Thursday, February 19, 2009

Slavery in the Roman Republic and America

In the greatest portion of our human past, losers in battle were massacred – soldiers, women, and children. It was the common outcome of tribe warfare, designed to prevent retaliation from the vanquished. Even after the ancient civilizations began to develop, the purposeful killing of human beings by their own species continued. Then, sometime after agriculture was introduced and men stopped migrating, the defeated began to be used as slaves rather than being killed. Slaves became the preferred source of manual labor – labor the victors didn’t want to do themselves. Many societies evolved a warrior class and a servant class, like the Spartans who subjugated their unfortunate Helot neighbors.

Slavery was fundamental to the early Romans because Rome was an agrarian society, and there was always a need for farm labor. Not all Roman slaves were the defeated enemy: some were purchased at auction, others were freemen enslaved through their own misdeeds. Until 325 B.C, Roman citizens could be placed in servitude if they were unable to pay their debts.

It is estimated that Rome had 17,000 slaves in 475 B.C. and 40,000 by 325 B.C. Those numbers pale beside the 55,000 captured Carthaginians brought back from Africa at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C. By then, slavery had become a significant problem for the Republic, as slaves took the jobs of freemen in the city, displaced them as farm labor, and began to serve in the army.

The economic and social impact of slavery drove Tiberius Gracchus to push through an agrarian bill to redistribute land to the poor in 133 B.C. He wanted them to become property owners and serve in the army, because slaves were disloyal and unreliable in battle. Unfortunately, Tiberius was assassinated by an angry Senate who was indifferent to the needs of the poor freemen.

The slave experience in North America was different – and worse. Started by the early Spanish explorers when their native American slaves began to die of disease, the import of Africans to the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean became a thriving industry. The English, Dutch, French, and Spanish all competed to make money moving human cargo.

The first Africans in America arrived in Jamestown in 1619, possibly as indentured servants. Many paid their debt and became freemen, but soon after the importation of Africans as slaves became the rule, based on the color difference with whites or the perceived heathenism of people from an unknown land. A Virginia law from 1705 defined slaves as people from countries who were not Christian, as if their lack of religion was an excuse for mistreatment. Of course the real growth of the slave population occurred in the Southern states where staple crops such as rice and cotton became the foundation of the southern economy. Too much land for the number of people willing to work required massive numbers of workers, and eventually the African slaves outnumbered their white masters. Estate owners became fearful of revolts, so they instituted further repression on the slave population.

Once the Southern economy became dependent on slave workers, its politicians would not listen to the anti-slavery cries from the North. The Constitutional Convention of the United States would have been a failure if demands for abolition were carried forward. Both sides agreed to set the issue aside except for the agreement to stop slave importation after 1810. Ignoring the slave problem did not make it go away and seventy years later the unresolved problem would split the nation in two.


Primvs Pilvs said...

Good post! In addition, another fundamental difference between Roman and American slavery is the fact that many slaves in Rome had the opportunity to become free. The slaves of upper class Romans were potential future clients, so their education and future freedom and success were seen as worthwhile investments by the rich. No such circumstances (at least to my knowledge) existed in American slavery. It is also true, though, that Roman slaves were not all so fortunate, and many were worked to death in mines or in gladiatorial games.

Jeff said...

The following educational and informative article should provide some good related additional information for your article, as far as the 'big picture':
The Scourge of Slavery