Personhood in Late Antiquity: How Barbarians, Slaves, Women, and Children Became Persons (Personhood in Late Antiquity, Part I)

The Greco-Roman world, whose Hellenistic culture and thought dominated the West throughout Antiquity, possessed a very narrow definition of what constituted a person, a full and equal member of the human political and legal community with all of the rights and responsibilities that status confers. In large part, the full application of that term and the concept it represented were limited to free adult male Greek, or, later, Roman, aristocrats. Groups such as slaves, children, women, men who were not Roman citizens, the poor, and others who did not fit into this narrow category were excluded from full participation in personhood. Slaves alone constituted a third of the population of the Roman Empire and women made up approximately half. The majority of the population of the Roman Empire, then, was seen as possessing less than full personhood. Groups that were denied full personhood were often subject to disdain, abuse, brutality, and even execution with no legal recourse. The Jews, on the other hand, who made up a small but visible minority of subjects and citizens under Greek and Roman rule in Antiquity, because of their doctrine of the Imago Dei, held a much wider understanding of personhood and included under that concept all members of the human species regardless of social status, age, gender, or nationality. As a result, Jewish law conferred upon slaves, women, children, the poor, and other such groups the status of full personhood and the rights associated with that status under Jewish law. Christianity emerged from Judaism in the first century AD and carried with it the idea of the Imago Dei, coupling with that idea its own original ideas of the Incarnation of God as man and the availability of salvation for all people through recapitulation. Already heavily influenced by Hellenistic thought from its inception, Christianity in large part became a point of synthesis between Judaism and Hellenism beginning in the second century as an increasing number of converts to the incipient religion came from segments of the Roman Empire outside of the Jewish community, especially from marginalized and oppressed groups. Because of its message of the full personhood of women, children, slaves, and other marginalized and oppressed classes in Roman society, it drew its converts especially from these groups. In the fourth century, Christianity became the official, dominant, and popular religion of the Roman Empire and began to exert a major influence on law, thought, and culture in the West. Although it continued to struggle with the process of reconciling and synthesizing the Judaic and Hellenistic elements it had inherited, Christianity introduced a new and wider understanding of who was fully a person, a definition which included even unborn children and the lowest and most degraded segments of society. Popularized and refined throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, this definition became the standard understanding of what constitutes a human being according to Western thought and, although it has been and continues to be challenged from various quarters, it remains the standard understanding today.

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