This article analyses the nature of slavery in late ancient Syria and Mesopotamia, and investigates the possible influence of slavery on Christian ascetic practices in the region. This analysis demonstrates how slavery, especially the techniques of discipline and punishment within slaveholding contexts, produced correlates in the ascetic practices of Syrian Christian monks. The study commences with an investigation of institutional slavery in Syrian urban and rural areas. In order to better understand slavery in the urban context, the works of John Chrysostom are used as a primary source. For rural areas an example from Theodoret’s Historia religiosa is used, along with findings from recently published secondary sources. It is shown that slavery was a basic characteristic of both contexts, but that distinctions between slaves and free persons were more pronounced in urban than in rural contexts. The reason is that the type of labour in the smaller villages surrounding the urban areas lent itself to the kind of exploitation mirrored in slaveholding contexts, and poorer peasants were often treated like slaves. The Syriac terms used for villagers are the same as those used for slaves. However, the techniques of discipline and punishment in urban areas were similar to those of rural areas – there is consistency in the use of whipping, chaining, confinement and collaring.
The second part of the article looks more specifically at ascetic practices and how the discourse of slavery – or doulology – functions in Christian sources on asceticism. The notion of humiliation – msarrqûtâ in Syriac – was central to early Christian ascetical theology and practice. In surveying the development of doulology in Syrian Christian ascetical works, the article begins with an analysis of the 29th discourse of the Syriac Liber graduum, which is concerned with the discipline of the body. What this analysis shows is that the monks to whom the Liber graduum is addressed used Christ as an exemplar for their practices of shame and humiliation. Philippians 2:6–11 describes Christ as having assumed the form of a slave, in reference to his incarnation, and suffered all the humiliation associated with the human state, including death. The author of the Liber graduum developed the notion of Christ’s emptying, or kenosis, into the principle of msarrqûtâ. Monks are now instructed to discipline their bodies using the same techniques of discipline and punishment used on slaves.
Monks wore chains so heavy that these permanently affected their posture. Monks also wore collars and other restraints. Such restraints were often highly personalised, and also had a punitive dimension to them. Theodoret’s account of Eusebius of Teleda is illustrative of the punishment monks inflicted on themselves for what may appear to be even the smallest transgression, like gazing upon some farm workers and longing for ploughing the land again. These practices continued into the later centuries, as is clear from John of Ephesus’s Commentarii de beatis orientalibus. John’s biographies also describe fettered and collared monks. At this stage the term slave of God practically functioned as a technical term referring to a monk.
But along with ascetic practices of humiliation that resembled slavery, the sources also seem to attest to a much more direct link between slavery and Syrian asceticism. It seems that some monks may have sought out physical enslavement as a test of their calling and proof of their obedience. Several sources refer to such incidents. One of the most famous is Jerome’s Vita Malchi, in which a Syrian monk is captured and enslaved (although against his will) by Saracens. The enslavement functioned both as punishment and also as a means of driving Malchus back to his monastery. A similar case is found, written somewhat earlier, in the narrative of the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, in which the protagonist, Judas Thomas, is sold by Jesus as a slave to an Indian merchant. This forced Thomas to go on a missionary journey to India. The story of Thomas, which was highly influential in later Syrian monastic thought, may have served as a paradigm for later monks. Pseudo-Nilus refers to a certain Theodoulus who became enslaved while accompanying his father on a missionary journey. His enslavement becomes a test that validated his status as a monk. There are also narratives of Faymiyûn and Ṣâliḥ, and Paul of Qenṭos and John of Edessa, who also became enslaved during a missionary journey.
The humiliation associated with slavery did play a role in monastic self-fashioning, and from this conclusion two important implications arise. Firstly, there was a direct and distinctive relationship between Christian asceticism and institutional slavery, which means that they influenced and shaped each other. We could then rightly speak of doulological asceticism. This observation implies, in turn, that slavery was positively evaluated by Christian monks, and that these monks mirrored their relationship with God – as slaves of God – in terms of actual institutional slavery. Because institutional slavery was foundational to doulological asceticism, it also means that the perseverance of such ascetic practices supported institutional slavery. If God can have slaves, so can human beings. The second implication is that studies on Christian martyrdom, asceticism and monasticism need to take slavery into account among its many other literary expressions, including contest and military imagery. Slavery then becomes indispensable for the study of early Christian theology, spirituality and ethics.
Slavery was therefore no impediment to the monastic life. Rather than understanding slavery as a sin, slaves could live as ascetics, and the day-to-day life of ascetics mirrored, somewhat, the lives of slaves, particularly those of the rural areas. The slavery of God was expressed in an embodied sense, and the article shows that slavery may have been one of the most influential discourses and institutions that shaped and transformed late ancient Syrian Christian monasticism.
Keywords: Asceticism; early Christianity; humiliation; John Chrysostom; John of Ephesus; late antiquity; Liber graduum; monk; Patristics; self-renunciation; Syria; Syriac; slavery; Theodoret