How Did Slavery in the Amercan Antebellum South Compare to Slavery in the Ancient World?

In comparing the peculiar institution in the American Antebellum South with its ancestor in the ancient world, you find a few differences and many similarities.
One of the most obvious differences is that to qualify as a slave in the Antebellum South, you had to have some Black African ancestry. You didn’t need much. By the time of the American Civil War there were enslaved individuals in the South who were only 1/64th Black. This African ancestry, moreover, had to be transmitted from the mother’s side. Mulatto children of a White mother were legally free. In the ancient world, by contrast, slavery was an equal opportunity misery. In the Antebellum South you were either born a slave or you were imported either from Africa or from somewhere in the Caribbean where slavery was practiced. In the ancient world you might be born a slave, but you might also lose your freedom by going into debt, or being used to pay off a parent’s debt, by being a soldier captured in war, or by being unlucky enough to survive a successful siege of your town or city. Some crimes might also be punished with permanent involuntary servitude.
There are some compelling personal slave narratives that have survived from the Antebellum South, most notably those of Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup. They give the reader a front row view of what slavery was like at the time. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort has come down to us from ancient times and we must glean what details we can of ancient slavery from the writings of free men, who were generally men of privilege.
In both the Antebellum South and the ancient world there was a hierarchy among slaves, and those at the top of the hierarchy might have pleasant enough lives. If you happened to have a kind master, or have a valuable skill you might live a life of relative privilege. Frederick Douglass persuaded his master to hire him out as a caulker, and, at that time had an existence less onerous than many of his fellows. Solomon Northup was sometimes able to escape hard labor and gain spending money due to his proficiency on the violin. In ancient Rome an educated Greek slave, like Cicero’s Tiro, might work as a secretary, or be employed as a pedagogue to the children of a rich Roman family.
For the vast majority of slaves in both societies, slavery meant unremitting toil and misery. On the plantation where Solomon Northup was enslaved for ten years, the day began before dawn, hard labor was maintained throughout the day and often well into the evening. The diet was monotonous, consisting only of corn and salt pork. At one point, Northup, a particularly inventive person devised a fish trap to augment the diet of himself and the other slaves. Living conditions were an extreme hardship. According to Northup “The cabin is constructed of logs, without floor or window. The latter is altogether unnecessary, the crevices between the logs admitting sufficient light. In stormy weather the rain drives through them, rendering it comfortless and extremely disagreeable.. . .I reclined year after year on a plank twelve inches wide and ten feet long with a pillow that was a stick of wood.” Added to the lack of creature comforts was the crack of the whip. Northup relates “It was rarely that a day passed without one or more whippings. . .It is the literal, unvarnished truth that the crack of the lash, and the shrieking of the slaves, can be heard from dark until bed time.”
The situation for most slaves in ancient times was probably similar, although, as mentioned, no literature from the point of view of the slave is available. In ancient Rome between 25 and 30 percent of the population were slaves and it is likely that the vast majority worked in agriculture on the huge farms of the ager publica which were appropriated by wealthy landlords. Roman law originally specified that a citizen could own no more than 500 iugera of land, but by the 3rd or second century B.C. wealthy Romans had found ways to circumvent this law. In the second century B.C. slaves poured in from conquests in Hispania, Macedonia, Greece, and Carthage. Many of the small holder peasants were dispossessed of their land and huge estates were developed which relied on slave labor. The Roman slave had no rights, and could not marry or own property. Some insight into Roman slavery may be gleaned by reading De Agricultura, a manual of agriculture written by Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder:
Food Ration:
For the actual laborers four pecks of wheat in the winter months, and four and a half in summer. The overseer, housekeeper, foreman, and head-shepherd should receive three pecks. The chain-gang should receive four pounds of bread a day in winter, five from the time when they begin to dig the vines until the figs start to ripen and then back to four again.
Wine Ration:
For three months after the harvest, they should drink rough wine. In the fourth month half a pint a day, or about two gallons a month, for the fifth, sixth seventh and eighth months the ration should be a pint a day. For the remaining four months, give them one and a half pints a day or six gallons a month, For the feasts of the Saturnalia and Compitalia (December) there should be an extra ration per man of two and a half gallons. The total wine issue per man for a year should be about forty-two gallons. An additional amount can be given as a bonus to the chain-gang depending on how well they work. A reasonable quantity for them to have to drink per annum is about sixty gallons.
Olive Ration:
Keep all the windfall olives you can. Then keep the ripe olives from which only a small yield could be gained. Issue them sparingly to make them last as long as possible. When the olives are finished, give them fish-pickle and vinegar. Give each man a pint of oil a month. A peck of salt should be enough for a man for a year.
A tunic three and a half feet long and a blanket cloak every other year. When you issue a tunic or cloak take in the old one to make rough clothes. You ought to give them a good pair of clogs every other year.
Old Cato was not known to be a kind or generous master. He was said to have used the whip liberally on his own slaves. If one of his male slaves wanted the pleasure of the company of one of his female slaves, he had to pay Cato for the privilege. Any offspring born of such unions were sold off. Plutarch, in fact, takes Cato to task for his treatment of slaves:
“However, for my part, I regard his treatment of his slaves like beasts of burden, using them to the uttermost, and then, when they were old, driving them off and selling them, as the mark of a very mean nature, which recognizes no tie between man and man but that of necessity. And yet we know that kindness has a wider scope than justice. Law and justice we naturally apply to men alone; but when it comes to beneficence and charity, these often flow in streams from the gentle heart, like water from a copious spring, even down to dumb beasts. A kindly man will take good care of his horses even when they are worn out with age, and of his dogs, too, not only in their puppyhood, but when their old age needs nursing.
“We should not treat living creatures like shoes or pots and pans, casting them aside when they are bruised and worn out with service, but, if for no other reason, for the sake of practice in kindness to our fellow men, we should accustom ourselves to mildness and gentleness in our dealings with other creatures. I certainly would not sell even an ox that had worked for me, just because he was old, much less an elderly man, removing him for his habitual place and customary life, as it were from his native land, for a paltry price, useless as he is to those who sell him and as he will be to those who buy him.”
It is difficult to say whether Plutarch’s or Cato’s was the prevailing view in ancient times, but, unlike in the American Antebellum South the notion of slavery was never under siege. Only one faint dissenting voice comes down through the ages, Blossius of Cumae. Blossius was a friend of Cornelia the Mother of the Gracchi and was the tutor to her three children, Sempronia, Tiberius and Gaius. He probably influenced Tiberius and Gaius in their liberal outlooks. After being exiled from Rome in the aftermath of the killing of Tiberius Gracchus and 300 of his followers, Blossius fled to Pergamum and supported Aristonicus, an adversary of Rome and contender for the throne. He made plans to found a city called Heliopolis in which there would be no slaves. Unfortunately, the Romans defeated Aristonicus in battle and Blossius committed suicide to avoid falling into their hands,


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