Wednesday, September 1, 2021

On Ancient Slavery

Ancient Athens was not a bastion of liberty, philosophy, and democracy. It was a slave society. Most historians accept that there were at least 80,000 slaves in Ancient Athens, out of a population of 120,000, when the city-state was at the peak of power. The actual number of slaves might be higher than this. In the census ordered by tyrant Demetrius Phalereus, between 317 and 307 BC, it was found that the population of Attica consisted of 21,000 citizens, 10,000 metics and 400,000 slaves. Prostitution flourished in Ancient Athens—the flesh trade was dominated by the slave women and men captured in wars.  

Slavery was regarded as a natural and necessary condition in the city-states of Ancient Greece. Aristotle held the view that slavery was necessary for philosophical life. On an average, the households of Athens had four to five slaves. Almost all Athenian citizens owned at least one slave. Not owning even one slave was a sign of poverty. Aristotle defines a household as a house that contains freemen and slaves. Socrates has talked against the institution of slavery but his two wives—Xanthippe and Myrto—probably owned several slaves.

Ancient Rome took the institution of slavery to a new level. The purpose of the Roman Army was to conquer new territories and capture new slaves. Wherever the Roman Army went, a large contingent of Roman slave traders followed. The soldiers would catch people, immobilize them by tying them up or clubbing them on the head, and then sell them on the spot to the slave traders, who would transport the slaves to the slave markets which flourished on the trade routes running through the Roman territories. A significant part of the operational cost of the Roman Army was being recovered from the sale of slaves. In the time of the Roman Republic, the unskilled slaves used to cost at least 2000 sesterces (two years of the Roman version of minimum wage); a skilled slave would cost much more. 

The Romans killed and enslaved a massive number of Greeks (a people whose philosophy and culture they admired) in the period when they conquered Greece. In the Battle of Corinth of 146 BC, the Roman general Lucius Mummius set fire to the city, slaughtered all the men, and enslaved all the women and children. After the destruction of Corinth, the rest of Greece was quickly subjugated by the Romans.

The number of slaves that the Roman soldiers caught and sold is astounding. The Samnite War in the third century BC resulted in 55,000 Samnites and Gauls being captured and auctioned in the slave markets. The destruction of Carthage in the third Punic War flooded the slave markets with more than a million slaves. Julius Caesar once sold the entire population of a conquered region (close to 53000 people) to slave dealers on the spot. Under Roman law, the slaves had no rights—their body was owned by their master. Sexual exploitation and torture of slaves was a common practice in Rome. The use of former enemy soldiers as slaves led to armed rebellions—like the one led by Spartacus. Close to 70,000 slaves participated in Spartacus’s rebellion.

In his book Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, Professor Moses Finley argues that there have been only five genuinely slave societies in history: Ancient Greece, Rome, the American South, the Colonial Caribbean, and Brazil. All five were the key centers of Western power in the age when they were making massive use of slave labor. By genuinely slave societies, Finley means the societies which use a disproportionately high number of slaves, where the economy is dependent on slave labor, and where the elites have developed cultural and political arguments for defending their use of slave labor. The slavery in Ancient Greece and Rome was not based on race, but the slavery in American South and the Colonial Caribbean and Brazil was.

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