Posted by: constantinakatsari | December 14, 2012

Comparative History

The final session of our seminar has now approached and this makes me to rethink our comparative seminar. I have never enjoyed anything like that, but I must admit that this particular teaching structure as a way to learn about slavery was very effective indeed. As a future teacher I will certainly make use of this method because of highly valuable advantages, which will be outlined in the following.

It is one thing to know about slavery in the Roman World and in America, but it is another thing to be able pick out themes and use the knowledge of both slavery systems to describe the theme in question. Automatically, differences can be made out. But here, the comparison should not end. Once the differences have been identified, the next step is crucial as well: analysis. This analysis comprises questions about the reasons why the examined aspect of slavery was different in the two societies. An exemplary question makes this clear: why were there few obstacles to manumission in the Roman Empire and in the antebellum South so many? Furthermore, questions connected to it will arise: Who profited from the respective regulations and when and why were they implemented? This example makes it obvious that a lot more knowledge than only about the aspect of slavery in both societies is necessary, but knowledge about the society and its genesis as well. Therefore, I see this as the benefit of the comparative approach to slavery: not only knowledge about slavery can be gained, but also about the society itself. Power structures, ideologies and underlying passed on concepts can be detected and this only as a result of questioning the reasons for the differences. Moreover, it is a result of the student’s questioning. This further advantage justifies the comparative approach to slavery as a didactic method because the lately often acclaimed concept of historical thinking and its associated skills are needed and incorporated.

I am fully aware that this method of comparative history is not applicable and useful in a lot of other attempts to reconstruct the past. Here, chronological teaching is essential to pupils in order to give them a framework in which historical events can be located. Slavery, however, which is a very old system and observable throughout the past, can be most effectively taught by a comparison of two slave societies in order to highlight continuities and differences in the justification of slavery. Preferentially, it should be a comparison between the Roman Empire and the antebellum South because two very different concepts of slavery can be explored and explained: unlike in the Roman World, the slavery in the antebellum South was based upon race and therefore justified in the presumption of the inferiority of their black slaves.

The comparative approach to teaching slavery increases the understanding not of one, but of two slave societies. However, what is most important, it double highlights the fact that slavery was and is a cruel system exploiting people against their will for the benefit of others. History is there to learn from the past in order to ameliorate the present conditions and the future. If there is one thing the pupils should learn then it would be that slavery is not just an old phenomenon. The cruel system has been maintained until today and active resistance is needed – from everyone.

Veronika Parzinger



  1. The differences between the nature of slavery in the American South and throughout the vast Roman Empire are legion. The causes of these variations are just as numerous.

    I wonder if comparing the nature of slavery on the English sugar plantations of the Caribbean would not have been similar? There were quadruple the number of slaves imported into South America and the islands than there were into the American South. They fed the English desire for sugar. Indeed, by 1800, 1/6 of all calories consumed in England were from sugar.

    I would compare slavery in the American South to Sparta more than Rome. The helots taken in the Messenian Wars were the engine of Spartan commerce and agriculture, yet they were slaves owned by the state. They held no rights and were not protected under the law. The Dred Scott decision of 1857 stated that slaves were not protected by the Constitution and were not citizens. The only main difference is that slaves in the American South were private property, not collective property. These slaves worked the cotton fields that grew the private wealth of plantation owners. The mills of England and New England were starved for the stuff.

    Unlike Rome and ancient Athens, house slaves were not as prevalent in the American South. In the ancient world many people lost their freedom due to indebtedness. It was common for houses of even modest means to have at least one slave girl. Not so in the American South. Slaves were expensive. The average American could not lose their freedom due to poverty. After the ban on importation there was a finite supply from which to breed new slaves, making them that much more valuable. The idea that every American Southern owned a slave is a fiction. In the 1600’s there were few, in the 1700’s there were many more and ownership of slaves was commonplace.

    But it was the cotton boom which saw the commonplace ownership of slaves disappear and the rise of plantation slavery in the 1800’s. The yeoman farmer was marginalized by large holders and their army of slaves. These small holding farmers were increasingly marginalized and the existing racism became more acute. While they might be poor, they reasoned, at least they weren’t slaves. It is important to have a class of people to feel superior to, especially for those near the bottom of the hierarchy.

    I’ve rambled long enough.

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