Notes: You don’t know what ‘slavery’ means…


One of the more obnoxious occurrences in intellectual history is when writers throw around the term ‘slavery’ without contextualizing it, perhaps cognizant or perhaps ignorant of the way in which modern readers will define the term. Classicists are profoundly guilty of this nomenclative sin.

If you read that someone is a “slave,” does it mean that the referent is wealthy or poor? Does it mean that he is happy or bitter? Does it mean that she has no status in society? Does it mean that she can or cannot have personal possessions? Or marry? Or raise a family? Or quit being a slave?

Most readers think “slave” means something like the agricultural slaves of 1830s Georgia. Hollywood, with its profound respect and deep knowledge of history, usually portrays it that way. [/s] “Slave” may mean any or none of those above characterizations, depending on the context. When a classicist uses the term “slave” for ancient Greece, the location and circumstances matter greatly. Slavery in Athens was very different from slavery down the road in Sparta.

In the broadest sense, the only definition one could hope to give ‘slavery’ is ‘involuntary servitude.’ Servitude in the sense that one had a job, and involuntary in the sense that one could not quit the job.

But even that definition is problematic because throughout history because we have many examples of: slaves who didn’t know they were slaves; slaves who were wealthy; slaves who bought their own freedom; slaves who bought property and other slaves; slaves who lived luxuriously — often better than the general population.

In the Abbasid Caliphate (and much before and after), entertainers were somewhat illegal, so that all entertainers were slaves (curiously, in many cases, ‘slaves’ existed outside of much of the law and social customs, so that they were more free in many ways). The singing girls of the Abbasid Caliphate were quite famous. They were recruited and trained in Medina and were the envy of their villages and families. Imagine being recruited from your poor village to be trained by a master singer in Medina, and then to go to Baghdad and work for the Caliph. He hired hundreds of singing girls, and it was perhaps the best job a poor young girl anywhere could have. (Men wrote poetry but never recited it; women sang the poetry but didn’t write it — thus was the division of labor in the caliphate.)

Of course, the singing girls were slaves. But before we assume that the signing girls had harsh slave lives, consider the story of Princess Zubayda.

Princess Zubayda (which means “little butter ball,” given to her by her grandfather the Caliph) was given the task of improving and securing the road from Baghdad to Mecca (one of the Caliph’s prime responsibilities was to secure the main road to Mecca, so it’s interesting that this job was given to Princess Butter Ball). Of course, the Princess employed a large team of people to secure the route — clearing the road, digging wells, etc. — and, of course, she has nightly entertainment. The Princess asked one of the girls in her entourage: “are you free or slave?”

The girl replied, “I don’t know.”

The Princess said, “Neither do I.”

Now had the girl never been initially classified as slave, then she probably never would have received the job. But it’s worth noting that her integration and treatment in the royal retinue was no different from those who were free (mostly the retinue’s leadership). Further curiosities exist. There’s much poetry from wealthy men bemoaning how some girl doesn’t return his feelings of love and longing; it may take a while before the reader realizes that the girl is a slave. And yet, these slave girls may reject these wealthy men. Unless, of course, the man’s wife purchases the girl for the husband (which happened). Generally, married men were permitted to pursue slaves — they weren’t a threat to the wife. If you were a pretty girl with a personality, you needed to be a slave to have a shot at getting into the royal household. If you did, your children, presumably fathered by the caliph, had a shot at becoming a wealthy freeman. It happened often (in fact, the Turks, who controlled much of the Islamic world within a few centuries of the Princess Butter Ball story, were almost entirely descended from slaves).

These interactions, the poetry, and personal relationships all point to a very diverse power structure between free and slave. And the lowest people in the early caliphate power structure were likely both the slave and free who were agricultural workers. In fact, if you transported an Abbasid Caliph to an 1830s Georgia plantation, he would have recognized black slave workers, but he would not have known whether the whites were slaves or not. And this points to a curious trend: sub-Saharan Africans were consistently enslaved for agricultural work, from the Americas to Middle East. The only major Islamic slave revolt occurred in southern Iraq in the 8th century among Kenyan agricultural workers.

Which leads us to another trend: agricultural work — whether done by free or slave or serf or anything else — was horrible. Before the advent of coal mining, agricultural work was typically the worst major labor project in any society. Often, it was performed by slaves (or some variant) precisely because it was difficult to get anyone else to do it.

And so, does ‘indentured servitude’ describe slavery? Yes except that slavery was often not a permanent position: slaves often could be freed or buy their freedom. We find in 17th c. Virginia black slaves buying their freedom, setting up a plantation, and then buying other black slaves. (So yes, blacks owned blacks in the 17th c. Southern colonies.) As noted, a significant number of the Turkish leadership in the later Abbasid Caliphate (and across the entire later Muslim world) had been slaves or were born to slaves. We find these patterns repeated across civilizations.[1]

So the most accurate general definition of “slave” is someone who has a master (and the situation may be temporary and may be beneficial, depending on the master). So when the French mocked the British for being “a nation of shopkeepers,” it was a confession that the French prefer the feudal hierarchy of masters; a shop keeper is his own master. This also explains the colonial New England obsession with rejecting bishops and other church hierarchy — they were perpetually paranoid that a bishop would step off a ship in Boston. Bishops, of course, are masters. Colonial New England churches generally had no hierarchy just as the colonial governments had little power over the towns. Colonial writers used the term “slavery” often and referred to Europeans — white and technically not enslaved — as enslaved, chained to aristocrats and governments. Early Americans viewed Europe as a continent of masters — and masters have slaves.

And so, when a classicist refers to a “slave,” bear in mind it’s a fairly meaningless designation without context. Even in the same era and in the same region, slaves may have very different lives and rights. One slave may die in a body wracked with the agony of years tilling the fields, while another may give birth to a son that will be king or pope (e.g. Servius Tullius, the first popularly crowned King of Rome, and Popes Callixtus and Clements — all had been born Roman slaves).

Which leads us to the question: are you a slave? How much did you really choose your job (versus taking the job available), and — given your debt — how free are you to leave your job? Do you have a master? Are you more free than the singing girl who couldn’t answer if she was slave or free?

[1] A good and easy introduction to the early Islamic world is Hugh Kennedy’s Caliphate: The History of an Idea. It includes a decent amount about slavery. An example of a 17th c. Virginian slave buying his freedom is Anthony Longo, who not only bought his freedom but aspired to be an aristocrat.

About Nathan Allen

Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.) Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….




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