I love studying different socio/economic/political systems, it reminds me that our liberal democratic capitalist system isn’t the way it has always been, isn’t the way it is in all parts of the world (though it does have a global affect), and isn’t a natural state. It gives perspective. While our western style democracy in Australia is arguably a descendant of ancient Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic, the fact is that the ancient Mediterranean world and its culture, which we hold in such high esteem and look back on with a sense of awe and nostalgia, was built on the backs of slaves. The power structures were obvious, they were written into the law, and the ideology of the time didn’t conceal these structures or even really attempt to justify them. A slave was an owned human being who was either: born into slavery, a formerly free person who had been captured and either kept, given away or sold, or a person sold into slavery due their family’s material circumstance. A slave was the property of their owner. There was no hidden power structure. You were either a slave, or you weren’t (though a slave could be manumitted). That doesn’t mean that many slaves didn’t have a better material existence than non-slaves. On the contrary, a slave was part of the ancient household, they had a role, and many had respected positions and some authority. However, they were still the property of the head of the household.
A slave could no more consent than they could refuse to do something, whether it be labour or sex or, in many circumstances, both. The idea of active consent that we have today cannot be applied to a person who is owned, unless the slave was able to consent to ownership. I am not aware of this type of circumstance being mentioned in any ancient sources.
So, my point?? – Well, for a slave to have either an adequate or even, in some circumstances, a luxurious material existence, the slave had to be fortunate enough to have a wealthy and benevolent owner. Sure there was room for an individual to advance their status through whatever means was most germane to the circumstance – by being intelligent, literate, cunning, good at the arts of pleasure etc. However, Fortuna and the power structures of the time were the most influential factors. The family which an individual was born into, and the place in which they were born, did, for the most part, define their status as either free or slave, and the quality of one’s life as a slave similarly depended upon chance. If an individual were born free, they perhaps had a little bit more wiggle room, especially if they owned property. However, they were still subject to military subscription and, if they had no property or means of making a living, their life could be worse than that of the lowest slave in the poorest household. Needless to say, it was never hard to find a mercenary in these times.
In a tutorial on ancient slavery, my lecturer once asked us to draw a parallel with our lives today. Are we all living, to some extent, like slaves? We can draw such a comparison, though we must be careful to recognise that we are talking about two very different systems and ideologies.
It may be helpful to suggest a comparison in these terms. Under global capitalism, the lucky poor live in a larger cage with invisible bars. Those who are unlucky, have material and labour conditions that are comparable to the poorest and most brutally treated Athenian slave. As for the rich? The so-called “1 percent”? – They have material luxuries beyond the wildest dreams of the ancient elite. So much for progress.
Invisible bars you ask?? Do I really think we live in a cage?? – That depends on how you define “freedom”, and until you start to question the ideology of the system that rules over you, you will never even see the bars, let alone break free – not that that is even an option. The sooner we realise that, the better. However, some individuals being more aware of the workings of the system won’t change it, and the communist- style utopia of my fantasies will not come into being, at least not yet. Me, writing this post, will make fuck all difference. However, it is something to do. Thinking is certainly more productive than pinning awareness ribbons and arguing with neoliberals on twitter. Gosh this is getting depressing. Soz. Coffee time.
To Be Continued.