Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Roman Slavery |
Death by drudgery

Roman Slavery is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 122, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Christians sent to the mines were lamed, then half-blinded as an identification mark, then worked dawn-to-dusk on a starvation diet, but even there the faith spread

Roman Slavery - Death by drudgery

Roman Slavery - Death by drudgery
The mines of the Roman Empire at the turn of the fourth century offered no hope to their inmates. Criminals such as unrepentant Christians could not expect to leave alive. But even here the Christians gathered, quietly, at places of prayer like this one, marked by the sign of the “ship of salvation,” one of many symbols used by Christians at the time.

With the full authority of the mighty Roman Empire at his command, the magistrate coldly surveyed the assembled mass of men, women and children, guarded by soldiers. They had been gathered from the surrounding areas, rousted from their homes, sometimes whipped and dragged noisily from their places of worship, chased through woods and fields, discovered in their hiding places. The magistrate looked them over with mixed disgust and pity. These were those loathsome Christians, themselves deceived and deceiving others with absurd ideas attributed to the man Jesus, the crucified Palestinian Jew whom they think actually rose from the dead more than two centuries ago.

It was the magistrate’s job to carry out the mandate of the emperor Decius, who was determined to restore to Rome the glories of the past, unifying the empire by reviving worship of the imperial gods, a goal the Christians persistently obstructed. He didn’t seek their deaths, but rather their apostasy from their bizarre religion. Their death, though often the only expedient, was nevertheless a defeat. Best of all was one of their leaders publicly renouncing his faith.

However, there was a third option, one of distinct economic benefit to the empire, but still a virtual death sentence. This was service as slave labor in the mines. Few ever came back. Gazing over the prisoners, the magistrate decided that this would be best. Ad metalla he declared–“to the mines.” (The word in the singular meant metal–gold, silver or iron. In the plural, it meant mines.)

Everyone had heard about the mines and their horrors. A sentence to the mines was deemed capital punishment, because just one in ten had a chance of survival, and unlike decapitation, it was a slow, agonizing journey to martyrdom. So terrible was such a sentence that many decided they would prefer being torn to pieces by animals in the amphitheater.

As the villagers watched, the streams of condemned men, women and children moved past. Usually, the party thus assigned consisted of bedraggled men, common criminals, or political subversives who already had been tortured and imprisoned. These were different, ordinary people, they seemed. “They must be Christians,” the crowd would whisper, and then the catcalls began. A few stones were perhaps thrown, though not by all. More and more people secretly admired these Christians, despite their bizarre behavior. They were often generous, kind, helping not only their own members, but others as well.

Throughout the Levant, in Egypt and North Africa, the Romans long had mined gold, silver, salt, and granite. Marble was quarried in Pannonia and Cilicia, copper was mined in Palestine and Cyprus, gold in Spain. Imperial porphyry was found only in the Red Sea mountains of eastern Egypt, where summer temperatures reached 114°F.

Sentencing Christians to the mines and quarries accomplished two quite useful ends: It provided cheap labor to replenish the treasury, and it helped to rid the empire of their obstinate presence. Many mine slaves died from overwork, brutality and starvation, of course, and there were never enough common criminals to replace them. So the Decian persecution relieved the labor shortage.

On arrival, new members of the mine labor force were mutilated for easy handling. One side of their heads was shaved for quick identification in the unlikely event of their escape. The tendon of the left foot was crippled by cauterization, lest they should ever attempt to run. For clearer identification, the right eye was cut out with a knife, or burned through with a hot poker. Boys were castrated.

Then came day after day of hammers and wedges, crushing labor and crushed limbs. Starvation and collapse under loads of rocks were common. Those failing under duress were whipped and beaten until they responded or died. Any who grew too weak to report for work were beheaded.

Prisoners lived in ramshackle villages, Christians and other criminals side by side. The others were occasionally allowed visitors, contact with the outside world, but this was usually forbidden to Christians. Sometimes, a governor inspecting the mines believed life was too soft for the Christians there. If he thought they were living too long, he would resettle them to more miserable conditions, perhaps to the mines in Cyprus, Sardinia, Lebanon or Palestine.

Guards were ever alert to any infiltration of the Christian community by outsiders, particularly by bishops and priests who might wish to minister to these confessores metallici–mining-confessors. But many bishops and priests were among the hundreds of Christians who spent their remaining days hauling ore, breathing foul air, wearing bug-infested rags (if anything at all), and dragging iron chains on their feet. If such spiritual leaders were discovered spreading their beliefs among the miners, they were burned alive–that was the fate of the bishops Nilus and Peleus, but not all were discovered.

Despite the vigilance of the guards, however, some communication with Christians occurred. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, was able to correspond with confessors in some mines, and would write of severe beatings and shackles on the feet of the prisoners. He referred to the miners as “gold and silver vessels.” It was astonishing, he said, “that now the nature of the mines has been changed and places which before had been accustomed to give gold and silver have begun to receive them.”

He regretted not being with them: “Although it is not granted me to come to you in body and in movement, yet I come to you in love and in spirit . . . considering myself a sharer with you in union of love if not in suffering of body.” Three who were martyred managed a letter to Cyprian, hailing him as “greater than all men in discourse, more eloquent in speech, wiser in counsel, simpler in wisdom, more abundant in works, holier in abstinence, humbler in obedience and more innocent in your good deeds.”

Even under such terrible conditions, the Christians in the mines often showed the same cheer so puzzlingly demonstrated by Christian martyrs in the arenas. At the Phaeno copper mines, a shanty became a church served by the best shepherds: Silvanus, bishop of Gaza, working tirelessly among the suffering, or the blind lector John, reciting from memory long Scripture passages.

Wondrously, the mines attracted visitors, sometimes from as far as Rome. Christians, at great risk to themselves, sometimes managed, despite the rules, to bring the miners small aids and comforting words. Unfortunately for those at Phaeno, a governor visited one day, found the conditions too easy, and reported directly to the Eastern caesar, Daia. The Christians were scattered to other mines throughout the empire, the four leading clergy were burned to death, and the thirty-nine who were too old or weak to travel–including Silvanus and John–were beheaded.

Throughout their ordeal, the mining-confessors by and large kept hold of their faith and continued their religious practices the best they could. During times of uneasy respite, some rubbed soot from the torches and with their worn and calloused fingers repeatedly wrote the simple word vita: life. Centuries later, a graveyard was discovered near an ancient mine, with crosses and headstones attesting to Christians buried there.

After years of darkness, a light finally shone over the mines. The emperor Constantine declared that those imprisoned or shackled in the mines solely for their religious beliefs must be released, protected from danger, and not molested. And so the gates were opened. Villagers who once shouted abuse at those marching off to the mines and quarries were stunned to see lines of folk staggering back in the opposite direction. Despite their lameness, their blindness, their bodies wracked from the effects of starvation, as they passed through the villages, these long columns of men and women sang psalms and hymns, praising God in the highways and city squares. Those who had been punished so cruelly, whose chances of survival had been minuscule, were smiling and laughing, filled with joy.

Bystanders were no doubt astonished. What was it these Christians knew or possessed that they could behave like this after all they had endured? Thus did their light so shine before men, as Jesus had commanded (Matt. 5:16).

Well into the fifth century, mines were used, though not always as brutally, as punishment or exile for Christians engaged in internecine theological, territorial and political disputes. Today, we marvel at the antiquities of the Roman Empire: towering pillars, gigantic temples, aqueducts, roadways, amphitheaters. Unfortunately, the ugly price paid in their construction may be lost in their beauty, a price paid in part by thousands of Christians who suffered, praised God, and laid the foundations of the faith for centuries to come.

This is the end of the Roman Slavery category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 122, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Roman Slavery from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at