History Podcasts

Do we have examples of Roman freedmen becoming wealthy?

Do we have examples of Roman freedmen becoming wealthy?

I was curious to know more about this, found on Wikipedia:

"Other freedmen became wealthy. The brothers who owned House of the Vettii, one of the biggest and most magnificent houses in Pompeii, are thought to have been freedmen. A freedman designed the amphitheater in Pompeii."

Do we have some other examples of freed slaves becoming rich?

A quick Google search found this article, which mentions the freedman C. Caecilius Isidorus (who would eventually own over 4,000 slaves himself). I'm sure a slightly longer search would find many more.

Slavery in the Early Roman Empire

If you were the galley slave, Judah ben Hur, could you have saved the Roman admiral in the shipwreck?

“The Slave Market” published in Ernst Keil’s Nachfolger, 1891.
Engraving derived from Gustave Boulanger’s oil on canvas work from 1882.

The people of the Empire were divided into three main categories: Roman citizen (civis), free noncitizen (peregrinus), or slave (servus, mancipium, res mortales).

Living somewhere was not enough to make you a citizen of that place. It was the status of your parents that determined unless the state decided to grant you citizenship. Citizens had many well-defined rights not granted to peregrines. Slaves had no rights at all.

Numbers and Status of Slaves
Slavery was considered normal in virtually all cultures in ancient times, and the Romans were no exception. The portion of the population that was enslaved varied across the Empire, with an estimated 15% Empire-wide. Overall, perhaps one household in seven owned slaves, but rates of ownership were much higher in Italy and Sicily. In those regions, perhaps as high as 30% were slaves during the early Empire.

Slavery was the engine that powered parts of the Roman economy and supported the elite Roman lifestyle. It was fueled by massive influxes of men, women, and children captured during Rome’s military campaigns. As the Republic and then the Empire expanded to its greatest extent under Trajan, more than a million persons from regions as distant as Judaea and Britannia lost their freedom. Each conquest pumped a fresh supply of cheap labor toward the estates, businesses, and homes of rich and average citizens alike.

The number of slaves a person owned was a conspicuous measure of wealth. While the private home of an average person living in Rome might use five to twelve slaves, the urban residence of the elite might have up to five hundred performing tasks that only needed a small fraction of that total. A large agricultural estate might employ two or three thousand.

The low status of a slave was evident in the legal Latin term for one: res (a thing, an object, property). In the Digest (a compilation of centuries of Roman law written in AD 533), a slave is a res mortales (mortal thing) whose injury is treated as simple damage to property.

The standard terms for farm slaves further illustrate the subhuman status of slaves. A farm implement, like a plow, was an instrumentum. The ox pulling the plow was an instrumentum semivocalis. The slave driving the ox was an instrumentum vocalis, a talking tool. Their lodging was an ergastulum (private prison), and on some estates, farm slaves might sleep and even work in chains.

But as brutal as life could be for a Roman slave, there was hope for not just freedom but a bright future. The children of a slave freed by a Roman citizen became Roman citizens with full rights themselves. Publius Helvius Pertinax, the son of a freed slave, even became emperor. In this, Roman slavery was fundamentally different from the practice in much of the world.

Slave Life
Slaves could be privately or publically owned. Their living conditions and opportunities were highly variable, depending on the temperament of their owner and the nature of their assigned work.

Private Slaves
Private slaves were broadly divided into two categories: urban slaves (familia urbana) and country slaves (familia rustica). The former often had well-defined and rather limited duties, with plenty of time for going to the baths, running their own small businesses on the side, and waiting for orders in the company of other slaves. They frequently became familiar and even friends with their masters the gift of freedom (manumission) was not uncommon during the owner’s lifetime or in his will.

The farm slaves usually served under a slave or ex-slave overseer (vilicus), who worked them from dawn until dusk, seven days a week, until they wore out and were disposed of accordingly. Unless an owner decided to free a fraction of his farm slaves in his will, servitude was usually until death.

As a general custom, a master would give his slaves a sum of money (peculium-slave’s purse) to spend as they chose. Although the peculium technically belonged to the master and he could take it back at any time, slaves were often allowed to accumulate the money and apply it toward purchasing their freedom. Urban slaves often had some free time for activities that could earn extra money. Technically, this also belonged to the master, but it was commonly treated as belonging to the slave.

Particularly talented slaves might serve as business agents for their owners. As living “things” (res mortales), slaves could not make legally binding commitments on their own. The peculium was the basis for the legal rules where a slave was an agent pledging his master’s credit in trade and contracts with third parties. The chief steward (dispensator, procurator) for many of the elite was a trusted slave or a former slave who had been freed for his excellent service.

Public Slaves
Cities and towns often owned slaves directly and used them for public works, such as building roads, maintaining aqueducts, and cleaning and maintaining sewers and public accommodations such as latrines and public baths. The number was limited by the common practice of contracting out public services. For some crimes, the convicted person might be sentenced to a term of service on the same projects as public slaves.

Private slaves in public offices
Roman government was based on the often unpaid service of the wealthy elite. The nobleman who was elected or appointed to a government post was expected to provide his own administrative staff. These normally came from among his slaves and clients (freedmen and others who depended on the noble patron for personal favors). The practice extended even to emperors in the early Empire. Until the reign of Claudius, the close personal assistants of the emperors were almost entirely the emperor’s own slaves. Trusted slaves handled petitions coming in and instructions going out, acting as gatekeepers with exceptional power over what received the emperor’s attention. Some men chose to enslave themselves for the opportunity for such service, with the expectation that they would be freed later with the emperor as their patron and unlimited opportunities because of that.

The emperors from Claudius to Trajan employed their freedmen as their inner cabinet, men whose skills were known and whose loyalty could be trusted (except for the ones who assassinated Domitian). Hadrian changed the practice by requiring his immediate cabinet to be men of the equestrian order, but the execution of the real work under them was still the responsibility of the slaves and freedmen of the equestrians.

Even though it was officially a degradation of status, free women often married the servi Caesaris and the liberti Augusti who were the civil servants of the Empire. Many emperors valued the loyalty resulting from the hereditary service of fathers and sons. The slaves were often manumitted at the minimum age of 30 to become freedmen with all the advantages of being the client of an emperor. The fortunate ones were also awarded the “gold ring” or received a “restitution of free birth” ruling that allowed the former slave to become an equestrian if he had the required 100,000 denarii.

Penal slaves
For the same crimes that might send a member of the senatorial or equestrian orders into exile for a period of time, the ordinary citizen or peregrine might be sentenced to a term of service on public works projects, with or without accompanying fines or substantial loss of property.

A free man convicted of some crimes might be stripped of all property and made a permanent slave. A sentence of damnatio ad metalla sent the condemned man to work in the mines or quarries. An alternative sentence was ad gladium, which sent him to a gladiatorial training school. Both ad metallum and ad gladium were essentially death sentences after the state got some work or entertainment out of the condemned man.

A slave convicted of a crime was often executed immediately after trial by crucifixion or by being killed and eaten by beasts (damnatio ad bestias) as the morning or midday event in an area.

How to Become a Slave
There were several common ways to become a slave, ranging from events at birth to catastrophes as an adult. The main ones are listed here.

Born to a slave parent
Since slaves were officially nonpersons, there was no such thing as a legal slave marriage. However, legal recognition wasn’t necessary for slave families to exist. Many couples formed through natural affection, but sometimes the master or overseer would put the couple together. On rural estates, it was much like breeding cattle. After the influx of slaves from newly conquered lands dried up, the price of slaves rose, and home-born slaves (vernae) became more important.

The children born to a slave were the property of the parent’s owner. The common attitude of the Roman elite toward fathering slave children themselves is enshrined in Roman law, which forbade adultery among free citizens but regarded anything a master did with any slave to be perfectly acceptable. If the master’s natural sons were fortunate, they might be formally adopted and gain all the rights of his legitimate children. Natural daughters could not be adopted. Adopted children suffered little if any social stigma because of their parents’ relationship.

Especially for farm slaves, bearing enough children could lead to freedom. If a woman bore three children, she might be exempted from heavy labor. If she bore four, it was not uncommon for her to be freed, but natural affection for her children who remained slaves often tied her to the estate.

Conquered and Captured in War
The Romans were not unique in making slaves of the people they conquered, but they were more efficient than many. Slave traders (venalicii) followed the legions and bought the new captives for transport to the major slave markets of the Republic and then Empire.

Vast numbers became available after a successful campaign, driving prices down. Skilled warriors often ended up in the arenas as gladiators while women and children swelled the ranks of ordinary slaves. The men who had once fought against Rome, been defeated, and then been enslaved were a special class of slaves. These “surrendered enemies” (peregrini dediticii) could never become citizens of Rome or Latins, regardless of the status or rank of the owner who freed them.

The number of slaves shipped home during Julius Caesar’s Gallic campaigns from 59 to 51 BC cannot be known for certain, but some estimates approach a million.

The number of Jews enslaved during the Great Jewish Revolt (AD 66 to 73) was approximately 100,000 with around 20,000 taken from the Jerusalem area alone in 70 AD.

While many Dacians entered the Roman slave markets as “normal” sales before Trajan’s two wars with Decebalus (AD 101 to 102, 105 to 106), estimates of the newly enslaved because of those wars reach as high as 400,000.

Sentenced for a crime
Conviction of some crimes could result in loss of Roman citizenship and enslavement as penal slaves. Sentences were typically to the mines (ad metalla) or to the gladiator school (ad gladium). Both were effectively death sentences.

Different rules applied in the provinces, where most people were not Roman citizens. At his own discretion, a provincial governor could make a noncitizen a slave for almost any reason without any possibility of appeal. As portrayed in the novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and its movie versions, Judah ben Hur might easily have been sent to the galleys at the whim of Governor Gratus, but it would have been a private galley, not a warship of the Roman navy. The crew members of a warship were all free men who volunteered for a military career.

It was a serious crime to kidnap and enslave a free person, but it was all too common, especially when the supply of new slaves through conquest dried up. Roman law even included specific procedures for a slave who claimed to be a free victim of kidnapping to attempt to prove that fact in court.

The Latin words for kidnap (surripio, surrupio, praeripio, subripio, rapto) are also the words for steal, grab, hide, and rape, which well describe the treatment of the victims. The “possession in bad faith” of a Roman citizen (knowingly holding one captive) was called plagium, and an extensive body of law addressed the various forms.

Bandits and pirates preyed on travelers, and slave traders raided across imperial borders and in remote areas within the Empire. Even walking alone at night in a city like Rome could end in assault and enslavement. A written bill of sale accompanied the purchase of a slave, but many slave traders were not scrupulous about asking for proof of legitimate ownership before making a deal.

Abandoned at birth
When a baby was born, it was presented to the pater familias, the oldest male who was head of the family. If he refused to accept the newborn, it was removed from the household and abandoned. Babies “exposed” to die could be picked up by anyone who wanted them. Many were taken to become slaves, although Roman law maintained that an abandoned freeborn baby remained freeborn regardless of its fate.

Abandoned persons who had been enslaved could regain their freedom if they could prove they were free when abandoned. However, that was very difficult to do. A presumed slave had no legal rights, so a citizen had to be found who was willing to act as adsertor libertatis to present the case in court.

Sold by your family
Since the power of a father over his children was absolute, he could sell a child into slavery. While this might be discouraged for Roman citizens, it did occur to pay a debt or avoid starvation.

Sold by yourself
While not technically allowed to sell themselves into slavery, some Roman citizens chose to enter a condition similar to slavery by contracting to serve like a slave for terms of several years up to life. Some gladiators were in this type of service.

Noncitizens could sell themselves, and some chose to sell themselves into the positions of steward or imperial slave, assuming they would be freed later to enjoy the benefits of having a rich or powerful patron.

The Slave Market
With an economy so dependent on slave labor, it is no surprise that the Roman state chose to regulate the trade in slaves. The slave markets were under the administrative authority of aediles in Rome and quaestors in other locations. Sales were documented by the exchange of a witnessed bill of sale.

For the poor soul who had just been enslaved, the slave market was a rude introduction to the debasing life that awaited them. “Full disclosure” was the rule for slaves and cattle in what was usually a caveat emptor commercial world. Slaves on the auction block were displayed naked so potential buyers could thoroughly inspect before bidding. A placard was hung around the neck of each slave that revealed (from a buyer’s perspective) the positive and negative characteristics of the person for sale. The seller (mango) was required to provide correct information about the geographic origin of the slave, any known health problems, tendency to run, attempted suicides, and any other known ”defect.” The placard also had to reveal whether the slave was undischarged from noxa, i.e., had committed an offense for which the owner was responsible either to pay restitution or to hand over the slave.

Roman law provided for “return for refund” if an unreported defect was found within six months after purchase. If a slave had an undisclosed health problem, even if the seller had no way to know about it, the slave could be returned for a full refund of the purchase price.

Fragment of a fresco showing slaves preparing a meal, AD 100–150
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

How to Become Free
Manumission was the legal process whereby a slave became a freedman (libertus) or freedwoman (liberta). The freed slave of a Roman citizen might become a Roman citizen but with limited political rights and specific obligations to the one who freed him. The children of these freed slaves had the full rights of any Roman citizen if they were conceived in a legally recognized marriage.

An owner who was a citizen could perform a formal manumission that conferred citizenship or an informal one that did not. The grounds under which a slave being freed by a Roman citizen could become a Roman citizen were outlined in Sections 18 and 19 of Gaius’s Institutes of Roman Law, which was published sometime between AD 130 and 180.

There were three classes of freedmen and freewomen: those granted Roman citizenship when they were freed, those who became Latins but not citizens, and those given the same status as an enemy who had fought against Rome and then surrendered (surrendered enemies, peregrini dediticii).

Formal Manumission
To free a slave, the master and slave appeared before a praetor (judge), and the slave was declared free. The praetor touched the slave with a rod to officially free him or her. This manumission “by the rod” (vindicta) could occur anytime and anyplace, even while walking through the streets or relaxing at the baths. The freed slaves became Roman citizens, although they were barred from holding elected office.

The lex Aelia Sentia set the requirements for automatic citizenship: the master had to be at least twenty and hold full legal title to the slave while the slave had to be at least thirty.

A second way to formally manumit a slave was to record him or her as free in the census list when it was next updated.

Perhaps the most common way was to free some slaves in the master’s will. Augustus set limitations on the number of slaves that could be freed by a will. For estates between 100 and 500 slaves, one fifth could be freed by will. For even larger estates, the number was limited to 100.

If the slave was under thirty, there were a few accepted reasons for early manumission with citizenship:
1) A slave was the natural child, brother, sister, or foster child of the owner setting him or her free.
2) A male slave was freed to be employed as an agent in business with his owner.
3) A female slave was being freed to become the owner’s wife.

A special mode of manumission by vindicta allowed an underage freedman to receive citizenship immediately upon manumission. In Rome, proof of adequate motive for rewarding citizenship was presented before a council of five senators and five equestrians. Certain days were scheduled specifically for this purpose.

In the provinces, a group of twenty recuperatores, who were themselves Roman citizens, made the decision. The recuperators were a type of judge appointed by a praetor to decide property disputes when a speedy decision was required. In Roman society, slaves were merely property, so it was logical for manumission to be decided by the courts specializing in property issues. Cases related to early manumission were decided on the last day of a regularly scheduled court session.

Informal Manumission
Some slaves were freed by informal means such as by letter or by announcing the manumission among friends. This was sometimes done when the legal requirements for formal manumission could not be met. Examples include when the slave was under thirty, the master under twenty, or the total number freed by a will exceeded the legally allowed number.

During the Republic and early Empire, people freed in this way remained officially slaves but were in practice free. Rather than becoming citizens like the masters who freed them, such former slaves became Junian Latins after adoption of the lex Iunia Norbana in AD 19. They lacked some important legal rights, such as a legally recognized marriage and the ability to make a will. Junian Latins could receive citizenship at a later time if the former owner performed the formal manumission procedure or if the emperor granted citizenship rights to the individual.

Their status could be upgraded to citizen if a Junian Latin married a Roman citizen or another Latin and had a child. When the child reached one year of age, the parent could apply to the courts for citizenship, which was usually granted.

Manumission by Noncitizens
When a noncitizen (peregrinus) freed a slave, the new freedman or freedwoman had whatever rights were conferred by the laws of the former owner’s community.

Legal procedure to prove the slave was really a citizen
Those who were born as free citizens but forced into slavery by kidnapping or abandonment as a baby remained Roman citizens, and there was a court procedure to regain their freedom. As slaves, they could not bring suit in court, but an adsertor libertatis could represent them to present the evidence of their free status. It might sound easy, but it usually wasn’t. Even if a slave could find a free citizen to advocate for him/her, it was often impossible to gather compelling evidence that he/she had been kidnapped or abandoned by citizen parents as a baby.

Running away
Despite the risks of even more brutal treatment upon capture, running away was common. An owner had the full support of the Roman legal and policing systems in regaining possession.

A slave with a history of running often wore a metal slave collar bearing a label identifying the owner, the place to return the slave, and sometimes the amount of reward. If a slave with a history of running was put up for auction, the placard around his neck that described his origin, skills, and defects had to include his past attempts to escape.

The punishment for running away was determined by the owner: corporal punishment, a slave collar, branding (often on the forehead) with F or FUG, or sale to an even less desirable owner for harsher work, like into the gladiator school, the mines, or the galleys.

Sometimes the slave found it too hard to survive as a runaway (fugitivus) and returned voluntarily. Even the harsh conditions of slavery might seem preferable to starving if the escaped slave could find no alternative.

Until a Senate resolution made it illegal under a charge of plagium to buy or sell a runaway, an escaped slave might be in league with a “runaway-man,” who would offer to buy the escaped slave from the legal owner for less than full value. Once the runaway-man owned the runaway, the slave might pay what the runaway-man asked for his legal manumission. Sometimes the slave got less than he expected rather than sell him his freedom, the runaway man would sell him into slavery again at full price.

For many, the life of a slave proved too much to bear. Suicide was a socially acceptable solution to life’s problems, even among the free and wealthy. For a slave on the auction block, attempted suicide was one “defect” that must be listed on the sales placard that hung around the neck. Cases are known where slaves who had been condemned to die in the arena found ways to kill themselves before facing that fate.

Freed slaves who could never become citizens
The lex Aelia Sentia placed special restrictions on slaves who had once fought against Rome, been defeated, and then been enslaved. This class of “surrendered enemies” (peregrini dediticii) could never become citizens of Rome or Latins. Gaius states that this prohibition applied regardless of the position (“plenary dominion”) of the owner that might have been meant to apply even to the emperor.

Some slaves who had never actually taken up arms against Rome were placed under the same restrictions as surrendered enemies. Slaves whose owners had punished them with chains or had branded them for some offense such as stealing or running away were treated like surrendered enemies if they were freed. That was true even if they had been sold by the owner who punished them and were later freed by a different owner.

Slaves who had been charged with a crime, tortured, and convicted were treated as surrendered enemies. So were slaves who had been condemned to gladiator school or sentenced to fight with beasts. An exceptionally skilled or popular gladiator sometimes earned his freedom before dying in combat, but he could never become a citizen or even a Latin.

Freedmen not quite free
Although a former slave who had been freed by a Roman citizen became a citizen as well, the new freedman was not equal to a freeborn citizen under Roman law.

Citizens without all the rights
Freedmen who were Roman citizens still lacked some of the privileges of full citizenship. They could not serve in a regular Roman legion, although they could serve in the noncitizen auxiliaries that functioned much like the legions. Even if they met the personal wealth requirements of 400,000 sesterces (equestrian) or 1,000,000 sesterces (senatorial) of the elite orders, they could not become members without a special grant from the emperor. They could not be magistrates in provincial towns that were coloniae, whose citizens were former legionaries (who were all Roman citizens) and their descendants.

After Augustus, a senator could not contract a legal marriage with a freedwoman. This restriction extended through his grandsons, and his daughters could not marry a freedman.

Legal Obligations between Freedmen and Their Patrons
After emancipation, the freedman entered a new permanent relationship with his former master. The master became the patron and the freedman his client. As long as the patron or his children were alive, the freedman owed specific duties that were enforceable in court. This was assumed fair because the patron had conferred the invaluable gift of citizenship on his slave through manumission.

An overriding principle was that the client must not “harm” the patron. For example, a freedman needed specific permission from the civil authorities to sue his patron. The only criminal charge a freedman could bring was treason. The same was true for the patron against his freedman.

A freedman was required to give his patron officium, general services performed for the patron. Both before and after the manumission ceremony, the new freedman swore a binding oath to give his new patron a certain number of operae (man-days of work) or the monetary equivalent. In many cases, the freedman continued working for the patron in the position he had before manumission, which made fulfilling this requirement simple.

As a client, the freedman was also expected to visit his patron most mornings to pay respect and usually to receive a gift of food or money. In many ways, the patron/freedman relationship was like that of parent/child.

Not all clients were former slaves. Many were men of lower social status currying favor or of nearly equal status who were obligated to the patron for some reason. A patron with many clients often wasted much of the morning in receiving these visitors.

Many freedmen built considerable wealth of their own after manumission. If their patron should fall on hard times, the freedman was required to support the patron. If the patron died, the freedman might be required to become the guardian for his minor children.

Masters often freed slaves for the purpose of matrimony, and special rules applied. If the master freed a woman so he could marry her, she had to marry him. While most citizen women could divorce their husbands for any reason during the Empire, a woman freed to marry her former owner could only divorce him or marry another with his permission. That was intended to keep a female slave from persuading her owner to free her for marriage, only to desert him as soon as she had her freedom. The freed female became a citizen immediately even if she didn’t meet the age requirement of 30 for formal manumission.

Further restrictions were placed on women who freed a man for the purpose of marriage. She had to be a freedwoman herself, and the man had to have belonged to the same former owner.

A freedman took his former owner’s first and clan names (praenomen and nomen) and added his slave name as his third name (cognomen). For example, if Malleolus was freed by Publius Claudius Drusus, he became Publius Claudius Malleolus. In essence, a freed slave became a member of the former owner’s extended family.

A freedman who became a citizen could will his property to legitimate heirs. If all his heirs were illegitimate, his patron received half his wealth, regardless of the terms of the will. After Augustus, the patron received an heir’s share regardless of the legitimacy of the freedman’s children if the estate was large. Since any wealth accumulated by the freedman was presumed to come from the money given him by the master when he was freed, it was considered only fair for the patron to be an heir.

If the manumission was informal so citizenship was not received, the freedman became a Junian Latin with fewer rights than a citizen.

Differences between Jewish and Roman attitudes and practices toward slaves
Not all societies in the Mediterranean world followed the Roman model of treating every slave as mere property with the children born to slaves being slaves themselves. The most notable exception was found among the Jewish people, whose treatment of slaves was defined by the Law of Moses in Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25. While Jews were allowed to buy slaves who were not Jews, make them slaves for life, and will them to their children, they were not allowed to do so with fellow Jews. The reason given: “For the children of Israel are servants to Me they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

When a Jew sold himself to a Jew, he was to be treated the same as a hired worker, not like a slave. The term of service was six years, and he was to be freed in the seventh year. If he became a slave while already married, his wife left with him. If his master provided a wife, the wife and any children remained with the master. If the newly free man didn’t want to leave his family, he could choose to become a bondservant who served permanently. The contract between him and the master was witnessed before a judge and sealed by piercing his ear with an awl against the doorpost of the master’s house. The faithful steward, Simonides, in Lew Wallace’s novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, had chosen to become a permanent bondservant in accordance with this law.

The Year of Jubilee came every 50 years. At that time, the Jewish slave was to be set free and all his children with him. If a non-Jew bought a Jewish slave, the slave retained the right to be redeemed by any blood relative, including himself. Depending on the number of years to Jubilee, the redemption price was prorated downward from the original sale price to reflect the remaining years the Jewish slave would have served. In the Year of Jubilee, even non-Jewish owners were required to free their Jewish slaves and all their children.

Christian perspective on slavery in the 1st century AD
At a time when the class distinctions of Roman citizen versus non-citizen, of slave versus freedman versus freeborn undergirded every aspect of a person’s life, a radically different understanding was being taught within the Christian communities. It is best summed up in the letters of Paul of Tarsus (the apostle) to the Christians of Galatia (now Turkey) around AD 50 and again to the Christians of Corinth in Achaia (now Greece) around AD 56. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).

What did this mean in practice? It did not mean that Christians automatically freed all their slaves. It meant that the concept of a slave as a “living thing” (res mortales) or “talking tool” (instrumentum vocalis) was replaced by one where the slave was a servant to be treated with dignity as a member of the extended family, a brother or sister in Christ. While under house arrest in Rome in AD 60, Paul wrote a letter to Philemon in Colosse in Asia (now Turkey), asking him to forgive his runaway slave, who had become a Christian after running away. Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus again as a member of Philemon’s household, as not only a slave but as a brother in Christ. The slave voluntarily accompanied the messenger back to Colosse, confident that his return would be met with forgiveness rather than the punishment expected for running away.

Additional slavery articles at this site:
Slavery in Roman Times: Hoping for Freedom While Legally Classified as a Thing
Daily lives of urban slaves and farm slaves. Manumission practices.
Historical background for Ashby novel, True Freedom.

The Role of War in the Slave Economy of the Roman Empire
Slaves taken as spoils of war: transport, sale, prices, future prospects.
Historical background for Ashby novel, Hope Unchained.

Holy Bible, New King James Version, Thomas Nelson, 1982.

Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Angela, Alberto. A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome. Translated by Gregory Conti. New York: Europa Editions, 2009.

Carcopino, Jerome. Daily Life in Ancient Rome: the People and the City at the Height of the Empire. Edited by Henry T. Rowell. Translated by E. O. Lorimer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968.

Crook, J. A. Law and Life of Rome, 90 BC.―A.D. 212. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Gaius and Greenidge, Abel Hendy Jones. Institutes of Roman Law (With Active Table of Contents). Translated by Edward Poste. 2011. Kindle Edition.

Knapp, Robert. Invisible Romans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

To Be Free from the Love of Wealth, We Must Pursue Godliness

Now godliness combined with contentment brings great profit.

Again, Paul is presenting a contrast with the false teachers who believed that “godliness” was a “way of making profit” (v. 5). When Paul said “godliness”, he meant false piety or pretense. False teachers pretend to be godly and profess religion in order to make money. Paul declares that true godliness with contentment is in fact great gain—though normally not financial gain. He essentially calls Timothy to not be like the false teachers. He was to turn away from the pursuit of wealth and instead pursue godliness.

This echoes Paul’s earlier challenge for Timothy to “discipline himself unto godliness because it has value for this life and the next” (4:7-8, paraphrase). If Timothy was to be kept from the temptation of loving and pursuing wealth which was dominant not only in the world culture but in the church, he needed to instead pursue godliness. Godliness means “god-likeness.” Where loving wealth tends to draw people into temptation and a snare (6:8), pursuing godliness is true gain. It provides blessing not only for our own life but also for our family and peers. In addition, it leads to eternal reward and riches.

How should Timothy pursue godliness? As 1 Timothy 4:7 says, he must make it his constant exercise. He must practice spiritual disciplines like prayer, time in the Word, fellowship with the saints, and serving. As he does this, it will deliver him from pursuing wealth and the temptations and traps that come with it.

It is very similar to Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. ” If we don’t transform our mind, we will be conformed to this world. In the same way, if we don’t pursue godliness, we will be vulnerable to the temptations of wealth.

As we consider this, we must ask if our primary pursuit in life is to “become godly” or to “become wealthy”? For many, wealth dictates which school to go to, which neighborhood to live in, which job to take, who their friends are, and who they marry instead of God. Christ said that we can only have one master—God or money. If we are going to gain freedom from the trap of loving wealth, we must pursue godliness. We must seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness (Matt 6:33).

Which are you pursuing—godliness or wealth?

Application Question: Why can we not pursue godliness and wealth at the same time?

Surprisingly Modern Wisdom From Ancient Greeks and Romans

Putting this piece together has been a history lesson for me. These ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and statesmen used few words to express pearls of wisdom that stand up today as guidelines for living wisely and compassionately. From Heraclitus’ understanding of the ever-changing nature of life to Epictetus’ and Seneca’s cautionary words about the perils of desire to Aristotle advising us to educate the heart as well as the mind, there’s much food for thought here. Enjoy.

Heraclitus (circa 535-475 BCE) is considered the most important pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. He was born in the Greek city of Ephesus. Little is known of his life and we have only a few sentences of his work.

Quotations from Heraclitus:

“Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become.”

“Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed."

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

This last quotation is his most famous. It sounds both the theme of impermanence and the idea that our identities are fluid and ever-changing, so we need not get attached to the mental state of the moment and think we will be that way from now on.

Pericles (circa 495-429 BCE) was the most prominent and influential Greek statesman and orator during the Golden Age of Athens. In 461, he became the ruler of Athens, a role he would occupy until his death. During his leadership, he built the Acropolis and the Parthenon and led Athens' recapture of Delphi, the siege on Samos, and the invasion of Megara. In 429, he died of the plague.

Quotations from Pericles:

“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.”

Time is the wisest counselor of all.”

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

In my view, we’d do well to stick this last quotation on our refrigerators and read it every day.

Socrates (circa 469—399 BCE) was a classical Greek philosopher and is considered one of the founders of Western logic and philosophy. He established an ethical system based on human reason rather than theological doctrine. He maintained that the more we come to know ourselves, the greater will be our ability to reason and make choices that lead to true happiness. He is known to us mostly through the writings of his students, particularly Plato. When the political climate of Greece turned, Socrates was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning in 399 BCE. He accepted this judgment rather than fleeing into exile.

Quotations from Socrates:

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

“He is richest who is content with the least, for contentment is the wealth of nature.”

And here is Socrates expressing what Korean Zen master Seung Sahn calls, “Don’t-Know Mind,” a practice I love to write about:

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Plato (circa 428—348 BCE) was a Greek philosopher. Like Socrates, he is considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. He was a student of Socrates’ and a mentor to Aristotle. He founded The Academy of Athens, which was the first institute of higher learning in the Western world.

Quotations from Plato:

“The greatest wealth is to live content with little.”

“Courage is knowing what not to fear.”

“Necessity is the mother of invention.”

“Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil.”

I believe so strongly in the truth of this last statement that I don’t use the word evil anymore. When people do harm, I think of them as having acted out of ignorance.

Aristotle (circa 384—322 BCE) was a Greek philosopher who is also considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. When he turned 17, he joined Plato’s Academy and stayed until he was 37. After Plato died, Aristotle left Athens and became a tutor for Alexander the Great. In 335, he founded the Lyceum in Athens. His writings cover an incredible array of subjects including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, ethics, and even biology and zoology.

Quotations from Aristotle:

“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is over the self.”

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

“It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

I’ve written a lot in this space and in my books about how believing our thoughts—particularly the stressful stories we tell ourselves about our lives—is a source of unhappiness and suffering for us.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

I use this quotation in my book, How to Wake Up, as part of a discussion of a similar quotation from the Buddha: “[What we] think and ponder upon becomes the inclination of our minds.” I go on to write:

[Thus] each time our “thinking and pondering” gives rise to compassionate thoughts or compassionate action, our inclination to be compassionate is strengthened, making it more likely that we’ll behave compassionately in the future. We’re, in effect, planting a behavioral seed that can grow into a habit. We are forming our character.

Seneca (circa 4 BCE—65 AD) was born in what is modern-day Cordoba, Spain. He was educated in Rome and became a Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and even humorist. In 41 AD, he was banished to Corsica after being accused of adultery. Emperor Claudius’ wife insisted he be invited back to Rome and, upon returning, his reputation rose swiftly. He was a tutor and then chief advisor to Emperor Nero. He was ordered by Nero to commit suicide for supposed complicity in a conspiracy to assassinate the emperor. Seneca complied, but many historians think he was innocent.

Quotations from Seneca:

“The greatest wealth is a poverty of desires.”

“One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.”

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

“A gift consists not of what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.”

“True happiness is… to enjoy the present without anxious dependence on the future.”

Count each day as a separate life”.

These six quotations from Seneca are gems to me because they reflect the way I aspire to live my life.

Plutarch (circa 46—120 AD) was a Greek historian, biographer, and essayist. He lived in little, out-of-the-way Chaeroneia, Boetia, in Greece and spent his days lecturing and in friendly correspondence and conversation with many cultivated contemporaries among both Greeks and Romans. His famous work is a biography of Greek and Roman philosophers called Plutarch’s Lives.

Quotations from Plutarch:

“Neither blame nor praise yourself.”

“The whole life of a man is but a point in time let us enjoy it.”

“Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.”

“Know how to listen and you will profit even from those who talk badly.”

Epictetus (circa 55—135 AD) was a Greek sage. He was born a slave in what is modern-day Turkey. As a young man, he gained his freedom, moved to Rome, and began to teach philosophy. When philosophers were banished from Rome in 89 AD, Epictetus left and started his own school in Nicopolis in Northwest Greece, where he lived for the rest of his life. His teachings were written down and published by his pupil Arrian.

Quotations from Epictetus:

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

“Make the best use of what’s in your power and take the rest as it happens.”

This last quotation struck me so strongly as a model for how to live my own life that it currently sits as the final quotation in my upcoming book on chronic pain and illness.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this excursion into ancient wisdom.© 2014 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work.

The society and economy of Ancient Rome

Ancient Roman society changed out of all recognition as the Romans conquered first Italy and then the Mediterranean world, and the very notion of what it was to be a Roman came to embrace all the peoples of the empire.

As in all pre-modern societies the economic base of the Roman society at all stages of its history remained agriculture but on top of this an ever-more elaborate social organization grew up, to create one of the largest and most complex societies in the pre-industrial world.

The society of early Rome

Roman society originally grew out of several small farming communities in central Italy. Under a line of kings, and under the heavy influence, if not the outright political domination, of the advanced civilization of the Etruscans, to the north, the Romans formed themselves into a city-state, probably in the 7th or 6th centuries BCE.

The early city-state of Ancient Rome, under the kings and early Republic, was composed of a small urban hub, consisting of a central area of temples, forum (central square), public buildings, and a few streets bordered by shops, craft workshops and fast-food premises. Here were also the houses of the wealthier and more important families. The huts of poorer folk, the traders and craftsmen, would have surrounded this core, and so too would the dwellings of many farmers, who worked plots both outside and inside the city walls. These walls would have enclosed a much greater area than the size of the city’s population would have required, as its footprint would have been chosen for defensive purposes, utilising the lie of the land.

Small farming communities would have been scattered throughout Rome’s territory, which would have encircled the small city for about ten miles around. These hamlets housed those whose land was too far from the city core to walk to and from on a daily basis.

Ordinary citizens

The bulk of the Roman citizens were independent farmers, owning the land they farmed. By the time of the early Republic, all male citizens had to do military service in the army, and the variable size of their farms is reflected in the citizens’ military obligations. Some had to provide full armour for themselves, a considerable expense. These formed the elite vanguard of the early Roman army, standing in the front line of battle. To go with this more dangerous position was a privileged position in the citizen body: for example they had a disproportionately more effective voice in Rome’s popular assemblies.

Other citizens had lesser military obligations, implying ownership of smaller farms, right down to the landless proletariat – poor day-labourers in town or countryside but still full citizens – who brought no armour and served as scouts and slingsmen rather than in the line of battle.

A small group of craftsmen and traders worked in the urban centre. Many of these urban workers were probably freedmen, whose family roots lay in other communities in Italy, and even beyond – brought to Rome in Greek, Etruscan or Phoenician ships. As citizens they too would have had to take their place in Rome’s many wars.

Slavery in early Rome

Slavery was an important institution in Roman society from its earliest days, as it was in all Mediterranean communities of the time. Most slaves were war captives, while others were former free citizens who had sold themselves (or had been sold by their families or creditors) into slavery for poverty or debt. Convicted criminals were also often enslaved.

In early Rome, slaves were mostly employed as farm hands. Even the smaller farms required a great deal of work, and each would have had one or two slaves. These would have lived with their owner’s family. On larger farms, more slaves would have been required, working under the supervision of a slave or freedman manager they would have lived in their own accommodation, probably sheds near the family’s farmhouse. In wealthier households slaves were also employed as domestic servants, secretaries and tutors. Slaves who showed a particular skill as a craftsmen were often set up by their master in a workshop and put to work, sharing the income of his work. This was a sound form of investment for wealthier Romans.

The conditions under which slaves worked of course varied with the kind of masters and mistresses they had. Under Roman law at this time, masters had complete control over their slaves’ lives. They were able to punish them exactly as they saw fit, even to the point of death (though it has to be said here that the early Roman father had life-and-death authority over his wife and children too).

Freedmen and freedwomen

Many slaves were treated well, and after some years received their freedom. They then joined a distinct class in Roman society called freedmen and freedwomen. These were full Roman citizens, with all the legal protection that that afforded them, except that they did not have the vote and could not stand for election as a magistrate. Their offspring became full Roman citizens in every respect.

Some former slaves also became quite wealthy. In some respects, they were better placed for success than ordinary citizens: if they had been slaves in the household of a wealth family they had contacts who could invest in their businesses, or lend them money on good terms and often they received sizeable inheritances when their former masters died.

Traders and craftsmen

Early Rome was not a major centre of international trade, such as Athens, Syracuse or Carthage, or indeed some of the wealthier Etruscan cities to its north. In economic terms it was essentially a local market town, trading in local produce. Nevertheless, from an early date it was larger than many of its neighbours, and our sources mention wealthy merchants (who attracted the ire of their fellow-citizens by selling grain at high prices in hard times – a traditional lament in pre-industrial societies). Even the richer merchants, however, were not accepted as equals by the landowning class which ruled Rome. They could join the equestrian class (see below), but without land there was no hope of them joining the senate.

The landowning class

These two groups, the equestrians and, at the top, the senators, formed the ruling class of Rome. They were landowners, whose farms were larger than the plots of ordinary Romans but which were nothing like the huge landed estates which came later. There are tales of distinguished Roman senators working their land themselves with the help of a few slaves. Indeed, the territory of a single city-state like Rome was not large enough to include large estates, unless the rest of the citizens were to be squeezed off the land – and they had too much power to allow this to happen.

The equestrians

The equestrians – equites – were those in the citizen community who could afford to bring horses to war as part of their military obligations. The word equites is often translated as knight, and they formed the cavalry of the early Roman army. They were nothing like the knights of medieval times: their armour was much lighter, they seldom took a pivotal part in battle, and their horses were smaller. Unlike medieval knights, who required a large amount of land to support them, Roman equites at this time owned comparatively small estates: large farms worked by several slaves. They were, however, the wealthiest group within the early Roman community, as being able to pay for and maintain horses was beyond the means of most citizens.

The senior officers of the Roman army (military tribunes) were drawn from the equestrian class: in later times they had to have served ten years in the cavalry before they became eligible to be appointed a military tribune. Since serving as a military tribune was almost a prerequisite for standing for higher office, all those equites wishing to follow a political career in the senate had to aim for this position.

The senators

Senators were drawn from the ranks of equites, thus belonging to the wealthier land-owning group within society. The word “senator” is derived from the word for “elder” by long tradition a man had to have reached the age of 30 before becoming a member of the senate. In the early days men were appointed to the senate by the consuls, and later by the censors.

Theoretically any equestrian could aim for the senate. However, most new entrants to the senate had had fathers and grandfathers in the senate. In each generation a few able and ambitious “New Men” – Novi Homines – did manage to become senators, but the odds were stacked against those whose ancestors had not done so.

The senators thus formed a distinct, virtually hereditary, class within Roman society. Within this class, a small group of senatorial families provided consuls generation after generation. It was very rare indeed for a “New Man” to rise to the consulship (but it did happen: famous Roman statesmen such as Cato, Marius and Cicero were such). The families which produced the bulk of the consuls were known as the nobiles, the creme de la creme of Roman society.

The social impact of the expansion of Roman power

The Romanization of Italy

The most obvious result of Roman expansion was the Romanization of Italy. This can be seen in the archaeological evidence, as former Etruscan, Greek and Italian towns gradually became remodelled along more Roman lines. Roman forums and Roman-style temples can be distinguished from what came before by subtle differences, but what tells a clear story is the gradual replacement of Etruscan, Greek and Samnite inscriptions with Latin ones.

This process was accompanied by the spread of Roman citizenship in Italy, and then abroad. Rome planted numerous colonies of Roman citizens throughout the Italian peninsula, at first tiny (300 settlers), later much larger (several thousand). Many smaller Italian towns, especially in central Italy, were incorporated into Roman territory, their inhabitants becoming full Roman citizens. Many larger towns were granted “Latin Rights”, a form of half citizenship which effectively gave their inhabitants all the rights of citizenship except the right to vote for Roman magistrates and stand for Roman public office. Sizeable “Latin” colonies were also founded up and down Italy. These Roman and Latin towns and colonies were centres of Romanization. Even those Latin towns which had not originally had a large Latin or Roman component gradually became Romanized, with Latin becoming the predominant language.

Some inhabitants of allied cities which had not been granted Roman citizenship were rewarded with such citizenship for faithful service to Rome however, the majority of Italians were not Roman citizens until after the “Social War” in the early first century. This war led to the grant of Italian citizenship to all free Italians. The exception to this was the Cisalpine country of northern Italy, which had only been conquered properly in the second century) this received the Roman citizenship under Julius Caesar, in the mid-first century.


As citizenship spread throughout Italy, the landowning classes expanded enormously, as the elite classes of the Italian communities were absorbed into the Roman upper classes. In effect, the Roman ruling class expanded to become the ruling class of Italy. By the end of the second century BCE the equestrian class was drawn from towns throughout all Italy, and the senate too now included many members whose family origins lay in towns other than Rome. Because membership of the senate was a great deal more exclusive than that of the equestrian class, senators tended to come from towns and cities not too far from Rome the towns of Latium especially contributed a large share of Roman senators.

With the expansion in the number of magitsrates to cope with the increasing responsibilities of the Roman state, senators were increasingly drawn from the ranks of ex-magistrates rather than being appointed to the senate by consul or censor. Competition for these magistrates therefore intensified, but it was the traditional families of nobiles who still predominated in holding the consulships.

Many of the landowning class also found their wealth multiplying many times over. When Rome annexed a slice of territory, it often set aside some of the conquered territory as public land. Some of this was then parcelled out to ordinary citizens, who settled it as colonists, but much of it was leased out to individual landowners, whether Roman or Italian. These landowners either sub-let individual plots to ordinary farmers or formed them into estates worked by slaves. In this way some families built up landholdings throughout Italy. It is easy to see that the families with the best contacts and most influence within the Roman government – the senators, and above all the nobiles – were best placed to benefit most from this practice.

From the beginning of the second century, Rome’s many foreign conquests led to massed waves of war captives flooding the slave-markets of Rome and Italy. Slave labour became cheaper than before, and this, coupled with new, more efficient (and ruthless) methods of utilizing slave labour to work the large estates, made them much more productive than before. As a result, the produce from such estates was cheaper than than that from the small farms of ordinary citizens.

These developments enriched the estate owners while squeezing the smaller farmers, many of whom had to sell up and become landless workers in the big cities, above all Rome. The last two centuries of the Republic saw the emergence of a huge proletarian class in Rome, on a scale not to be seen again until the industrial towns of modern times. Crowded tenement buildings took over whole districts of the city. These are often shoddily built they regularly collapsed, killing the apartment holders and any unwary passers by. Fires were a common hazard in the congested streets. Private fire brigades emerged. Organized crime took hold, with the rise of gangs, linked to unscrupulous politicians, terrorising Romans both rich and poor. It was in this period that the practice began of ambitious politicians organising free bread to be doled out to supporters, and organizing gladiatorial combats and wild animal spectacles to curry favour with the masses.

Many Romans, both inhabitants of Rome and throughout Italy (and beyond), served with the army, often for many years at a time. In the second century this began to have a serious effect on poor farming families by robbing them of valuable manpower to work their farms, and may have contributed to the failure of many small farms. At the end of the second century soldiering became much more of a long-term career than it had been before, relieving the pressure on the citizen-body as a whole, at least for a time. With the rise of the great armies of the civil wars, however, hundreds of thousands of citizens could be under arms at any one time. Many of these were probably raised from non-Roman populations in the provinces, and hurriedly given citizenship on recruitment however, the existing Roman citizens will have borne the brunt of the fighting, and a high proportion of adult male Romans must have spent many long years at war.

Roman citizenship spreads overseas

The spread of Roman citizenship was not limited to Italy. Roman citizens came to be found in all the lands under Roman domination.

Latin and Roman colonies were a major instrument of Romanization. The first overseas Latin colony, Italica, was founded in Spain at the end of the Second Punic War, for wounded veterans of the great campaigns there. Over the next two centuries colonies for Roman veterans were founded in Gaul, Greece, North Africa and Asia Minor.

Native tribal and civic leaders who had shown pro-Roman sympathies were rewarded with Roman citizenship. Roman and Italian businessmen settled in overseas cities to trade, taking advantage of the tremendous opportunities opened up for them by Rome’s conquests. Tax farming, military contracting, slave trading, mining operations, grain importing and the trade in war booty all provided lucrative work for those with the right contacts in Rome and the provinces. These contacts gave Roman and Italian businessmen an important commercial advantage over native merchants, and this frequently made them unpopular. However, as time went by they forged working relationships with local business communities, and during the first century BCE a pan-Mediterranean commercial network had grown up. Along with business dealings there also came exposure to Roman ways.

Roman interests were not limited to commerce. Senatorial and other landowners acquired overseas estates, notably in North Africa which, after Carthage’s downfall, became a major granary for the expansing population of Rome.

The social impact of the Civil Wars

In many cases the Roman soldiers’ years of service ended with being granted a farm in a new colony, either in Italy (where many communities were disrupted by the arrival of hundreds or even thousands of army veterans, with farms taken from the inhabitants handed over to them) or in the provinces. Numerous veteran colonies were founded all over the Roman world, in what must have been one of the more spectacular land-grabs in history.

The civil war period which brought the curtain down on the Republic was one in which many lost all they possessed, while others rose spectacularly in wealth and status. Many throughout the Mediterranean world were deprived of land and livelihood Roman veterans on the other hand were granted new lands to settle. Their officers did even better. Centurions, who had originally joined the army as common soldiers, became the leaders of the new colonies and founded landowning families of their own.

In the upper classes, the ups and downs of fortune could be just as dramatic. Many equestrian businessmen made their fortunes, but many Italian landowners lost some or all of their estates to new colonists. Senatorial politicians and generals became fabulously wealthy from their generous share of the booty of conquest, but if the wheel of political fortune turned against them their enemies could grab their wealth and their lives from them. These years saw the disappearance of famous Roman families which had produced consuls generation after generation in their place appeared many new men of obscure origin, from all over Italy.

The rise of a Roman commercial class

Early Rome had not been a major commercial centre the expansion of Roman political power, however, went hand in hand with an expansion of Roman commercial interests. During the second century Rome became the leading commercial and financial centre in the Mediterranean world.

The great expansion in Roman rule did not lead to a corresponding expansion in the personnel or organisation of the Roman state (except the army). As a result, much of the work of governments was contracted out to private companies. These companies were organised by equestrian businessmen in Rome (it was frowned upon for senators to dirty their hands in business, and during the second century it became illegal for them) they became active in tax-farming and military contracting, as well as in other, more traditional branches of commerce – the shipment of slaves, wine, grain and other commodities. Roman and Italian merchants came to dominate the international maritime trade of the Mediterranean, which reached a level of activity not seen again until the 19th century. Industrial enterprises also grew in size and scope, with brick-making and mining operations laying the foundations of some dazzling family fortunes.

The financial sector grew in size and sophistication along with the expansion in commerce. Groups of equestrian businessmen formed banks which channeled investments to trading and contracting companies, and a remarkably modern-style market in stocks and shares seems to have grown up.


It was in the last two centuries BCE that ancient Rome became one of the most slave-based societies in world history. Roman conquests led to hundreds of thousands of captives being taken in chains to Rome and Italy and the disruptions the wars caused, in lands all around the Mediterranean Sea, left communities vulnerable to raids by slave-raiders and pirates. In the early first century piracy, feeding off and stimulated by the slave trade, had become a major menace to sea travellers and dwellers on coasts and islands.

The slave markets of Rome and Italy did a flourishing trade, and the estates of wealthy landowners were stocked with cheap slaves working in chain gangs. Conditions were brutal. In early Rome, the law gave masters complete control over the lives of their slaves, but the simpler circumstances of those times meant that slaves often lived almost as members of the family – indeed the Roman idea of a family included slaves as well as the family itself. In the large estates which had now grown up, no such familiarity prevailed, and life for many slaves working was hopeless indeed. It is no wonder that the second and first centuries saw three great slave rebellions, the last of which (led by the gladiator Spartacus) caused panic in Rome itself. The ferocity with which it was put down is a measure of the fear that gripped society.

In fact, this rebellion (and the fact that the slaves were able to defeat several Roman armies sent against them) seems to have caused enduring changes in the attitude of Romans to their slaves. The law put a limit of the cruelty with which masters could treat their slaves, and Roman masters began to pride themselves in dealing with their slaves in a humane manner. External conditions played their part as well. Piracy was put down in the 60s BCE, and this must have reduced the supply of new slaves. Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul probably led to a temporary glut, but the long-term trend was down as the great conquests gradually gave way to more stable frontiers. This had a major impact on slavery in the Roman empire.

Society in the Roman empire


As we have seen, in later Republic, large slave-run estates arose in Italy, especially in the south. This situation continued into the early Empire, but with the stabilising of the frontiers, and the establishment of peace in the Mediterranean world and western Europe, the massive supply of slaves which had flowed from the continuous conquests of the late Republic began to dry up. Slaves became more expensive to buy, so that slave owners had to rely increasingly on natural reproduction to keep up their stocks. This implied treating slaves better than they had been under the later republic, and giving many of them some private space for families.

As a result, estates reduced their dependence on gangs of slaves and gave their slaves plots of land to cultivate, as sharecroppers and tenants. They were still slaves, tied to their estates, but their working and living conditions were immeasurably better than had been those in the chained slave-gangs of the late Republic. They were now able to raise families of their own, and had some share in the produce they grew.

Although not quite on the same scale as in the late Republic, slavery did of course remain a major social institution during the entire period of the empire. Large industrial enterprises such as mines and shipbuilding continued to use slaves on a large scale and every household which had any pretensions at all to wealth had household slaves. In some of the houses of the rich a small army of slaves ran the house. Some of them were kept as footmen and attendants to show off the wealth of the householder. These were among the less usefully employed members of society.

The peasantry in Italy and the provinces

The free peasant farmers of earlier times in Italy had never died out – in fact archaeology suggests that their numbers had never declined to the extent that our sources suggest. However, this class hardly flourished under the Empire cheaper food imported from overseas kept prices low. The government became increasingly concerned about the continued decline on their numbers, and instituted measures – by, for example, providing financial assistance to families looking after orphans – to maintain this class in Italy.

Great slave run estates had never been a feature of most provincial societies, and did not take root under the empire. In some parts, particularly in North Africa, great estates which had first grown in the later Republic continued to flourish, but these were farmed mostly by free tenants. Similarly in other provinces a villa economy was characterised by a largish slave-run farm surrounding a complex of buildings (the “villa”) in the centre of the estate, with the outlying areas under tenant farmers. Side by side with these landed estates were many independent farms worked by free peasants.

Within the free population of the empire there were many and varied divisions. The most obvious of these, as ever, was between the minority of rich and the majority of poor. Most of the poor worked on the land as peasant farmers or landless labourers a minority worked in the towns and cities as craftsmen and labourers. The rich were mostly all landowners, even when they had other occupations as merchants, lawyers or officials. Anyone who acquired any wealth would buy land as soon as they could afford to do so, as it was by far the safest and most socially-acceptable form of investment (in this, the Romans were no different from most other pre-industrial peoples).

Though the rich all had estates in the country, they spent most of their time in the cities. The wealth from their country estates supported a sophisticated urban lifestyle, with their country villas usually acting as retreats from the pressures of city life. In the city they spent their time as lawyers, magistrates and local politicians, working in the law courts and running the affairs of the city, or as merchants active in business. They lived in large town houses, the larger of which took up an entire block of a city on the outside these were surrounded by many small shops.

As in all ancient societies, there was only a small middle class. This was made up of the better-off peasant farmers or owners of small estates, and of the lesser merchants and more successful craftsmen and shopkeepers in the towns. Lesser officials, publicly-funded teachers and retired soldiers would also have added to their numbers.

Another social division within the empire was that between Roman citizens and others. Every free member of society was a citizen of one or other of the thousand or more cities which made up the empire, but a growing minority were also citizens of Rome. Anyone who had served as a local magistrate or on a town council was automatically given Roman citizenship, as were those who had served in the auxiliary regiments of the Roman army. Roman citizenship thus gradually spread throughout the length and breadth of the empire in the provinces at least it tended to be the preserve of the wealthier members of society, but as time went on it penetrated down into the poorer sections. Finally, in 212, the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to every free person in the empire.

In the western provinces of the empire, in Gaul, Britain, Spain and North Africa, the spread of Roman citizenship went hand-in-hand with the increasing use of the Latin language. By the second century this was the lingua franca of the upper classes throughout this half of the empire. In the eastern provinces – Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt – Greek remained the lingua franca, and increasingly the language of government as well.

The Roman equestrian class, after spreading throughout Italy during the later Republic, under the empire spread throughout the entire Roman world. Only the wealthier inhabitants could do this as there was a strict property qualification. The outward sign of equestrian rank was a gold ring and a narrow crimson stripe on the toga. This qualified equestrians to serve as senior officers (prefects and tribunes) in the Roman army, and then, if they were fortunate, to hold important posts in the imperial administration, such as procurators (financial administrators) in the provinces and chief secretaries and accountants in Rome. These in turn were stepping stones to some of the most powerful posts in the empire, the prefectures of the grain supply, of Egypt and above all of the Praetorian Guard.

Most of the highest posts in the empire were still held by senators, however. Senatorial rank became hereditary, with the sons of senators being granted the the right to wear togas with the broad stripe of senatorial rank (the laticlavius), and ear-marked for a senatorial career from an early age.

However, the topmost ranks of Roman society seem to have become unable to reproduce themselves effectively under the empire. Why this should have been is something of a mystery, but the result was that the ranks of the senate had to be filled by new men, from Italy and the provinces. The senate now consisted of upwards of a thousand members, and the evidence suggests that, at any one time, only about half were sons and grandsons of senators. For the rest, admission was entirely in the emperor’s gift. The sons of important equestrian officials were granted the laticlavius, and were then eligible for a senatorial career. Others were from wealthy provincial families granted admission to the senate by the emperor. They were thus able to found senatorial families.

The senatorial class thus came to include an increasing number provincial families, firstly from the Latin-speaking west (Spain, Gaul and North Africa), later from the Greek-speaking east (especially Asia Minor and Syria). The provincialisation of this ruling class can be clearly seen in the origins of the emperors. In the early days of the empire, the emperors were drawn from the historic Patrician clans of the Julii and the Claudii. In the later first century the emperor Vespasian came from an Italian community near Rome. In the early second century Trajan and Hadrian came from Spanish families, while Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius had the blood of Gallic chieftains coursing through their veins. The later second century brought Septimius Severus, from a North African family, to the throne, whilst the later Severans (his grandsons) came from Syria, on the eastern frontier.

An Alpine mystery

After defeating another Roman force, this one led by a Roman governor named Gaius Cassius Longinus, Spartacus’s force was now free to climb the Alps and go to Gaul, Thrace or other areas not controlled by Rome.

However, for reasons lost to history, Spartacus chose not to do this, instead turning his force around and heading back into Italy. Why he did this is a mystery.

“Many theories have been proposed, but the best explanation was already hinted at in the ancient sources. Spartacus’s own men probably vetoed him,” writes Barry Strauss, a Classics professor at Cornell University, in his book The Spartacus War (Simon & Schuster, 2009). “In the past, they had never wanted to leave Italy now success might have gone to their heads and aroused visions of Rome in flames.”

He notes that other factors may also have been involved. Spartacus may have received news of Roman advances in Thrace that made him doubt that he and the other Thracians in his army could return home safely.

“The last straw might simply have been the sight of the Alps. As anyone who has ever looked up from the plain toward the rock wall of the Italian Alps knows, the mountains are overpowering,” writes Strauss.

Whatever the reasons were Spartacus led his army back south, through Italy, overcoming resistance along the way, until they arrived at the Strait of Messina, in hopes that they could cross over to Sicily, an island of agriculture and slaves waiting to be liberated.

Rich People Take on Challenges

Rich people are not afraid to take on difficult challenges when they know there is potential for a nice payoff. Building independent wealth is rarely easy, and there are a lot of hard things that need to be done to make it happen. Rich people face these challenges head on, seeing them as a chance to grow and succeed.

Poor People Run from Challenges

Poor people don’t like to be challenged. They like to stay in their comfort zone and keep things the way they are. The only time they will take on a difficult challenge for growth is when they are forced into it. They typically don’t take the initiative at work and do the minimum it takes to stay employed.

What I do: I don’t mind a challenge when I think it’s worth it. I take the initiative much more than I did when I was younger, and I’m constantly seeking ways to grow and be better at life in general.

My Score: 9

Ten Habits of Successful People

Instead of defining the differences between rich people and poor people, I think it's more constructive to look at what separates successful people from unsuccessful people. Maybe I'm picking nits, but in this case I think focusing on a financial scorecard misses the point. It's possible to be successful and poor, and it's possible to be rich and a fool.

I'll admit there seems to be a strong correlation between wealth and success, but the two qualities don't overlap precisely.

From looking at my own friends, and from thinking about the stories readers have sent me during the past decade — especially stories about how people have moved from debt to wealth — I've seen the following patterns.

  • Successful people surround themselves with positive people. They limit their exposure to negativity and naysayers, preferring to spend time with folks who have can-do attitudes. They don't have time to listen to the reasons something can't be done they'd rather find ways to make it happen.
  • Successful people aren't flummoxed by failure. They know that mistakes are inevitable and should be treated as stepping stones to success rather than signs of weakness or reasons to stop trying. (This is why it's important not to praise achievement, but to praise effort. The former breeds fear of failure.)
  • Successful people manage their time effectively. They recognize that minutes and seconds are a precious non-renewable resource. So, they set priorities and pursue them with passion. My successful friends seem to watch less television (and play fewer videogames) than my unsuccessful friends, for instance. There's nothing inherently wrong with Game of Thrones or Hearthstone, but they suck up time that could be spent exercising or reading or taking a class.
  • Successful people ignore the opinions of others. They march to the beat of a different drum. They don't feel compelled to “keep up with the Joneses”“. They limit their exposure to mass media not only because it allows them to be more productive, but also because it reduces the influence of advertising and the pressure of cultural norms. When investing, they don't follow the herd. The wealthy people I know all drive older cars (many of them bought used!), dress modestly, and avoid conspicuous consumption.
  • Successful people have direction. They act with purpose. They know why they're working hard and saving money. They have a mission, even if it's as simple as putting their kids through college, and their daily actions are aligned with their long-term goals. None of the folks I know who struggle with money have a clear idea of what they want to do with their lives.
  • Successful people focus on big wins. Sure, they develop smart habits and pay attention to the small stuff. But they also understand that if they're diligent with their dollars, then the pennies will take care of themselves. The average person economizes on the small things but isn't willing to make sacrifices when it comes to housing, transportation, or career. And the folks who are broke all of the time? Well, they fritter away their pennies and their dollars.
  • Successful people do what's difficult. They don't procrastinate. My friends with money work longer, harder, and smarter than my friends who have less. (This is an unpopular observation with some folks, but it's true.) They practice deferred gratification, sacrificing small comforts today in order to obtain greater rewards tomorrow.
  • Successful people make their own luck. They practice awareness so that they can recognize opportunities when they come along. Moreover, they act boldly, seizing these opportunities where others might hesitate to act.
  • Successful people believe they're responsible for their future. They're proactive. They have an internal locus of control. That is, they understand that although it might not be their fault they're in a given situation, it is their responsibility to change it.
  • Successful people grow and change over time. They adapt. They evolve. They're not afraid to entertain different points of view. Most importantly, they're not afraid to change their minds. They seek knowledge and experience, and they allow the things they learn to mold them.

None of these differences is absolute, of course. Most people (including me) follow a few of these rules but not others. Or we adhere to certain rules only part of the time. The most successful people I know do all of the things on this list the least successful people do none of them.

Augustine&rsquos Life and Times

HE WAS BORN IN THAGASTE, a smallish town in North Africa. He came from an old Carthaginian family. His father, Patricius Augustinus, was a pagan who honored the old Punic gods. But his mother, Monica, was a devoted Christian, who persistently urged her religion on her children—and particularly on Aurelius, who showed brilliance.

Their family was a small part of a large and complex economy. Patricius scrimped to send Augustine to school, and still had to rely on the generosity of a wealthy patron, Romanianus. The very name Patricius suggests Augustine’s father may have come from a proud, patrician family. But if he'd ever had wealth, it was apparently gone now. So, though the Augustinus family may have owned a substantial estate, it seems the Roman tax collectors had milked their fluid income dry.

As a boy, Augustine was sent to school in nearby Madaura. He made friendships there that would last all his life. But when he was 16 the tuition money ran out, and Augustine had to come home for a year while his family saved. In writing about this time in his Confessions, Augustine portrays himself as a lazy underachiever. Yet his superior intellect was probably already apparent to his family and friends. He seems to have outshone his older brother, Navigius, who tags along in later episodes of Augustine’s life.

Fruits of Disobedience

During that 16-year vacation from his studies, Augustine took part in the famous pear tree incident (see And a Saint in a Pear Tree . . . ?). To some this might seem like mere juvenile antics, just a bunch of rowdy boys ripping off pears and throwing them to the pigs—and that’s probably how Augustine saw it at the time. But looking back on it later, as he reflected in the Confessions, he perceived it as sin most foul. In the Confessions he also notes his struggle with sexual passion, indicating that this too mushroomed during that 16th year. After that year we find him going off to school in Carthage, supported by Romanianus, who evidently saw Augustine’s great potential and wanted this prodigy on his team. Augustine in Carthage was the backwoods boy in the big city. Carthage was the queen of North Africa, sophisticated and worldly. Five hundred years earlier Carthage had been Rome’s enemy. But the new Carthage had a solid place in the empire, basking in its Roman-civilization-with-Punic-twist.

The rowdy from Thagaste apparently continued sowing wild oats in Carthage. He doesn't relate the specifics of his sexual activity, but we do know that he took a concubine. He never names her in that culture her name wouldn't have been important. He was a promising student-teacher, already making a name for himself in the school of rhetoric, on the first few rungs of the ladder of success she was most likely from a lower-class family. He was 18 at the time.

His father had died a short time earlier, and possibly this made Augustine think about settling down and raising a family. But marriage at this point would impede his progress—he figured the sort of socially advantageous marriage he wanted would come later. Besides, taking a concubine was a socially acceptable thing at the time, not unlike unmarried couples living together today. One year later she bore him a son, and they named him Adeodatus—"a gift from God."

Light and Darkness

Two philosophical influences emerged as Augustine began to excel in Carthage, first as a student and then as a teacher. One was Cicero. The young African read the old Roman, and light dawned in his mind. The book was Hortensius, now long lost, but it must have been a beauty. It would form the basis for Augustine’s rhetoric and philosophy for years to come. Even in Augustine’s religious classics, we see traces of Cicero’s influence.

The other influence was Manichaeism. In his search for philosophical truth, Augustine moved away from his mother’s Christianity and the Bible, the Old Testament stories of which he dismissed as fables. He indicates he was longing for a system that made better sense of the world than the biblical system as he perceived it. Manichaeism, based on the teachings of a Persian named Mani, seemed to him to do that. It was a dualist corruption of Christianity that mocked the Old Testament like he did—and offered an easy answer for the problem of evil. That was all Augustine needed.

Mani’s main emphasis was that two worlds actually existed: the world of light, love, mind and spirit and the world of darkness, evil, hate and the flesh. Mani stressed that the two worlds were constantly at war with each other, and the young Augustine could not help but agree. He could feel them at war in himself, for example, every time he had to choose between studying Cicero and hopping into bed with his concubine. According to Manichaeism, some specially blessed people would be able to devote themselves entirely and unequivocally to the higher things in life. But for most people it would be an ongoing struggle. Augustine took to Manichaeism with a sophomoric intensity. When his studies in Carthage were completed, he returned to Thagaste to teach rhetoric—and some Manichaeism on the side, though he tried to keep his mother in the dark about that. But Monica found out he was promoting heresy and threw him out of her house, at least for a time. Augustine was so persuasive in his proselytizing that he even converted his patron Romanianus to Manichaeism. Later Augustine would have to convert Romanianus back to Christianity.

During this time in Thagaste, he was called to the bedside of a boyhood friend who had suddenly taken ill and was dying. A priest was also summoned to the deathbed, and much to the unbelieving Augustine’s dismay, the priest proceeded to baptize the comatose young man. Augustine had shared with this buddy a disdain for Christianity, together they had mocked the church. And now, without Augustine’s friend even knowing it, the priest was dragging the lad right into the church’s arms. Then the friend miraculously recovered. Later, as Augustine chatted with his friend, he began joking about this bogus baptism. But the friend became very serious. It was no laughing matter, he indicated: the baptism had been real.

His friend’s change of attitude shook Augustine. But he was even more shaken when the friend suddenly died two weeks later. As he recounted it later in the Confessions, this seemed to mark the beginning of a reappraisal in Augustine’s heart and mind. He could laugh at Christianity, but he was dumb in the face of death.

Roads to Rome

In 376, the 22-year-old Augustine returned to Carthage to teach. The widowed Monica followed him there. She had dreamt that Augustine would become a Christian, and she seemed to play “the hound of heaven” over the next several years, praying and pleading for his conversion.

The young professor was soon master of rhetoric in Carthage, and seemed eager to move on—to Rome, city of the great rhetorician Cicero. The Manichaeans could use him there as well—a gifted speaker like himself could restore that faith to a place of prestige. Besides, a professorship in Rome could do wonders for Augustine’s career. From there he might well rise to the senatorial class. Soon, possibly through the influence of Romanianus, he was offered a professorship in Rome. But Monica got wind of it, and begged Augustine not to go. He reassured her no, he would not leave. Then he sent her home and claimed he had to see a friend off on a journey. But he was the one taking the journey. He bundled up his mistress and little Adeodatus and set sail for Rome in the middle of the night, while Monica slept and dreamt.

Rome was almost more than Augustine could handle. He was wowed by the trappings of the high society that surrounded him. Suddenly he was hobnobbing with influential people—senators and the like! He was on the bottom rung of a ladder of success, enticed by what he saw at the top.

Augustine stayed with a Manichaean friend in Rome, but soon learned that Manichaeism was not politically helpful there. Christianity was the chosen faith in the imperial class—the executive branch of government, whose Italian headquarters were in Milan. And the traditional pagan religions—those of Jupiter and Juno and the rest of the pantheon—were the choice of the senatorial class in Rome. To them, Manichaeism was a low-class religion, an import from the sticks of North Africa. Thus in Rome, as Augustine struggles to shed his Punic accent and speak proper Latin, we find Manichaeism losing its hold on him. It offered the same answers it had in Carthage and Thagaste, but Augustine was asking different questions now that he was in the capitol of the Roman empire.

An empire which, not incidentally, was in deep trouble. Barbarians threatened its borders to the north and the west, and yet its chief defense was also in the hands of barbarians—mercenary Germans paid with Roman tax money to keep other Germans from crossing the Rhine and the Danube. Rome had built its empire with muscle and diplomacy but now the barbarians had the muscle, and Roman diplomacy was dissolving amid competing special interests.

Religious conflicts were also rife. Despite Athanasius winning the day for orthodoxy at Nicea, Arianism was still alive and well. Many local congregations continued to hold that Christ was “similar” to God, not “of the same substance.” And now, generations after Nicea, the groups still felt enmity toward each other. In North Africa, Donatism was carrying on a similar feud with the official church. Maintaining that the Catholic Church had compromised itself during the persecutions of emperor Diocletian, the Donatists set up their own alternative, “pure” church. That conflict sometimes became violent. In Rome, the pagan religions were still promoting immoral traditions that had been popular in the city’s pre-Christian days. But then Ambrose, bishop of Milan, convinced the emperor to take measures against paganism. Why should the state pay for Vestal virgins? asked Ambrose. And why should the Senate chamber have a pagan altar to the goddess of Victory in it?

In the midst of this Altar of Victory controversy, Augustine landed in Rome. By order of the emperor, the statue of the goddess Victoria had been removed from the Senate. The senators were appalled. Symmachus, leader of the pagan party, fired off a letter to the emperor, arguing the merits of restoring the Altar of Victory. For centuries, he maintained, Rome had owed its success to its good relations with the gods. Now it was in danger of gravely offending them. Even if the empire was officially Christian, he argued, it should leave room for the worship of pagan gods. Bishop Ambrose published a masterful reply. During the year that Augustine was in Rome, Symmachus composed a second letter to the emperor on the same subject. The dispute continued.

All in all, it was not a good year for Augustine. He was sick for much of the time. There was a famine in the area, so the school was threatening layoffs, and some students refused to pay their bills. Yet the year was profitable in that Augustine attracted the attention of Symmachus, a prefect in Rome. Apparently the prefect was impressed by a speech Augustine gave, and expressed a desire to become his patron. It is possible Symmachus even negotiated with Romanianus, who often visited Italy, to acquire the “rights” to Augustine.

As prefect, Symmachus was asked to recommend a professor for the chair of rhetoric in Milan. The job would entail a good bit of contact with the young emperor, Valentinian II, who was residing there. The professor would be sort of his press spokesman. Doubtless Symmachus saw this as a chance to get someone in Milan who would lobby for his side in the Altar of Victory controversy. He chose Augustine. Augustine was, after all, a college professor he had a son not much younger than the emperor and he regularly had a corps of bright young men following him. Augustine’s winning manner would surely sway Valentinian.

One wonders what Ambrose must have thought of the recommendation. He must have known Symmachus’s intentions—before becoming bishop Ambrose had been a savvy politician, and had certainly carried those skills into the holy see. He wielded such power in Milan that he would probably have to approve such an appointment. Did he perhaps anticipate that he and his God would sway Augustine to their side? Or did he just owe his cousin Symmachus a favor? Whatever, the appointment went through and Augustine moved to Milan.

Bishop and Rhetorician

Right away, Augustine was impressed by Ambrose. He was 30 when he arrived in Milan, and Ambrose was 44. He was attracted by Ambrose’s warm personality, and at the same time marveled at Ambrose’s deep thoughtfulness and his devotion to scholarly sermon preparation. In fact, the bishop’s preaching dazzled Augustine—not the style so much as the substance. Faustus the Manichaean had been more fun to listen to, but in content, he couldn't hold a candle to Ambrose. The bishop’s deft handling of Old Testament stories easily answered the Manichaean objections. Ambrose’s famous sermons on Genesis may have been preached in Augustine’s hearing, and the bishop definitely taught the younger rhetorician to appreciate the Apostle Paul.

By this time, Augustine had become a spiritual mongrel. Raised a Catholic by his mother, he became a catechumen in Ambrose’s church—but initially at least, this was probably no more than a move of expediency made by many up-and-comers. At the same time, he was well-acquainted with the Punic paganism of his late father, and technically was still a Manichaean, though he seems to have pressed the borders of that faith and moved beyond it. Also, Symmachus and Roman paganism were paying his bills.

Then Ambrose and his chief counselor, Simplicianus, introduced a new element to this mix: Neoplatonism. It was a sly move on their part. Neoplatonism synthesized the diverse elements of Augustine’s religious life in an appealing way. It was a highly rational philosophy, based on the teachings of Plato, which had been resurrected a century earlier by Plotinus. Augustine’s searching mind was eager for such discipline. Neoplatonism offered Augustine middle ground. It was the philosophy of choice for a growing number of pagans in Rome and Christians in Milan. Whether one served a single God or many, Neoplatonism held forth certain transcendent principles, ideals to which all earthbound souls might aspire.

Simplicianus spent much time with Augustine, talking philosophy and sharing with him books by Plotinus, Porphyry and other Neoplatonists. Simplicianus had known Marius Victorinus, the Neoplatonist scholar who translated these books into Latin. On one occasion, the old counselor told Augustine this story about the translator:

Augustine was being stretched in other ways as well. Monica had arrived in Milan. She immediately set about the task of finding her son a proper wife. Remember, his concubine was a lower-class woman, a convenient companion but an impediment to real social progress. When a marriage to a Christian heiress was arranged, Augustine was forced to send his concubine away, though he says he deeply loved her. The 13-year-old Adeodatus stayed with his father.

Monica regularly worshiped at Ambrose’s church. In fact, Augustine relates how she would give him questions to ask the bishop. She was probably at the church during a most dramatic event—the church was surrounded by imperial soldiers.

The siege was instigated by Justina, mother of the young emperor. She followed the Arian heresy, which thrived in the hinterlands, but was shunned in the capitals of the empire. Determined to lead a resurgence of her faith, she demanded that Ambrose hand over his church building and another in Milan for use by Arian congregations. He refused, so she sent the imperial guard (as Gothic mercenaries, they would be mostly Arian themselves). Ambrose still refused to give in. The stage was set for a massacre: while the mercenaries awaited the order to attack, the bishop led his congregation in psalm-singing. But the order never came. The troops withdrew. One suspects Ambrose sent word to emperor Valentinian that such an incident would arouse the ire of his “uncle” Theodosius, the mighty and devout Emperor of the East, ruling from Constantinople. Valentinian hadn't expected such strong opposition from the bishop. As he ordered the troops’ withdrawal, the boy emperor joked that Ambrose’s power was nearly equal to his own.

What impression might this have made on Augustine? More awe of Ambrose, no doubt, but perhaps also a sense of the interaction between state power and church power, the city of man and the City of God. And for a man clawing his way up the ladder of Roman success, it would come as a jolt to realize that the most powerful man in Italy was not a senator like Symmachus, but a man of the cloth.

A Changed Man

One day Augustine and Alypius received a visitor, Pontitianus, a fellow African and a member of the emperor’s secret service. Pontitianus noticed a copy of Paul’s epistles on Augustine’s desk, and began talking about his own Christianity. He mentioned the story of St. Anthony, founder of an Egyptian monastery, who had entered a church in time to hear the Scripture: “Go and sell all you have . . . “ Anthony had apparently heard God speaking to him in this chance occurrence, so he gave up his possessions and started a monastery. Two colleagues of Pontitianus, on finding a copy of St. Anthony’s story by the roadside, determined to renounce the world as well.

Shortly after that visit, Augustine was walking in the garden of his house when he heard a child’s singsong voice repeating, “Take up and read.” [For the rest of this famous story see Augustine’s own account, Augustine’s Conversion.]

For all its fame, Augustine’s conversion did not have the drama of a sawdust-trail altar call. Something went “click” in his mind, the lights went on, “and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” It may have been politically expedient for Augustine to pay lip-service to the church as a catechumen, but when he really got serious about Christianity, it uprooted his life. Suddenly ladder-climbing didn't make much sense. He no longer cared to be a senator, so what should he do? He could be a monk, maybe, like St. Anthony. Marriage, certainly, was out of the question. He was devoting himself entirely to God, sexuality and all. He broke his engagement.

He resigned his professorship, dashed off a note to Ambrose telling of his conversion, and retreated to a country villa in Cassiciacum. His friends followed him there. Monica, overjoyed at his newfound faith, ran the household. Augustine and Alypius discussed philosophy, and Augustine continued churning out philosophy books in a Neoplatonist vein.

Romanianus, his old patron and friend, occasionally joined him there, along with his 16-year-old son, Licentius, a long-time pupil of Augustine’s. Licentius was a prodigy fascinated by music, particularly taken by the psalm-tunes Ambrose had pioneered. Once he offended Monica by singing a psalm in the bathroom. Adeodatus, a few years younger, showed academic promise as well. Later he would assist his father in the writing of De Magistro (On the Teacher). Augustine’s brother, Navigius, was there too, but he regularly complained of a bad liver and seemed to miss the point of most everything Augustine said. The whole arrangement was much like what Augustine had planned before his conversion—an enclave of philosophers, living a life of thoughtful leisure. But now it had a Christian twist. After six or seven months, around Easter of 387, Augustine emerged from his retreat and returned to Milan. There, along with Alypius and Adeodatus, he was baptized by Ambrose.

The Prodigal Returns

Then Augustine decided to go home to Thagaste. The prodigal had tired of his wandering. There was no point in being anywhere else. Perhaps there he would start a monastery. Europe was in turmoil anyway, not a place for quiet contemplation. Ambrose had recently returned from the northern imperial capital at Trier. There he must have learned about the weakening Roman defenses along the Danube. But the big news was in the west, where Maximus, general of the Roman armies in Gaul and Britain, had declared himself emperor. He had overrun Gaul and was threatening Italy. If Augustine was to escape a blockade of Italy’s seaports, he would have to set sail for Carthage soon. He didn't make it. He and his band of followers were detained in Ostia, Rome’s seaport. There, he records, he and Monica shared a vision of “eternal wisdom.” “We . . . did by degrees pass through all things bodily, even the very heaven whence sun and moon and stars shine upon the earth yea, we were soaring higher yet, by inward musing, and discourse, and admiring of thy works and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might arrive at that region of neverfailing plenty, where thou feedest Israel forever with the food of truth, and where life is the Wisdom by whom all these things are made . . . .” Nine days later, Monica was dead. She had assured her sons they need not bury her alongside her husband, so they buried her at Ostia.

The group wintered in Rome. While there, Augustine possibly did some research on the monastic movement. Jerome had recently furloughed in Rome, acting as secretary to Bishop Damasus. He might have left behind some of the east’s spiritual wisdom.

Eventually the sea blockade was lifted, and Augustine and friends traveled to Carthage and then Thagaste. It should have been big news in North Africa. Augustine and his yuppie friends from Milan had given up their high-powered positions and retired to a life of contemplation in tiny Thagaste. There they would serve the church, not as priests and bishops, but as writers and thinkers.

Soon after Monica’s death, Augustine suffered more loss. His dear son Adeodatus, for whom he had great hopes, died shortly after their return to Africa. He also lost one of his inner circle of friends, Nebridius, about that same time. Though he still had a loyal group around him, he says he felt very much alone. Within a few years he had lost his mother, his son, his friend, and his beloved concubine. But the loss of these loved ones served to propel Augustine toward deeper, more-vigorous commitment and service.

Pressed into Service

In 391, Augustine learned that someone in Hippo—a former member of the secret service—was interested in joining a monastery. Though he didn't like to travel, Augustine hiked to Hippo, where he was warmly received. Perhaps too warmly. Seeing the renowned layman in church that Sunday, Bishop Valerius put aside his prepared sermon and preached on the urgent need for priests in Hippo. Who among them would be willing to give his life to the priesthood? The crowd spotted Augustine. In a scene amazingly similar to the sudden ordination of Ambrose 20 years earlier, Augustine was made a priest against his will. The people noticed him weeping, but thought it was because he wanted to be bishop, not just a priest. All in good time, they assured him.

Valerius was a shrewd Greek who knew what the church needed. Throughout North Africa, the Catholics were feuding—and sometimes losing—against the Donatists. The church needed a champion to argue down the Donatist arrogance, and Valerius saw Augustine as that champion. So the bishop gave Augustine the use of a house and garden near the cathedral, and Augustine brought his friends along to use the garden as a monastery.

Though in most of North Africa preaching was exclusively the task of bishops, Valerius gave his preaching duties over to Augustine. And when the bishops of North Africa convened in Hippo, Valerius let Augustine do the teaching. Wisely, the novice priest chose to carefully go over the creed, setting a pattern that would last for the next 37 years—Augustine teaching the church what it believed. In 395 Valerius convinced the bishop of Carthage to make Augustine co-bishop with him—even though this violated the canons of Nicea. A year later Valerius died, and Augustine became the sole bishop of Hippo.

Heresy-fighting topped the new bishop’s agenda. Manichaeism was already on its way out, but Augustine dealt it a death blow. He knew this foe inside and out. At the public baths in Hippo (sort of the community assembly hall), Augustine debated Fortunatus, a former school colleague of his from Carthage days and now a leading Manichee. The bishop made quick work of the heretic, and Fortunatus left town in shame.

Donatism, however, was more firmly entrenched, supported as it was by many wealthy landowners. It was less of a doctrinal struggle than a political one. The Donatists had set up their own church in the early 300s as a “pure” alternative to the “compromised” Catholic Church (holding that a number of Catholic leaders had betrayed the church during the persecution of Diocletian). Several generations had grown up with this division, along with the violence and vandalism it provoked. It was Augustine’s job to show that the Catholic Church was not compromised, that it was the valid continuation of the apostolic church. In his writing and preaching he began to shore up the Catholic tradition. The Donatists recognized the threat Augustine presented. And for the Donatist landowners, this was big business. They plotted to kill him.

Meanwhile, Augustine’s band of meditative men was dispersing. Alypius became bishop of Thagaste Possidius, bishop of Calama Evodius, bishop of Uzalis. Augustine’s conversion had given the church not only Augustine, but a whole cadre of bright young leaders. It was just what the church needed in its fight against Donatism.

As bishop, Augustine spent most of his time judging cases and resolving disputes in Hippo. He was a man of integrity who would not be bought off. He may have wanted to be writing theology or meditating on God’s sovereignty, but his duties demanded he decide which farmer owned a certain plot of land. The press of Augustine’s administrative duties makes his philosophical and literary output all the more remarkable. Where did he find the time to write the works that would shape Christianity for millennia to come?

Cities of Man and God

In 410, the barbarian general Alaric and his troops sacked Rome. Many upper-class Romans fled for their lives to North Africa, one of the few safe havens left in the tempestuous empire. This would have been a time of some irony for Augustine. Once he had had trouble fitting in among the Romans now Romans were coming to him for shelter.

Paganism was by now powerless, but its heart beat on in the murmurs of the refugees. Christianity had caused this tragedy, they said the gods of Rome would have saved Rome if Rome still believed in them. So Augustine had a double task: to care for these homeless people, and to refute their anti-Christian charges. He began to develop his thinking about the cities of God and man.

In 411 the Donatist controversy came to a head. The failing empire, still trying to hold things together, convened a debate in Carthage to decide this troublesome Donatist-Catholic dispute once and for all. Flavius Marcellinus, the veteran diplomat sent to referee, requested that each group send seven bishops as delegates. The Donatists, suspecting that the deck was stacked against them, sent their full contingent of bishops. Hundreds of them, and their behavior was ornery throughout the proceedings.

For each town in North Africa, they presented their bishop and his credentials, then challenged the Catholics to put forward a legitimate bishop for that town. When it came time to debate, the Donatists requested more time to prepare their case. Colleagues like Alypius and Possidius said no, but Augustine, who emerged as the debate captain, confidently allowed it. When it came his turn, Augustine demolished the Donatist appeal. A master of rhetoric at work, he would have made Cicero proud. Marcellinus took little time to decide the Donatists had no case.

In the ensuing years, Augustine struck up a friendship with Marcellinus, the imperial commissioner. The diplomat urged the bishop to put his thoughts concerning the city of man and the city of God into writing. Then suddenly Marcellinus was arrested. Heraclion, general in charge of Roman forces in North Africa, had revolted against the empire. The rebellion was squelched and its leaders executed. Marcellinus, falsely implicated, was sentenced to death. Augustine tried his best to win a reprieve, but to no avail. Marcellinus was killed.

What kind of sting must this have caused Augustine? Had he been an Ambrose, he might have been able to pull the strings necessary to save this innocent man. Ambrose, after all, had stood his ground against imperial troops. And another time Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius the Great and lived to see the mighty emperor trudge into church wearing sackcloth. Ambrose had wielded power in the city of God and in the city of man. But somebody had changed the locks on the city gates. The world was different now, and Augustine lost a friend.

Quietly, perhaps sullenly, Augustine continued his work on The City of God. It would appear in installments over the next 12 years, and would revolutionize Roman-Christian thought. In 418, a new general arrived in North Africa. Boniface had held the line against the barbarians in Europe. Now he was stationed on the edge of the Sahara, guarding North Africa against marauding nomads. Augustine made friends with Boniface, no doubt happy such an able warrior was protecting his people. Boniface was a Christian, and had a very devout Christian wife. When his wife died in 420, Boniface even considered entering a monastery.

But Augustine and Alypius journeyed out to the desert to convince Boniface to stay at his post. Thirty years earlier, travel-shy Augustine had ventured to Hippo to talk someone into joining a monastery. Now he went out of his way to talk Boniface out of it. They needed a good general more than they needed another monk, thought Augustine.

Life’s-End Challenges

Meanwhile, the bishop was weathering attacks from another quarter. Young Julian of Eclanum was taking potshots at Augustine’s theology—and his character. Julian was a Pelagian, not believing in original sin. Pelagius himself had been excommunicated in 417, and Julian, who had been a bishop in Italy, had been kicked out of his church shortly thereafter. But still he wrote, challenging the bishop of Hippo. Augustine was a Manichee, he charged (probably not as worried about Manichaean theology as about the low-class stigma attached to it). Augustine was an African, he trumpeted. Augustine and his African band of bishops had taken over Roman Christianity, he charged, probably hoping to arouse his Roman readers.

Augustine answered the junior exbishop in kind, pointing out Julian’s high-class snobbery. Over the last 10 years of his life, Augustine published two collections of responses to Julian. It might have been better to let the matter drop. Surely Augustine had better things to do than bicker with this sophomoric hatchetman.

But Augustine was arguing with a younger version of himself. That may be why he debated Julian so intensely. Like Julian, he too was once enamored with secular wisdom. And he too had resisted the idea that man is born in sin. But God had not given up on Augustine when he was a brash know-it-all with his head buried in heresy. Could Augustine so easily give up on Julian?

Problems other than Julian were pressing Augustine’s people. Boniface had been steadily accruing power through the 420s. In 426, he visited the imperial court at Ravenna to assert his position as Count of Africa. He returned with a rich wife—an Arian woman—and a few concubines. The following year, he launched his revolt. Now he had to defend his position against both the barbarians and the Romans.

Augustine wrote to Boniface, chastising him for his actions. Confusion in North Africa, he suggested, would surely provide an entry to the Vandals who were already perched at Gibraltar, ready to overrun the continent. Augustine urged peace with the empire and a united front against the barbarians. But Boniface, who had anticipated support from Augustine and the other bishops, argued that his claims to power were legitimate. Nonetheless, Augustine turned a cold shoulder to him. The general came to visit the bishop once, but Augustine was apparently too tired to meet with him.

In the summer of 429, the Vandals invaded North Africa and met little resistance. The citizenry fled before them. many to the fortified city of Hippo. There Augustine comforted and cared for the influx of refugees. Possidius, a charter member of his monastery at Thagaste, now a bishop with a congregation, also fled to Hippo, and helped Augustine organize his writings. Boniface was there too, valiantly defending the city. In the third month of the Vandals’ siege of Hippo, Augustine caught a sudden fever. For 10 days the 76- year-old bishop fought it. Then he died. But almost miraculously, his writings survived the Vandal takeover, allowing his influence to live on and on.

By Randy Petersen

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #15 in 1987]

Randy Peterson is a freelance writer from Westville, N. J., and a contributing editor for Christian History.

From the Great Divergence to the Great Recession

The shared prosperity of the decades following World War II would come to an end during the 1970s, a decade characterized by slow growth, high unemployment, and high inflation. This dismal economic situation provided the impetus for new policies that promised to stimulate more economic growth.

Unfortunately, it meant growth would return but the main beneficiaries would be those at the top of the income ladder. Labor unions came under attack in the workplace, courts and in public policy, top marginal tax rates were reduced in an attempt to direct more money towards private investment rather than in the hands of government, and deregulation of corporate and financial institutions were enacted.

In 1978, labor union membership stood at 23.8% and fell to 11.3% in 2011. While the three decades following World War II was an era of shared prosperity, the declining strength of unions has been met with a situation in which labor productivity has doubled since 1973 but median wages have only increased by 4%.

The top marginal tax rate dropped from 70% to 50% in 1982 and then to 38.5% in 1987, and over the past 30 odd years has fluctuated between 28% and 39.6%, which is where it currently sits. (To read more, see: How does the marginal tax rate system work?).

The decline in union membership and reduction of marginal tax rates roughly coincides with increases in income inequality which has come to called the Great Divergence. In 1976, the richest 1% possessed just under 8% of total income but has increased since, reaching a peak of just over 18%—about 23.5% when capital gains are included—in 2007, on the eve of the onset of the Great Recession. These numbers are eerily close to those reached in 1928 that lead to the crash that would usher in the Great Depression.