H.M. Hyndman

The Evolution of Revolution

Chapter 10
Slavery in Decline (1)

The rise of Rome as the great slave power of the Western world was slow; and, in view of the apparently insuperable difficulties encountered and overcome, it seems extraordinary to us to-day. High-water mark in this slavery was reached at the end of the Republic and under the rule of the first Emperors. Yet, as already observed, slavery was the chief but not the only element of production in the Empire, even at its highest point. Small ownership of land, especially in the provinces, artisanship in the cities, such as Alexandria and Corinth and Rome itself, were carried on side by side with slave cultivation and slave production of certain classes of goods. It is impossible to say of slavery as an institution, either in Rome and Italy, or in the great provinces: here it was that the decay of slavery began. In the great public works the contracts were taken by employers, some of whom employed slaves, some free men who toiled for wages – some both at the same time. Large slave­owners in Rome as in Greece let out their slaves to others who then used them to work in their interest in mines and elsewhere, though free labourers were also engaged and were paid wages for similar work.

Thus there were always workers in the various departments of industry whom, given a chance in economic conditions of slave labour, it might be more profitable to employ than the slaves themselves. This was especially the case in very highly skilled craftsmanship, where it was difficult to train the slaves, who, as a rule, had no direct interest in the exercise of their skill, and still more difficult to induce them to give the care and attention needed for artistic success in this sort of work. Also certain kinds of large properties, at a distance from the markets, on which elaborate superintendence was called for, could not permanently hold their own in arable culture against small farmers or agricultural workers such as the coloni, who tilled primarily for the support of themselves and their families. The cost of transport, to be referred to hereafter, told heavily against slave labour, even when in the dull winter season the slaves were forced to provide articles of use for their masters or, in case of surplus, for sale, by toiling at trades in the slave workshops which were maintained on the land. Only for pasturage could slaves be used permanently to advantage in tending the flocks and herds: an economic fact that helped to extend the latifundia, great slave-worked estates, which had far more effect in Italy than in the provinces. These, as we have seen, increased greatly, much to the detriment of the yeomen and small farmers, towards the end of the Republic.

War was the “great industry” of Rome. So long as rich countries, with vast accumulations from the slave labour of old, lay open to the Roman legions, this highly organised industry was immensely profitable. The masses of treasure seized, first in Italy, then brought to Rome from Carthage, Greece, Pontus, Egypt, Sicily, Spain, and even Gaul, were accompanied by hundreds of thousands of educated, intelligent and civilised slaves. These two sources of realised and realisable wealth were exhausted when the era of great conquests was overpast. Money could not be squeezed out of the barbarians and semi-barbarians on the frontier; slaves could no longer be captured who were worth much more than their keep. Moreover, Rome was essentially a market with only one end to it. As there was no production to be given in exchange for the luxuries imported from without, either by sea, or by the special posts organised for land transport, the spoils of the conquered countries in precious metals were inevitably paid away, for those playthings of the rich, to the merchants of those provinces whence the gold and silver had originally come. In this way a return was obtained even of the heavy tributes extorted under the Empire.

The colossal extravagance of the emperors and of private persons, as described by Roman historians, created a perpetual monetary crisis in Rome itself. The cost of the maintenance of the free Roman proletariat, who were fed out of the public granaries because they had votes, intensified the difficulty. Although taxes were exacted with the greatest rigour, it was at last impossible to obtain payment in cash. By degrees, that is to say, the treasure robbed abroad had been drained out of Rome again to the conquered provinces. Unprofitable expenditure on huge circuses, temples, aqueducts, baths, etc., only made matters worse. But this specially applied to Italy and the Empire in the West. The East suffered much less from this purely financial trouble because its commerce with Rome called for cash payments. Thus, quite slowly, Rome prepared for her own decay and the downfall of the economic basis of her domination by the very expansion of the system through which she rose to greatness. For slavery, though inevitable and indispensable in the cruel upward progress of mankind, proved in the long run not the best method of employing labour in production. The slave in agriculture, as in manufacture, was an animated tool educated to perform a mechanical toil. Mortality among slaves was very heavy; they not infrequently escaped when opportunity afforded. It is calculated that, when employing the same means of production, slaves only produced a fraction of the return which intelligent free workers would obtain by arable tillage from the same soil. While slave labour was cheap this did not matter; just as, in our own day, primitive labour-wasting machinery is often used where wages are low and many hands can be employed. But when labour is dear better machinery and the more skilled work of few hands take its place.

The vast spoils which these free peasants, by their valour, poured into the laps of their patrician nobility hastened on their own ruin. That was the stage of successful slavery. The public land in the conquered territories was seized by the patricians and worked by the captives.

But the conquerors were conquered also by the arts, culture, manufactures, luxury and vices of their defeated enemies. The West overcame the East by arms, the East vanquished the West by intelligence and debauchery. The same with the slaves. The low standard of humanity inculcated towards them fostered cruelty and brutality all round. Their employment in agriculture slackened the rate of mechanical progress, while their vices of flattery and treachery affected the moral of their masters. Constant fear of spying weakened the privacy of the home. Slavery, therefore, in its prune held within itself all the elements of its own ruin – economic, social, ethical. But the former was, throughout, the chief cause of breakdown as of success. While slavery was supreme, the most advanced free cultivator was afraid to expend any savings upon better tools from Gaul, for fear of some nefarious devices of the great slave­owners to bring about his expropriation, or to seize him as a slave himself, unless he fled from his holding. When slavery was gradually decaying, agricultural progress was arrested by the rapine of the slaves themselves, whose masters, being unable to keep them properly, encouraged them to prey upon their neighbours. In this way the natural conservatism of the peasant farmer or the free colonist, who paid in produce for the right to cultivate his holding, was strengthened. Also throughout the period of Roman dominance there was no great accumulation of capital which could be used in the processes of production by employing the unpaid labour of propertyless proletarians for the purpose of making profit.

Capital in antiquity and during the Roman Empire was obviously quite different from capital to-day. It was mainly concerned with commerce – with making a profit out of the produce of others. It did not, as capital, concern itself with the processes of production. Those processes vere small and very inefficient as compared with our methods of to-day. Moreover, they remained almost stationary for very many centuries. Production was still chiefly for direct use; and the free producers in town and country still remained in control of their own tools and were mainly masters of their own products. The slaves were owned, their product was owned, the land and tools were owned by the slave-owners. But such capital as he employed, small enough in any case, was not devoted to production for exchange. The slave-owner did not buy his slaves and raw material for gold to make profit. He did not employ them at machines, which in effect commanded them, and then at once, or as soon as he could contrive to do so, sell their product for more gold. That was not the rule at all.

So it was likewise in the mining industry. There, undoubtedly, the object was to make profit out of working the slaves to death, when more of these animated tools could easily be procured at a cheap rate; or by the judicious exploitation of hired slaves, who had to be replaced by the contractor if they died at their work, or a heavy compensation paid for their premature decease. This also applied to free labourers who received salaries for similar laborious toil. But even in this case, where gold, silver, or copper, or iron was dug out of the earth, the mineral thus extracted performed none of the functions of highly developed capitalism such as we see around us. It is quite impossible to found economic arguments about the past upon what we observe in the totally different system of the present. Capital as the dominant economic and social force pro­ducing articles for exchange and for exchange alone, by employing free labourers who have no option but to work for wages, never appeared as a settled form of industry in ancient times. It is essentially modern; and could not have manifested itself in its present shape until the social and economic conditions in which it could operate had been historically prepared.

Therefore, to compare capital, in the sense in which it is econo­mically and scientifically used now, with capital as it was used in past ages, even when taking full account of credit and banking as they developed, is entirely to misapprehend the whole course of the economic evolution. As it was, when slavery began to decline and monetary wealth disappeared from the Western Empire, the owners of large properties found themselves without the moderate amount of capital necessary to raise the exceptionally valuable products which they had previously been accustomed to provide. The whole system had never at any time been far removed from production for personal needs. At no period did the mass of the people demand luxuries or even superfluity of necessaries. They were too poor to create any such demand. The cities controlled the country politically but never economically. Commerce, in fact, so far as Imperial Rome was concerned, consisted only in supplying the rich and their retainers with luxuries of every kind, from the emperors, their households and their armies downwards. The proletarians were fed with grain from Sicily, Egypt, Gaul, the Black Sea, etc., for all of which there was no commercial return. Imports were, in fact, tributes from the subjugated provinces, or articles for the wealthy, paid for in gold, luxuries drained from such countries as still had any stores of precious metals left. Always, during the whole period of Rome’s pre-eminence, Roman wealth was wealth obtained from others and used unproductively. Consequently, when slavery gradually ceased to dominate as the most common form of labour, and monetary economy, simultaneously, became restricted, or impossible, owing to the lack of gold and silver as the basis of credit, there was a steady return to the ancient method of family production for use by free cultivators, who either owned their own land, or who, as said, paid the proprietors, mostly now small folk likewise, in kind for the use of the soil. These cultivators, in turn, lived simply on their family work, made no accumulations of wrealth, or did so on a very small scale, and depended for the supply of such outside articles as they could not make for themselves upon the growing class of artisans in the towns. They suffered from heavy taxation taken now in produce; from oppression and fraud alike when the amount of their crops to be paid to the treasury (which stood to them for the government) was apportioned; from official demands upon their labour to keep up the highways and public works after a fashion; and from the in­creasing difficulties of transport as the great military roads fell into decay. So serious did this last matter become, that it was calculated that a distance of thirty miles from the centre where the agricultural produce was to be stored fully doubled its cost at market.

There was thus an apparent return all along the line to the ancient form of natural production – that is, production for use and exchange only of the surplus – which had existed before the period of great invasions and conquests transformed the bulk of Roman economy. The small cultivator or colonist might or might not have one or more slaves at his command as in old times. But slave labour was gradually ceasing to be the dominant factor in the West and still more gradually in the East. The land was the basis of the entire social structure. From it alone could the necessaries of life be directly obtained. The cities and towns were required to supplement, not to supplant, the domestic economy. There was no industrial agriculture, no production of commodities for sale on a large scale. After, as before the supremacy of slavery, the great mass of the population had very modest ideals, a great simplicity of life, very moderate aspirations regardless of comfort; so industry remained at a minimum, the economies of life were stable, immovable, based on the normal satisfaction of equal needs. This is the mass which impressed itself on the general social economy and not the small minority who led a life of artificial luxury, which the most diverse imported products supplied the means for, but which did not affect in the least the local economy. As was said by Seneca, who was able to regard a slave as a man even in the days of appalling luxury under Nero: “Riches for the few means poverty for the many.”

Rome in her prime was a ruthless plutocracy, schematically draining wealth from all her provinces by the farming of taxes, exploitation by credit, wholesale usury, contracts for the troops, great public works, and the sale of lands confiscated in territories where the population was dense. Rome in her decay was com­pelled to go back very slowly to economic arrangements similar to those whence she had emerged. There was no change in the main methods or appliances of production below. These went on for centuries upon centuries without any marked modification. That is the great and crucial difference between our own period and all previous economic history. Our methods and appliances of industrial production do not remain stationary even for a few years in succession. Transformation is continuous. Capital under these modern conditions can dispense with chattel slavery; modern wage-earners are the veritable hirelings of capital, doomed to produce surplus value for the capitalists and the possessing classes by penal servitude for life to the capitalist class. Slavery, in the ancient sense of the word, then becomes superfluous and uneconomical.

Long as was the process by which slavery was dethroned, and numerous as were the minor causes which led up to its final collapse, the chief reason for its steady and increasing enfeeblement was the decline in the importation of slaves. This was inevitable, as the area of profitable conquest was restricted by the very extension of the conquests themselves. Supplies of slaves and imported accumulations of treasure fell off simultaneously. Consequently, the number of the slaves to be bought being reduced, the price of the remainder, to those who depended upon slave labour either for production on large properties, pastoral or agricultural, or for domestic luxury or vice, increased. There were no longer tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of trained and educated men and women to be bought as slaves at Delos or other slave markets [?] at very low prices: prices so low that the death or loss by escape of a few slaves was a matter of small moment. There were plenty to be had cheap where the others came from, in those halcyon days of wholesale human exploitation.

But now, when slaves were scarcer, their replacement at high prices became a serious matter. It was not even profitable to neglect them, to maltreat them, or to work them to death. And at the same time that there were fewer slaves to buy, and they were more costly to purchase, money, which alone would be received in exchange for slaves, was harder and harder to come by and more valuable when obtained. Hence the scarcity of slaves and the scarcity of the precious metals both told for once in the same direction, and slaves became very costly. For the systematic breeding of slaves for sale, or to supply their loss from various causes, appears never to have been scientifically practised on a large scale in the Roman Empire. So that the slave mart depended for its supply almost exclusively upon captures in war, razzias on land, and piracy, all of which methods for procuring human cattle had been greatly reduced in efficiency. Slaves, consequently, both as a class and as individuals, became more and more valuable.

By degrees their keep also became more expensive. For, owing to the reduction of supply, the price of grain was rising in common with other articles of necessity. The famous law of the maximum formulated by the great Emperor Diocletian, whether it succeeded in producing its intended effect or not, proves conclusively that the cost of the necessaries of life had risen in the general market – whether the agricultural produce had been raised by the slaves or freemen – to a level which imperilled the economic stability of the Empire. Whatever view may be taken of that remarkable decree, which was considered so important by its author that it was recorded on stone monuments throughout the Empire, it is clear that it was intended to control the prices of necessaries of life in the interest of consumers both slave and free: to avert a serious food crisis, in short.

Our own recent experiences in Great Britain, which, like ancient Rome, is mainly dependent upon foreign sources for its wheat supply, enable us to understand, far more clearly than before, the purport of such an enactment. The cost of food rose terribly high; therefore the calm, calculating statesman who ruled the Roman Empire from his palace at Salona (Spalato) issued his rescript to maintain a seasonable level of prices. Manifestly, therefore, slaves in the cities, who could not produce their own keep from the land, were much more expensive to maintain than at an earlier date. This not only still further increased the permanent price of a slave, when purchased, but had its effect in decreasing his economic worth in comparison with the service of free labourers, who could be engaged to work for wages; and, except in Rome, were destitute of anything to fall back upon in time of, privation.

Hence the growing tendency to manumission on purely economic grounds. For the slave-owner who manumitted his slaves got rid of the responsibility for their maintenance and relieved himself of the cost of their replacement. But then some manumitted slaves, unless they had been in specially advantageous positions where their peculium or admitted personal gains secured to them by custom had been large, found themselves in bondage to their necessities, as freed men attached to the great house, or as freemen generally, to the same extent practically as when they were slaves. In order merely to live they had to find employment. For this reason the competition between free labour and slave labour became more keen; and the balance turned in favour of free unattached workers, from the point of view of the temporary, or even the permanent, employer. The privileged proletarians, also, though despising labour as degrading to Roman citizens, were forced to work in order to earn their keep. Thus slavery, in its many ups and downs in its conflict with free labour, in town and in country, in domestic service and artisan employments, became by degrees less relatively useful.

But when slaves became less numerous, more valuable and increasingly dear to maintain, they gained in status even when not manumitted, in many cases prior to their manumission. Rich slaves who had the ear of their masters in business became more common. Public slaves who performed public duties could not be regarded permanently as much below the level of the freemen or citizens for whom they acted as State functionaries. Still less could the distinction be permanently maintained when citizens were subjected to forced labour, which, while it lasted, put them virtually on the same level as the slaves themselves. Moreover, in the very corporations among free workers, which were kept up in order to secure their collective and personal advantages, these trade combinations had the sympathy, help, and at times the active co-operation of slaves. In this wise throughout Roman society, under the declining Empire, the free labour of coloni and peasant proprietors was displacing slave labour in the agricultural districts; slave labour was losing ground in the towns by manumission and competition of freemen who worked for salaries. Slavery, in short, was no longer universal and indispensable.

The continued opulence of the very few, their excessive luxury, their waste, their ostentation, their costly festivities, hastened on that economic ruin which, while it increased poverty, intensified likewise the causes which told against slavery.

Simultaneously, these very economic causes, by raising the status of slaves and rendering their better treatment advisable and their mere value considerable, told in the same direction. Such comparatively small improvements as were made in cultivation called for slaves of more intelligence and education, who required less superintendence and took greater interest in their work. This was still more the case, as already observed, in town industry, where slaves could only hold their own against the growing competition of freemen and lately manumitted slaves when placed more or less on the same level of culture and self-respect. Similar considerations had their effect throughout. Thus slaves were treated with greater humanity under the Empire than under the Republic. Legislation was enacted in their favour. They began to be respected, not only in life but after death. Their families must not be broken up by sale under Marcus Aurelius. Their burial grounds were held sacred, and this although gladiatorial conflicts and other cruel practices were still maintained. General opinion grew favourable to manumission as its economic advantage became more and more apparent.

Here, too, legislation as usual followed the course of material development and helped to strengthen the position of the manumitted slaves who were allowed to obtain the rights of citizens. Thus ameliorative measures for slaves were continuous during the reigns of all the later emperors. Not that the later Empire in itself was any more really humane in its essence than the earlier, as was shown by the fact that torture, though nominally decreased, was, in not a few cases, really extended by bringing even free citizens under this cruel system of “the question” when they were accused of treachery to the Imperial polity: a form of indictment easily stretched to embrace any sort of case. It was not sentimental sympathy with suffering, but the silent, growing pressure of economic necessity and the consequent increased influence of the slave class, which induced so stern and ruthless a man as the Emperor Hadrian to enter upon a course of amelioration, and obliged Diocletian and Galerius, the active persecutors of Christians, who were mainly slaves, to carry out the same policy. This is also true of Constantine and his successors, who, with the exception of the pagan philosopher Julian, were, at least nominally, Christians. Thus the development went on. When the movement had begun, and manumission grew common and advantageous, then the effect of the social evolution as a whole was felt in the field of morals in particular. Social relations, in fact, gave birth to a new and higher ethic, which previously met with little acceptance even among the Stoics, who took the lead in theoretical acceptance of a more elevated humanity.

Had slaves remained cheap and their labour still profitable under the old oppressive system, had the lucrative conquests of rich countries with large accumulations of the precious metals continued to pour almost inexhaustible wealth into Rome, it is little likely that her ruling class would have been able to discover that even the worst known form of chattel slavery, in the ruins and in the old ergastulae [?], needed improvement. When, however, material facts produced a definite economic current in favour of improvement of slave conditions, then, undoubtedly, the higher morality thus engendered began to react upon the general conscience of the time; and owners of slaves were in­duced to manumit their slaves, during life, or at death, by con­siderations which did not so directly emanate from the economic-motives that affected their own predecessors. “It would be a psychologic mistake to claim that always and in every case action is determined by the view of immediate and material utility. As men’s conditions of existence change, their views, their conceptions, their opinions, their consciences change. Ideas are transformed as the material conditions of production are transformed. Revolutionary ideas in human affairs mean that the elements of the new society are forming in the old.” Institutions and laws connect with, and are by degrees forced to accommodate themselves to, the new economic and social development, though the superstructure may vary owing to the varying surroundings. Hence great social changes appear to the conscious action of intelligent men who are working to bring about a state of society already conceived in their own minds. But these social changes are really due to the material and economic causes germinating within, when a new form of production, with its social and economic relations, is developing side by side with, and gradually replacing, an older form. But human psychologic conceptions nevertheless react upon and sometimes even anticipate the material results.

Last updated on 5.7.2006