Observations on a Sixth-Century Passio: Sex and Slavery

The acts (gesta) or passions (passions) of the Roman martyrs form an interesting class of late antique Christian literature. Scholars (I think rightly) usually take these stories as late and their heroes as fictional. Frequently, these tales were associated with Rome’s tituli churches, which would often take one or more of these martyrs as their patron saint. In theory, the tituli churches belonged to the bishop of Rome himself, but in practice, the presbyters who oversaw these sites would have had competing institutional and social interests. This dynamic comes across clearly in the Laurentian schism (498–507), which saw two rival factions vying for control of the episcopacy, led by Symmachus and Laurentius respectively. While Symmachus may have had the better case for his institutional legitimacy prima facie, Laurentius disproportionately had the support of the tituli churches and their officers.

To return to the martyr stories, one finds quite a lot of circumstantial evidence that the gesta were controversial. On one hand, many of them drew heavily and openly from the apocryphal acts of the apostles, which were disreputable in most official theological assessments, if not completely condemned. Relatedly, some appear to have been reading the martyr gesta in their local churches (which again makes sense when many of these churches were dedicated to certain martyrs).[1] The trouble was, a longstanding consensus at Rome and (it appears) in most other episcopacies took an extremely dim view of bringing anything but strictly canonical or a handful of “deuterocanonical” (e.g., Tobit, the Shepherd of Hermas) texts into liturgical or catechetical contexts. This sharply conservative posture aimed to keep all but the most reputable writings away from the general Christian population. Reading apocrypha and other noncanonicals was generally fine for educated, elite men who could sift through the bad material. Curiously, this posture became less sustainable with the growing cult of the saints (both biblical and otherwise), devotion to whom naturally tended to cry out for narratives. “How did Saint X live, what did he do that made him a saint, and where did he go? How did he die? How did his relics come to our particular church?” Etc.

In reading one of these passiones, (of Saints Gallicanus, Paul, and John from the early 500s), two nuggets caught my attention. To be clear, I am not suggesting this and sources like it are to be taken as doctrinally normative somehow, either in the past or for the present. Rather, they are useful in that they give us a sense of what premodern Christians could believe and teach, which offers points of comparison with the “standard” patristic theology that would be more familiar to many of us (e.g., from an Augustine or John Chrysostom). With this class of texts too, one suspects we are dealing with some ideas that were propagated rather widely, even if some contemporaries would have protested. In other words, it probably had a wider reach than a single theologically odd author writing in his parents’ basement, so to speak.

The setting for this particular story is the reign of Constantine the Great. In this rendering, Constantine has a dedicated virgin daughter, Constantia. Constantine also has a great general named Gallicanus, who is keeping many of the empire’s enemies at bay and, not unreasonably, wants to marry Constantia as a recompense for his service. Constantine hesitates, but Constantia persuades him to let the marriage go forward. All the while, Constantia prays that God would convert Gallicanus to Christianity and bring him to celibacy himself—which does occur, through a miracle.

The encratism is strong in this passio and in the martyr stories generally. The wording of Constantia’s prayer is particularly striking at one point, as she prays for the conversion of Gallicanus and his daughters from a prior marriage:

Accordingly I request, O Lord, that You may convert these daughters of Gallicanus, and direct Gallicanus himself to chastity, who is attempting to take me from You (and from) belief in You. Open, O Lord, my mouth to their ears, and open the ears of their heart to my speech, and open the door of their assent to me, and pour such power into my words that they may desire to be consecrated to You, cursing the intercourse of the flesh (ut carnis commercium execrantes), and from this desire may such great love arise in their hearts that they seek fervently to proceed to Your heavenly bridal chamber; may they, gleaming with their lamps full of oil and with the flames of Your love, attain it so that they may recognize the place granted to them in the company of the Wise Virgins, and rejoicing in Your mercy may they seek nothing of this earth and may they long for You alone with the whole desire of their being.[2]

Again, as early Christian views of sexuality go, this pointed rhetoric lies on one end of the spectrum, which comes as no surprise given the apocryphal models from which the author would have drawn. I think it also would have clashed with the more moderate approach of someone like Augustine, or the pro-marriage position of prior Christian generations.[3]

Secondly, there’s an interesting remark about slavery in this story. (For the record, slavery was still alive and well as an institution in the Christian sixth century.) In the passio, when Gallicanus is promoted to consul, he manumits a huge number of slaves:

Gallicanus was not allowed to return to his own dwelling, but remained in the palace as the son-in-law of the emperors, contemplating his daughters thus weeping in praise of God. As soon as he wished to depart as a private citizen, he went forth as consul at the request of the emperors; and, being established in this position of power, he manumitted slaves as free Roman citizens to the number of five thousand; he granted them estates and houses, and ordered that all his possessions be divided and distributed to the poor, excepting that which belonged by right to his daughters.[4]

The modern editor makes an important note here, that it is was common for consuls to manumit slaves upon their elevation to the office (even if this large number of slaves is implausible).[5] That means the manumission was not a feature of Gallicanus’ conversion to Christianity per se. Even so, as the rest of his idealized behavior shows, freeing one’s slaves was considered an act of praiseworthy generosity, of the sort that would presumably have appealed to pagans and Christians alike.

I think this bit about slavery re-illustrates a point I’ve made before about early Christian attitudes toward slavery. Directionally, many of them and many of their non-Christian contemporaries would have agreed with modern Westerners that slavery is, in some general sense, “bad” and worth ameliorating. In the same way, all parties ancient and modern might agree about the praiseworthiness of acting generously toward social subordinates or of making financial arrangements for one’s children. Where we differ is in the ethical categorizations: how do we expect those ideals to cash out? In the very recent past, modern people have tended toward an absolutist approach that primarily focuses on institutions, with the result that we ban slavery outright from above. Conscientious people in the past appear to have taken a more personalist, individual approach to the problem. We can debate that approach, but it might be unwise to dismiss it outright as moral compromise or blindness.

I imagine that there might be comparable areas in our own world, where our predecessors (and indeed, our successors) might be horrified by how we handle certain social difficulties without too much affliction of conscience. To take one small example: a robust case could be made, I think, that the ancients would be horrified by, say, the unpleasant reality of nursing homes for the elderly. “How are your bishops not denouncing this on a regular basis?” they might say. “Don’t you love your parents and grandparents? At the very least, why aren’t local ecclesiae getting all the faithful out of these awful places and taking on the burden of their care? Surely, you’re all morally compromised and have abandoned the fifth commandment!”

Of course, much of that wouldn’t be especially fair. These things are difficult; they require balancing competing goods. “You don’t understand,” we could reply, “it’s not how are families are structured these days. Most of us love our elders, many of whom also want to be independent indefinitely. Meanwhile, many of our ecclesiae don’t feel they even have sufficient funds to pay their clerici reasonably. Plus, they don’t have congregants with the free time to care for an elderly person around the clock—much less dozens of them. Besides, the potential for lawsuits and the government’s well-meaning regulations make the whole thing extremely expensive, complicated, and difficult. Really, only specially trained workers can do this job for an extended period of time.” Etc.

You can imagine comparable accusations and confusions about how today’s Christianity exhibits ambivalence (or lack of sufficient vehemence) on a host of other social issues: incarceration, capitalism and usury, induration toward sexual content in entertainment, militarism, gluttony, foster care, homelessness, contraception, factory farming, abortion, and so on. Even though most of us have (strong) opinions one way or the other about these morally fraught and contentious subjects, it’s often unclear how we and our churches would effect at scale whatever we believe to be better moral outcomes. Faced with ancient criticisms, in many cases, we would want to agree with their moral sentiment and say, “Yes, the status quo with issues XYZ is pretty gross, but we don’t have better solutions on the table.” Something like that, I sense, is at play with ancient Christian attitudes toward slavery.

On the other hand, maybe the whole premise of this thought experiment is askew. In reality, I posit many ancient people would have understood the difficulty of it all better than we, as it seems to be a peculiarly modern phenomenon to expect everything can be reformed without tradeoffs so long as we all have enough moral conviction.

  1. See the roughly contemporary so-called Gelasian Decretal 4.4.

  2. Adapted from Michael Lapidge, The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 371.
  3. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Twentieth anniversary ed. with a new introduction, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 399–400.

  4. Lapidge, 373.

  5. Lapidge, 373n41.


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