorce the flesh from the spirit manifested itself in early Christianity as in other supernatural creeds.
But although Christian propagandists sought for and obtained the bulk of their converts among the slave population, there is nothing to show that the Apostles and Fathers of the Church declared against slavery as an institution, so long as it was universally accepted by the rulers and great ones of the Empire as a necessary portion of human society. Far from this, the slaves themselves, Christians though they were, received direct orders from their most active leaders to obey their masters in the Lord. Not only did these sanctified leaders counsel submission to the prevailing order, but Christians owned slaves themselves, and were not called upon by the Church to manumit or emancipate them. In fact, at a later date, the famous St Thomas Aquinas formally accepts the views of Aristotle as to the natural growth and practically indispensable necessity of servitude. Later still Christian institutions, under the direct ownership and conrol of the Church, were very slow to manumit their slaves and serfs; and in reality only did so when such manumission was economically advantageous for the better cultivation of their landed properties.
Christianity, in short, for generations regarded chattel slavery as a necessary institution, in the same way that this very religion and its representatives of various sects look upon wage slavery to-day. Compensation for degradation and misery here would be attained in the shape of eternal felicity hereafter – a most conservative and consoling view of human exploitation. But Christianity is no more blameworthy for this tendency to accommodate itself to the prevailing conditions of the time in the matter of slavery than Fetishism, Sun Worship, Buddhism, Mohammedanism or any other religion. Only when the claim is made that Christianity was an effective agency in bringing about the downfall of slavery does it become necessary to point out that the Founder and Fathers of the prevailing Asiatic creed were quite as little disposed as the priests of Jupiter, the Stoic philosophers or the Emperors of Rome to run counter to the legalised slavery of the day. And just as the latter adopted a more humane ethic when slavery became less economically advantageous, so the Christian Church, very tentatively and slowly, took the same line, as soon as its leading men were affected by the humaner views born of the change of economic and social conditions.
Then, indeed, we may freely admit that the nobler sons of the Apostolic Church were still more strongly influenced than their heathen predecessors by the current feeling of the time. They used their spiritual powers to help on death-bed manumissions and everyday emancipation. Humanitarian psychology, which may have somewhat anticipated the full material evolution in the highest minds of the previous period, now became the common property, in this particular department, of all decent men of religion. Yet it was not religion but economics that inaugurated the transformation which, once begun, went steadily forward to modern times. However, in our own day, it is interesting to observe that in the Southern States of the great republic of North America, in the West Indies and elsewhere, negro slavery was widely championed by the clergy of the Christian churches in the nineteenth century.
In antiquity, then, chattel slavery failed for economic reasons. It still exists where those economic causes have not come into play. But the change even in ancient Rome was very various, and the increase of coloni and free settlers who were held by tribute from the soil did not relieve the bulk of the agricultural population from economic servitude. The two sorts of coloni were under the harrow of landlords small and large. One set of coloni who were definitely attached to the soil were in effect little better than slaves, without the physical chains of slavery. Their persons were largely under the control of the proprietors, and they were exposed to harsh treatment at their landowner’s will. They were so absolutely bound to the soil that they could be sold, as cultivators upon it, as an integral portion of the estate, though they could not be thus sold apart from the property. The free settlers who paid to the owners tribute in kind were in a better position. But even they were subject to such increasing insecurity of holding, owing to the power of the landowner to evict at his good pleasure, with no redress on the part of the tenant, that their freedom was greatly limited. Moreover, there was always hanging over them the likelihood of an arbitrary increase of their payments in kind for the right to cultivate the soil, so that they could by degrees be reduced to the status of the bonded serfs.
Hadrian and other Roman emperors endeavoured to protect these coloni from personal and economic tyranny by law. Legislation was passed which prevented the landowners from exercising unrestrained rights of eviction, or increasing the amounts of the payments in kind. These enactments told in favour of the free settlers, and even secured some protection to the bonded serfs until the break-up of the Empire, custom coming in to strengthen the law. With the influx of the Germanic tribes the legislative protection necessarily lapsed.
There was thus, even at the most advanced stage of Imperial administration, no complete abrogation of slavery. It had economically and socially failed as the basis of the entire structure; but it still remained in its decaying period as a portion of the edifice, though its harshness of outline was toned down and its injurious features were ameliorated. No sudden break took place. The changes were gradual, though continuous, and were extended over ages, during which retrogressions occurred that tended to obscure to observers the general advance. The admirable apophthegm, which throws light upon so many of the obscure passages in human history, that progress in civilisation invariably comes from what we are accustomed to regard as “the bad side” of society, was never more directly applicable than in the development from slavery. Slavery was the bad side of Roman Imperialism, the side of the oppressed, who exhibited all the mean and degraded qualities of their servitude save in their exceptional but futile revolts against this slavery. Yet from slavery was begotten the economic and social revolution, accompanied, but little influenced, by sporadic upheavals and violence, which paved the way to the new forms of serfdom and feudalism. There was not, and there could not be, any sudden transformation; all who attempted this, however noble their intentions were, however useful their example for later periods, nay, no matter how much they may apparently have helped by their very failure to anticipate events, in truth, rather aided reaction, for the time being, than set forward the hands of revolution on the dial of human development. Only when the stage had been unconsciously reached where fruition was possible could the ablest and most self-sacrificing of our race, by understanding the material and social facts of their surroundings, mentally react in some degree upon those surroundings; and thus, still slowly, but none the less usefully, help to lead their fellow-men along the path whose immediate direction and ultimate goal they alone first saw. The unforeseen and uncontrollable irruption of the barbarian hordes and marauding invaders, like the ruthless attack of the Jews upon Palestine, of the Spaniards on South America and Mexico, or of the British on India, are exceptional incidents of racial and social aggression which interfere with the course of events locally, but do not check the general advance.
Last updated on 5.7.2006