Tag: primary sources

Ancient Slavery, a lesson plan

In a recent post, I commented on a difference between ancient slavery and the modern, American antebellum slavery: racism. Race was not a major factor in ancient slavery. But, how do we convince students of that?

This semester, in Roman history, I spent an entire day on Roman slavery and the growth of slavery during the Late Republic, so that they could understand the (perceived) economic problems confronted by the Gracchi. Since I wanted students to learn about many aspects of ancient slavery, and since the best way to understanding another culture’s ideology and thoughts is their writings, I developed several stations with various primary sources (Slavery Primary Sources): Cato’s De Agricultura on how to run a farm, Varro on which slaves to buy to be herdsmen, Livy and Strabo on how Romans obtained slaves from war and pirates, Horace about a slave auction, legal sources about fugitive slaves, and the plan of a first century BCE slave villa. The students spent about 5 minutes looking at each document and attempting to complete the Slavery Stations Worksheet before they looked at the next document. For each document, in addition to document-specific questions, students needed to make two decisions: (1) if the author’s thoughts about slavery were motivated by economic profit, and (2) if the author’s thoughts were motivated by racism or ideas about ethnicity.

In a very brief, rushed moment at the end of the class, to bring everything together and drive home points about slavery, economic profit, and racism, I asked if Roman slavery was motivated by racism to which my entire class provided a resounding “No!” When asked if it was motivated by economic profit, they shouted a resounding “Yes!” (Cf. The Half has Never Been Told on American slavery and capitalism). The following class, we went into a little more depth, reviewing the documents to discuss the conditions of ancient slaves (Had the class period been longer, this would have followed the two debriefing questions). Overall, this was a very good, thorough introduction to Roman slavery and practice of historical methods–and much better than if we had discussed an article or I lectured to them about it.

  • Side Note: As noted above, this lesson plan was motivated by a desire to show the historical reality: that Roman slavery did not involve racial thinking. In addition to the academic responsibility of making this point, I was also motivated by a concern for modern social justice (and thoughts on sensitive topics): to show that racism is man-made, it is not natural, and it is not inherently connected to slavery. In this regard, I think this lesson was successful. I do not think it was necessarily (or is inherently) successful at helping students identify or eliminate any racial thinking they might have, nor do I think this lesson was necessarily (or is inherently) successful at helping students understand the social and economic status of black people in the United States today. To get close to accomplishing that goal, I still think that something about Roman freedmen would need to be included, but that is a problem I am still contemplating (See an earlier attempt and a reflection on its inability to fully help students understand instances of police violence against black people).

Teaching history through primary sources

Most of my recent posts have been about teaching Latin, so I wanted to share a thought about teaching about ancient history and cultures: it can be done very well through primary sources rather than secondary sources.

Instead of passively receiving information from a textbook, a lecture, or an article, students read actual ancient evidence, are introduced to that evidence (and maybe to the discipline’s conventions for transcribing inscriptions, for example), and engage with that evidence so that they develop their own understanding of the ancient world through a bit of analytical thinking. Now, we can (and should), of course, guide the students’ interpretation and synthesis of ancient sources through questions on assignments, class or group discussions, and contextualizing introductions. I do think it is important to provide a brief introduction saying at least who the author is, when s/he wrote, what genre s/he wrote, and where s/he lived, so the passage is not presented in a vacuum. My students have also appreciated when I provide not only this biographical context, but also a brief explanation of the historical background to a passage or an explanation of what happened in the larger text from which I took the passage they are to read.

Additionally, we are able to shape our students’ perception and interpretation of the ancient world through our choice of passages to read.  It may take a little bit of extra work to find the perfect representative passage, but you can also assign a passage or text that scholars often cite. When talking about the reign of Augustus, scholars usually refer to the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, so why not assign this?

There’s an added benefit to this: often when we assign a textbook reading alongside a lecture, students are getting the same information in two different ways and they opt out of doing at least one of those.  If you reinforce the value of doing the homework (i.e. it is the basis for in-class discussion or it provides the background for the primary source you read in class), then students have more motivations to actually do the homework.