I was making my way to a section of a bookstore the other day, and by chance I ended up in wrong section, but which yielded some interesting reading these past few days, because I had bumped into none other than a shelf of books on Roman history. I hate people who glorify Roman or Greek societies, talking about them as if they were some wonderful, “advanced,” civilized societies, and not the complicated, unjust, and violent places they really were. Simply because a society musters to have a few grand orators, poets, playwrights and what have you, it does not mean it is any less violent and dysfunctional on many other levels. So I was all too happy to find a book on slavery in Roman society, which really talks about how cruel and horrible Roman society was in this respect (Slavery and Society at Rome – K. Bradley).

I have never read much about Rome and have forgotten most of what I saw of it in school, which currently results in a nebulous understanding of Roman society. So a lot of it to me is simply new discoveries (or rediscovering stuff I had long forgotten). First really shocking discovery to me was the just how huge the slave population was. A modern estimate puts the servile population in order of 2 to 3 million people!! This represents 33-40 per cent of the total population at the time period of the end of the first century BC. That’s huge! I have a hazy memory of having heard about this in school, but I’m not sure.

Second discovery, not shocking but still interesting to note, was that Roman philosophy has very similar conceptions to slavery in the New World ( specially with slaves from Africa ) and how they thought of the slaves, as these sub-human creatures. And if they are sub-human, they are not entitled to any rights, they are immoral, they are all these despicable things that justify their mistreatment. And apparently all the famous philosophers (as per Western academic canons) are really a aggregate of disgusting “nazis” in their views of slaves and slavery. I say apparently because this was not a detailed subject in the book, there were just a few comments here and there. (I am sure other people must have already examined this question.) Another parallel is how Romans put into place all kinds of laws and practices to keep slaves from organizing or revolting en masse. And the book also talks a lot about how slaves were subjected to all kinds of capricious acts of violence by their masters, just like African-American slaves were.

Another amusing discovery, was this fellow, Musonius Rufus, who favored equal opportunity in education for both boys and girls, and saw no barrier to women studying philosophy as did men; and rather unconventionally he regarded marriage as a truly companionate relationship. Hey, have we actually found an ethical Roman, a real nice guy? Well, spoken way too fast, as the book explains further along, although he was one of the very few voices (of which there is a record, anyways) to question and criticize the sexual abuse female slaves experienced, he did so for very problematic reasons (and within a very Roman blame-the-victim framework.) Musonius criticized the slavery sexual abuse only as an infidelity question (he was concerned with the privileged Roman wife), he was not addressing the fundamental violence that is inherent in abuse (nor did he have concern for the effects on the victim), nor was he condemning the slavery institution that enforced this very violence. And for that, we can flush Musonius down the toilet. But as I mention below, I wonder if anyone actually criticized sexual abuse for its violence done to the enslaved, if anyone actually mustered to think outside the constraints of the Roman ideological system that everyone was conditioned to from birth? I certainly think so, because even in the worst of worlds, the human spirit fights exactly in that respect, it yearns for and seeks a justice of thought. But often these people have to fight it alone, because they find no echo in the blind idiots that swarm around them.

I always think it’s interesting how much “history” erases so many dissenting voices. How many other people thought like Musonius regarding equality of the sexes, even if they were a minority? What else did they think? There are a lot of non-famous people whom I know that have some really key attitudes and values and they will never be recorded. And a lot of repellent people, who have the power to be recorded, are going down as the “voices of our times.” So much for the sham that history is in that respect.

The other thing which I find amusing is how many of these philosophers went into exile or had to flee one place or another because of their teachings. I mean, this was really common, most of them had to flee for their lives and do it in a jiffy. Then they start all these politicking maneuvers to get some favor from some powerful people so that they can either return or go somewhere else. A touchy kind of society 😉 Open your mouth a little too freely and on the next boat you go! 🙂

Going back to Musonius, he does remind me though of a lot of First World feminists I’ve met or read, that view “women’s rights” from their ultra-privileged perspective, and usually can care less about racism or violence problems that are perpetrated by women, for example, since it’s not something they are victimized by. There is no mention about Musonius criticizing homos and bisexual men abusing male slaves either. Which doesn’t mean he didn’t, just that it’s not mentioned.

And the other interesting point, not that it is news, was how Christianity brought very little change for good to the Roman slavery system even as the centuries went on. Eventually…

There was a noticeable change in the course of slavery as the empire aged. The spread of the Christian church played a role, as many leading Christians were opposed to the institution. Though the church and its priests owned slaves as well, the church was at times vocal against the institution and that certainly was a factor on the psyche of the people. More importantly, however, the high cost to purchase slaves, the crumbling economic conditions, and the devalued currency, made employment of the masses a better alternative to maintaining large properties of slaves. The gradual shift from Imperial rule to feudalism and the role of the serf or peasant in middle age Europe eventually did away with the practice in name. However, the role of the serf offered little benefit over Roman slavery, as people forcibly worked for the lords or kings with little opportunity for personal advancement.

As the saying so insightfully reveals, Things must change so that…

An interesting, but self-congratulatory and highly self-serving account is at the Catholica Encyclopedia, with an example that I find just ghastly:

St. Paul recommends slaves to seek in all things to please their masters, not to contradict them, to do them no wrong, to honour them, to be loyal to them, so as to make the teaching of God Our Saviour shine forth before the eyes of all, and to prevent that name and teaching from being blasphemed (cf. 1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9, 10).

[in other words, total submission to all that is wrong and which upholds a horrible system, which is also my take on what St. Paul was all about – simply disgusting and completely immoral – no wonder so many equally corrupt Church men promoted him throughout the centuries]. There is also a parallel here to what society used to tell all children regarding their parents, even those children being profoundly abused.

One real change though, is mentioned here:

Absolute religious equality, as proclaimed by Christianity, was therefore a novelty. The Church made no account of the social condition of the faithful. Bond and free received the same sacraments. Clerics of servile origin were numerous (St. Jerome, Ep. lxxxii). The very Chair of St. Peter was occupied by men who had been slaves — Pius in the second century, Callistus in the third. So complete — one might almost say, so levelling — was this Christian equality that St. Paul (1 Timothy 6:2), and, later, St. Ignatius (Polyc., iv), are obliged to admonish the slave and the handmaid not to contemn their masters, “believers like them and sharing in the same benefits”. In giving them a place in religious society, the Church restored to slaves the family and marriage. In Roman, law, neither legitimate marriage, nor regular paternity, nor even impediment to the most unnatural unions had existed for the slave (Digest, XXXVIII, viii, i, (sect) 2; X, 10, (sect) 5). The Apostolic Constitutions impose upon the master the duty of making his slave contract “a legitimate marriage” (III, iv; VIII, xxxii). St. John Chrysostom declares that slaves have the marital power over their wives and the paternal over their children (“In Ep. ad Ephes.”, Hom. xxii, 2). He says that “he who has immoral relations with the wife of a slave is as culpable as he who has the like relations with the wife of the prince: both are adulterers, for it is not the condition of the parties that makes the crime” (“In I Thess.”, Hom. v, 2; “In II Thess.”, Hom. iii, 2).