Classical and Christian Conceptions of Slavery and Gender, and Their Influence on Germanic Gaul


Romans Conquering Gauls, from the Portonaccio Sarcophagus, Palazzo Massimo, Rome / Photo by Folegrandos, Wikimedia Commons

Roman honor and shame became Christian virtue and shame.


By Christopher Paolella
PhD Candidate in Medieval History
University of Missouri


The Christian reinterpretation of the classical Roman dichotomy of “honor” and “shame” into “virtue” and “shame” in Late Antiquity did not benefit enslaved men and women equally. Enslaved men experienced a moral elevation of their suffering, which allowed them to recast their vulnerability as a strength by actively choosing to be vulnerable. For slave women, access to Christian ideals of female virtue was hindered by their status as slaves. Caught between their identity as women and standards of female virtue, which were defined almost exclusively by sexual integrity, and their status as slaves, which was defined by their sexual availability and vulnerability to exploitation, slave women found their path to Christian virtue impeded. Christian attitudes concerning the interplay between the institution of slavery and moral virtue, which were re-conceptualized by the Church Fathers during the fourth- and early-fifth centuries, were then transmitted into Germanic Gaul by Church synods, councils, and ecclesiastics, in particular, by bishops, such as Sidonius Apollinaris in the late-fifth century, and Gregory of Tours, writing a hundred years later in the late-sixth.

The classical system of Roman honor and shame fit into a larger value system that included other dichotomies, such as active/passive, dominant/subordinate, independent/dependent, and male/female. Within these interrelated oppositions, classical pagan ideals of masculinity were defined as active, independent, and dominant. Female qualities were defined as passive, dependent, and subordinate.[1] A free man was defined in large part by what he was not. Most importantly, a free man was not dependent upon another person for his protection and wellbeing. For any free men, vulnerability equated to weakness, and hence, shame. The male slave’s vulnerability to corporal punishment and legal incompetence meant that, from a Roman perspective, the male slave was not a man; he fulfilled none of the requirements of Roman masculinity. He was dependent upon his master; hence he was vulnerable and therefore weak. Thus, an enslaved man lost not only his freedom, but also his masculinity as well. He was no longer a man; he was simply male.

A free woman was a woman born to free or freed parents. This gave her the advantage of the freeborn classes, which meant, ideally, legal protections from physical abuse and sexual violation. Her honor especially depended on sexual integrity and avoiding anything that could call her reputation into question. The honorable woman therefore led a chaste and restricted life outside of marriage and a faithful life within it.[2] In both cases, she spent most of her life in the home, only venturing out into public with attendants, who would protect her from violence and rumor.[3]

For free women honor was a passive affair, closely associated with her body that she could not create, but only maintain. Her honor existed to be cultivated or compromised, and once sullied she could never repair it. In maintaining her sexual integrity, the Roman freewoman not only affirmed her honor, but she also affirmed her free status: she was freeborn precisely because she had the capacity to maintain sexual integrity.[4] Since women in general were defined by their assumed vulnerability and weakness, the female slave did not lose her status as “woman” through subjugation. Her vulnerability was an aspect of her body, not her legal status. She was assumed to be incapable of guarding her sexual integrity physically, and in any case was legally incapable of doing so against her master or any man he approved of.[5] The sexual use of the female slave was assumed by society, and the woman was presumed to have had a sexual history whether or not her master had actually exploited her.[6]

Slaves then experienced honor and shame differently than free men and women. For free men, enslavement through war, raids, legal penalties and so on, meant actual dishonor, because subjugation meant the loss of his status as a “man”. For men born into the slave status, their existence simply fell outside the boundaries of honor and shame. He was not dishonored, because he had no honor to begin with. As long as he was a slave he could never be a man, because his will, actions, and body were not seen as his own. For free women, enslavement through the aforementioned possibilities meant dishonor in the form of expected sexual violation and physical abuse. Slave women also fell outside the normal framework of honor and shame. They had no legal means, nor assumed physical means of protecting their sexual integrity, so there was no social expectation that they do so.[7] The concept of honor did not apply to them, but they did not lose their identity as women.

However, a lack of honor did not mean freedom from degradation. Although slaves, whether male or female, existed outside of the Roman dichotomy of honor and shame, they were nonetheless tarnished through their association with shameful situations, because gendered norms and assumptions crossed legal strata.[8] Vulnerability, either physically or sexually, degraded the individual. As David Brion Davis so eloquently wrote, “This utter vulnerability may be the essence of dehumanization.”[9]

As Christianity spread in the first centuries of the Common Era, it confronted the social reality of slavery. Christianity itself was morally ambivalent towards the enslaved. Although Paul wrote that there is neither slave nor free, nor male or female before God,[10], slave-owners converting to the new religion showed little inclination to change the status of their slaves. The Church had largely inherited the classical institution of slavery as well as classical cultural mores of honor and shame, and it was in no position to challenge these deeply embedded social conventions.[11] Even Church leaders sought to Christianize and reform slavery, not to end it.[12]

Although Paul argued that manumission was the theoretical goal of the Christian master-slave relationship,[13] man slave owners found it inconceivable. In these cases, according to St. Peter, Christians who were involved in slavery, either as master or subordinate, were to undertake their roles for the sake of the Lord and the glory of God.[14] In recognizing that there were certain conditions in which slavery seemed unavoidable and manumission impossible, it became acceptable for Christians, even the institution of the Church, to own slaves.[15] Manumission, then, concerned the matter of Church property, and the earliest Merovingian Church synods and councils generally followed the contours of earlier Patristic opinions. For example, in his exposition on the Heptateuch, or the first seven books of canonical Jewish Scriptures, St. Augustine of Hippo notes that according to Hebrew law, Hebrew slaves were to be released after six years of faithful service. However, he argues further that this prescription did not set a precedent for Christian slaves in his own day, because Apostolic authority had commanded Christian slaves to be subject to their masters.[16]

Over the sixth century, the Church specified its stance on slavery through several decrees. Following Augustine’s conception of theoretical indefinite servitude, in 517 AD, at the Council of Epaonense near Lyon, it was decreed that monks who were given slaves by the abbot of their monastery were not to manumit them. The Council justified their decision by arguing that it was unjust for slaves to enjoy leisure and freedom while monks toiled in their fields daily.[17] In 541, at the fourth Council of Orleans, it was decreed that when a bishop died, the slaves he had manumitted would remain free. However, their freedom was contingent upon them never leaving the service of the Church.[18] In 585, at the second Council of Macon, it was decreed that bishops had to defend the free status of slaves who had been legally manumitted in a church.[19] Taking a broader view for a moment, in Visigothic Gaul, at the Council of Agde in 506, bishops were forbidden from selling off Church slaves. If a bishop had manumitted them on account of faithful service however, his successor had to honor their manumission and their lands, provided that the total value of the agricultural produce of these lands did not exceed twenty solidi. Any excess was to be returned to the Church after the death of the bishop who had manumitted them.[20]

In addition to justifying Christian slaveholding, the Church also had to explain enslaving fellow Christians. How could Church thinkers reconcile Christian servitude with the equality of God’s love and salvation? The answer depended on whether the individual Christian slave was a man or a woman.

For men, the answer lay in the example of Christ himself. Just as Christ voluntarily chose to humble himself and submit to torture and crucifixion, so too did virtuous Christian men voluntarily choose to humble themselves and submit to beatings and enslavement. Furthermore, the elevation of suffering allowed men to reclaim their masculinity by recasting vulnerability as a spiritual strength in its voluntary acceptance.[21] In that active choice, the Christian male slave demonstrated his agency and thereby reclaimed his masculine identity. His choice to submit asserted his identity as a Christian man rather than as a pagan. However, this choice was not a complete rejection of classical gender norms, since Christian masculinity was still defined by agency, in actively choosing to submit.

Gregory of Tours demonstrates the sanctity of this voluntary submission in his Vita Patriae, while describing the life of St. Portianus, a former slave who rose to become an abbot of “a certain monastery.” Filled with piety, the slave Portianus flees his master and seeks sanctuary in a monastery multiple times. When his Frankish master protests, the abbot asks the slave for instructions. Should the abbot protect him or turn him over to his angry master? Portianus chooses to be returned to his master and directs the abbot to do so. When the master attempts to take Portianus away from the monastery, he is struck blind and begs the abbot to pray to God for forgiveness. The abbot, in turn, begs the slave to pray to God for his master. Portianus initially refuses to do so, but eventually the abbot convinces him to bless the master with the sign of the cross.[22] Immediately, the master regains his sight and renounces his claim to Portianus.

In another example, Gregory recounts the story of Attalus, in Book 3, Chapter 15 of his Libri Historiarum. In the story, Attalus, a nephew of the Bishop of Langres, was part of an exchange of hostages to ensure compliance with a royal treaty between kings Theuderic and Childebert. However, when the agreement breaks down, Attalus is then enslaved. His family attempts to secure his release, but Attalus’ owner refuses the ransom arguing that the boy is worth more than the price they have offered. It is at this point that the family’s cook Leo, who is a Christian, voluntarily sells himself into slavery under the same master as Attalus. After earning the trust of the master over the course of a year, Leo finally escapes with the boy after a lavish feast. During the flight, by a miracle of God, the gates of the courtyard are found open, even though Leo himself had locked them earlier in the night in order to corral the horses. As a reward for his service, the cook is granted his freedom and land.

As with the slave Portianus, the masculinity of Leo is never called into question, because he voluntarily accepts submission and vulnerability with the implicit understanding that he is capable of reasserting his agency at any point. Furthermore, by volunteering to undergo enslavement, Leo follows Christ’s example, in humbling himself for the good of another. The miracle during the escape further emphasizes divine approval for Leo’s actions. In the end, he returns to praise and reward.

For slave women, after the Patristic Era, the church offered no such path to Christian female virtue and exaltation. Previous to the Patristic Era, virginity was not always stressed as a hallmark of female virtue. Instead, the ability and eagerness to bear suffering with steadfast conviction and stoic determination were the key characteristics. Most importantly for our purposes, female slaves demonstrate agency in their choice of martyrdom over the renunciation of their faith. For example, In the Life of St. Perpetua, the slave Felicity and her mistress Perpetua are facing martyrdom at the beginning of the third century CE, and Felicity is eight months pregnant. She is eager to give birth before her mistress and coreligionists are executed for their faith so that she may join them in martyrdom. By divine providence, she gives birth two days before the group’s scheduled execution and her death bears all the hallmarks of early Christian martyrs: an eagerness to die, a steadfast calm in the face of certain death, and a demonstration of agency in choosing death over apostasy.[23]

As time went on and Christianity transformed from a persecuted religion to an officially tolerated religion, and finally to the official religion of the Empire, lingering classical Roman conceptions of female honor that revolved around sexual integrity increasingly influenced Christian conceptions of female honor. Christianizing classical society continued to assume the female slave was sexually available and presumed she had an active sexual history. The assumption of sexual activity precluded female slaves from Christian conceptions of female virtue rooted in virginity, chastity, and monogamy.[24] Moreover, because of the early Christian emphasis on the virtues of monogamy and virginity, slave women now could experience shame, even as they were denied access to virtue, because they threatened the virtue of the men in their lives and their marriages.

For example, Ambrose counseled Christian slaveholders to maintain monogamy and refrain from sexual relations with their slaves. However, his concern was for the honor and virtue of free Christian men and their wives, not the virtue of slave women. Slave women were the source of immorality, not the victims of it.[25]

Basil was sensitive to the constraints of slave women in living according to Christian standards of female virtue. He argued that, “even a slave, if she has been violated by her own master, is guiltless.”[26] However, Basil does not condemn the actions of the slave-owner; instead he passively accepts the fact that sexual violation was a reality of female enslavement whether in a Christian or a pagan context. He offers a consolation to slave women who were exploited, but noticeably, he offers them no solution to their predicament, nor any path to virtue through their suffering.

Ambrose’s concerns for the honor of free Christian men, women, and their marriages were echoed decades later in Clermont. Sidonius Apollinaris, Bishop of Clermont in the late fifth century, was an influential ecclesiastic in Visigothic Gaul. In his letter to a fellow bishop, a certain Ambrosius, Sidonius praises him for his prayers and intercessions to Christ on behalf of an unnamed affluent Christian. This unnamed young man, whose “youthful pliability” (facilitas iuvenalis) made him morally weak, had “surrendered” (addixerat) himself to a “most shameful slave girl” (ancilla propudiosissima) on multiple occasions. It was only through the efforts of the Bishop Ambrosius, Sidonius contends, that the young man turned away from “lawless pleasures” (inlicita), and “the enticements of moral shipwreck with a mistress,”[27] and instead married a girl of “unblemished reputation, lofty in character and birth, and also possessed of princely means.”[28] Like Ambrose, Sidonius is more concerned with the virtue and honor of the gentleman and the lady, than with the honor of the slave girl. Furthermore, the threat of the slave girl to the couple’s honor means that she now incurs shame in Sidonius’ opinion. The bishop betrays an important shift in thought, because under the classical Roman dichotomy of honor and shame slave women experienced neither, but in the Christianized dichotomy of virtue and shame, slave women could experience shame in the bishop’s opinion, even as they were denied access to virtue.

Through synods, councils, and ecclesiastics of the early Church, we see the transmission of classical Roman virtues and vices into the successor states of the Western Roman world. These dichotomies were not bequeathed wholly intact from Rome to Visigothic and Merovingian Gaul, but were rather reinterpreted from a Christian perspective. Roman honor and shame became Christian virtue and shame. While slave men largely benefited from this reinterpretation, through greater access to Christian virtue and new opportunities to reclaim a lost sense of masculinity, slave women found no such benefit. Female honor and virtue continued to be a passive affair, rooted in sexual purity, and inseparable from the body. If anything, their standing in society further deteriorated, because slave women could now experience shame in the eyes of ecclesiastic authorities, yet they could still never attain virtue.

Notes

  1. John Chrysostom, for example, argues that sin gave rise to the subjection of the slave to the master, the wife to the husband, and the subject to the governor. See On Genesis, sermon 4, Migne Patrologia Graeca 54, 595; Homily on Lazarus VI-VIII, 48, 1037-9; Homilies on Ephesians VI, XXII, MPG 62, 157. See also Richard Saller, “The Hierarchal Household in Roman Society: a Study of Domestic Slavery,” in Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage, ed. M.L. Bush, (London: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd., 1996), 127.
  2. Matthew J. Perry, Gender, Manumission, and the Roman Freedwoman (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014), 27.
  3. Jennifer Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 12-14. See also: Perry, GenderManumission, 26-8.
  4. Perry, Gender, Manumission, 20.
  5. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity, 14. See also: Perry, Gender, Manumission, 27.
  6. Perry, Gender, Manumission, 13.
  7. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity, 21. See also Perry, Gender, Manumission, 1-6. The sexual availability of slave women was even celebrated on the 7th of July with a public festival. The Ancillarum Feriae commemorated a folk tradition in which the slave women of Rome saved the city’s free women. After the sack of Rome by the Gauls circa 390 BCE, Rome was badly weakened. A Latin army approached the city, and as part of the terms of surrender, the Latins demanded the free Roman maidens for marriage. The slave women voluntarily went in place of the freewomen, dressed as their social betters, and fooled the Latin army. When the Latin army settled down for the night, the slaves disarmed the camp, signaled the Roman army, who in turn issued forth from the city and routed the Latins. In the folk tradition, not only did slave women save the city, but also preserved the sexual reputation and integrity of the city’s free maidens. 
  8. Perry, Gender, Manumission, 8, 41-2.
  9. David Brion Davis, In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 126.
  10. Galatians, 3:26-28; Colossians, 3:11; 1 Corinthians, 12:13.
  11. There were practical arguments for Christian acceptance of slavery that illustrate the political quandary the new religion found itself in as it grew. For example, John Chrysostom argued that if Christianity sought abolition, then its critics would label the new religion as “revolutionary” and accuse it of attempting to usurp the rights of masters over their property, with potentially violent consequences. Such criticism, he argued, was detrimental to the spread of the Word of God and its salvation. Therefore, he concluded, better that slaves should remain in servitude than the spread of Christianity and the salvation of all men be hampered by fears of social upheaval from the religion’s critics. Chrysostom contended that actual parity between slaves and masters would be realized only in heaven. See MPG 62, 703-4, 711. See also John Francis Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church: The History of Catholic Teaching Concerning the Moral Legitimacy of the Institution of Slavery (Chichester, UK: Barry Rose Publishers, 1975), 43.
  12. Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church, 31. 
  13. Colossians 3:22-4:1; Ephesians 6:5-9; I Timothy 6:1-2.
  14. I Peter, 2:13-20.
  15. For example, Augustine argued that slavery was justly imposed upon sinners as a penalty for their own benefit, while notably ignoring why a child could or should be born into slavery. De Civitate Dei, XIX, 15.Ambrose argued that it was just to set those of moderation above those with no moderation, and for the foolish to obey the wise. “For the foolish man cannot of his own accord be a disciple of virtue or persevere in his intent, because the fool changes like the moon. Isaac was right to deny Esau freedom to make his own choices; else he might drift like a ship in the waves without a helmsman.” De Jacob et Beata Vita 2.3.II, Migne Patrologia Latina 14, 649-50.Basil wrote, “Sometimes, by a wise and inscrutable providence, worthless children are commanded by their fathers to serve their brothers and sisters. Any upright person investigating the circumstances would realize that such situations bring much benefit, and are not a sentence of condemnation for those involved. It is better for a man who lacks intelligence and self-control to become another’s possession.” De Spiritu Sancto, XX, MPG 32, 162. 
  16. Quaestiones in Heptateuchum L.II. n. 77 MPL 34, 624. See also: Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church, 40.
  17. Concilium Epaonense, Canon VIII, “Concilia aevi Merovingici [511-695],” Monumenta Germaniae Historica www.dmgh.de, last accessed on 06/03/2016.
  18. Concilium Aurelianense, Canon IX, “Concilia aevi Merovingici [511-695],” Monumenta Germaniae Historica www.dmgh.de, last accessed on 06/03/2016.
  19. Concilium Matisconense, Canon VII, “Concilia aevi Merovingici [511-695],” Monumenta Germaniae Historica www.dmgh.de, last accessed on 06/03/2016.
  20. J. D. Mansi, ed., Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, (Paris: H. Welter, 1901), Vol. VIII, pp. 325, 329; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, eds., A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 280-281.
  21. Jennifer Glancy, Corporal Knowledge (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010), 32, 44, 60. It should be noted that this redefinition of masculinity as the ability to endure suffering did not occur uniformly or immediately. While Peter and Paul reveled in their suffering, early Church leaders also derided the weakness of Paul’s body, arguing in part that his vulnerability to suffering made him weak, which in turn undermined his position of leadership in the fledgling Church, as Glancy notes.
  22. Gregory of Tours, trans. and ed. by Edward James, Life of the Fathers: V.i (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1991), 28-9. 
  23. Thomas J. Heffernan, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 132-35.
  24. Glancy, Corporal Knowledge, 62.
  25. Glancy, Corporal Knowledge, 66.
  26. Epistles, 199.49.
  27. The Latin reads, “fugit adversum vitia surdus meretricii blandimenta naufragii puellamque…” Sidonius Apollinaris, trans. by W.B. Anderson, Sidonius II: Letters 3-9 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), 522-3.
  28. The Latin reads, “tam moribus natalibusque summatem quam facultatis principalis…” Anderson, Letters, 522-3.

Originally published by the Journal of the Western Society for French History 43 (2015) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.

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