Theology on the Streets and in the Home

I have been reading Peter Sarris’ brilliant and highly accessible book on Justinian and was struck by the significance of a passing observation he makes when discussing the theological landscape at Constantinople. Sarris states that while it would be easy to assume that the average citizen lacked an understanding of the sophisticated theological arguments that wracked the church at this time, the fact that such people were willing to put their lives at risk in protesting or defending various factions demonstrates concerted engagement with the debates. Indeed, there are countless examples of the civic populations of the east passionately and often violently making their theological loyalties known. From the rival Nicene and Arian night processions that competed for dominance in the streets of Constantinople, to the 6,000 strong imperial army needed to reassert order during the height of the Chalcedonian-Miaphysite conflict at Alexandria. Such demonstrations of popular sentiment show that not only were people highly engaged in the religious debates of their time, but as Sarris points out, they recognised the impact it could have on their potential salvation.


As a historian with a keen interest in the theological debates of the period, I take much solace from this point. I have often been haunted by the question of how much the minutiae of theological disagreements can really tell us about the everyday lives of the population. Were such topics so niche and detached from the day-to-day of the broader populace that it has little value for the writing of social history? I am increasingly convinced that this is not the case, and that high theology can provide an invaluable window into everyday attitudes.  


This is certainly true when it comes to the difficult task of reconstructing attitudes surrounding domestic slavery in late antiquity. For example, the language and realities of slavery pervades the Christological debates of the fifth century. Nicene theologians such as the Cappadocian Fathers derided their Arian rivals as being slavish in character and warned that their theology of subordinationism threatened to upend to the established social order. It is no accident that charges against prominent Arians often included the accusation that they encouraged slaves to run away from their owners. Competing interpretations of biblical verses that deal with slavery also provide a valuable window onto late-antique attitudes towards domestic slaves. One such contentious text is Paul’s Epistle to Philemon which recounts an episode in which a slave named Onesimus fled his master, Philemon, to be with Paul in prison. In the epistle we learn that Paul sent Onesimus back to his master with the instruction that Philemon should accept him as a brother. The meaning behind this instruction was vague enough to engender two quite different interpretations amongst early Christians. Some, such as Jerome, interpreted it to mean that Paul had manumitted Onesimus and made him a deacon, while others understood the epistle to mean that Onesimus was dutifully returned to his master with enslavement posing no impediment to living a Christian life. John Chrysostom belonged firmly to the latter group, opining that as a fugitive, Onesimus not only acted illegally by fleeing Philemon but had sinned against God. It is telling that it is this interpretation that would become the dominant one. Such differences provide us with a unique insight into broad societal attitudes and expectations towards the behaviour of slaves. Sometimes they can even be linked to real events; Jerome’s interpretation of the Philemon affair is found in a letter in which he is defending himself against the accusation that he had allowed a slave to be ordained.   


The myriad of theological debates that pervade the history of Byzantium not only helped shape popular attitudes towards domestic slavery but perhaps more importantly, reflected the norms and concerns of the wider community, of which it was a part. Understanding this brings new depth to all aspects of Byzantine history, including the lives of the highest members of society, such as those covered in Sarris’ book. After all, Justinian’s predecessor on the throne chose an ex-slave as his wife and empress, and we all know the rumours about Theodora’s enslaved existence before she came to Justinian’s attention…