H.M. Hyndman

The Evolution of Revolution

Chapter 8
Slavery under Rome

Why the tribes which settled on the Seven Hills, with the refugees and outlaws from other gentile communities who gathered round them, should have obtained such complete economic and political pre-eminence over all their rivals, some of whom were much richer and more powerful than themselves beginning at the of the struggle for supremacy, is one of the unexplained riddles of history.

The growth of Rome, from a rough gentile stronghold which served only as a rallying point for the tribal units and cultivators, to an aggressive Republic, followed the same lines that the consolidation of such groups into a city pursued elsewhere.

First there was in one district a collection of cattle-owners and farmers, mostly tribal; then a number of small private owners combined with a nucleus of the original gentile families who formed the aristocracy of the slowly increasing settlement; later people from without came in, who, destitute of gentile rights, took advantage of the security for person and property afforded by the consolidation for defence within a small area. Thereupon followed inter-tribal fights for territory and women with other small groupings of the like kind in the immediate neighborhood; thence deliberate attacks and trials of strength, by which a supply of slaves was secured by the victors; later on still the adoption of city, tribal and yeoman warfare as a means of enrichment by the plunder and enslavement of less adventurous or less piratical communities. As a consequence of the increase of wealth came the division into antagonistic classes within the city, the change from gentile equality, based upon blood-relationship, to grades of voting and political influence founded upon private property and the amount of such property owned by the voters – the whole of this progression, in more or less diversified forms, was common to other cities and states than Rome. But from the early days of the Republic the policy of plunder for the sake of plunder became the guiding principle of Roman action. From a state liable to invasion by its neighbours and in danger from Gauls, Cimbrians and other hordes still in the gentile stage of social life, Rome grew gradually into the most formidable aggressive power of antiquity. With the supremacy over all Italy, slavery itself, with money, became the element of conquest, urging constantly to the acquisition of more slaves. The wealth acquired from victory gave an appetite for more victory out of sheer greed of gain. By the bitter irony of economics the freemen farmers and artisans, who constituted the armies which fought for the Senate and the people effected, as will be seen, their own downfall and brought the social subjugation of those who survived the great campaigns in East and West, by the very same triumphs proconsuls and generals celebrated as the most glorious achiements of the Roman Republic. Slaves captured in tens and even hundreds of thousands were inevitably sold cheap, for the markets soon became overstocked. Rich gentile and aristocratic families became enormous slave-owners. They purchased the captives with the accumulations of precious metals poured into the lap of the great families by their victorious relations, who led the Roman armies and administered the Roman provinces subjugated by their soldiers. Nothing like this wholesale and systematic rapine throughout the entire civilised world then accessible has been seen in history. Unstinted aggression and plunder abroad was accompanied by oppression at home; and the wealth thus piled up added to the tribute expected, while the profits obtained in certain directions from slave labour were so enormous that luxury of every kind reached an unprecedented height. Luxury was accompanied by cruelty and sheer blood-lust, which the numbers of slaves gave every opportunity for gratifying.

Thus it came about that the old slave system, which some gave some hope to the slaves, was supplanted by the new slave relations, which in practice destroyed for the most part any compensatory personal connection. The slave, however distinguished he might be by birth, race and high qualities, became in Rome a human chattel and nothing more. All this went on for generation after generation under the Republic. The names blazoned forth in our histories and our highest literature heroes and champions of freedom are precisely those men who were as unsurpassed in ruffianism and cruelty towards captives and slaves as they were treacherous and unscrupulous in their dealings with their own countrymen. Yet these very same people, like the Greeks, never hesitated to call upon the slaves to help them in their civil wars, by promises of freedom and well-being which were rarely or never kept.

Then following upon great campaigns in East and West came a series of risings of the slaves, so persistent, so determined, in more than one instance so well led, that even to-day, with all the facts before us, and looking on coolly down the centuries at the problems of the past, we can only marvel that the ruthless Roman aristocrats, with all their vigour and self-confidence, threatened by the Teutons and Cimbri and Mithridates from without, and these violent and partially successful attacks by revolting slaves within, should have succeeded in saving their Republic from complete ruin. But they did. Even if they had won, slavery as a system had then become so deeply rooted in Rome and Italy, in Carthage and the Carthaginian possessions, in the whole basin of the Mediterranean and the East, that it is more than doubtful whether the slaves could have established a society based upon free labour.

The Romans shrank from no sacrifice in their ruthless determination to crush down the insurrections. Their aristocratic leaders knew that if the slave revolts spread in Italy or succeeded in the adjacent provinces, and they were even temporarily mastered by the subjugated class, another power than their own would come into being, whether the slaves were benefited by the change or not. In fact, they and their supporters would inevitably have been made slaves in their turn, if they had escaped from slaughter on the field of battle or from massacre in the towns to which they fled for refuge. But slavery as an institution would not have been abolished by the triumph of the slaves.

As it was, the successful Roman commanders, after victory largely aided by treachery, resorted to their familiar methods of striking terror and glutting revenge. The defeated slaves were crucified along the highways by tens of thousands. All the horrors of successful Asiatic warfare were re-enacted by the generals of the Roman Republic. And then the whole movement of Roman conquest, Roman enslavement, Roman tribute-exaction, Roman usury, steadily pursued its course. Nevertheless the possibility of failure had stared them in the face. The struggles with Mithridates in the East, and the national hero, Sertorius, in the West, were going on at the same time the issue of the servile wars in Italy and Sicily was hanging in the balance; and more than one of the armies needed for the defence of the Republic without were recalled for the suppression of the dangerous revolt within. But the victory had been achieved before they arrived. Slavery, dominated by the Roman legions under the leadership of the aristocratic caste, so fitly represented by Sulla, Cato the Younger, Brutus and Cicero, became more than ever the economic and social basis of Roman life and power.

Moreover, the irony of this development, the unconscious manner in which free men patriotically brought about their own ruin and degradation, was never more disastrously manifested than in the case of Rome’s wars of conquest. It was the yeomen, the small farmers, the cultivators around the cities, who formed the backbone of the Roman armies. Mithridates and Hannibal, Pontus and Carthage, the great struggle for independence in Spain, the invasion of the Cimbri and Teutons, Samnite attacks and the servile risings spoken of were all overcome by the inflexible courage and determination of the free Roman legionaries, utrinque parati, who fought in every part of the then known world under the banner of the S.P.Q.R. Yet the steadiness with which they marched on to victory, notwithstanding crushing defeats and even disasters for years in succession, brought in the long run nothing but expropriation and poverty to the survivors and their descendants. Their losses on the field of battle terribly depleted the ranks of the stalwart yeomen, giving them less power to encounter class enemies in Italy. But above all, their victories worked them harm. These victories supplied the aristocrats and the risen wealthy plebeians, of whom Pompey the Great was the most successful example, with cheap and capable slaves, who were used as the great economic and social weapon to overwhelm for generations the small free farmers and capable artisans who had won the wars for Rome. The free cultivators were driven out of the field by slave-worked farms on a large scale. This was most noticeable in Italy, but it went on everywhere. Given the conditions, the results were practically inevitable for the time being. Everything combined to defeat the upholders of the old system with its distribution of the public land. No distinctions were made. Slave-ownership, usury, aristocratic monopoly, wholesale bribery and shameless illegality told equally against the descendants of Sulla’s magnificent soldiery, planted by him on land conquered from the enemy, and the families of old settlers, whose fathers and brothers had triumphantly upheld the greatness of the Republic. The vast slave-cultivated estates, with their cruel enforced toil and miserable prisons, made way in the country; the plebeians and proletariat, for all their voting power and rights to free sustenance, were bribed, cajoled and brow-beaten out of their inheritance in the city.

The soldiers of Sulla themselves often found that the cultivation of the soil was a privilege of free citizens which involved toil and uncertainty beyond what they were willing to undergo in the process of apprenticeship to their business. The majority of them disposed of their holdings, and were ready again to take pay as soldiers and participate in such civil or foreign wars as might be afoot. Wars, in fact, and the resort to mercenary soldiery in order to wage them successfully at home and abroad, did nearly as much to uproot Rome’s agricultural citizens from their holdings as slave-tilled large properties. Payment for military service was one of the great causes that distracted men from their occupation as cultivators, and brought them into the cities, during the entire period of Rome’s ascendancy. And the uncertainty of their freedom may also have accelerated their movement citywards. For the hunting down of slaves was not confined to warfare on a large scale, conducted by the State in order to remedy the waste occasioned by the loss of slave life; nor did piracy at sea and slave raids along the coast, carried on as a regular business by the corsairs who had become a formidable power in the Mediterranean, finish the catalogues of danger to be incurred. There were risks at home: razzias along the highways and their neighbourhood, against which isolated farmers had little chance of being able to protect themselves, were frequent. Thus, during the entire life of the Roman slave system, a series of tendencies and causes existed which resulted in the depression of the free labourer and the increase of the value of the slave. These circumstances make it the more remarkable that the freemen should have been able to continue their existence at all, and certainly do not support the contention that slave labour was necessarily unsatisfactory to its owners.

Even high-minded aristocrats, who sympathised with the people and as tribunes obtained the support of the plebeian order, were powerless to stem the tide of aggression by their own class. Tiberius and Caius Gracchus, who have come down to us through the centuries as the martyred heroes of the oppressed, despite their own high birth and culture and their descent from the great Scipio Africanus, notwithstanding the popularity first of the elder and then of the fiery younger brother, were both powerless to make head against the organised force of aristocratic greed over against them. Their laws in favour of aristocratic landownership for the free farmers were rendered entirely nugatory, and the slave-owners won all along the line wherever their own immediate class and pecuniary interests were engaged. The Roman populace, like, indeed, the populace at nearly all periods of history, failed to support their champions when living but uselessly glorified them when dead. Not only were the efforts of the Gracchi to secure for the Roman people their public land abortive, but the magnificent vigour and eloquence of Caius, the younger brother, failed to obtain for the Italian rights of citizenship and voting. The political power of both brothers, though invested with all the authority of tribunes of the plebs, and supported by the great majority of the citizens, miscarried for two reasons: first, the economic and social force of the aristocratic class then dominant was still in full vigour, and strengthened, as already said, by the success on the field of battle of the soldiers of the people; second, neither of the Gracchi had the support of the army, which might have enabled them to achieve their ends for the time being against the oligarchy. It was thus a class struggle in which the social development and the military position were unfavourable to democratic success. Showing also how completely the general sentiment of the time influenced the actions even of the Gracchi, whom history has always regarded as aristocrats abandoning their class prejudices and sacrificing their lives for the sake of justice and humanity, it is noteworthy that neither they nor their supporters, so far as known, evinced any desire to improve the condition of the slaves, then being poured by the hundred thousand into the slave markets as a result of the Roman victories. The Gracchi recognised the harmful effect of the expansion of Roman nation, and the overthrow of Carthage, upon the well-being of their clients by their extrusion from the soil in favour of the great land and slave owners. But they did not enter upon a campaign against the slave system itself. That field lay beyond their scheme of class emancipation and political enfranchisement. It was, indeed, under the Republic that slavery reached its highest point of development and cruelty. Cicero, the vehemet champion of the most odious oligarchic tyranny against the citizens, when denouncing Verres for his malifactions in Sicily, urged as a serious charge against him that he had not caused a slave to be crucified for a very minor offence! The Gracchi, the forerunners of Clodius, Catiline and Caesar, stand against the prevailing barbarity towards captives sold into slavery. They only attempted to democratise institutions for their free clients.

It is particularly remarkable that, during the whole of this period of the consistent rise of slavery as an economic and social force, the labour of free men still held a certain position in competition with that of slaves, a position which became stronger rather than weaker as time went on. Slavery was the backbone of the Roman Republic as it was of the Carthaginian State. Yet in Rome, as in Carthage, the work of freemen went on side by side the labour of slaves; and the Carthaginians, strange to say, at the period of their most desperate struggle with Rome, encouraged free settlement on the soil more than the Romans did. The question of the profitable or unprofitable nature of slave cultivation on or slave production for commercial purposes, as at Alexandria and other manufacturing centres, would, therefore, be dependent on the following considerations:–

  1. The cheap cost of the slaves originally by purchase of captives in war.
  2. The possibility of their cheap replacement by further purchase of captives.
  3. Similar possibility of cheap reproduction by breeding.
  4. Their organisation according to the best methods (a) of cultivation on the land, (b) of production in the cities.
  5. Alternation of work on land for food production during the open months and on manufacture of articles of primal utility in slave workshops during the winter
  6. Cost of their keep and superintendence.

Throughout, the most important factor, assuming the best possible arrangements to be made in other respects, was the certitude of the acquisition of cheap, capable slave labour by purchase, due to the superabundance of captives owing to successful wars of conquest. So much was this the case in the flourishing days of Rome as a slave power, that it has been suggested that the crushing defeat of Varus and his legions in the forests of Germany, and the failure of Rome thereafter to suppress the German tribes or to discover any great fresh recruiting ground for forcible enslavement, was the first manifest step in the decadence of the main economic and social prop of Roman greatness. However this may be, even the magnificence of Rome in its palmy days and the marvellous development of her organised vampirism were but stupendous superstructions erected upon a very unstable and treacherous economic foundation.

But in the life of Rome itself, and indeed throughout the conquered territories, the free labourers and artisans formed combinations, trade unions and “colleges” which were able in some degree to uphold the status of those who belonged to them during the height of the slave period. These combinations of free citizens, strengthened and buttressed, as it were, by the freed men rising from the slave class and the free servants of the Republic and Empire – who, though not in any way connected with them, constituted an independent body – were at times looked upon as dangerous, even in the days of the emperors. This appears, not only from general observation but also from the remarks of so capable and wide-minded a ruler as Trajan, in his letter to Pliny on the organisation of a very small group of artisans in the capital of Bithynia. There was thus an intermediate body of free workers, outside the subsidised and freely Roman plebs and the slaves in the great city itself, as well as in the other cities of the Republic and Empire, which the Republic and Empire remained in existence and gradually increased in numbers and power, preparing the way quite unconsciously through the centuries for other forms of class relations. The coloni, also, who were mostly settlers on the land from the army in Italy and elsewhere, did not give way entirely to the slave cultivation, with its accompanying usury and economic expropriation or enslavement of the small proprietors. They too fought what was in their case a desperately uphill fight against the prevailing economic system, whose full social effect was not observed until many generations later.

But the ideas of slavery dominated every class of society in public, as its influence insidiously corrupted private life. Thus labour in any shape on the land or in crafts, which had formed the groundwork and had created the strength of Rome in its early days, fell into disrepute, and was regarded as a degrading occupation for citizens and free men. This conception spread from tribute-supported and luxury-debased Rome to the provinces, which had been plundered by conquest and drained by taxation. Such a rush of ill-gotten wealth had never flowed into any great city as that which poured upon Rome after the successful campaigns against Mithridates, Carthage, Egypt, Gaul, Greece and Spain. The basin of the Mediterranean and the whole civilised world then known lay at the mercy of this huge octopus of exploiters and usurers. For from the stand­point of human industry and social well-being such was the city of the oligarchic Roman Republic in its palmy days. Economically speaking, the city gave nothing to the world. There was not even a pretence of economic return for tribute extorted and taxation levied. Following in the wake of the conquering Roman armies went a mass of speculators, usurers, land appropriators, slave-buyers, who absorbed by money dealings such booty and wealth as the soldiery had left. They were still more hated, and were the cause of more revolts than the legionaries themselves.

Last updated on 27.7.2006