Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Were Sparta's "Happy Helots" a template for Roman slavery?

Lacedaemonian furniture appliqué depicting
a nude swordsman 550 - 525 BCE, Bronze.
Photographed at the Getty Villa in Malibu, CA
by Mary Harrsch.
While doing some housekeeping up on Blogger I happened to notice a post by historian Helen P. Schrader entitled "Sparta's Happy Helots: A Closer Look at Helot Society".  Of course I was intrigued because I have always envisioned Sparta's helots as a generally downtrodden lot always looking over their shoulder for an up and coming Spartan youth out to make his first kill.  But Schrader paints a much different picture of helot society and as I read the article I immediately recognized similarities in the slavery practiced by the Spartans in comparison to Roman slavery.

Although there were obvious differences such as the fact that in Sparta the state owned all slaves that in turn were attached to particular governmental activities or particular parcels of land managed by a Spartiate elite while Roman slaves were the property of individual Roman patriarchs, I was astonished to learn that the ancient sources report that some helots became wealthy and were able to purchase their freedom just as in Roman society.

I have studied Greek history to some degree but this is the first time I had heard this.  Schrader explains that Spartan helots, although unable to own land, were often entitled to up to 50% of the produce from the land that they worked.  She also pointed out that helots were able to maintain a family unit and may have benefited from inheritance laws that channeled family wealth to the "tenant-in-chief" who in turn passed it on to a single recognized heir.  If a helot had more than one son, the younger sons were forced to seek employment elsewhere within the boundaries of Lacedaemon to support themselves and their families.

"Some younger sons would have been apprenticed to learn crafts scorned by the perioikoi and prohibited to the Spartiates. Through apprenticeship to those that had taken this path before them, they would have become tanners and tinkers, cobblers and coopers, masons and dyers. As a master craftsman, able to retain 100% of their earnings, these helots would have been in a position to found families, build houses and accumulate wealth." 
"Other young men unable or unwilling to embark on such a slow, hard career, would have sought employment as laborers for the Spartan army or state, or to individuals. Thus they could have become the personal attendants to Spartan hoplites or agricultural day-laborers, going from estate to estate.  Others would have worked for wages as teamsters and mule-drivers for the Spartan army or as construction workers, bath attendants, gardeners and repairmen for the Lacedaemonian government. Still other could have found employment in perioikoi factories and business - as miners, quarry workers, rowers, etc." - Helen Schrader, Sparta's Happy Helots: A Closer Look at Helot Society
This ability for helots to accumulate wealth and purchase their freedom is clearly reflected in the Roman approach to slavery and manumission.  Schrader did not delve into Spartan laws that may have regulated such manumissions, however.  The Romans, being consummate legislators, developed over time an exhaustive body of laws regulating not only when manumission could be granted but the social status of those manumitted.  One such law was the Lex Aelia Sentia of 4 CE.  Portions of it were cited in a textbook written by an unknown jurist named Gaius in the 2nd century CE.  I found the sections on the manumission of gladiators and former gladiators particularly interesting:

"The Lex Aelia Sentia requires that any slaves who had been put in chains as a punishment by their masters or had been branded or interrogated under torture about some crime of which they were found to be guilty; and any who had been handed over to fight as gladiators or with wild beasts, or had belonged to a troupe of gladiators or had been imprisoned; should, if the same owner or any subsequent owner manumits them, become free men of the same status as subject foreigners (peregrini dediticii)."

" 'Subject foreigners' is the name given to those who had once fought a regular war against the Roman People, were defeated, and gave themselves up."
"We will never accept that slaves who have suffered a disgrace of this kind can become either Roman citizens or Latins (whatever the procedure of manumission and whatever their age at the time, even if they were in their masters' full ownership); we consider that they should always be held to have the status of subjects."


"But if a slave has suffered no such disgrace, he sometimes becomes a Roman citizen when he is manumitted, and sometimes a Latin."
"A slave becomes a Roman citizen if he fulfils the following three conditions. He must be over thirty years of age; his master must own him by Quiritary right; and he must be set free by ajust and legitimate manumission, i.e. by the rod (vindicta) or by census or by Will. If any of these conditions is not met, he will become a Latin." - Gaius, 2nd century CE, - More 
It would be interesting to compare and contrast the development of manumission over time between the Spartans and the Romans!

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Excellent princes, ridiculous sophists or jealous tyrants? Gibbon's take on some of Rome's good emperors

Caesar Augustus by Boschetti Italian
Bronze 19th century  CE after Prima Porta
 Augustus 2nd century CE.  Photographed
at the University of Utah Museum of Art by
Mary Harrsch.
In my ongoing readings of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I was surprised to learn that Edward Gibbon maintained a rather harsh opinion of three of Rome's most respected emperors.

Gibbon claimed Vespasian's merit was "more useful than shining" and his virtues "disgraced by a strict and even sordid parsimony."  He declared Hadrian to be, in turn, an excellent prince, ridiculous sophist and, eventually, jealous tyrant.  But most surprising was his blistering assessment of Gaius Octavius Thurinus - the emperor Augustus.

Of Augustus, Gibbon declared, "A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition, prompted him at the age of nineteen to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards laid aside."

Whoa!  That's certainly an extreme assessment of the man ultimately responsible for ushering in the Pax Romana!  I doubt Octavian was particularly likable since he appeared to calculate the political advantage in every move, but despite concessions that he had to make to his ill health, I would hardly call him a coward.  It took a lot of brass for a 19-year-old stripling to go up against a man with the military experience and following of Marc Antony or the Roman world's most renowned orator and formidable politician, Cicero.

Cicero, 1st century BCE.  Photographed at the
Capitoline Museum by Mary Harrsch
Gibbon seems to blame Octavian for authorizing Cicero's proscription but that was really done at the insistence of Antony.  Octavian pragmatically didn't have any particular reason to oppose it.  It's very much like the recent debt ceiling negotiations.  Some programs were ultimately considered expendable in the overall "game of thrones".

Cicero had been so openly hostile to Antony, his appearance on Antony' hit list must have surely been a foregone conclusion.  Cicero had also arrogantly miscalculated Octavian's political astuteness and assumed he could simply dispose of Octavian after he had served the purposes of the power brokers in the Senate - also a fatal error.

As for hipocrisy, Augustus, like many politicians today, maintained power and control by telling people what they wanted to hear while quietly disposing of those deemed a threat to his position through political maneuvering or outright assassination covered by some socially engineered construct.  Scholars point to Augustus' blatant philandering while enacting morality laws to dictate the behavior of the people of Rome.  But as I pointed out in an earlier post on Roman infanticide, perhaps these laws were meant as deterrents to abortion and infant abandonment and to encourage larger Roman families because Roman birthrates were falling noticeably and there was administrative concern that the economic system was in jeopardy.

A decidedly different view of Rome's first emperor was presented by author John Williams in his novel "Augustus".  It is a novel written in the form of a collection of correspondence between the emperor and various members of his family and his imperial courtiers - much like Thornton Wilder's "Ides of March".  Williams, in contrast to Gibbon, was relatively kind to Octavian and seemed to gloss over some of his shortcomings, like his false promises of military support to Marcus Antonius during the latter's Parthian campaigns.  I think Williams did a good job, though, of demonstrating the overwhelming turmoil Octavian faced when he assumed the reins of power upon the death of his uncle, Julius Caesar.
Livia, 1st century BCE.
Photographed at the Palazzo
Massimo by Mary Harrsch.

Unlike Robert Graves, however, Williams also spared  the empress Livia from any insinuations of overt murder in relating the deaths of many of Octavian's would-be successors.  Instead, however, he surprisingly portrayed her as a cold, rather loveless individual who ran Octavian's household but did not command his heart.  In Williams novel, most of Augustus' later years were spent in the company of Terentia, the wife of Octavian's close friend and advisor, Maecenas.  I knew Octavian reputedly engaged in adultery in flagrant violation of his own morality laws, but I guess I didn't realize much of his philandering was targeted at the wife of one of his closest friends.  Williams portrays Maecenas as openly homosexual and willingly supportive of his friend's dalliances but other scholars point out that the relationship between Maecenas and Augustus appears to have become more strained in later life probably due to the emperor's indiscretions.  Marcus Velleius Paterculus said Maecenas was "of sleepless vigilance in critical emergencies, far-seeing and knowing how to act, but in his relaxation from business more luxurious and effeminate than a woman." Perhaps Williams relied on that reference to support his development of Maecenas' character.

At Maecenas' reception room by Stepan Bakalovich (1890)

Williams also had a decidedly different take on Octavian's banishment of his daughter Julia as punishment for her licentiousness.  This has often been a sticking point with scholars who, like Gibbon, decry Octavian's hypocrisy.  Instead of the traditional approach to this incident, Williams portrayed their father-daughter relationship as one that was quite close even to the point that Augustus simply ignored the string of lovers his daughter entertained in her efforts to display her contempt for her husband, the future emperor Tiberius because Augustus despised Tiberius as well. 
Julia Livilla, daughter of Germanicus, like
Julia the Elder, daughter of Augustus, also
suffered exile to the island of Pandataria
after being accused by the emperor Claudius
of adultery with Seneca.  Photographed at
the Palazzo Massimo by Mary Harrsch.

But when Augustus' spies reported that Julia's latest lover, Jullus Antonius, son of Augustus' dead arch rival, Marcus Antonius and his third rebellious wife Fulvia, was plotting a coup and the emperor's assassination, Augustus had no alternative except to condemn her. 

This may have been simply dramatic license on Wiliams' part - after all it is a novel not a text book - but this coup may have been more fact than fancy.  When Julia and her lovers were tried for their breach of Augustus' morality laws, all of the lovers except Jullus were exiled.  Jullus, however, was condemned to death as a traitor.  Williams proposes that Julia, although apparently not aware of the particulars of the plot, would have been found guilty of treason too and also sentenced to death if Augustus' had not engineered her conviction on the violation of his morality laws.  Thus, Julia's subsequent exile actually was an effort by her father to save her life, not severely punish her for moral indiscretions.  The thing I find puzzling, however, is if her exile was meant only to preserve her life, why did Augustus keep up the pretense of punishment for the rest of his life, as he reportedly refused to ever see her or speak of her again.  Had Tiberius already gained so much power that he could have pushed aside the aging Augustus whenever he chose to and exacted his revenge against Julia despite her father's acclaim as father of his country?
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