Monday, April 20, 2015

Athenians Kicking Down: Slaves

[NOTE: Modified from its original form after I saw speeches referring to the law against random violence against slaves].

Besides keeping their women secluded, the Athenians also owned a great many slaves. The practice of slavery was unquestioned, or nearly so, in Classical times.*

Our knowledge of slaves in ancient times is limited; most people simply considered them beneath notice.  However, it would appear that enough slaves were being brought in to make them cheap -- cheaper to buy than to breed.  Most households had a few slaves -- to have none was a sign of extreme poverty, but the vast (and impersonal and brutal) slave plantations of Rome did not exist in rugged, barren Greece.  What was extremely brutal (in Athens, Rome, and throughout Classical Antiquity) was the lot of the mine slaves, which also went unquestioned, or nearly so.

But one does now and then hear a certain humanitarian concern for slaves.  Recall what Aeschylus had to say on the subject:
An upstart lord,
To whom wealth's harvest came beyond his hope,
Is as a lion to his slaves
Certainly in our own (U.S.) experience, it was understood that a gentlemen felt a certain paternalistic obligation toward his slaves and was expected to include them in a gentleman's general obligation to be gracious to his social inferiors.  To be cruel was to be "trashy" and lower class.  

So, did the critics of democracy complain that poor men admitted to citizenship grew arrogant in their power and acted as tyrants over their slaves?  Quite the contrary, the aristocratic critics of democracy were more likely to complain that the spirit of liberty and equality had gotten so out of hand that even slaves had caught it.  An anonymous critic (referred to as the Old Oligarch) complained:
Another point is the extraordinary amount of license[21] granted to slaves and resident aliens at Athens, where a blow is illegal, and a slave will not step aside to let you pass him in the street. I will explain the reason of this peculiar custom. Supposing it were legal for a slave to be beaten by a free citizen, or for a resident alien or freedman to be beaten by a citizen, it would frequently happen that an Athenian might be mistaken for a slave or an alien and receive a beating; since the Athenian People is no better clothed than the slave or alien, nor in personal appearance is there any superiority. Or if the fact itself that slaves in Athens are allowed to indulge in luxury, and indeed in some cases to live magnificently . . . .** It is for this reason then that we have established an equality between our slaves and free men; and again between our resident aliens and full citizens,[26] because the city stands in need of her resident aliens to meet the requirements of such a multiplicity of arts and for the purposes of her navy. That is, I repeat, the justification for the equality conferred upon our resident aliens.
So, how much of this reflects reality and how much reflects upper class fears and prejudices? Slavery in ancient times was not based on race, of course, nor do Athenian slaves (or metics) appear to have been required to wear any special badge of their status.  Since poor men were also citizens, a citizen would not necessarily be any better dressed than a slave.  So it might, indeed, not be possible to distinguish a slave from a citizen on the street.

Athenian slaves could be beaten by their owners at a whim. However, a master's power over his slaves was not absolute.  Killing a citizen was punished by death; killing a slave (including by the owner) was punished by exile.  Serious mistreatment of a slave could be prosecuted; in some cases of mistreatment, a slave could flee to sanctuary and demand to be sold to a better master.

Slaves could be tortured by the state as part of an inquiry.  Indeed, by law a slave's testimony was not admitted unless under torture.  Slaves could also be beaten by the state as punishment for a crime (though only with a proper trial).  Where citizens were punished for crimes with a fine, slaves were punished with flogging -- one lash per drachma.

But the Old Oligarch is clearly right when he says that slaves were protected from random violence from every stranger on the street.  Such laws are (later) alluded to in lawsuits.  Nor is the reason given for this "peculiar custom" the danger of striking a citizen by mistake.  Some cite the fear that allowing citizens to be petty tyrants over slaves would encourage a sort of arrogance incompatible with democracy:
[I]t was not for the slaves that the lawgiver was concerned, but he wished to accustom you to keep a long distance away from the crime of outraging free men, and so he added the prohibition against the outraging even of slaves. In a word, he was convinced that in a democracy that man is unfit for citizenship who outrages any person whatsoever.
Or they cite the law as a glory to Athens for being so mild and humane:
Athenians, you hear the humanity of the law, which does not permit even slaves to be assaulted. In heaven's name, think what this means. Suppose someone carried this law to the barbarous nations from whom we import our slaves; suppose he praised you and described your city to them in these words: “There are in Greece men so mild and humane in disposition that though they have often been wronged by you, and though they have inherited a natural hostility towards you, yet they permit no insult to be offered even to the men whom they have bought for a price and keep as their slaves. Nay, they have publicly established this law forbidding such insult, and they have already punished many of the transgressors with death.”
Whether the "barbarous nations" would agree is a different matter, obviously.  And it is anyone's guess how often such laws were actually enforced.  But the Old Oligarch is not the only aristocratic critic of the democracy to complain that it indulged its slaves. Consider Plato:
The last extreme of popular liberty is when the slave bought with money, whether male or female, is just as free as his or her purchaser; nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other.
Why not, as Aeschylus says, utter the word which rises to our lips?
That is what I am doing, I replied; and I must add that no one who does not know would believe, how much greater is the liberty which the animals who are under the dominion of man have in a democracy than in any other State: for truly, the she-dogs, as the proverb says, are as good as their she-mistresses, and the horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen; and they will run at any body who comes in their way if he does not leave the road clear for them: and all things are just ready to burst with liberty.
This, now, is clearly hyperbolic and not to be taken literally.  We know quite well that Athenian women did not share in the state's liberty and equality.  (This passage also calls into question just how seriously Plato took the equality of women he elsewhere advocates).  And it seems most unlikely that the status of domestic animals was any different in Athens than elsewhere.  Rather, it reflects the old upper class fear that if their own power and hegemony is threatened, all order and hierarchy will cease.  The truth is quite different.  Everyone all up and down the hierarchy is eager to maintain is eager to maintain their own dominance over everyone below them.

In other words, kicking down is popular.  Nonetheless, there does not appear to have been a political movement in Athens to see how viciously one could kick down against slaves.  Rather, the Athenians
gave slaves at least some modest protection against random violence, and when democratic speech writers alluded to such laws, they called them glorious and befitting democracy. And at least some aristocratic critics did not approve of this "peculiar custom."

*Aristotle defends the practice of slavery, a thing that would be necessary only if someone had criticized it.  However, the work he is refuting in defending slavery has been lost, so we cannot tell what its critics said.  In any event, to the extent that slavery had critics, they were a few obscure ivory tower philosophers of no practical influence.
**The deleted passage is too garbled to make any sense.  The translator says that the garbling is in the original, which appears to be corrupted.  

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