This study focuses on the impact of the ubiquitous ancient institution of slavery on the emergence and development of Christianity. I work from the understanding that both slaves and slaveholders were more pivotal in early Christian circles than has been generally acknowledged. The centrality of slavery affects not only the reconstruction of the social histories of the emerging churches but also theological and ideological analyses of Christian rhetoric. I stress the corporeality of ancient slavery. Christians who argued that true slavery was spiritual in nature often depended on somatic metaphors. Thus, even as we turn to metaphoric uses of slavery in Christian discourse, the corporeality of slavery retains priority. Early Christian slavery emerges as a significant chapter in the history of the body.

Although the earliest Christian writings are laced with images and metaphors borrowed from the rhetorical domain of chattel slavery, evidence concerning Christian slaves and Christian slaveholders is typically fragmentary. An understanding of the institution of slavery during the period in which Christianity emerged and defined itself is necessary for comprehending both the rhetoric of slavery in Christian writings and the realities of slavery in Christian communities. I have defined the relevant period quite broadly, from the early years of the Roman Empire to late antiquity, when slavery continued to be quite common.1 Within this time frame Christianity first emerged and was eventually recognized as the official religion of the Empire.2 Keith Bradley, who has written extensively about slavery in Roman history, refers to the "'steady state' mentality" of slaveholders throughout antiquity. Since the attitudes of slaveholders remained constant, the conditions in which slaves lived and worked also persisted from generation to gen-eration.3 Slaveholders in the first century characterized their slaves as bodies, and their treatment of their slaves was commensurate with that characterization. This was equally the case in the fourth century, when Constantine came to power, and a century after that.4

A wide variety of sources attests to the contours of slavery in the Roman Empire, from bills of sale to legal codes to literary works. However, we have to remember that the picture of slavery we derive from these sources is pieced together rather than given. Any description of slavery in antiquity is the product of multiple scholarly decisions: whether we can discern links among miscellaneous sources to tell a connected story, for example, or how much we can assume about the context of an important but obscure piece of evidence. Hayden White has argued that literary scholars often seek to "explain" texts with reference to a historical background. In doing so, they assume that this background context; "'the historical milieu'—has a concreteness and an accessibility that the work can never have, as if it were easier to perceive the reality of a past world put together from a thousand historical documents than it is to probe the depths of a single literary work that is present to the critic studying it. But the presumed concrete-ness and accessibility of historical milieux, these contexts of the texts that literary scholars study, are themselves the products of the fictive capability of the historians who have studied those contexts."5

Scholars of early Christianity often rely on a seamless picture of ancient life, which disguises the jagged edges of the documentation, as though there could exist a concrete, accessible, and coherent background picture on which we could piece together the puzzle of early Christian life. Throughout this study I have deliberately tried to expose the jagged edges of the primary sources I use. I want readers to be able to discern the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the evidence and thus to come to their own conclusions. I will be happy if the presentation of my arguments leads some readers to conclusions other than the ones I draw.

We encounter several kinds of problems as we try to draw on the disparate sources pertaining to Roman slavery throughout the Empire. An examination of a single document grants insights into both the possibilities and pitfalls of research into ancient slavery. I treat one specific document at length to demonstrate the inherent complexity of our sources for slavery. In correspondence dated 199 C.E., an Egyptian man writes to his daughter and his wife to inform them that he is manumitting a number of slaves. The author of the correspondence identifies himself as Marsisuchus, a former high priest of the temple of Hadrian in the Arsinoite nome. His wife's name is Bernice; deterioration in the papyrus has destroyed traces of the daughter's name. Among the slaves to be manumitted are two women, Sarapias and Soteria, and their offspring. Marsisuchus threatens his wife and his daughter that if they should try to block the manumissions he will take back property he has previously settled on them and instead donate the property to the temple of Serapis in Alexandria. The notices to Bernice and the daughter list different slaves, hinting that the wife and the daughter have separate claims on the slaves whom Marsisuchus wants to manumit.6

The correspondence offers tantalizing possibilities for insight into the emotional entanglements of family members around their slaves, yet it leaves us with few solid conclusions about that situation. We may infer that Marsisuchus anticipates resistance from his wife and daughter with respect to the manumissions, but we have no clues regarding the nature or motivation of that opposition. The purchase of replacement slaves would represent a significant expense, but other factors could also affect their reactions. For instance, if the slaves had a long tenure with the family, Bernice and her daughter might feel an emotional attachment to them. Perhaps more intriguing is the nature of Marsisuchus's relationship with these slaves. By manumitting them he will tolerate the loss of a substantial investment; the correspondence indicates that he has even borne the cost of taxes due at the time of manumission. What is more unusual is his seeming willingness to suffer—even to provoke—the anger of his wife and daughter in order to effect the freedom of the slaves. It is possible that Sarapias and Soteria were his sexual partners, and their children, in fact, his children. Ancient law did not recognize slaves as having fathers. Free men who fathered children with their female slaves had no obligation to acknowledge their paternity and only rarely did so, although we may speculate that they would have been more likely to manumit slaves they believed to be their offspring.7 Such a scenario could explain Marsisuchus's behavior, but the absence of a more extensive documentary context limits our ability to situate this corre spondence within a family narrative. Letters from the ancient world tempt the modern reader with promises of windows into the lives of real people. However, epistolary allusions to people and events are almost always cryptic, since the letter writer assumes the recipient has prior knowledge of such details. A twenty-first-century reader is thus likely to gain a glimpse rather than a panoramic view of the world of the correspondents.

We compound the interpretive problems when we try to generalize the significance of a particular document. Suppose, for example, we are trying to draw a picture of family life among slaves. Can we use Marsisuchus's letter as evidence? His plan to manumit Sarapias and Soteria along with their offspring could be construed to indicate some respect for the de facto slave family. Other categories of papyri also offer indirect evidence about the inclinations of slaveholders with respect to slave families. We have some bills of sale recording transactions that preserved the relationships of mothers and children: around 250 C.E., for instance, a twenty-one-year-old woman named Tereus was sold along with her son, specified in the contract as a nursling.8 However, we must consider such evidence in light of the greater quantity of records that document the sales of young children without reference to their mothers and always without fathers.9 Epigraphic evidence corroborates this overall picture. Some slave children grew up in the same household with their biological mothers, but many others were not so lucky.10 In evaluating any single piece of evidence, such as Marsisuchus's letter to his wife and (legitimate) daughter, we need to remind ourselves of wider trends in the evidence. At the same time, our generalizations about various topics (for example, the prospects for stable family life among slaves) depend on the painstaking evaluation of numerous individual and often idiosyncratic sources.

Still more broadly, when we rely on papyrological evidence we need to consider the extent to which Egypt represents a typical province in the Roman Empire. Since the late nineteenth century, large quantities of papyri from Egypt have been recovered and published. The arid Egyptian climate preserves organic material exceptionally well. We thus have much thicker documentation from Egypt than from other sectors of the Roman Empire: personal letters, census returns, household accounts, wills, legal petitions, and so on. Earlier generations of scholars, inclined to view Egypt as an atypical province, ignored the papyrological evidence in discussions of the Roman world. Today, papyrol-ogists argue that classicists who overlook the Egyptian evidence do so not because Egypt differs from the rest of the Empire but because the mass of papyrological evidence is unfamiliar, vast, and unwieldy.11 However, as archaeologists slowly recover documentary evidence from other parts of the Empire—from as far away as the northern borders of Britain—Egypt increasingly seems to resemble other provinces, neither more nor less unique than other provinces in the Empire.12 Classicists therefore increasingly turn to the Egyptian papyri for documentation of mundane details of daily life in the Empire, as I will do in this volume.

Evaluation of the contributions and limitations of other categories of evidence for reconstructing the institution of slavery and the lives of slaves is just as complex as evaluation of the contributions and limitations of documentary sources. Literary sources offer a certain thick description of the ancient world, incidentally describing minutiae of daily life. How close can ancient literature get us to an understanding of the dynamics of slavery? Literary sources furnish layers upon layers of information about a society in which slavery is ubiquitous. They depict slaves at work in mills, kitchens, and public baths, for example. That such scenes are peripheral to plot development does not mitigate their usefulness to the social historian. Historians of ancient slavery have culled quotidian details from works as fantastic as Apuleius's Golden Ass and the tales of Aesop.13 Nonetheless, the contemporary historian is left to sort out the degree to which novels and plays accurately represent existence in the ancient world. Romances, for example, depict slave women as the confidantes of their mistresses. Many freeborn women may have relied on enslaved women for matters ranging from emotional support to the bearing of confidential messages. At the same time, devoted relationships between free and slave women are also an established convention in ancient literature: in Greek tragedy, Phaedra's nurse functions as her trusted and intimate advisor. The reader must be careful not to confuse an author's idealized vision of a relationship between mistress and slave and the actual experience of such relationships for both slaveholders and slaves.14 Like the papyri, literary sources provide material for rich insights into daily life, but a caveat applies. Literary sources coax the modern reader into an illusion of access to the ancient world. Historians, grateful for these material insights, should nonetheless retain their critical judgment regarding the narrative worlds created by literary artistry.

Other categories of evidence offer distinctive perspectives on slaves and slavery in the Roman Empire and present, in turn, distinctive challenges for the modern interpreter. Roman law codes, for example, consider multiple aspects of slavery, which arise from the peculiarity of classifying a slave both as a person and as a thing. However, since successive emperors issued edicts reiterating the same points of law, we may question the extent to which Roman law was consistently promulgated in all sectors of the Empire. Moreover, only Roman citizens were bound by Roman law. Throughout the Empire, Roman law coexisted with local laws in complicated ways, which scholars have not entirely penetrated. The magisterial compilation of Roman law known as the Digest of Justinian is a product of the sixth century. It reflects centuries of debate—often contradictory—on points of law that are, at times, academic exercises.15 Thus, readers should be aware as they read excerpts from the Digest that the opinion a jurist delivers on a given topic may or may not reflect common practice. Fergus Millar acknowledges these shortcomings of the Digest but still emphasizes its utility for social history: "In no real sense is the Digest a code of law; on the contrary, it is a collection of varying opinions on points of law. . . . the texts assembled in the Digest reflect with great vividness and accuracy the world of the High Empire of the second and third centuries"16 Despite its limitations, the Digest supplies us with a wealth of information about the preoccupations and attitudes of the elite Romans who composed it. It remains an invaluable source for any discussion of Roman slavery.

Some readers may anticipate that Jewish law on slavery will play a significant role in the story of early Christian slavery. The direct impact of Jewish law would be potentially most acute at the earliest levels of the tradition, even in the very sayings of Jesus. That there is little distinctively "Jewish" in the representation of slaves in Jesus' sayings is not, ultimately, surprising. Dale Martin has argued, "Jewishness itself had little if any relevance for the structures of slavery among Jews. . . . Slavery among Jews of the Greco-Roman period did not differ from the slave structures of those people among whom Jews were living."17 Documentary finds from Jews in the Arabian desert (extending from Judaea to Arabia) suggest that Jews living in the Eastern Empire were influenced by Roman family law and local custom as much or more than they were influenced by rabbinic codes.18 Jewish law enters this study most directly when I refer to various injunctions found in the Hebrew Bible regarding the treatment of slaves, for example, the mandate to shelter fugitive slaves. I draw on other Jewish sources, from Josephus to rabbinic commentaries, as literature that emerges from and sheds light on the practices and ideology of slaveholding in the Roman Empire.

In the course of this study I refer to the writings of a number of Stoic and Cynic philosophers, including Epictetus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Dio Chrysostom. Stoic and Cynic philosophers frequently invoke problems of slavery and freedom. Little evidence supports the contention that these philosophers represented or affected wider public perceptions of the institution of slavery. We cannot assume on the basis of their writings that their philosophical positions on the relative insignificance of legally defined bondage or freedom affected their actual treatment of slaves they encountered or owned, much less that they influenced others to follow either their counsel or their example. Nonetheless, their criticisms of common assumptions about slaveholders and slaves form yet another distinct perspective on slavery in the Roman Empire.

One shortcoming endemic to all the genres I have discussed is that each accords priority to the perspectives of slaveholders rather than the perspectives of slaves. Roman law protects and promotes the interests of Roman citizens and of property owners. The slaves who excite the greatest sympathy in romances and dramas are faux slaves, who have been reduced to bondage under false pretenses; romances and dramas predictably hinge on the restoration of these faux slaves to their rightful positions as prominent freeborn citizens. Stoic philosophy speaks of the common humanity of slave and slaveholder but urges equanimity in the face of enslavement. Even the documentary evidence largely represents the concerns of slaveholders rather than those of slaves. The papyri disproportionately chronicle governmental and legal matters, and slaves had no independent access to the courts. Although we do have documentary evidence for manumissions, we encounter still more bills of sale and wills, which consider slaves not as persons but as things, as ta somata doulika, slave bodies. Letters sometimes mention slaves, and a few seem to have been written by slaves. Nonetheless, we have far more correspondence associated with wealthy, property-owning persons and families than correspondence among tradespeople, laborers, and slaves.

Acquaintance with a wide assortment of ancient writings is necessary for piecing together a picture of slavery in the Roman Empire. In every case, however, we must be wary of construing partial, biased sources as though they provide neutral overviews of what it meant to be a slave or to live in a society in which slavery was unquestioned. Still, a rich sense of the sources pertaining to slavery will help us see what is either distinctive or typical about slavery in Christian circles.

At the same time, we cannot simply compare and contrast Christian sources with the portrayal of slavery that we derive from other sources. Christian writings in fact contribute to our understanding of slavery in the Roman Empire from the first century through late antiquity. For example, discussions of child exposure, a common form of postnatal birth control, as a source for slaves in the Roman Empire frequently cite the Christian authors Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria. I will return to the problem of child exposure at several points in this study. A man could legally decide that he did not want the responsibility of raising an infant newly born to his wife (or another woman in his household). The infant would be removed from the household and left outdoors. Many of these children survived their exposure. Townspeople would know where infants were likely to be exposed; in Egyptian towns, babies were left on the town dungheap. Anyone who wanted to raise an exposed child could do so. Exposed infants were almost always raised as slaves. Evidence for the practice of child exposure is extensive and varied. Classicists frequently return, however, to the cautions of the Christians Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandra.19 Justin and Clement warn that those who expose children run the risk of later committing unwitting incest, since the children are likely to be raised as enslaved prostitutes.20

The relationship of Christian churches to the larger Roman society is complex and evolves dramatically over the first centuries of Christianity. Nonetheless, Christians and Christianity do not hover above or apart from everyday life. They are an integral part of the story of the Roman Empire. Christian writings supply key evidence, both direct and indirect, about the social relations of that world. To understand Christian discourse invoking the figure of the slave, we must first apprehend the figure of the slave in other discourses of the Roman Empire. At the same time, as we come to appreciate the cen-trality of slaves, slaveholders, and the institution of slaveholding in the emergent churches, we will better understand the place of slavery in the Roman Empire. To understand what it meant to be a slave in the first Christian centuries, we begin first of all with the bodies of slaves.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment