November 2, 2017, by Helen Lovatt

Willing migrants? An ancient Mediterranean perspective on forced labour

David Lewis discusses slavery and migration, ancient and modern.

Ben Carson – Donald Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development – has recently made yet another remarkable statement about US slavery. Speaking in Washington on March 6th 2017, Carson claimed that slaves travelling to the US in the holds of slave ships were migrants seeking to make better lives for themselves. In an interesting parallel, a similar discourse is emerging in academic journals with regard to ancient slavery. In several recent articles, economist Morris Silver has proposed a picture of the ancient Mediterranean slave trade that goes even further than Carson’s remark. Arguing against the idea that slaves from the eastern Mediterranean were ‘forcible captives’, Silver proposes that they were ‘probably willing self-seekers seeking economic advancement.’ In one study, ‘a new, positive light is cast on the role of slave dealers who profited from reallocating labor power from less to more productive uses.’ In another, Silver argues that a slave banker in classical Athens, Pasion, had probably ‘self-enslaved’ in order to make his way to Athens, the land of opportunity. Do these claims have any evidential basis? And to what degree (if any) are the migration movements and market controversies of today prefigured by events in the Mediterranean of two millennia ago?

Slavery as Migration? The Evidence

Once one examines the evidence, Silver’s comparison starts to unravel. The Athenians had a population of something like 100,000 slaves at the peak of their success during the 5th-4th centuries BC, only a tiny proportion of which was engaged in the kind of activities that allowed talented individuals like Pasion to make a fortune. That is precisely what one Athenian litigant pointed out to a courtroom about another successful slave banker, Phormion: ‘I fancy you all know that if, when the fellow was for sale, a cook or an artisan in any other trade had bought him, he would have learned the trade of his master and been far removed from the prosperity which now is his.’ Now, one might say the same about Mexican migrants to the USA: many follow the American Dream; relatively few achieve millionaire status. Yet that overlooks a major institutional difference between modern labour migration and ancient slavery: in both Athens and Rome, slaves had none of the rights that migrants and asylum-seekers can expect to be granted by modern nations. The power of owners in Athens and Rome over their slaves was near total, allowing them to physically and sexually abuse their slaves if they were so inclined. Murdering a slave rarely merited legal sanctions; Roman masters could even send their slaves to the arena to be devoured by beasts. This was not a system that one would voluntarily enter.

The only piece of evidence we possess from classical Athens that was actually written by a slave is a letter written on a small sheet of lead. It paints a far less rosy picture than Silver’s:

‘Lesis is sending (this letter) to Xenocles and his mother (asking) that they by no means overlook that he is perishing in the foundry but that they come to his masters and that they have something better found for him. For I have been handed over to a thoroughly wicked man; I am perishing from being whipped; I am tied up; I am treated like dirt – more and more!’

A Neoliberal View of Markets?

What impels Silver, then, to propose such a radically benign view of the slave trade? The answer lies in controversies over market exchange in antiquity. One school of thought that has seen a recent resurgence is the ‘formalist’ approach, which holds that the ancient Mediterranean economy can be rendered comprehensible through neoclassical economics. The distillate of Silver’s work over the last few decades amounts to a kind of ‘Gospel of St. Market’, one that chimes very much with the view of markets popular among many neoliberals today. It is quite unfair to think of Silver as an apologist for slavery. He is, rather, a proponent of the positive power of the market, which must invariably be viewed as an agent of progress.

The benefits of market exchange and its contribution to the flourishing of Greek and Roman civilisation are the focus of much recent work, and rightly so. But to gain a balanced view of the effect of market exchange on ancient civilisation, one has to weigh the advantages against the costs. One obvious cost was the suffering borne by the slaves themselves: that is well known. But perhaps less well known are the political effects of the slave trade on supplier regions. The Aegean of the 4th c BC encompassed a flourishing Greek city-state culture, one enmeshed in a network of markets and trade whose tendrils reached into the non-Greek societies of the periphery. Regions like Thrace (roughly modern Bulgaria) failed to develop strong state institutions and citizen rights. Why? The reality is that Greek demand for slaves incentivised continual warfare and predation among local strongmen, stunting political progress in the peripheries. Xenophon provides a neat vignette of this, describing how a Thracian warlord named Seuthes raided and burned an enemy town, enslaved a thousand people, and sent them to the nearby Greek port of Perinthus to be sold on into the markets of the Greek city states. The discovery in 2004 of a bronze sculpture of another Thracian warlord, also named Seuthes, graphically conveys the menace that these strongmen wished to project.

If we are to compare the economics of the ancient slave trade to modern phenomena, a far better analogue than voluntary migration lies in the wreckage that demand in developed countries creates at the other end of supply chains in the sweatshops of Southeast Asia and the mineral mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In that sense, this entropic aspect of market exchange is nothing new: in an unregulated market, core demand can exact considerable costs in the periphery.

Posted in ClassicsGreek HistorySlavery