A critical comparison between the views of Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom and Ambrosiaster on the treatment of slaves
This article compares the views of the church fathers Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom and Ambrosiaster on the treatment of slaves. The views of the authors are examined individually and in detail. An analysis is made of the extent to which the views of these three 4th-century church fathers exhibit continuity with Christian and Stoic views from the 1st and 2nd centuries on the treatment of slaves. Particular attention is given to the different tasks given to slaves, their reward and punishment, sexual abuse and the relationships slaves had, along with assessing the impact of the “slave of God” rhetoric and corporeal heteronomy for the treatment of physical slaves.
The works of Basil provide us with a revealing window into the thought of a Christian bishop on the treatment of slaves on villa estates. He was very critical about the excessive riches of some landowners, who owned a great number of slaves. Basil, however, is not against slavery in itself (like his brother, Gregory of Nyssa), but he does say that a person is not supposed to own slaves for the sake of decadence and luxury. For Basil the most important principle in the treatment of slaves is ascetic: owners should not give slaves duties that are not essential. Basil proscribed the following types of duties for slaves: basic and, especially, practical and necessary tasks. Basil also accuses rich landowners of punishing their slaves harshly, especially by means of whipping – a common occurrence on agricultural landholdings.
Basil is not against the punishment of slaves per se, but he does criticise excessive and violent forms of punishment and abuse, a common view in early Christianity and Stoic philosophy. Owners should not punish out of anger or revenge. This would have been considered highly shameful, a mark of someone who cannot control their passions. Punishment was supposed to be measured and meted out with self-control. Basil advises owners to treat their slaves leniently.
This moderate view on the treatment of slaves is the result of Basil’s theological anthropology. Basil subscribes to a crucial ideology common among many early Christian authors, namely the heteronomy of the body. Corporeal heteronomy implies that all bodies are made to be ruled, preferably by God and not by sin. It is an ideology also present in Chrysostom and Ambrosiaster. True freedom, paradoxically, means to be a slave of God. In the thought of Basil, Chrysostom, and Ambrosiaster, institutional slavery is the consequence of sin, as seen in the so-called curse of Ham (Canaan).
We have far more sources from Chrysostom than from Basil or Ambrosiaster on the treatment of slaves. Yet their thinking on the matter was very similar. Like Basil, Chrysostom also supposed that possessing scores of slaves for the purpose of luxury was a sign of a bad and weak character. Chrysostom, ideally, did not want Christians to own any slaves. But such a view was not realistic, and may have been considered too rigorous, ascetically at least; as a compromise, he allows people to own one or two slaves, but only for necessity and not out of decadence.
Regarding the duties of slaves, Chrysostom’s guidelines were basic and concurred with those of Basil. One should use slaves for basic tasks only. But was the reduction in the number of slaves and the promulgation of only basic and practical tasks a sign of good or ill treatment towards the remaining slaves? The problem here is that the majority of tasks considered “basic” would have been very menial and shameful, such as sewerage management, and would not necessarily have made life better for the few remaining slaves.
In the thought of Ambrosiaster it becomes clear how deeply embedded the treatment of slaves by their owners as well as the behaviour of slaves were in early Christian theology and ethics. The question of the treatment of slaves in the ancient church was in essence a question of the interpersonal dynamics between persons of varying social status. It also informed the relationship between believers and their God and was, as a metaphor, just as influential as the notions of God as a Father and Son. The ways in which owners treated their slaves had to reflect the way God treats his slaves. There had to be symmetry between the patterns of behaviour of God and the slaveholder. The conceptual linkage of institutional slavery and sin, even their overlapping, is perhaps more evident in the thought of Ambrosiaster than of most other early Christian authors.
Thus, regarding the treatment of slaves, the views of Basil, Chrysostom and Ambrosiaster show much continuity, but there are also subtle differences in emphasis. Basil was especially vocal regarding the treatment of agricultural slaves, and focused on the successful management of slaves and their personal relationships. Chrysostom, then, was more concerned with the number of slaves a person should own, and quite concerned, like Basil, about the dangers of using slaves for luxury and decadence. Ambrosiaster is an excellent source for the theological intersections of slavery, and considered physical slavery and being enslaved to sin as two sides of the same coin. Although some of the authors prefer to emphasise different aspects of slavery, there are few differences between their views.
The similarity between the views of these three early Christian authors on the treatment of slaves demonstrates why it was so difficult for the early church to abolish slavery.
There were, indeed, exceptions, such as Gregory of Nyssa, whose views on slavery have been extensively studied. Gregory of Nyssa saw no place for slavery in society, and considered it a violation of Christian ethics. All three authors on which this article focuses promoted slaveholding as long as slaves were treated fairly and punished only in moderation and not with excessive violence. Basil and Chrysostom were especially critical of owners who used their slaves for luxury and as a display of vanity. The views of these authors on the treatment of slaves do indeed show similarities with earlier Christian and Stoic views, but these authors also developed their own unique characteristics in terms of the discourse and practice of slave management and treatment.
Keywords: Ambrosiaster; Basil of Caesarea; corporeal heteronomy; early Christianity; early church; John Chrysostom; New Testament slavery; patristics; punishment; slave; slave of God; slavery; the apostle Paul