June 16, 2024

Slavery in the Vatican - The Pope's Forgotten Slaves - Culture

Slavery in the Vatican – The Pope’s Forgotten Slaves – Culture


What very few people know: the popes in Rome were also slave owners – not only in the Middle Ages, but also in the 19th century.

The Catholic Church has apologized for many dark pages in its long history over the past few decades. For example, to turn a blind eye to the extermination of the Jews, to the abuse of minors by the clergy, and to force other peoples to change their religion by force.

But there was no guilt in ignoring the rights of people who lived as slaves in papal Rome.

Only “pagan” slaves are allowed

Slaves were in abundance in ancient Rome. This did not change even when Christian popes took power. Many slaves also lived in their territorial state with the capital, Rome. But unlike pagan antiquity, slaves of the popes were not allowed to be Christians.

Countless “unbeliever” slaves served in the Vatican, in the court of church lords, and as slaves on naval ships in the Papal Navy. They were also handed away. For example, if male and female slaves were particularly attractive, the popes would give them to princes who were friends in Italy.

Still the pope’s slaves circa 1840

Historian Marina Cafiero, who teaches at the University of Rome, now presents the first scientific study on the topic of papal slavery.

In his book The Pope’s Slaves, Cafiero primarily studied the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries—a well-documented era on the subject of slaves in Rome.

The saddest result of their study was the fact that the popes used slaves until the 1830s and 1840s. This, long after the ideas of the French Revolution proclaimed freedom, when all other European countries had already abolished slavery.

Only the end of the great territorial state of the Church and the unification of Italy in the middle of the nineteenth century ended the slavery of representatives on Earth.

The conversion did not bring editing

Marina Cafiero was able to use the so-called “Libro dei Turchi” in her research, an accurate record by a Roman clergyman from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This book provides accurate information about all the slaves who were living in Rome at that time. Their names, ages and places of work.


In the 15th century (1452), Pope Nicholas V granted the Portuguese king permission for the African slave trade.

IMAGO / Limag

The slaves of the Papal State called in the “Libro dei Turchi” converted to Catholicism in the hope of gaining their freedom in this way. But as Caffiero explains, that wasn’t the case. Even converts remained slaves.

The historian tells a horrific story in which the Vatican and the Pope have so far not admitted any guilt. According to Marina Cafiero, this topic, embarrassing to the official church, has been silenced to this day.

At the same time, they demanded, it is time for the Pope to speak also of slavery in his state.

SRF Radio 2 Kultur, Cultural Bulletin, September 22, 2022, 8:06 am.