Modern history


Humanity Is Divided into Two

“Humanity is divided into two: the masters and the slaves.”

Aristotle, Politics

IN HIS DESCRIPTION of the sale of slaves at Lagos in 1444, Zurara, the Court chronicler, was writing of what has since seemed a turning point in history. Yet few occurrences thus named remain so after scrutiny; and the Portuguese, along with all Southern Europeans of that time, were accustomed both to slaves and to slavery.

Most settled societies at one time or another have employed forced labor; and most peoples, even the proud French, the effective Germans, the noble English, the dauntless Spaniards and, perhaps above all, the poetical Russians, have experienced years of servitude.

Slavery was a major institution in antiquity. Prehistoric graves in Lower Egypt suggest that a Libyan people of about 8000 B.C. enslaved a Bushman or Negrito tribe. The Egyptians later made frequent raids on principalities to their south and, during the Eighteenth Dynasty, also launched attacks by sea, to steal slaves from what is now Somaliland. Slaves helped to build the innovations of the world’s first agricultural revolution: the hydraulic system of China and the pyramids of Egypt. The first Code of Laws, that of Hammurabi, silent on many matters now considered interesting, included clear provisions about slavery. For example, death was prescribed for anyone who helped a slave to escape, as well as for anyone who sheltered a fugitive—a foretaste of two thousand years during which slaves figured in most such compilations.

In the golden years of both Greece and Rome, slaves worked as domestic servants, in mines and in public works, in gangs, and individually, on farms, as well as in commerce and in cottage industries. They both managed and served in brothels, trading organizations, and workshops. There were slaves in Mycenae, and Ulysses had fifty female slaves in his palace. The Greeks were appreciative employers of them: Athens had in her heyday about sixty thousand slaves. Her police force was a body of three hundred Scythian archer slaves; her famous silver mines at Laurium employed over ten thousand slaves until a rebellion in 103 B.C.; and twenty slaves—perhaps a quarter of those so employed—helped to build the Parthenon. The Athenians used slaves to fight for them at Marathon, even though they freed them first.

The Romans made use of slaves in all the categories employed by the Greeks, though they had many more domestic ones: a prefect in the days of the Emperor Nero might have four hundred in his house alone. There may have been two million slaves in Italy at the end of the republic. From the first century B.C. to the early third century A.D., the use of these captives was the customary way in which prosperity was created. That did not mean all these were equal: rural and urban domestic slaves lived different lives; a man working in a gang in the fields had a different life from one in a workshop in the city; some slaves practiced as doctors or lawyers, and others acted as majordomos to noblemen, or as shepherds in the hills. Cicero’s slave Tiro was a confidential secretary and was well educated: he even invented a shorthand called after himself.

Half a million captives seem to have been required every year in Rome during its most self-confident age—say, 50 B.C. to 150 A.D. The Roman state itself possessed innumerable: seven hundred, for example, were responsible for maintaining the imperial city’s aqueducts. Perhaps one out of three members of the population was a slave during the early empire. One rich lady, Melania, is said to have liberated eight thousand slaves in the early fifth century A.D., when she decided to become a Christian ascetic.1

In both Greece and Rome, slaves were in origin captives taken in war, or obtained by a razzia on an unsuspecting island or city. Fifty-five thousand captives are said to have been taken after the Third Carthaginian War, and Caesar, it will be recalled, brought “many captives home to Rome” from the Gallic Wars. Many Germans were enslaved in later centuries. Then Septimius Severus brought a hundred thousand captives home after defeating the Parthians at Ctesiphon. Fifteen thousand Gallic slaves a year were exchanged for Italian wine in the first century B.C. Piracy and brigandage also played their parts in providing Rome with the labor which she desired.

Markets specifically for slaves, such as those at Chios, Rhodes, and Delos, were developed early during the golden age of Greece. Ephesus was the largest market of the classical world for hundreds of years, though the evidence as to the numbers sold there is unsatisfactory. These markets were popular places of resort for all patricians. The majority of captives sold there would have come from the East. The sale of slaves born within the Roman empire was also a thriving enterprise. Some were probably bred deliberately for markets.

Many slaves of old Rome were fair Germans, including Saxons: “The beautiful faces of the young slaves,” wrote Gibbon, “were covered with a medicated crust or ointment which secured them against the effects of the sun and frost.”2 They must have been from Northern Europe, perhaps from the historian’s own land.

Black slaves also existed in antiquity. Egypt had always sought to secure their southern frontier militarily with Nubia, but commerce crossed it in both directions. Herodotus spoke of an Egyptian trade in black slaves; during the most fortunate times of the pharaohs, the Nubians regularly dispatched down the Nile tributes including Ethiopian captives as well as gold and cattle. Blacks, surely slaves from Ethiopia, fought in Xerxes’ army, as they did in that of Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse. Ethiopians are recorded in many parts of the Mediterranean in those days: as having been dancers and boxers, acrobats and charioteers, gladiators and cooks, prostitutes and personal servants. Black heads are to be observed on Greek vases, as on Alexandrian terra-cottas, and a first-century mosaic at Pompeii shows a black slave serving at a banquet. Seneca spoke of “one of our dandies with outriders and Numidians.”3 The Roman playwright Terence had been a slave in Carthage and, according to Suetonius, may have been a mulatto. A useful guide to navigation in the second century A.D., the Periplus Maris Erythraei, of the Red Sea, talks of a maritime slave trade from the East African coast to Egypt. Black Africans seemed attractive. Seneca is supposed to have remarked that Roman men believed that black women were more sensual than white, and Roman women had a similar voluptuous admiration for black men: the poet Martial praised a lady “blacker than night, than an ant, pitch, a jackdaw, a cicada.”4 In the Bible, the queen of Sheba was always described as beautiful as well as black; and the Song of Solomon included the firm declaration: “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.”5 Herodotus, who traveled as far down the Nile as Elephantine, the frontier city with Nubia, called the Ethiopians “the most handsome of peoples.”6

Not all the black Africans in the classical Mediterranean were slaves. Eurybatus, a black herald who accompanied Odysseus to talk to Achilles, was presumably free (the recollection of him was one of the ways by which Penelope recognized her husband); and a certain Aethiops, perhaps a black African freeman (or was it just a nickname?), was present at the founding of Corinth.

At least from the time of Xenophanes (the first European to write of the physical differences between blacks and whites), in the sixth century B.C., the Greeks and the Romans were unprejudiced on grounds of race: they were quite insensible as to whether someone with black skin was superior to someone with white, or vice versa. So it is scarcely surprising that miscegenation was neither repugnant nor unexpected. No laws mentioned the matter. Many Ethiopians married Greeks or Egyptians. In the eighth centuryB.C., Ethiopians, who had provided soldiers and slaves to Memphis, even conquered Egypt and gave it its Twenty-fifth Dynasty.

Nearly all the black Africans of the ancient world came from Ethiopia through Egypt. Several expeditions were sent in that direction, and Pliny the Elder records more than one; all the same, in the second century A.D., a caravan route seemed also to open at Leptis Magna, in what is now Libya, linking the Roman empire with Guinea.

Wild suggestions have been made that the ancient civilization in Greece had both an Egyptian and a black origin. That imaginative view, which, if true, might affect any history of the Atlantic slave trade, derives from a story reported by a Greek historian, Diodorus of Sicily, in the first century B.C. But there is no evidence for the claim; it is no more likely that the mythological first king of Athens, Cecrops, was black than that the lower part of his body was that of a fish. Socrates may have been black, but the odds are against it; Cleopatra may have had black blood, but it is most improbable.

• • •

The Athenians were the first to seek a reason for discussing, as well as explaining, the institution of slavery (as of most other matters). For example, Aristotle, in the first book of his Politics, firmly said: “Humanity is divided into two: the masters and the slaves; or, if one prefers it, the Greeks and the Barbarians, those who have the right to command; and those who are born to obey.” That seemed to imply that, to an Athenian, everyone who was not Greek could be captured and enslaved—even should be. Aristotle also said: “A slave is property with a soul.” Thus he accepted slavery as an institution. He also declared that “the use of domestic animals and slaves is about the same; they both lend us their physical efforts to satisfy the needs of existence.” He noted that some had argued that “the rule of a master over slaves is contrary to nature, and that the distinction between master and slave exists only by law . . . and, being an interference with nature, is thus unjust.” These ambiguous propositions would have importance in the sixteenth century, when Aristotle was looked upon as the guide to almost everything.7

Plato, for his part, compared the slave to the body, the master to the soul. He took for granted the enslavement of foreigners, though he desired to end that of Greeks.8

Yet Euripides, the playwright, realized that there was more to the matter than the philosophers thought; for example, he caused Polyxena in Hecuba, born to marry kings, to declare that she preferred death to being enslaved. His contemporaries, the Sophists, took that reflection to its logical conclusion: they even argued that slavery had no basis in the law of nature, since it derived from custom. The rhetorician Alcidamas, when demanding that the Spartans free the Messenians, thought that distinctions between a freeman and a slave were unknown to nature. The Cynics thought that a slave maintained a free soul, even if he was the instrument of his master’s will; and Diogenes observed that the man who relied on captive labor was the true slave. Such sophisticated reflections had no effect on practice.

• • •

The Romans established the status of a slave (servus) by law and distinguished him from a serf (colonus). A slave in Rome was an object, res, unable to make a will, bear witness in civil cases, or make criminal charges—even if (by a law of Hadrian) he was also theoretically protected against murder and from physical harm at the hands of his master. Yet the mere fact that a Roman slave could also be punished for crimes suggests that the law envisaged the idea of a slave as a person, not just as a thing.

The criticisms of slavery by great Latin writers tended more to denounce the idea of cruelty to slaves than to question the institution. Thus Cicero and Seneca hoped that slaves could be treated humanely, but they never contemplated an end of slavery. Cicero, who thought that all inequality (hence slavery) could be explained by degeneration, wrote in De Republica that the reduction of conquered peoples to slavery was legitimate if the people concerned were unable to govern themselves; which Seneca developed the idea that slavery was a bodily affair: the spirit would remain a thing apart. The latter also thought that (Zurara’s) goddess of Fortune exercised her rights over freemen and slaves alike; in Rome, as in Greece, manumission was, after all, not uncommon.

In the last years of the Roman republic, and again under the Antonine emperors, in the second century A.D., some humane improvements were introduced in servile legislation. The changes did not alter the fundamental definition that a slave was someone’s property. But they did indicate that a master’s rights over his slaves, like his rights over most other property, were restricted in specific ways. The Emperor Antoninus Pius, for example, in the second century A.D., sought to reduce the arbitrary character of the institution of slavery; but he also declared that the power of masters over slaves should remain unquestioned. He justified his humanitarian laws by saying that they were in the interests of the masters.

These innovations were the product of two influences: that of later Stoic philosophy, and of Christianity; the first of these was the most subversive. Henceforth, at all events, if a master were to treat a slave badly, he had to sell him. If he were to abandon an infirm slave, that slave could be enfranchised. All the same, neither Stoic nor Christian questioned the institution of slavery. The condition was assumed to be from eternity. If a master did not exercise all his rights over his slaves, that concession was never binding, always revocable. The Stoic Epictetus, himself born a slave and freed by his master, wondered whether enfranchisement would benefit every slave, though he was also concerned about the evil effects of slavery on masters.

Christ’s teaching that “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them,” along with the idea of Saint Paul that “God hath made of one blood all men and all nations of men,” played a part in the history of abolition in the United States in the nineteenth century; but, in the early days of Christianity, Christ’s failure to talk specially of slaves was taken to imply that they were excluded from divine generosity.9

Saint Paul, like Seneca, thought that slavery was something external. So he recommended that slaves serve their masters “with fear and trembling.” He thought that every man should abide “in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a slave? Care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather” (the English Authorized Version curiously translates servus as “servant,” not “slave”).10 The apostle believed, it is true, that the slave who receives the call to be a Christian is “the Lord’s freeman.” But the implication was that that liberty could only be expected in the next world. The Epistle to Philemon the Greek described how the apostle returned a fugitive slave, Onesimus, to his master, though he did recommend indulgence. That action was later used by churches to reject the idea that escaping slaves had the right to sanctuary in their church, as common criminals did; and the eighteenth-century French Huguenot trader Jean Barbot thought that the Epistle gave evidence that, though slavery was lawful, slaves should be well treated. An early Christian bishop, and a medieval one, could comfort himself with the reflection that Christ had, after all, come not to change social conditions but to change minds—non venit mutare conditiones sed mentes. What, the “bondsman was inwardly free, and spiritually the equal of his master”? No matter: in external matters, he was a mere chattel. Slaves could of course look forward to freedom in the next world. In the meantime, they should endure their terrestrial condition for the glory of God, whose ways were inscrutable.11

Several centuries after Saint Paul, the austere father of the Church Saint John Chrysostom advised the slave to prefer the security of captivity to the uncertainties of freedom. Saint Augustine agreed. He thought that the first cause of slavery was the sin “which has subjected man to man.” But that “had not been done without the will of God, who knows no injustice.” Augustine, born at Hippo in North Africa, really believed in the equality of races: “Whoever is born anywhere as a human being, that is, as a rational mortal creature, however strange he may appear to our senses in bodily form, or colour, or motion, or utterance, or in any faculty, part, or quality of his nature whatsoever, let no true believer have any doubt that such an individual is descended from the one man who first existed.” All the same, sin made many men slaves; and Augustine remembered the Curse of Ham in Genesis.12 Then Saint Ambrose, commenting on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians, believed that masters had duties to slaves. He also suspected that God had intended all men to be free, but that the tragic conditions of human life meant that some who were naturally free might, as a result of war, be reduced to slavery. The General Council of the Christian Church (c. 345) at Gangra, in Paphlagonia (that is, northern Turkey), condemned all who, under pretext of religion, taught slaves to despise their masters; one of the Councils of Carthage (419) refused the right even of enfranchised slaves to bear witness in court. Pope Leo the Great proclaimed in 443 that no slave could become a priest. The Emperor Justinian later sought to change that provision, and to arrange for the entry of slaves into the priesthood if their masters did not oppose the matter; but, though a slave’s collar has been found bearing the inscription “Felix the Archdeacon,” the tolerance implicit in the designation had little effect during the late Western empire.

In one of his last speeches, in a debate in the House of Commons in 1806, that passionate friend of liberty Charles James Fox would declare that it was “one of the glories of Christianity to have gradually extinguished the slave trade, and even slavery, wherever its influence was felt.”13 That effulgence was, however, hidden for many centuries.

All the same, even if the Church did not question the institution of slavery, it did encourage manumission: the actions of the saintly Melania have been recalled; and a certain Hermes, converted to Christianity in the days of Hadrian, is said to have freed 1,250 slaves one Easter. A decree Manumissio in ecclesia was also approved by the Emperor Constantine the Great in 321.14

It was only in the case of Jews that later Roman law was in any way less than helpful to masters. But there, Constantine declared that no Jew could own a Christian slave. If a Jew bought a slave who was not Jewish, and forced him to be circumcised, the Code of Theodosius gave that slave a right to liberty. A law of 417 refined the matter: no Jew could buy Christian slaves. Even if he were to inherit one, he could only keep him on the condition that he not try to convert him to Judaism. Thus, very early in history, the problem of Jews and slaves was posed, though not quite in the way that has seemed appropriate to polemicists of the twentieth century.

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