The Meletian Schism

Meletian Schism papyrus
circa A.D. 330

By the 4th century A.D., the great wars were over, so it was rare for hordes of defeated peoples to be herded through the streets and sold one-by-one to the highest bidder. Documents of the time suggest that the craftsmen in most industries now most likely were citizens, struggling like everyone around them to balance life against the relentless burden of taxes.

Nowadays, we look back in wonder at the magnificence of the churches and palaces that were built in Constantinople and in other major cities of the Empire by new adherents to the Christian faith. But this papyrus, the Meletian Schism, captures all too poignantly the hardship imposed upon the craftsfolk and farming peasantry during the early Byzantine era. The text describes the sufferings of a certain wine-dealer, Pamonthius, who has fallen into so much debt that he was forced not only to sell all his property and his wardrobe but also to hand over his children to creditors. Though the pledging of one's children as a security—and so, in the eventuality of default, committing them to a life of slavery—was illegal, it was widespread.