Since the first advanced civilisations, slavery had been an important factor in the social and societal fabric of the Mediterranean, and in the Roman Empire it even constituted an essential pillar of the economy. Slavery generally refers to the condition in which people are treated as the property of others. Slaves were not considered human beings. Bondage had been documented in the Ancient Near East since the third millennium BC. In most ancient Mediterranean cultures, it became established as a fixed, legal institution.
In antiquity, one was a slave mostly by imprisonment in war, deportation and also by birth, i.e. over several generations. It was possible to be freed, and subsequent integration into society was not ruled out. Slaves could perform many different professions, from simple servants to teachers and craftsmen to state and temple offices. This did not change in the strengthening Roman Empire.
With the expansion of their sphere of influence, the Romans became increasingly Hellenised, i.e. they adopted Greek culture. In late antiquity, Christianity finally gained power. Ancient Roman culture with its traditional values clashed with the new ethos of Christianity. The decades-long clashes between the different worldviews and philosophies ultimately led to the unprecedented rise of the Roman Catholic Church in the crumbling Roman Empire.
In this era, which was to mark the end of antiquity, a new zeitgeist had emerged. However, this did not mean the immediate end of the old order.
The Roman people faced numerous problems and changes in the transition to late antiquity. The ancient world was in the process of fundamental change and thus also bridged the gap to the approaching Middle Ages. Slaves and bondage were still economically significant in the late ancient Roman world. State laws regulated slavery, but also made it more humane over time. At the same time, however, a comprehensive transformation of the institution of bondage began.
In late antiquity, the Church simultaneously developed from a persecuted sect into a significant power factor. As the new state religion, Christianity was henceforth able to exert influence on the emperor and the empire and thus – also with regard to the longer-term historical context – on the politics and economy of Europe.
For example, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Church Father and theologian, also represented a thoroughly patriarchal basic pattern, which he, however, interpreted as practised charity and social solidarity. Those who cared for their neighbour should also determine. He saw the existence of slavery as part of God’s will and even advocated it within earthly life, as long as the master’s care for his slaves surpassed the negatively afflicted vice of “imperiousness”.
Augustine often kept a certain balance between a logical pragmatism and an idealistic Christian attitude in his words and deeds. His works were very influential and his theological-philosophical views influenced the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages and into the Reformation era.
Christianity, which had become powerful, integrated itself into the late ancient world. It acted in a practical manner and in accordance with the prevailing spirit of the times. However, this also meant that at no time did it take effective action against slavery.
Therefore, serfdom and the guild system were able to emerge gradually and relatively unhindered from the lack of freedom in late antiquity, the colonate and the colleges. They were to become characteristics of medieval and early modern Europe, shaping society until the beginning of the modern age.