Without an understanding of the slave problem as it existed in the Roman empire of Paul’s day the Epistle to Philemon cannot be fully appreciated. Slaves were a recognized part of the social structure and were considered members of their master’s household. Between the years 146 BCE and 235 CE the proportion of slaves to freemen is said to have been three to one. Pliny says that in the time of Augustus a freedman by the name of Caecillius held 4,116 slaves (see Encyclopedia Britannica 1966 ed. Vol. 20 pp 776, 777).
With so large a part of the population under bondage the ruling class felt obliged to enact severe laws to prevent escape or revolt. Originally, in Roman law the master possessed absolute power of life and death over his slaves. The slave could own no property. Everything he had belonged to his master, though at times he could accumulate chance earnings.
Slaves could not legally marry, but were nevertheless encouraged to do so because their offspring increased the master’s wealth. The slave knew that he might be separated from his mate and children at the pleasure of his master.
Slaves could not appeal to civil magistrates for justice, and there was no place where a fugitive slave could find asylum. He could never serve as a witness, except under torture, and he could not accuse his master of any crimes except high treason, adultery, incest, or the violation of sacred things. If a master was accused of a crime, he could offer his slave to be interrogated by torture in his place.
The punishment for running away was often death, sometimes by crucifixion or by being thrown to ravenous lampreys in a fishpond.
Some slave owners were more considerate than others and some slaves showed great devotion to their masters. Certain tasks committed to slaves were relatively pleasant and a number required a high degree of intelligence. Often teachers, physicians, and even philosophers became slaves because of military conquest.
Many slaves ran shops or factories or managed estates for their masters. The institution of slavery was a school for cowardice, flattery, dishonesty, graft, immorality, and other vices, for above all else a slave had to cater to his master’s wishes, however evil. By about 200 CE, conditions had improved greatly and even more so after the spread of Christianity.
As we proceed, remember these things and remember also that Paul often refers to the sinner being a slave to sin.