Turning Slaves of Men into Servants of God: Late Roman Attitudes Towards Slaves Entering the Clergy
Dr. Justin Pigott, University of Auckland
Online, 5 October 2021, 1630 – 1730 AEDT
The fourth-century theologians Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus considered the entry of slaves and freedmen into the clergy as debasing the church, calling bishops drawn from slave stock ‘wretched men’ and ‘dung beetles’. Such sentiments were shared by the broader church hierarchy and imperial government of the day with council canons, episcopal rescripts, and imperial laws all prohibiting the ordination of slaves. However, despite these proscriptions, the ordination of slaves was widespread. Indeed, on more than one occasion we find Gregory and Basil themselves ordaining slaves. That we find such inconsistency is unsurprising. The act of slave ordination struck at the heart of tensions between traditional Roman social practice and the emerging Christian institution. By exploring the nature of such tensions, the post-Constantinian church’s opposition to slave ordination, and the drivers that led men such as Gregory to ignore its prohibition, this paper seeks to provide fresh insight into the social contours of Christianisation.