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The Seventh Annual Rostovtzeff Lecture, November 12, 2014

Susanna Elm, University of California, Berkeley

“Sold to Sin through origo: Augustine of Hippo on the Slave-trade”

In 427 or 428, Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa, wrote a letter to his friend and fellow bishop Alypius, a highly trained legal expert at that moment on his way to the imperial court in Ravenna. Augustine’s letter, followed by a second one to a local legal expert, was prompted by the recent mass-enslavement of persons Augustine identifies as free Roman provincials to be sold, from Hippo, to provinces overseas. Members of his church had intervened and set 120 of those captured free. However, these persons were not a homogeneous group. They included “true” slaves; children sold, contrary to Roman law, in perpetual servitude; the wife of a colonus, a tenant of the church at Hippo; and a notarius of one of Augustine’s churches. In fact, as I will argue, Augustine’s letters were prompted not so much by the capture of these persons, but by issues of personal status, neither slave nor free, brought to the fore as a result of these raids. Using the complex issues of personal status these letters reveal, namely the existence of a grey area between freedom and slavery, the lecture then addresses the question whether and if so to what degree such social and economic realities shaped Augustine’s theological notions of freedom and bondage. Might Augustine’s concept of original sin, his nuanced intellectual and theological proposition about human nature and divine will also be understood as a form of theological reasoning grounded in the social, political, and legal practices of the late empire concerning slavery and new forms of un-freedom?

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Top photo Michael I. Rostovtzeff