Essay on Slavery

Slavery is not an unfamiliar subject. In fact, it is a part of every nation’s history. The slave trade in the United States began roughly in 1619 and continued until 1865. It was during this time that an immeasurable amount of African Americans were enslaved, objectified and subjected to the inhumane cruelty by which slavery today is characterized. To further define the meaning of slavery by today’s standards, the
New Merriam-Webster Dictionary serves as an excellent reference. According to the dictionary, “a slave is a person held in servitude as property” (Mish, 678). However extensive our knowledge may be of the American slave trade, and despite its dominance as the soul characterizing incident in history, the United States was not the only nation, county or political force to impose a system of slavery. For example, the Romans had more slaves and depended on them more than any other people.

The practice and existence of slavery in Rome was one with unique characteristics. Slave owning was a part of Roman culture from its earliest days, however, it was not practised at such a massive scale until much later. The economics involved in Roman slavery are different than many other societies, i.e. the United States. The Romans did recognize and understand the fact that slave labour could produce money, however, they found greater satisfaction in simply owning a slave; the mere fact of owning a slave was a mark of social distinction. Another aspect that makes Roman’s perception of slavery interesting is how they viewed other countries that did not employ systems of slavery. When they discovered societies that did not practice slavery, it was a phenomenon that they commented on and took notice of. Quite simply, Romans assumed slavery was a universal social practice. Because they considered slavery to be a system with such universal appeal, they provided it with structure that can be seen in the rights of slaves and their owners.

Take for instance another definition of a slave which states that they have no honour, dignity and consequently exist with an inability to protect one’s body. Now, all citizens had the right to trial by appeal before suffering any physical punishment. A slave, however, as defined by the absence of such, was without even this protection. Despite all this, though, a slave did retain some rights in regards to the peculium and the ius sacrum. The peculium was the little personal property that a slave was allowed to manage. It could consist of various forms such as money or land and in some cases could be used to buy their freedom. The ius sacrum, on the other hand, allowed the slave to practice certain aspects of religion. In contrast, the rights of a slave owner were much more liberal as they served to protect and benefit the slave owners rather than limit them. For starters, slave owners were protected in their transactions. They were guaranteed by law that the slave they purchased be without defect and was not under the ownership of anyone else. However, once a slave was bought there were no regulations regarding their treatment; a slave was their property and a master could inflict upon the slave as much or little abuse as they found necessary (Sheridan, 2). Quite obviously and typically, there were great differences between the rights of slaves and those of slave owners. Such differences, though, are what created a type of structure within their society and lent certain characteristics to everyday life.

Life in general for a slave typically meant a sudden and complete rupture of bonds and ties with family members, along with transportation to a completely foreign existence. The work of a slave, however, depended largely on the status of the owner and the labour to which they were assigned. Slaves assigned to mines and galleys lived with a death sentence over their head. In comparison, the labour of a farm slave was physically demanding, but it generally did not elicit death. Apart from these two, household slaves of elite families enjoyed the best standard of living. Because of the complex organization of the household, it was possible for slaves to progress from one job to another and many of the jobs required little effort. Slaves might also be trained to produce the common arts and crafts of the time. Slaves with such unique skills most likely enjoyed a greater standard of living and easier relations with their owners than those slaves who provided physical labour (Bates, 5). So, it is evident that the life of the slave varied depending of the status of the slave owner. Another aspect that is unique to Roman slavery, and also dependent of the owner of a slave, is the idea of manumission. Unlike many other examples of slavery throughout history, the owners of slaves would often set them free (Sheridan, 4). Such a practice instilled in slaves a sense of hope as there existed a potential for their release from their positions as slaves. This, along with previous information, serves as yet another example of practice unique to Roman’s system of slavery.

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