Tag: slavery and racism

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).

How teaching World History will change my classes on the ancient world

This semester, I have had the pleasure of team-teaching modern World History with a Middle Eastern historian. The experience emphasized for me that there are likely certain differences between the ancient world and the modern world, and I want to learn more about these issues. I also think these differences are often overlooked by our students in Latin and Classics courses. We ought to be a little more upfront about and deliberate about highlighting these potential differences (even if it is just highlighting the differences in the degree to which these phenomena presented themselves), so that students have a better understanding of the ancient world. Here are the most important ones:

  • Nationalism – the idea that a nation (a people with a shared culture, language, history, etc.) ought to be united in and masters of their own state. Ancient Greeks certainly identified as Hellenes, but did they ever then desire to have one Hellenic state? I’m not positive but books by Jonathan Hall and Irad Malkin should help clarify that question. What about the Romans? There were certainly legal distinctions between Roman citizens (Romani) and non-Roman citizens (peregrini), but the question of empire and the spread of Roman culture gets mixed up with the possibility of nationalism. Relevant readings my be Timothy H. Parsons’s chapter on the myth of a civilizing empire and Greg Woolf’s Becoming Roman.
  • Slavery and racism became interconnected in the modern world as a result of the Transatlantic slave trade, and this has fed into rubbish racial thinking involving concepts of superiority and Social Darwinism. Slavery and race were not so interconnected in the ancient world. I did a cool, successful activity that addressed this a little bit more head on this semester, and I plan to share it soon.
  • During the Enlightenment, the idea of the Social Contract emerged and it argued that the state should work for the common good of all people. My gut reaction is that this view of the state was not as commonly accepted in the ancient world as it is in 21st Century America, but I want to read Cicero’s De Republica and other treatises on ancient political thought to learn more.
  • The Industrial Revolution completely transformed the world. Even though there were certainly some technological advancements in the ancient world, they were not as widespread or as transformative as the printing press, steam engine, the harnessing of electricity, or the telegraph. In these ways, I think it’s always helpful to remind students that a courier system was necessary when text messages did not exist, that salt was necessary before refrigeration, and that these technological limitations affected the way states acted.

timeline-major-inventionsThere are various ways to highlight each of these items for our students, including through repeated reminders about the importance of salt, the reliance on messengers, and the speed of sea travel. Another helpful way is through timelines (like this one), to help locate students thought processes in the right century and think about the right technological levels. Additionally, the differences regarding racial thinking and political thought, may be the “take-away” points to lessons about ancient slavery or ancient political institutions.