Did English slave boys for sale in Rome play a part in the launch of Augustine’s mission to Canterbury? This is what St Bede, a monk and C8th author of Ecclesiastical History of the English People, records.
Rome formerly had two places for the auction of slaves.
The Slave Market for some slaves was held in the portico of Septa Julia. This occupied the whole block of the present day buildings to the left of the Pantheon, when viewed from the colonnaded front entrance. The C13th basilica, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, now occupies the west end of the former Septa Julia complex, below the bottom left end (south-west corner) of the Pantheon (again viewed from the front).
Slaves arriving from abroad in the late sixth century were carried to Rome by river from Ostia and disembarked on the docks beneath the Aventine Hill. From here they would be led up the winding street today known as Via Teatro Marcello, and on through the streets of the Campus of Mars area to Septa Julia.
Other slaves would not have quite so far to walk; their journey progressed from the Tiber to the Piazza Bocca D. Verita, then perhaps along the present Via della Consolazione to the rear of the Basilica Julia in the Forum Romanum.
An alternative would have been through the Piazza Bocca also, but passing on through the fourth century Arco di Giano (Arch of Janus) and left into the Via di San Teodoro, named after this sixth century saint and church, and finally to a courtyard behind the Basilica Julia.
The Arch of Janus was not an entry to the city, as the city wall extends across the Tiber into the Trastevere district. However, it’s location may have served as a pointer to the Forum Romanum. Today, a fence prevents both vehicles and pedestrian traffic from passing beneath its crumbling stonework. By the sixth century, the Forum Romanum had largely reverted to its original function as a marketplace, and that included the sale of slaves.
The Venerable Bede
The Northumbrian monk, St. Bede, records a tale of two Anglo-Saxon slave boys for sale in Rome seen by Gregory before he was elected as Bishop of Rome, and on this basis some years later, launched a mission to England. He writes, “One day, soon after some merchants had arrived in Rome, a quantity of merchandise was exposed for sale in the market place. Crowds came to buy, and Gregory too was among them. As well as other merchandise he saw some boys put up for sale, with fair complexions, handsome faces, and lovely hair”. From them he learns that they come from a heathen land and that
they were called ‘Angli’, to which Gregory famously responded, “Not Angles, but angels!” Bede’s account, however, does not claim that Gregory bought their freedom, only that their story served to inspire the idea of a mission to Kent some years later.
There was no significant movement within Church or Society before the nineteenth century to abolish slavery. Gregory’s own practice, when he founded St Andrew’s Monastery on his family estate in Rome, was to give freedom to slaves within his own household. However he did not actively seek to purchase slaves on the open market as a way to undermine the deeply-embedded social and commercial practice of slavery.
St Paul and Slavery
St Paul, in the first century AD, was the first Christian to write anything theological about slaves. There was no abstract concept of ‘inalienable human rights’. Slavery was just part of the way things were, and seen as an essential element in the global economy. Paul’s way into the issue was not through ‘human rights’, but through the Roman understanding of the rights that were conferred by ‘citizenship’ which was denied to slaves and most foreigners.
St Paul took this Roman concept (he was born a Roman citizen, unlike most outsiders who had to buy this right at great price) and stood it on its head. All Christians were, by God’s free gift, full citizens of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, their task is to work out the implications of their new citizenship in the world, so that ‘citizenship rights’ would eventually become the norm for everyone.
St Paul wrote “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) How can a Christian treat another person as a slave if he or she is a fellow-Christian, someone whom Christ has set free in his own Kingdom?
This was not a theological idea that attracted much support, either in the first century, or in the eighteen hundred centuries that followed. Slavery was far too convenient and trade in human flesh too profitable to lay down without a fight. In Britain, it took until the early C19th to achieve this. (And work is still in hand on ethnic and gender differences).
Returning to Gregory in the slave market, Bede himself seems uncertain about the veracity of the story of slave boys in the market place as a reason for launching the mission to England. He places his tale as a slightly apologetic ‘appendix’ to his account of the mission to England, rather than as his prologue for Gregory sending Augustine in 596. What Gregory himself actually writes is that he launched the mission in direct response to an appeal from the Kentish royal household, the rulers of ‘the English people’.
Does this account of English slave boys then have no substance? Not entirely. We do know, from Gregory’s own Papal Registry, that as the Bishop of Rome he authorised payment for two young Saxon boys to be educated in a monastery in France, and paid for this out of funds from papal estates there. Presumably because the Frankish tongue was close enough to Old English. This may perhaps explain the confusion surrounding these Anglo-Saxon boys in Bede’s record of Augustine’s mission to England.