Slavery in Antiquity

Ancient & Modern

… ὅπου ἂν δοῦλοι καὶ ἐλεύθεροι παραγένωνται,
δέῃ δ’ εὑρεθῆναι τὸ ζητούμενον, οὐ χρῆσθε ταῖς
τῶν ἐλευθέρων μαρτυρίαις, ἀλλὰ τοὺς δούλους
βασανίζοντες, οὕτω ζητεῖτε τὴν ἀλήθειαν εὑρεῖν

Whenever free men and slaves are present at a judicial inquiry,
you don’t rely on the evidence of the free men, but you try to
get at the truth by torturing the slaves.

Demosthenes Against Onetor 37

A central, if unstated. assumption underpinning the societies of ancient Greece and Rome was human slavery.  Slavery, which existed in all ancient societies, was for them, functionally, the rough equivalent of electricity, petroleum, money and entertainment.  And as the orator Demosthenes (c. 384-322 BCE) shows, slaves were regularly tortured in legal proceedings to ascertain the truth – a practice that, its unspeakable cruelty aside, would seem to me to have about as much veridical plausibility as the contemporary use of expensively paid “expert” witnesses to oppugn each other’s testimony in court.

It is hard not to be awed by the serene and timeless beauty of the magnificent Parthenon temple built in mid-fifth century BCE.  What is certainly unacceptable to us, but not so much talked about in all the discourse about that structures ‘truth and beauty’, however, is the source of the financing for this and other beautification projects of Periclean Athens:  the labor of slaves digging up silver in the mines south of Athens (Hyperides, an orator contemporary with Demosthenes, claims that some 150,000 slaves worked them) and the enforced contributions of “allies” sometime unwillingly enrolled in a kind of international protection racket run by Athenian imperialists:  join our ‘league’ — or be invaded!

In antiquity, in general, if war itself did not kill you or secure your execution after defeat, it got you sold into slavery – a fate especially common for women and children, who were of course likely to have survived in larger numbers than the men fighting the enemy.  Needless to say, the ancients were not punctilious about distinctions between civilians and combatants in such circumstances.  This was just as true of the earliest periods of Greek warfare that we know with such terrifying intimacy from Homeric poetry as it was of Roman campaigns from more than a thousand years later.  Indeed, to take just one example, Julius Caesar is said to have enriched himself and his soldiers massively by selling off into slavery some 55,000 (roughly 80% of the 67,862 souls of Iowa City in the 2010 U.S. census) human beings – men, women, children – who constituted the entire population of Alesia (modern Alise St. Reine) in central Gaul after its capture through siege and starvation in 52 BCE.

What the Athenians of the fifth century BCE called democracy was a strangely different creature from what we in America today know as democracy.  And the notion, today taken as axiomatic in Western-style societies, that every single human is born with inalienable rights codified in a nation’s legal system would have seemed extremely puzzling to an ancient Greek or Roman — would indeed have seemed a stern and serious threat to the very cohesion of their societies.  This model of every human being as a bundle of inherent personal rights is recent, in origin a strictly post-classical, Eurocentric development.

As for the status of women, although individual exceptions can be found, if slaves, they were likely to become drudges and sexual property;  if “free”, they might well function as little more than bearers of children and vehicles of property exchange among men.  They certainly did not have equality with males.  This is not to say that love and affection did not exist between men and women, for it clearly did, as seen perhaps most wrenchingly on many a moving epitaph of otherwise unknown humans.

So, what is my point?

My point is to eschew a dangerous, uncritical, even mindless idealization of antiquity.  The ancients have much to say that is useful and relevant to us today, but they we no more than human, just like you and me, with all the imperfectability and nastiness – as well as grandeur –  of their era.  I am not here has an apologist for ancient practices that today we in America rightly prohibit in law as well was spirit.  But if the priest is a sinner and throws out the baby with the bath water, should we burn the church down?  Only a chronocentric ethnomoron would denounce Greek and Roman antiquity for having dared to have had the effrontery not to anticipate the correct ideals of twenty-first century America.  How perfect will you and I look to human beings 2,500 or 3,000 years from now who study us and may even find us quite fascinating despite their deep repugnance at some of the institutionalized practices of today that we – if we think about them at all – assume are as much a part of the natural order of things as the fact that water is wet?

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