By Ben Potter

“Jove takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him”.

Homer was quick to recognize the terror and inhumanity of slavery. And he used it as a powerful tool to stoke the drama of his epic:

“tears will break forth anew for he who would have put away the day of captivity from you. May I lie dead under the barrow that is heaped over my body ere I hear your cry as they carry you into bondage”.

These words were spoken by the Trojan prince, Hector, to his fearful wife Andromache. It is here, perhaps, that we have the crux of the matter. Slavery was bad. Abhorrent. Unjust. An insult to any Greek… but Hector and Andromache were not Greeks.

Slaves were the spoils of war, a reinforcement of one nation’s hegemony over another.

Though it is hard to say when and exactly how the notion developed, it became accepted amongst the differing Greek states that enslaving fellow Greeks, if not entirely illegal or evil, was at the very least ‘bad form’.

For non-Greeks, however, it was an entirely different matter.

Aristotle, in his Politics, has some rather unsavory things to say on the issue:

“That some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule… the use of slaves and the use of animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life”.

Even though one could argue that this is an extension of some of Plato’s radical, but thought-provoking ideas regarding the roles of each man in society, they still make very uncomfortable reading for anyone who has admired Aristotle.

Slavery in Ancient Greece

Despite their lack of ‘personhood’, there were differing categories of slave in ancient Athens. This is because many were both prisoners of war and living booty plundered from raids on other states, and therefore, could be almost any type of person from any walk of life.

Hence a slave, if he were ‘lucky’ (and educated) could find himself working directly for the state as a clerk of the jury courts or as a coin-tester, or perhaps even as a policeman.

Not only was such work less backbreaking and dangerous than some (the slaves who worked down the silver mines could easily die of exhaustion having not seen the sun for years), but, being state owned rather than private property, these slaves would have had some security (if, of course, no freedom).

That said, it may not have been in the best interests of a slave policeman to give evidence in court as, in both Greece and Rome, the evidence of a slave was only valid if it had been extracted under torture. Meanwhile, skilled artisan slaves could be given their own workshops and simply pay their masters a cut of their profits each week.

Slavery Rome

It is likely the instance of debt-bondsmanship (a temporary slavery which could, in reality, affect generations) reduced drastically after Solon’s reforms (circa 600 BC) made Athenian citizens exempt from this punishment. Indeed, the practice seemed more prevalent in Sparta where Athenian style chattel slavery was less popular.

But if, in Athens, slavery was merely of sea of blood on which to sail the ship of the state, it was in Rome that it spiraled out of control.
There it became not merely a practical means by which to exploit free labour and swell the ranks of the army, but actually a symbol of status.

Indeed, Pliny claimed a freedman (i.e. former slave) by the name of Gaius Caecilius Isidorus personally owned 4116 slaves at the time of his death.

The lot of the Roman slave was paradoxically better and worse than that of the Greek.

One the one hand, an additional feature of Roman slavery seemed to be the extent to which they were in the sexual thrall of their masters, either for the master’s own personal or professional use.

Likewise, there were more examples of capricious cruelty and offhand executions. A likely explanation for this was the sheer volume of slaves, which were provided by professional brigandage, piracy, as well as being the natural spoils of war.

Roman slaves in chains

That said, a flooded marketplace had some advantages; there was strength in numbers.

The classic example that springs to everyone’s mind is the Spartacus revolt in the 70’s BC. However, it should be stressed that the result of this fight was 6000 crucified slaves.

More common (and, probably, more sensible) methods of revolt were fleeing, stealing, sabotaging, working slowly and other forms of non-violent protest.

However, the Romans (or at least, the smart Romans) realized that they could incentivize their slaves with time-off, increased rations, new clothes, limited freedoms, etcetera, just as effectively as a cursory flogging.

Indeed the ultimate incentive was the granting of freedom.

This occurred relatively often: sometimes in wills, sometimes slaves could save up and buy their freedom and, at other times, it was a reward for particularly good service. At certain points in her history, Rome even allowed freedmen to become citizens.

Female slaves

However, there seems little evidence that freedmen made better slavers themselves. Indeed, if we can take the example of Petronius’ grotesque (albeit fictional) character of Trimalchio in the Satyricon we can see a crass and vulgar slaver who only emancipated his slaves in order to emphasize his wealth.

Interestingly, Romans, like Greeks, were reluctant to enslave their own and although vast numbers of Syrians and Jews found themselves under the yoke, there was no racial aspect to this. The key point was that they were not Roman citizens; religion and skin color were not factors.

Even the advent of Christianity did little to improve the lot of those in bondage. St Augustine believed that those in thrall were there because they deserved to be:

“The prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow…the judgement of God…knows how to award fit punishment to every variety of offence”.

Indeed, the only real, concerted objection to slavery came from the Stoical philosophers. Even then, there was nothing humanitarian about their protests, instead they stressed that keeping slaves was bad for the soul of the slaver.

So what do we do with this information? How do we square the circle of these broad, brilliant and fascinating societies that did not merely use slaves, but whose very fabric was underpinned by slave labour?

The only obvious answer is that we must take the rough with the smooth, much as we must with the Founding Fathers.

Not that this is an isolated case. Lovers of Wagner or Ezra Pound must face the fact that both men were fervent anti-Semites.

Likewise, can we trust Isaac Newton when he was a confirmed alchemist and spiritualist? And what about Winston Churchill’s murderous tactics with striking Welsh miners?

Even Gandhi and Mother Teresa have their critics, in the former case for his chuminess with Hitler and Mussolini and in the latter with her love of suffering and links to Duvalier in Haiti.

Even through the spectrum of history, by which one should analyze a society on its own terms and not superimpose, it is very difficult to argue one’s way round to justifying classical slavery.

That said, to dismiss the thoughts, works and deeds of people who clearly had so much to offer subsequent generations would be an act of stubbornness and futility, like setting fire to an ivory piano.

In short, history is there to be learned from, for both good and ill and it would be folly to talk about the beauty and brilliance of Roman baths without realizing that there were poor, disenfranchised wretches stoking the furnaces that heated them.