Slavery has attracted considerable attention in recent scholarship on Late Antiquity. This book, a Foucaldian reading of the scattered but abundant references to slavery in John Chrysostom's gargantuan oeuvre, constitutes a powerful and important contribution to that rising wave.
Its first chapter, “Introducing Doulology: The Discourse of Slavery,” is broken into four sections. The first follows Jennifer Glancy in showing that ancient slavery was a sort of cultural habitus that was assumed into Christian discourse like some ancient corporal vernacular. It then turns to the economy of slavery, both as part of the supply and demand structure that commodified human bodies, and as a Foucauldian “carceral mechanism” that bound slaves into a web of power relations whose every fiber reproduced the system De Wet calls “kyricarchy.” This “carcerality” included obvious devices of domination, like chains and whips, but also social relations many of which tend to be recast by moderns as ameliorative of the slave condition, such as family relations, peculium, and even manumission. Thus, for De Wet, “outside of abolition there are no aspects of slavery that are truly in the greater interest of slaves” (24). We then turn to the “heteronomy of the body”— the way that ancient bodies were assumed to require domination from some exterior agent—and to “moral slavery” as conceptualized by the Stoics and Philo. These interiorized slavery as a condition of the soul, creating a moral code in which all bodies required domination. This universalization of slavery through metaphor rendered the institution banal and its practitioners indifferent to its inhumanity.
The second chapter, “Divine Bondage: Slavery between Metaphor and Theology,” is concerned with Christian variations on the theme of heteronomy as these were manifested in slavery to the passions and sin. This notion traces to Paul, who described himself as the “slave of God” and regarded Jesus as “his Lord” and who fused this theology into institutional slavery through his “household codes” when he demanded, “slaves be obedient to your masters” (Eph. 5:22–6:5, inter alia). Following earlier Christian writers, Chrysostom believed that slavery was rooted in sin (e.g. Serm. in Gen. 4.1 [SCh 433.222–39]), an idea that anchored itself in three points of Christian discourse: it necessitated slavery either to God or sin; it authorized the labor ethic prevalent in ancient Christianity; and it instilled fear of damnation in the disobedient slave. The chapter then turns to freedom and slavery to the passions, focusing on Hom. in 1 Cor. 19.3–5 (PG 61.155–7), an enigmatic passage interpreted by John to mean that, even if offered freedom, slaves should continue to serve. The Christian slave is encouraged to outstrip non-Christian counterparts in obedience and morality, recognizing that true slavery involves subjection to the passions or, worse still, the Devil.
Chapter three, “Little Churches,” investigates a series of issues around what De Wet terms “pastoralization,” by which he means “the discursive practice in which the values, principles, structures and especially the functions and operations of Christian pastoral power are carried over to and duplicated in the household.” (84). Just as Aristotle's oikos was a little city, so also John's was a little church. In this household, power cascaded down from the paterfamilias to his wife, children, and slaves, affecting the spirituality, sexuality, and morality of all involved. Especially noteworthy is De Wet's distinction between what he calls “strategic” and “tactical” slaveholding, a binary he borrows from De Certeau who, in turn, borrowed it from Clausewitz. By these De Wet means large and small-scale slaveholding, although with added implications. De Wet problematizes the latter in focusing on Hom. in I Cor. 40.4–5 (PG 61.353–4), where Chrysostom admonishes his audience that none should own more than one or two slaves, any further being a sign of sinful luxury. De Wet contends that the seeming philanthropy of this rhetorical gesture masks a reality that not only stopped short of crossing the “Rubicon of abolition” but may even have made life worse for the small cadre of servants reduced to playing factotum to their master.
The fourth chapter, on “The Didactics of Kyriarchy: Slavery, Education and the Formation of Masculinity,” looks into nurses and pedagogues. For De Wet these were made to collude in the process of “kyriarchization”—the formation of their future oppressors. This was an “androcentric” enterprise, focused around the creation of masculinity, which was itself—argues De Wet, following Matthew Kuefler's The Manly Eunuch (Chicago 2001)—in crisis in Late Antiquity. In light of such entrapment in this dystopia, even discourses of loyalty and affection toward nurses should be viewed as a function of carcerality. De Wet spends much of the chapter on pedagogues, whom he terms a “mobile carcereal contingent,” yet he must admit at several points (141, 142, 165) that the instruction of children and youths was hardly the exclusive province of slaves in the late fourth century. Indeed, he has trouble pointing to even a single concrete instance where a pedagogue in Chrysostom's corpus can be certain to have been a slave, even if the premise of the chapter is that most were (a position already staked out by Kyle Harper in his tour de force Slavery in the Later Roman World). In fact, Chrysostom's most vividly rendered pedagogue, a figure to whom De Wet thrice recurs (p. 142, 147–8, 152), was certainly a free man, hired to inculcate ascetic virtues in the son of a devout Christian woman (Adv. Opp. V. Mon. 3.12 [PG 47.368–69]). Late antique nurses were also often free or freed, a fact which seriously dilutes the impact of a chapter built on an assumed homology between nurses / pedagogues and slaves.
Chapter five, “Whips and Scripture: On the Discipline and Punishment of Slaves”, investigates “aretagogy”—the inculcation of “virtue” in the slave through physical and psychological coercion. Whether Classical or Christian, ancient virtue was inseparable from the masculinity of free males, yet Chrysostom advocated its instillation in women and slaves as well. This was not, however, a positive good but a tool for the furtherance of kyriarchy, used to regulate slaves and coopt them in a system of oppression of which they became perpetuators. In discussing flight, De Wet shows that Chrysostom interpreted the slave Onesimus in Paul's Letter to Philemon (PG 62.701–20) in the worst light as a degenerate runaway and foil to his virtuous master. Predictably, the discussion segues into “surveillance” and the Christian “panopticon.” De Wet's Chrysostom succeeds in interiorizing surveillance by turning the Christian gaze inward and creating an equivalency between obedience to the master and obedience to God. This spills over into the Christian ethic of endurance (karteria), which could be used to naturalize physical oppression as a positive good for slaves.
The sixth and final chapter treats slave sexuality. Chrysostom is shown to reject the Roman validation of male domination and penetration and to have charged slave bodies with new moral valences by criminalizing their violation and endowing them with a measure of sexual honor. Far from representing these changes as positive, De Wet casts them in darker hues by showing how Chrysostom recharted the landscape of sexuality to protect the moral and spiritual well-being of the master. Regarding prostitution, De Wet proceeds from another questionable premise, that most ancient prostitutes were slaves. Here too, Chrysostom problematized sexuality with prostitutes as no less sinful than any other form of adultery. The chapter then closes with eunuchs, who confronted Chrysostom with difficulty accounting for the unstable nature of their sexual identity. While admitting that some of the protections advocated by Chrysostom against the sexual exploitation of slaves may have had an ameliorative impact, De Wet ultimately regards John's campaign for reforms to sexual ethics as a new form of external regulation that pathologized sexual desire and thus added to the oppression of slaves.
It is difficult to do justice to a book of this complexity in a brief review, but it should be noted in that there are times when the very complexity itself can become strained. This is primarily due to De Wet's fealty to Foucault, whose hermeneutic hangs over the whole like a tight leather mantle. Unfortunately, this imposing garment often seems poorly fitted to Chrysostom's baggy and undisciplined corpus. Here I leave aside De Wet's taste for neologisms—so abundant as to necessitate a glossary. Focusing instead on the larger interpretive difficulty posed by orthodox Foucauldianism, we might ask whether the foreboding, paranoiac world of a modern sociologist might not overwhelm the testimony of John himself. For example, De Wet is adamant that the introduction of Christian morality into the ancient household increased rather than alleviated the atmosphere of oppression because it subjected the slave to the “Christic panopticon.” But to emphasize this is to underestimate the significance of the slave's newfound acceptance into the religious and ethical in-group through the intermediacy of principles of Christian equality before God (e.g. Gal. 3:28). One wonders, for example, whether the slave whose master refrained from raping her through fear of damnation would have minded so much that she too was subject to divine surveillance and judgment. The Foucauldian mechanism can even put Chrysostom's texts into bonds that force their message to do homage to the method. This is the case in De Wet's explication (183–4) of an incident described at Hom. 1 Thess. 11.3 (PG 62.464) in which a slaveowning woman, angry with her unruly slave, threatens to sell him but, unwilling to break up his marriage, determines to sell his docile and obedient wife as well. De Wet's Foucauldian and gendered reading casts the tale as an exemplar of excessive punishment of the transgressive male unconcerned with the virtue of the female. Not only does this reading fail to acknowledge the sea-change represented by the mistress's respect for a “slave marriage” (unheard of in Roman practice before Constantine offered some legal recognition to servile marriages in CTh 2.25.1 = CJ 3.38.11), it also stops short of reading down the page to learn that the slave woman's pleas for mercy—couched in explicitly Christian eschatological terms—eventually drove the mistress to back away from her threat. To be sure, assertions of slave agency like this one are hardly unique to the Christian Empire. They have in fact become a staple of the historiography of slavery in the modern world ever since the publication of Eugene Genovese's Roll Jordan Roll in 1974. This makes their absence from De Wet's Foucauldian world all the more regrettable. What is striking, however, is that the Foucaldian reading glosses past this and other examples from the Chrysostomian corpus of ways in which the new Christian moral universe was beginning to wrench the practice of late antique slavery from its more rigid ancient moorings.