Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Pallor of Ancient Slaves

When we Americans think of slavery, we think of the heinous history of abuse perpetrated onto the peoples of West Africa during the 16th through 19th centuries

But in the ancient world, the majority of slaves were not African, but European.Few came from Africa at all. Why? Because slaves came from the regions Rome conquered and Rome never ventured further into Africa than Egypt and areas in today’s Algiers and Morocco.

As a result, most Roman slaves came from Greece, France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Britain, Bulgaria, Romania, and even some of the outlying areas of Italy itself.

Why is the racial composition of ancient slaves useful to remember when talking to kids about history? Because, especially in the US, the default “picture” of slavery is of the people taken from West Africa.

Does it help to know it wasn’t always that way? That Rome never conquered (or even attempted to conquer) the powerful kingdom of Nubia, and that, therefore, there were relatively few ancient Nubian slaves?

The relevance to today’s understanding of slavery is important, I believe, because it addresses the specific (though often unconscious) American misperception—that all slaves were black and that this was true throughout history.

It’s like when I talked to my kids about the Holocaust. Being Jewish, I saw the panic in their eyes when they first learned about it—“Will they do this to us? Why do people hate us so? Are we vulnerable?”

I told them that attempted genocide was not a unique experience to the Jews but that sadly, it’s the story of mankind. From indigenous people to specific groups in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and, currently, Darfur, attempted genocide is not a Jewish problem but a human one.

Similarly, my hope would be that children studying history would learn that slavery was not only the victimization of a single people during a specific period of time, but a terrible reality throughout all of history. A reality that still continues today in pockets of the world. A reality that we are all obligated to help destroy once and for all.

For more info on modern slavery, go to:


Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Powerful post Vicky. e

Allie ~ Hist-Fic Chick said...

Just discovered your fabulous blog! Love it here!! :)

Anonymous said...

I think I get the point you're trying to make however, it's extremely eurocentric to say that most slaves in ancient times were European. In that statement, you're completely eliminating the rest of the world! I think you want readers to realize the human chattel slavery that took Africans out of African was not the only form of enslavement in the world. In ancient times, conquered peoples in Europe AND in Asia AND in Africa AND in the Americas became 'slaves', dominated people, by those who conquered them. The Romans weren't the only ones to do this.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Campbele--you're absolutely right. I did not mean to be strictly Eurocentric but I thought that, in simplifying the point that way, I might surprise kids into thinking differently about slavery--that it was a human problem throughout history (even today). You're also right that just about every ancient civilization turned conquered people into slaves. It's an ugly truth of mankind's history that too often is not discussed or explored...
Thanks for commenting!