Posted by: constantinakatsari | November 20, 2012

Slavery by choice. Roman or American?

I’ve decided to base my piece on a discussion in class about whether we would prefer to be a slave in Roman or American society. Since this is a short piece, I will focus just on female slaves.

First, the issue of sexual exploitation. Roman female slaves were constantly used sexually by masters and male slaves; they had no protection from this abuse and could not object. Similar sexual relationships could be found in the American south, and it was especially rife on rural plantations far from society. Therefore, it seems the problem could be found in both periods. However, in Rome not only did favoured mistresses often receive gifts, but there was a chance of concubinage, a mutual sexual relationship where the female slave was well-treated, respected, and often ended up freed. On the other hand, any reciprocal relationship between an American slave owner and his female slave had to be well hidden, due to the disgust it evoked, quite different to the well-known concubinage relationships in Rome.

Next is the idea of freedom or, as it was referred to in Roman society, manumission. Here it seems to be that Roman society certainly trumps America. There were numerous ways to be manumitted in Ancient Roman society, including freedom to marry the master, being bought out of slavery to marry a free or freedman, and manumission after providing a certain number of slave children, through wills or just on the master’s whim. Female slaves in Rome might also have been more likely to be manumitted than male slaves, since the former’s value decreased with age (their looks disappeared), while the male slave’s value increased (their skills and experience grew). In America, the chances of freedom were much slimmer. It might have been possible in city work, or in the kinder northern states, but in southern plantations slavery was often a lifetime of misery.

This links to another idea, the issue of racism. American slaves might be freed, but would rarely be able to become accepted in society due to the overwhelming racism against them. Even those who thought slaves should be freed often stated that they should then be returned to their country of origin because they would never be able to integrate properly into American society. On the contrary, there was a distinct lack of racism in the Roman Empire, and slaves could be of any race. Whatever the problems of Ancient Roman slavery, former slaves rarely had issues in integrating into free society.

Finally, we come to the actual employment female slaves were involved in, which seems to have been more varied in Ancient Rome. Granted, the work female slaves did there was overwhelmingly domestic, but there were opportunities to learn skills that could be useful later in life, and the chance at some skilled work, such as midwifery. Since female slaves could do business on the same level as male slaves, there are also records of female slaves helping to run businesses and overseeing various other slaves.

The answer from our class was overwhelmingly in favour of Roman slavery, but there are both good and bad points for each period. Still, in the end I stick by my decision that I would likely prefer Roman slavery, due to a lack of racism, more job opportunities and a higher chance of freedom.

Grace Brooks


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