Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The price of slavery - getting your head around it

The thing you've got to remember with slavery in the ancient world - and the modern one for that matter - is that this was a long standing institution. For the average Roman the act of giving up their slaves would be like us giving up our car...or smart phone, unimaginable. Slaves were a seemingly indispensable way for households, farms, and factories to get through the day - without them, for all intents and purposes the sky could fall in. And despite the extreme powers an owner held over them - freed slaves did not turn into rabble rousing emancipators or run underground railroads to get escaped compatriots back home - instead most became slave owners themselves, and some even owned slaves while still in bondage. So presumably the experiences of the average Roman slave - of course there would be exceptions - were not as negative as we might imagine.

There are probably several reasons why, but firstly we should explore the bluntest. Money. Apart from the very poor, virtually all Roman citizens owned at least one slave. For the everyday man in the street, his servant probably cost him three or four years worth of wages, which was almost certainly borrowed. Beating, injuring or killing their slave would be akin to us taking to the family car with a baseball bat. Sure, some of us might, but most of us wouldn't. It's what I call the 'Porsche' scenario. Most of us would have to give up a whole lot to afford a Porsche and once we owned one, we would do everything we could to make sure it never lost value. Of course, there'd be a few who are so rich they wouldn't care what happened to the car...wrapping it around a tree and walking away from the wreckage wouldn't matter one bit. Roman slave owners could be defined in much the same way and a slave's experience probably matched that of a car. The majority of owners who'd scraped together enough cash to buy another human wouldn't be in the mindset of setting out to devalue their investment...but then, some wouldn't have cared.

Added to this, slavery had some broader advantages we might not consider, but no doubt a Roman era slave did. A master with a trade meant an apprenticeship...and a career. An unmarried master might mean a marriage proposal - as might an unmarried mistress - oh, the scandal. Plus, working in a household meant eating just as well as those they lived with - chemical analysis of skeletal remains has shown this - not to mention free health care and a retirement plan. So perhaps we shouldn't look at Roman slavery quite the same way as we look at the modern era slave trade. In an extreme way it was more like a current day workplace agreement - with productivity schedules and get-out clauses. Sure, our employers don't have the power of life and death over us, but then again, we're chained to our banks - and our desk - for the next twenty years you've got to admit, we're not a whole lot better off, are we?

Find out if Calvus ran an underground railroad 


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