I learned about Augustine of Hippo from my mother. She had memorized lines from his Confessions as a Catholic schoolgirl in the Caribbean village of Manatí in Colombia. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” she would tell me. Even after she immigrated to the United States and became a born-again Protestant, she kept reciting him. When I left my home on Long Island to study philosophy at a liberal arts college out of state, her prayers followed me just as Monica’s trailed her son, Augustine, when he boarded a ship heading for Italy. I joked that she was my Monica. But I gradually developed my own relationship to Augustine. As I encountered him in a predominantly white academic setting, I latched on to him. He became more than the metaphysical or doctrinal positions parsed in class. Augustine was the symbol of a more diverse and global Christianity that had been covered up by white-supremacist lies. “The greatest thinkers of the early Church came from Africa!” I declared to amused peers. My Augustine was Black.
Augustine has been a fixture in Western canons and Great Books curricula, but it would be a mistake to imagine him as “white,” as if his ancestry and influences could be neatly contained within Europe. His visual representations have also shifted throughout time. In the earliest known portrait of Augustine, a sixth-century fresco in the Lateran in Rome, his skin is a tanned brown. Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio and Sandro Botticelli’s depictions of Augustine show that even Renaissance Augustines weren’t always pale; Augustine’s conscription into something known as “Western civilization” was a later development. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues in The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, the idea of Western civilization is “at best the source of a great deal of confusion, at worst an obstacle to facing some of the great political challenges of our time.” Those who whitewash Augustine are akin to the classicists and museum curators who insisted that Greek marble statues always lacked color. They thought this said something about their own greatness.
The truth cuts both ways, though. I may want Augustine and the courageous members of his church to be proto-abolitionists because of their efforts to rescue people from the North African slave trade of their day. In fact, Augustine could oppose the slave trade while consistently upholding slavery as an institution and using its language for divine matters. His erotically charged submission to God played on cruel societal hierarchies. If this inconveniences those who want to hold Augustine up as a token “Black” voice in their canon, so be it. His regional pride as an African wasn’t racialized. Painting him darker and darker doesn’t necessarily imbue him with righteousness. That’s how I now feel about John Nava’s follow-up to his 2002 tapestries of saints, featuring a Black Augustine, in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. In the tapestry “Augustine of Hippo,” installed at the Corpus Christi University Parish in Toledo, Ohio in 2004, Nava’s Augustine undergoes a transformation from light to dark that I can only summarize as a reverse Sammy Sosa. It’s crucial to understand that although modern notions of race didn’t exist in Augustine’s time, contemporary readings of Augustine aren’t racially innocent. He’s neither the white figure some have imagined nor the multicultural hero I longed for.
Amid the fierce debate about the role of slavery in America’s founding and its contribution to ongoing inequalities, there’s been little attention devoted to how this debate relates to accounts of ancient slavery. The crucial link between the two is often missed due to a myopic American exceptionalism and the prolonged success of Christian propaganda. But perhaps no figure illuminates the commonalities between a triumphalist history of the United States and a triumphalist history of Christianity as much as this North African bishop. Augustine’s relationship to slavery—and sex—tells us much about how the ideal of freedom emerged alongside human bondage.
Aurelius Augustinus was born in 354 CE in the backwater village of Thagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria) to a Christian mother and formerly pagan father of unclear Berber and Roman lineage. Although he initially hated school, Augustine blossomed into a powerful orator and teacher of rhetoric, quickly climbing professional ranks in Carthage, Rome and Milan, while pursuing countless sexual encounters. He was a mystic-intellectual, moving between astrology, a Persian religion called Manichaeism and Greco-Roman philosophies before recommitting himself to Christian faith. In a series of conversions, Augustine renounced rhetoric for philosophy, ambition for humility and sex for chastity. While he had previously enjoyed watching plays, Augustine wrote off drama as a form of emotional manipulation. He eventually returned to North Africa and became a bishop, propounding teachings on human sinfulness and God’s grace that indelibly marked Christian doctrine, before dying in 430 CE in the city of Hippo Regius. Augustine’s influence beyond death is equally important. Among other things, he arguably invented the genre of memoir and bequeathed to us a negative association with sex as sinful.
Augustine’s commentators have obsessed over his obsessions, such as the story he shares about stealing pears as a boy. Going back to his own day, Augustine’s open admissions of lust and sexual guilt have always caused a stir. But the thread in the Confessions that I overlooked until reading Sarah Ruden’s 2017 translation was slavery. Once you see it, its shadow looms everywhere. Not only does Augustine address God as “Master” and Christians as God’s “holy slaves,” he also frames his own spiritual rebellion in terms of a runaway slave. Augustine says to God that “you were lashing me” and “you whipped me severely as a punishment … because I was in love with the ‘freedom’ of a runaway slave.” Elsewhere, God pursues lost humanity like a master “breathing down the neck of [his] runaways,” and Augustine says: “I won’t pass over in silence, the cut of your whip and the amazing speed of your mercy.” He calls his own lust for sex and worldly success a form of enslavement. The whole universe is labeled property of God the Master.
Among the startling things in Ruden’s translation was her decision to translate dominus as “master” instead of “lord”—a choice that highlights Augustine’s heavy reliance on slavery metaphors throughout the work. In her rendering of the Latin, any ambiguity is removed: Augustine describes God not as a feudal lord but as a Roman slave master and humanity as his disobedient slaves. Some considered this translation offensive and inappropriate. The philosopher James K. A. Smith wrote in response, “I quite literally closed up the Ruden translation in a kind of literary disgust.” Elizabeth Bruenig, who thought there was little to gain from Ruden’s new translation, asked: “Is it really the case that Augustine could not have been imagining both a lord and a master?” Yet Peter Brown, Augustine’s preeminent biographer, defended Ruden’s decision as faithful to Augustine’s language and context, conveying the sense that God was “no distant majesty, muffled in fur and velvet,” but rather an intimate presence in the Roman household, where life was “lived to the sound of the crack of the whip and punctuated by bursts of rage.” Ruden herself states in the introduction:
This imagery, with its reminders of American plantation slavery, may be harsh and off-putting, but a translator must govern her distaste … Otherwise, there can be no limits to the demands of a condescending, manipulative, and anachronistic political correctness.
References to slavery in the Confessions go well beyond metaphors and word choice. The work is populated with actual slaves. Augustine refers to a slave’s involvement in clearing his friend Alypius from a wrongful accusation of theft. In another passage regarding horoscopes, Augustine points to the nearly identical birth times of a free man named Firminus and an enslaved man to contemplate how one “was magnified with wealth and lofted up to public offices” and the other locked within “the most degraded position, a state of slavery.” Other examples in the Confessions are closer to home. Augustine grew up with slaves; his parents weren’t wealthy but had the financial means to own some. He recalls Monica becoming the subject of household gossip. Monica’s mother-in-law retaliates against the “evil-minded female slaves” accused of spreading these whispers and has her son, Augustine’s father, discipline them with a whipping. Augustine shares this scene approvingly and concludes the story by referring to Monica as God’s “good chattel.”
The historian Susanna Elm writes that “Augustine moved seamlessly between actual and metaphorical slavery because these were the deep metaphors he and his audience lived by.” This movement appears not only in Confessions but throughout Augustine’s corpus. Shortly after Augustine’s revelatory experience in a garden leads him to quit his teaching job in Milan, he spends a season at a rented villa with his friends and mother discussing philosophy. The “Cassiciacum dialogues” record the group’s discussions and, in casual asides, the fact that a designated slave boy would announce the lunch break from morning debate. In his biography of Augustine, classicist Robin Lane Fox observes about the boy, “He and others like him were evidently doing the housework all the time.” During this same period at the villa, Augustine proclaims himself “the slave of a merciful and capable master.”
After Augustine returns to North Africa and takes up positions of Christian leadership, he continues to speak about slavery with increasing degrees of authority. In his view, enslaved Christians shouldn’t agitate for actual freedom. “That is as it should be,” Augustine says. “[Christ] has not made slaves free, but turned bad slaves into good slaves.” Augustine’s sermons stress the importance of mercy. But in response to the concern that this could be misconstrued as a lack of discipline, he preaches:
That’s not what I’m saying…and if you see your slave living badly, what other punishment will you curb him with, if not the lash? Use it: do. God allows it. In fact he is angered if you don’t. But do it in a loving rather than vindictive spirit.
Slavery also factors into Augustine’s words about Donatist Christians, a rival group to Catholic Christians in North Africa. The two diverged sharply in their ideas about spiritual purity after prior waves of imperial persecutions against Christians, and they fought bitterly over winning converts to their cause. Some Donatists encouraged slaves to leave their masters and helped to destroy documents proving ownership. Augustine writes, “What master was not forced to live in fear of his slave, if the slave fled to the patronage of the Donatists?” In the same letter, he compares Donatists to “evil slaves” who require “the stripes of temporal scourging.”
There remains a seemingly obvious question long left unasked in the pages of church history: Did Augustine own slaves as a bishop? He likely inherited slaves as part of his father’s estate. While no evidence has been found so far to prove whether Augustine transferred these slaves to his church or monastery, Fox and Elm have suggested that he probably did; at this time, Christian ascetics of all genders owned slaves, and a community such as Augustine’s typically imposed manual labor on enslaved people in order to increase leisure for free people.
If lost material about Augustine and slavery were to resurface, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 1975, Johannes Divjak unearthed a trove of previously unknown Augustine letters in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Marseilles. One of these letters, likely written around 427 or 428 CE, has been described by contemporary historians as providing “the most detailed account we possess of the mechanics of the slave-trade in the Roman empire.” In it, Augustine, who is late in his career as a bishop, complains to his friend Alypius about slave traders terrorizing the inhabitants of North Africa. Augustine tells Alypius that their communities, “out of Christian and human compassion,” must lobby the imperial authorities so that “in large groups, like a never ending stream, a great multitude of people of both sexes will no longer lose their freedom in a form of captivity worse than that experienced among the barbarians.”
In addressing the slave trade crisis in North Africa as a bishop, including interviewing victims who had been rescued by members of his church, Augustine displays compassion. However, for him, the problem wasn’t slavery itself, but the kidnappings of free people and tenant farmers who occupied a murky legal status. In another letter written around the same time, Augustine states: “we are able, according to the apostolic discipline, to command slaves to be subject to their masters, but not to impose the yoke of slavery on free men.” If it wasn’t already clear, Augustine spells out precisely who he was defending with his episcopal authority.
Slavery in Augustine isn’t a matter of mere semantics or a rogue translator; it underpins his work in ways that can’t be easily excised. Sure, Augustine uses other metaphors to describe God, such as that of a healing physician. Still, the image of the slave master is central. Matthew Elia, the rare Augustine scholar who has focused on this dynamic, writes that “slavery is not simply one moral ‘issue’ among others but an abiding presence in Augustine’s thought, providing a metaphor that animates his treatment of God, sin, Christology, order, desire, virtue, and freedom.” This was always the case. But translators have typically smoothed out these rough edges, while aficionados have either retreated into the safer terrain of hero worship or simply shrugged their shoulders. Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, first published in 1999, contains nearly five hundred entries from more than one hundred scholars on topics related to Augustine, but not a single entry on slavery. There’s been a strong reluctance to confront this side of Augustine. Why?
It is commonplace today to think about the coexistence of slavery and freedom as somehow contradictory. How could, say, Thomas Jefferson make grand pronouncements about freedom and unalienable rights while simultaneously being a slave owner? But the sociologist Orlando Patterson, in his book Slavery and Social Death, argues that “there is nothing notably peculiar about the institution of slavery.” It has existed from time immemorial across human cultures and around the globe. It isn’t the peculiar institution so much as it is the embarrassing one. Part of the embarrassment lies in its symbiotic relationship to freedom. “Before slavery people simply could not have conceived of the thing we call freedom,” writes Patterson. “Men and women in premodern, nonslaveholding societies did not, could not, value the removal of restraint as an ideal.” In the Roman Empire, the ideal of freedom in both worldly and spiritual forms developed alongside human bondage.
This history has frequently been misunderstood or obscured. According to classicist Kyle Harper, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Roman slavery started to be seriously reexamined by new generations of scholars equipped with increasing amounts of data. The picture that has emerged since is of an institution that impacted every facet of Roman society. Slaves are estimated to have comprised between five and ten million people, making up 10 to 20 percent of the Roman Empire’s population during the first century CE. Slaves were present in urban centers and in the countryside, laboring in a variety of settings including households, farmlands and mines. Some slaves in elite households even held certain privileges such as the ability to manage their master’s financial assets. A wealthy Roman senator could own thousands of slaves who performed highly specialized tasks, with some having the designated role of picking up the crumbs and leftovers of tipsy banquet guests.
Many have emphasized that Roman slavery wasn’t as bad as American slavery. After all, the former wasn’t based on race; slaves could sometimes “purchase” their freedom and free people sometimes willingly sold themselves. The two systems weren’t identical. But both were brutal in their own ways. In the Roman Empire, enslaved people were reduced to things, to bodily appendages or tools of the master. They had no personal rights, owned no property and weren’t allowed to legally marry other slaves. As Harper understands, it’s pointless to attempt a comparison of Roman and American slavery as if a hierarchy of oppression could be established by quantifying the average rate of whip lashings. The reality is that the Romans violently dominated and dishonored enslaved people. They were regarded as objects who served the desires and needs of their superiors: masters could buy them, sell them, inflict corporal punishment and sexually exploit them at will. As Pliny the Elder put it: “We use other people’s feet when we go out, we use other people’s eyes to recognize things, we use another person’s memory to greet people, we use someone else’s help to stay alive…”
The voices of enslaved people are largely absent from the documentary evidence available from this period, which means we’re left with the perspectives of the masters. But if artifacts could speak, they would tell us other stories about people who disagreed with their masters and resisted dehumanizing conditions. Otherwise, thick metal collars and pendants inscribed with some variation of “Retain me, lest I flee,” wouldn’t be found around the necks of enslaved people’s skeletons. Most of these surviving collars are from the fourth century CE and appear to have been made by Christian owners, as evidenced by the Christian symbols—crosses and the alpha/omega or Chi-Rho figure—on them. The New Testament scholar Jennifer Glancy writes, “So discomforting are these objects that nineteenth-century scholars described them as dog collars rather than acknowledge that ancient Christians regularly bound other persons in such a crude manner.” On the other hand, some Christian intellectuals have pointed to these collars as proof that Christianity ameliorated conditions for slaves. Before Emperor Constantine, they say, captured runaways could get tattooed or branded on the face. Christians introduced the more humane collars.
It is true that, in the first four hundred years of Christianity’s existence, some church leaders encouraged masters to be merciful toward their slaves. But there’s no evidence to support the claim that most Christians fundamentally opposed or altered the institution itself. From the very beginning, every generation of Christians contained slave masters, and this class added the likes of bishops, deacons and monastics to its ranks. Augustine was acquainted with a wealthy Christian woman who tried to grow the size of the faithful by buying numerous slaves and arranging their baptisms. Lactantius, a Christian adviser to Constantine, publicly defended the fact that masters rewarded docile slaves with privileges within their households and punished rebellious slaves “with cursing, lashes, nudity, hunger, thirst, chains.” For Lactantius, it set a positive example for Christians and society at large: “The one is an example to the others not to sin, and the other is an example to good behavior, so that some are coerced by fear, others driven by honor.”
Whether or not Christians were subtly corroding the foundations of slavery, they were also busy capturing people trying to escape its horrors. “Ecclesiastical networks were useful in the detection and recovery of fugitives,” writes Harper. “One saint’s shrine even specialized in the production of talismans that were thought to help in the discovery of runaway slaves!” When enslaved people threatened Roman custom, Christians came to the defense of masters’ rights. Basil of Caesarea, a bishop and contemporary of Augustine to the east, could say that “a slave-woman who gives herself in marriage against the will of her master is guilty of fornication. But if he approves, it is a marriage. So the one is a sexual sin, the other a marriage.”
The story told about early Christianity—and consequently “Western civilization”—has rested on two faulty theses. According to the amelioration thesis, Christianity didn’t overtly oppose slavery at first, but it created communities and promulgated teachings that humanized slaves. The growth of the Christian population within the Roman Empire gradually improved conditions for slaves and, ultimately, led to the decline of slavery as an institution. This tale of Christianity’s rise is sometimes substituted by another tale about Christianity’s fall. According to the golden age thesis, Christianity began as a radically egalitarian movement opposed to slavery, but it became coopted by the temptations of political power ushered in by Constantine. In other words, Jesus and his earliest followers were basically social justice warriors betrayed by an emerging establishment Christianity that accommodated itself to slavery. Ascent and decline became the prisms through which the history of early Christianity was narrated, with the suppression, denial, mistranslation and distortion of any evidence that seemed to suggest the contrary. These two theses, aided by a belittling of Roman slavery’s brutality, have functioned like a multiple-option play for a Christianity presented as triumphantly marching down the field of human history. Christianity’s origin remains unstained by slavery because Roman slavery wasn’t that bad. And if it was bad, then Christianity made things better. If Christianity didn’t make things better, well, its founders and core teachings were sold out by imperialist Christians. The metal collars from the fourth century belonged to dogs or, if forcibly placed on humans, they were an upgrade. Conservative and progressive Christians, and scholars of all stripes, have appealed to different aspects of this overarching framework. It’s almost entirely wrong.
Compared to his peers and predecessors, Augustine’s stances on slavery are unexceptional. He contemplates the origin of slavery in City of God, concluding that the institution was caused by human sin but allowed by God as a form of judgment. Augustine adds, “And beyond question it is a happier thing to be the slave of a man than of a lust.” In Augustine’s mind, slavery fit within a rightly ordered, hierarchical society. Placing all of humanity under God the Master and expressing mercy toward the enslaved didn’t break down the societal distinctions of actual slavery. In this regard, Augustine was no different than Stoic philosophers like Seneca who could rhapsodize about the human dignity of slaves and then, in the next breath, declare that masters who voluntarily enslaved themselves to ambition experienced the meanest slavery of all. This equivocation is also found in St. Paul. In his letter to the Galatians, he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Yet within this same letter, Paul turns to the enslaved character of Hagar found in the Hebrew Bible and contrasts Hagar with her owner Sarah as he charts the course of Christians’ freedom.
Augustine didn’t see slavery through the lens of modern racism that was so central to the development of the United States. Stressing the unity of a depraved humanity in need of grace, he didn’t concoct a theory of natural slavery like Aristotle, and he remained skeptical of the monstrous species of men posited by Pliny the Elder. Post-seventeenth-century scientific racial categories would be foreign to Augustine. Yet it would be short-sighted to understand the rise of racism as something that appeared ex nihilo with Prince Henry the Navigator and the Portuguese exploration down the West African coast in the fifteenth century. We can already see traces of the ingredients that congealed into modern racism in Augustine’s interpretation of the Psalms, where he relates the skin tone of darker Africans to being sinful, lost in darkness and in need of divine light. In the Confessions, Augustine tells God that Christians are “your slaves, whom you changed from black to white and from dead to living…”
The reluctance that writers, translators, scholars and believers have long shown in addressing Augustine’s relationship to slavery could be the result of multiple impulses. It could be the desire of some to protect Augustine’s halo. It could be because Augustine partisans have a track record of ignoring Black thinkers. Or it could be because squaring up to this legacy would mean rewriting the popular origin stories of Christianity and Western freedom. The scandal of slaves in Augustine ends up being just the tip of something more disturbing. To admit the problem of slavery in Augustine would entail acknowledging that he was only drawing on Paul, who liked to call himself a slave of Christ, and on Jesus himself, whose parables in the Gospels are full not of “servants,” as many translations have it, but of slaves who get violently disciplined. It would mean realizing that Augustine’s trope of being God’s runaway slave is not a far cry from the New Testament’s language, which uses the slave auction as a central image for the Gospel when it states, “you are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” To paraphrase Toni Morrison, it would mean coming to terms with the fact that enslaved people in ancient Rome—with their worldly chains left intact—became the surrogate selves par excellence for Christians to meditate on heavenly freedom.
If the enslaved people on Jefferson’s Monticello plantation have long been sidelined as nuisances to tales of this country’s greatness, then so have the enslaved people who toiled under the watchful eyes of Christians in Augustine’s Hippo Regius. The concept of freedom inscribed in secular declaration and sacred verse was inconceivable without them, but that doesn’t matter for some contemporary observers. In their view, discussing slavery becomes an interruption, an unnecessary detour from loftier doctrines or worse: anathema. Those in our day who downplay the centrality of slavery to America’s founders and their ideals are only imitating the script that’s been used to narrate church history.
Domination can’t be safely cordoned off as an external problem; it also seeps into our everyday desires and fantasies. I was reminded of this in 2019 when I did something Augustine, with his disdain for the theater, would’ve disapproved of: I watched a play on Broadway. And not just any play, but Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play. It revolves around three interracial couples engaged in “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.” Two radical therapists have the couples incorporate plantation slavery themes into their BDSM playtime to process racialized trauma and power dynamics within the relationship. This provocative story seemed to revel in the discomfort that I felt rippling through the audience. I experienced a trinity of discomforts. There was the play itself, and the pauses in my laughter as I wondered if the white people around me were laughing too hard. Then there was the timing: I had just read Ruden’s translation of Confessions.
Slave Play is a comedy of sorts. I recognized the progressive-activist-therapeutic culture that Harris satirizes, skewering its language of bravery, erasure, triggers, sitting with things and taking up space. It’s hard to know which parts of the play to interpret earnestly. But the relationship between a Black woman named Kaneisha and a white man named Jim, which bookends the play, suggests an insight. Kaneisha wants Jim to treat her like a slave in bed. He’s uncomfortable with this and insists on being called “Mista” instead of “Massa.” In the third act of the play, titled “Exorcise,” Jim finally listens to Kaneisha and understands that this type of sex helps calm her OCD, connects her with her ancestors and addresses his whiteness (though this does not make for a straightforward resolution). What initially turned Jim’s stomach about their role-play is what turns Kaneisha on.
The crackling whips and erotic subservience of the play took me back to Augustine’s tender descriptions of God whipping him. God the Master is a lover and seducer. “Come, Master,” Augustine says, “and act, rouse us and call us back, set us alight and ravish us; blaze for us, grow sweet to us. Let us love you passionately, let us run to you.” At times in Ruden’s translation he sounds like a good bottom, declaring to his Master, “I’m below you, and you are my true joy when I’m placed under you…” Augustine is commonly seen as the archnemesis of libido. He surely felt ashamed of his lust: he referred to his mistress of fourteen years as “the woman I’d been accustomed to sleeping with.” But if I could transport Augustine into the future and have therapist Esther Perel record a session with him, perhaps we could eavesdrop on a podcast episode containing the breakthrough realization that an eroticism still permeated Augustine’s life even when he talked about God.
Augustine also wrote about libido dominandi, the lust for domination or rule. In City of God, he describes it as a sinister force that leads men to start wars and narcissistically impose their will on others. Like all lusts, for Augustine, it fell within a spectrum of uncontrollable desires, burning the bearer himself. However, Augustine never talked directly about a libido to be dominated. And this highlights an embarrassment that people still live with today. For every denouncement of injustice in society, there’s a wellspring of desire that feeds on it. The holy sacrament of consent doesn’t undo the unseemliness of the upstream source. We rightly condemn manifold forms of sexual violence. But the poetics of sex, in the words of Perel, “are often politically incorrect, thriving on power plays, role reversals, unfair advantages, imperious demands, seductive manipulations, and subtle cruelties.” We want what we want. Who cares if it looks absurd to someone outside of our desire?
I won’t speculate on whether Augustine’s God was a sublimated dominatrix. Though his words and Harris’s play do make me wonder: How is it that people find reparative meaning in things originally predicated on violence and inequality? This is not just about BDSM role-play. Even as judges and priests in our time continue to use old texts to preserve so-called traditional hierarchies, this has never stopped reformers and revolutionaries from using these same texts toward liberatory ends.
I once longed for a pure Augustine. But there’s nothing pure about this world. We can invent spotless saints, or we can honestly confront the complex legacy of a figure or a tradition, and in doing so imagine a more expansive version of freedom.