Slavery Was Always Wrong

Slavery was integral to the societies and economies of the ancient Mediterranean, so much so that discussing almost any topic in ancient history will end up touching on it at some point, and as historians we do not always take the time to address slavery as an institution in itself. The practice of slavery in Greece and Rome also differed from the modern American version in significant ways, which we often have to explain. The combination of these facts can sometimes leave the impression ancient slavery was in some way less wrong than modern slavery.

So this is me as an ancient historian taking the time to say: it was not. Slavery is, was, and has always been wrong.

The practice of slavery—that is, treating some people as possessions who have no rights to autonomy or claims to humanity and who can be exploited for labor without their consent and without compensation—is common across many cultures in history. Almost every pre-modern society (and many societies in the modern period) complex enough to have a division of labor had some mechanism for forcing a particular class of people to labor against their will. In many cases, this class of people came from outside that society or were the descendants of people who had, but local people could be among the exploited as well. Cultures that did not practice slavery have existed in history, but they are rarities. Just as different cultures in history varied widely in their ways of life, they also varied in how they practiced slavery, but inherent in all slave systems is the violence—whether actual or implicit—that comes of treating people as things.

In all slave societies, those who benefited from the exploitation of others generally found ways of justifying the practice. The voices of the rich and powerful dominate the historical record, especially as we look farther back in time. The voices of enslaved people themselves are often missing from the sources (at least until more recent centuries), and we should not suppose that they shared the opinions of the people who were exploiting them. If our image of ancient slavery is not one of violence and horror, that tells us more about whose stories we are hearing than about the actual experience of slavery. We are never on solid ground making judgments based on what the rich and powerful think is okay for them to do to other people in order to stay rich and powerful.

Slavery played an important role in the economies of both ancient Greece and Rome, more so than in some of the other cultures they lived alongside. Greeks were major players in Mediterranean trade for centuries, and trafficking in enslaved people was a significant part of that trade. The islands of Delos and Rhodes were major centers of the trade in enslaved people, as documented by numerous inscriptions found in both places left by the traders. Slavery was particularly important in the Roman economy because Rome was an expansive empire. Enslaving war captives was one of the most direct ways of profiting off the near constant warfare that marked the growth of the empire.

There are important ways in which the practice of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean was different from that in modern-period America. For example, enslaved people were not distinguished by race from those who exploited them. Greeks and Romans did not have a concept of race as we understand it, but even so, enslaved and free were not distinguishable by physical appearance (a point made clear by numerous legal and literary sources about enslaved people passing themselves off as free). In Rome, there was a custom of granting freedom to some enslaved individuals after a period of time. These freed people gained some legal status in Roman society (either citizenship or a lesser status as “Latins,” depending on the time period) and they and their descendants could integrate themselves into Roman society.

Still, the fact the Greek and Roman slavery was different does not make it less wrong. The exploitation, violence, and dehumanization inherent in slavery are always wrong. The experiences of individuals may vary between times and cultures—and even within the same time and culture—but those variations are not a defense of slavery, neither as a general practice nor in any particular case.

There has never been a time when slavery was morally defensible. It has always been wrong.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

A Roman Boat Trip to Nowhere

Most of us aren’t doing a lot of traveling these days, what with the pandemic restrictions. Some people are missing the travel experience so much they’re paying for flights to nowhere, but it’s good to be reminded that travel can also be a real pain—uncomfortable accommodations, bad food, rude fellow passengers, awkward schedules, and the like.

Travel could be just as difficult in the past, too. Here’s the Roman poet Horace’s description of an unintentional canal boat trip to nowhere to remind you of what you’re (not) missing.

[…] An hour went by in taking fares
and hitching up the mule. The vile marsh midges and frogs
kept sleep at bay; all the while a boatman, sloshed on cheap wine,
competed with a passenger in crooning to absent
girlfriends. At last, worn out, the passenger went to sleep
and the lazy boatman hitched the mule to a rock
to graze, then flopped down and snored.
When morning dawned we realized the old tub
wasn’t moving, not until some hothead jumped up and gave
the mule and boatman both a good thrashing about the head and hindquarters
with a willow switch. […]

– Horace, Satires 1.5.13-23

(My own translation)

Enjoy the pleasures of just staying home!

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Now It Is Time to Drink!

If you’re feeling celebratory today, here’s a little verse from the Roman poet Horace to put you in the right mood. Horace was celebrating the defeat of Marcus Antonius in the last phase of the Roman republic’s long-running civil wars of the first century BCE (although, for political reasons, focusing most of his scorn on Antonius’ Egyptian ally, Cleopatra). But you can drink and dance for whatever is making you happy today!

 Now it is time to drink! Now with liberated feet
dance upon the earth! Now the sumptuous
feast of the gods
can be spread, my friends!

Before this, the time was not right to bring the good Caecuban wine
up from the ancient cellars, not while the insane queen
schemed to bring death and ruin
to the Capitol and our state

with her foul throng of thugs,
drunk with vain hopes
of sweet
victory.

– Horace, Odes 1.37.1-12

(My own translation)

Enjoy!

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Visualizing the Roman Emperors

Sometimes, putting information into a visual form helps you make sense of it. I’ve been studying, writing about, and teaching the history of the Roman Empire and its emperors for more than two decades now, but taking my knowledge and making it visual helped me grasp the significance of some of the long-term patterns I’ve know about for so long. In this chart, you can see the stumbling uncertainty of the early empire, the stability of the second century, the chaos of the third century, and the complexity of the late 200s to early 300s.

(It’s a big image; you have been warned!)

Continue reading

Bardcore: Now in Classical Latin

Most of the bardcore versions I’ve seen are in plain modern English, some in ye olde faux medievale Englisshe, and some even in Old French. But so far there seems to be only one in Classical Latin: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

Smells Like Teen Spirit Cover In Classical Latin (75 BC to 3rd Century AD) Bardcore by the_miracle_aligner on YouTube

Oh, yeah! LOL!

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

Arcanus, Miles Arcanus

The Roman fort at Vindolanda in northern Britain, established in the first century CE close to where Hadrian’s Wall would later be built, has yielded an amazing variety of documents written on wooden tablets. These sorts of tablets were used for everyday writing in parts of the Roman world for things like personal letters and shopping lists. I’ve talked about a couple of the finds from Vindolanda before (here and here), but today I’ll turn to one of the more perplexing finds from the site.

Vindolanda tablet 162 is a small strip of wood with two words on it: MILES ARCANU[S]. Miles is clear enough: it means ‘soldier,’ which you would have found plenty of in Vindolanda. Arcanus is more of a puzzle. It can be a personal name, although it’s not common, and it could have been the name of a soldier stationed at Vindolanda. The usual word order in that case, though, would be Arcanus miles, ‘Arcanus, the soldier.’ But as a word on its own, arcanus means ‘secret’ or ‘hidden.’ The clearest reading of this tablet is: ‘Secret soldier.’

What is a secret soldier? The answer may lie in a mention from the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus in his Res Gestae, written in the fourth century CE, referring a group in Britain called the areani. The word areani is itself a puzzle: it exists in no other recorded Latin text. It would seem to mean ‘people of the bare lands’ or possibly ‘people of the sheepfolds,’ and might be a reference to people who lived in the wilderness near the Roman frontier. One widely (though not universally) accepted suggestion, however, is that areani is a medieval scribe’s mistake for arcani, ‘secret ones.’

As for who these secret ones were, Ammianus gives us a pretty clear idea:

Their duty was, by hastening far and near, to keep our generals informed of disturbances among nearby tribes.

– Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 28.8.3

(My own translations)

This account pictures the arcani/areani as scouts or spies who operated outside the frontiers to gather intelligence on potential military threats. One product of their work may also be preserved at Vindolanda, a fragmentary tablet which seems to preserve a piece of a report on the fighting capabilities of the native Britons:

the Britons are naked [or lacking armor?]. They have lots of cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords. The Brits do not take position to throw javelins.

– Tabulae Vindolandenses 164

We don’t know how widely the arcani existed in the Roman Empire, at least as an organized group. They are documented only in Britain and might have been a peculiarity of that frontier. One of Rome’s weaknesses as a world power was a lack of any centralized gathering of intelligence on the frontier and foreign peoples, and the emperors were often poorly informed as to what was happening at the edges of their empires. On the local level, though, Roman commanders on many parts of the frontier made use of scouts and patrols to keep an eye on the border regions that fell under their purview.

If this kind of scouting is what the Miles arcanus text refers to, why would the text itself have been written? Surely it isn’t a very sly spy who carries around a tablet saying: “I’m a spy.”

The dangers that this particular secret soldier faced, though, did not necessarily all come from the British side of the border. Roman soldiers on frontier patrol had a habit of abusing their power for personal gain, roughing up the locals and shaking down merchants. Another fragmentary letter from Vindolanda appears to be the draft of a complaint from a merchant to the provincial governor about just this sort of bad behavior by a soldier (the beginning is damaged, so we know less than we would like about the event in question):

… he beat me further until I would either declare my goods worthless or else pour them away…. I beg your mercy not to allow me, an innocent man from abroad, about whose honesty you may inquire, to have been bloodied with rods like a criminal.

– Tabulae Vindolandenses 344

Under such conditions, someone whose business required them to travel around beyond the frontier, probably blending in with the locals, but also report back regularly to a fort full of Roman soldiers, might be well advised to carry around something to prove that he was who he said he was: a spy for Rome.

Image by Erik Jensen

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Quote: Something that You Have Longed For Without Hope

If something happens that you have longed for and desired without
hope, it is a blessing to your soul.
So it is a blessing to us, more precious than gold,
that you long for me again, Lesbia.
You long for me without hope; you bring yourself back
to me. What a red-letter day!
Who leads a happier life than mine? Who can say
that life has given him a greater gift?

– Catullus, Poems 107

(My own translation)

I think a lot of us now know what it is like to long for something almost without hope, even if it is not for the return of a former lover. One thing I have longed for this past spring is the long days of summer when the sun lingers in the sky and we can enjoy warm evening breezes.

Whatever it is you are longing for now, I hope this summer brings it to you.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: I Don’t Like You

Before there was the tweet, there was the epigram. The Roman poet Martial was an expert at this art form of highly-condensed snark. Here are a few of his best bits (my own translations):

I don’t like you, Sabidius, and I don’t know why.

All I know is: I don’t like you.

– Martial, Epigrams 1.32

 

You ask what I get from my farm in Nomentum, Linus?

This is what I get: not seeing you.

– Martial, Epigrams 2.38

 

Zoilus, why are you soiling the bathtub by washing your ass in it?

If you really want to make it filthy, go soak your head!

– Martial, Epigrams 2.42

 

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: When You Keep Harping on about It

You are pretty, Fabulla (we know!), and young (true enough!),

and rich (no one could say otherwise!).

But when you keep harping on about it,

you don’t seem pretty, or young, or rich.

– Martial, Epigrams 1.64

(My own translation)

This bit of grousing comes from the Roman poet Martial, who wrote in the first century CE, but it seems apt for today’s “influencer” culture, too. Some things never do change. Whether the lesson you take from that is “Rich young women will always be vain about themselves” or “Crabby old men will always complain about how young women present themselves” is up to you.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

The Sanity of Crowds

The Roman satirist Juvenal complained that all the common people of Rome cared about was “bread and circuses,” and as long as they were fed and entertained they didn’t care about politics. Some modern scholars have taken Juvenal at his word (always a risky thing to do with a satirist) and seen the people of Rome as an easily placated rabble. There is another way of thinking about bread and circuses (which, in Rome, meant chariot races), though: they were not a sop to keep the people complacent but rather what the people expected and demanded of their government.

The Roman emperors originally rose to power by presenting themselves as champions of the poor and downtrodden of the city of Rome. In time, as imperial rule became institutionalized, emperors tended to focus more of their energy on the army, which became a vital political constituency, but ignoring the needs of the ordinary people of Rome was a risky move for any emperor. Ensuring that the Roman poor didn’t go hungry, whether by distributing free grain or guaranteeing a low price, was a priority for most emperors. Providing public entertainments, such as chariot races, gladiatorial shows, or theatrical performances, was also generally expected.

These entertainments were not just for the amusement of the people. They also furnished one of the rare opportunities for the people to interact with the emperor, who was generally expected not just to finance the shows but to attend them if he was in the city. Far from keeping the people of Rome quiet and happy, these spectacles could give the poor a chance to voice grievances and make demands of the emperor.

Aristocratic Roman authors tended to describe the people in the stands at such events as unruly, even unthinking. Bouts of heckling or booing could arise seemingly spontaneously. A shouted request could start in one part of the audience and quickly become a chant echoing through the whole stadium. The Roman elite saw these outbursts as a sign that the common people were fickle and emotional, easily swayed by simple chants and slogans. Some modern historians have taken on these same attitudes and described the crowds in the arena or racetrack as irrational dupes caught up in the frenzy of the moment.

The aristocratic view does not tell the whole story, though. However much the emperors portrayed themselves as champions of the ordinary people, poor Romans had very little opportunity to voice their feelings, wishes, or concerns. In the days of the republic, the annual election of magistrates had forced the political elite to go out, interact with the citizen body, and listen to voters’ concerns. The structure of the Roman political system was skewed heavily in favor of the rich, but the opinions of the poor could not be ignored. One anecdote says that a Roman candidate was once making the rounds shaking hands with potential supporters. When he met a poor laborer whose hands were rough from work, he quipped: “You’re not in the habit of walking on your hands, are you?” This joke smacked of elite condescension and played badly among the working folk of Rome. That candidate lost his race.

Unelected emperors had no such encounters with the people. They also had the military might to arbitrarily punish or abuse anyone they saw as causing trouble. The emperors did not go out on the street shaking hands with ordinary citizens, and even if they had, few among the poor and powerless would have been brave enough to make complaints or demands in person. In the arena, racetrack or theatre, though, the balance of power was changed. When a whole crowd booed an emperor or chanted out some grievance, it was hard for an emperor to ignore or for his guards to single out someone to punish. It is likely that the mass chanting of demands and slogans, which seemed spontaneous and irrational to the Roman elite, was actually to some extent planned and coordinated.

Given the risk of hostile crowds, why would an emperor continue to show up at such public events? Because the consequences of not showing up could be worse. The people of Rome were no strangers to mass mobilization, even violence. Once again, the fact that our written sources come almost exclusively from an elite point of view clouds the picture. Aristocratic authors describe the people of the city as prone to rioting and street violence; we are left to wonder how many of those “riots” were actually organized protests (or began as such before taking a turn for the worse). Wise emperors knew that it was better to listen to the people booing or chanting in the stands than to face them in the streets.

Thoughts for writers

When writing about the behavior of people in large groups, it can be hard to remember that they are still people. The notion of the “madness of crowds,” that people in large groups can lose their sense of reason and behave as one irrational mob, has often been used by the powerful few to dismiss and ignore the will of the powerless many. It’s as important to be careful with this idea in our imagined worlds as in the real one. Crowds may sometimes create a peer pressure effect and lead individuals to say or do thing they wouldn’t have otherwise, but the anonymity and mass of a crowd can also make it safe for individuals to say and do what they really mean. On staged occasions like sporting events, people can even use the crowd to their advantage to amplify the message they want to get across. The feelings expressed by crowds are not to be taken lightly or written as if they represent irrational whims of the moment.

Image: “Geta and Caracalla” via Wikimedia (1907; oil on canvas; by Lawrence Alma-Tadema)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.