Augustine the Economist: Slavery, Taxation, and Original Sin


ACLS Fellowship Program


History and Classics


Using two letters by bishop Augustine of Hippo in North Africa, prompted by the rescue of 120 persons to be sold as slaves in 428 CE, this book illustrates that Augustine's contemporary invention of original sin, peccatum per originem, was his revolutionary commentary on the fiscal and economic givens of his day. At stake was the personal status, the human condition, of those 120, many of whom inhabited a grey zone caused by recent tax legislation for which Roman law was not equipped: they were neither true slaves (for sale) nor fully free (inalienable). Roman administrators had begun to capture this inherited hybrid status through the concept of origo. Augustine used this new fiscal meaning of origo to develop his theology of original sin, the inherited human condition of being born free yet bound to sin.