Bodies and Souls

The Rhetoric of Slavery

Sometime in the fourth or fifth century, a Christian man ordered a bronze collar to encircle the neck of one of his slaves. The inscription on the collar reads: "I am the slave of the archdeacon Felix. Hold me so that I do not flee."1 Although the collar purports to speak in the first person for a nameless slave, the voice we hear is not that of the slave but that of the slaveholder. Felix, enraged by a slave's previous attempts to escape, ordered the collar both to humiliate and to restrain another human being, whom the law classified as his property. The chance survival of this artifact of the early church recalls the overwhelming element of compulsion that operated within the system of slavery, with its use of brute paraphernalia for corporal control. Contemporary sensibilities recoil from such tangible evidence for the inherent violence of ancient slavery. We are likely to consider Christian slaveholders to be hypocrites and to find the notion of Christian slavery oxymoronic. Felix exhibited no awareness of such contradiction: the slave collar he ordered even bears an incised cross. Centuries after Paul wrote to another Christian slaveholder, Philemon, counseling him to act in love toward the runaway slave Onesimus, the otherwise unknown archdeacon, Felix, apparently saw no incongruity in proclaiming simultaneously his status as a leader in the church and his identity as a slaveholder.

Slaves in the Roman Empire were vulnerable to physical control, coercion, and abuse in settings as public as the auction block and as private as the bedroom. Since slavery was identified with the body, it is not surprising that the experience of slavery was conditioned by gender and sexuality. At the same time, a person's experience of what it meant to be male or female was conditioned by the accident of slavery. A male slave, for example, had no legal connection to his own offspring, thus excluding him from the cultural status of fatherhood. Slaveholders had unrestricted sexual access to their slaves. This dimension of slave life was most likely to affect female slaves and young male slaves. Moreover, slaveholders valued female slaves for their biological capacities of reproduction and lactation. Problems emanating from the sexual and gender-specific use of slaves are central to the understanding of slavery in the early Christian era.

In the late second century, an Ephesian native named Artemidorus wrote a treatise on the interpretation of dreams, the Oneirocritica. Artemidorus proposed interpretations for seemingly every image that might arise in the course of a night's sleep. In Artemidorus's dream logic, slaves and bodies dissolve into one another. In dreams, he claims, slaves represent the bodies of their owners: "The very man who dreamt that he saw his household slave sick with a fever became ill himself, as one might expect. For the household slave has the same relationship to the dreamer that the body has to the soul."2 Accord ing to this logic, the slave serves as surrogate body for the slaveholder, the experiences of the slaveholder played out in the very body of the slave.3 This equation between slaves and bodies actually begins with the lexicon of slavery. The Greek word for body, to soma, serves as a euphemism for the person of a slave. As we will see, wills and property registers were particularly likely to refer to the slaves of a household as "the bodies," ta somata.

By the first century C.E., Stoic philosophers had appropriated the trope of slavery to represent what we would describe as spiritual or moral postures, for example, in the struggle to avoid enslavement to the passions. Similarly, in a wide variety of Christian sources, the rhetoric of slavery represents the negative relationship of the human person to sin or the positive relationship of the Christian to God or to Christ.4 Perhaps because of this theological displacement, scholars have been slow to interrogate the ideology of slavery in early Christian sources. Following the lead of the primary texts, we may be tempted to identify true slavery as spiritual bondage. Christian authors nonetheless employ conventions and cliches that construct an image of the slave body as vulnerable to invasion and abuse, reinforcing a range of other evidence from the early Empire. Ironically, even as Christian sources downplay the impact of the brutal physical realities of ancient slavery, they rely on corporal metaphors of slavery to depict spiritual identity. In the gnostic Exegesis of the Soul, the embattled heroine is in fact the Soul, whose trials parallel those of an enslaved prostitute: "But even when she turns her face from those adulterers, she runs to others and they compel her to live with them and render service to them upon their bed, as if they were her masters."5 Although Exegesis of the Soul emphasizes the bondage of the soul, the passage is persuasive only to the extent that the reader recognizes the dangers that slavery poses to the body.

In this chapter I move from physical slavery to spiritual slavery, from bodies to souls, in order to expose the dependence of Stoic and Christian discourses of spiritual slavery on bodily metaphors. I begin with a body count, pointing to the characterization of slaves as bodies in accounting records and other documents. I argue that slaveholders rely on the bodies of slaves, themselves unprotected, as surrogate bodies to buffer their own persons. Since slaves' bodies mediated their experiences of bondage, I explore the implications of gendered identity for slaves. I conclude the chapter with readings of selected passages from the Discourses of the Stoic freedman philosopher Epictetus and from Paul's letter to the Galatians. Both Epictetus and Paul attempt to minimize the importance of physical slavery. The arguments of both, however, turn on the recurring equation between slaves and bodies.

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