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‘As Many Blows as they Wished’
Notes on Slavery in Ancient Rome from Pagans and Christians by Robin Lane Fox


From pages 44, 51, 59-60, 62, 82, 85

In the first note one can discern the ancient reason for the Christian hatred of the forest and the dedication to its eradication in Plantation America, in that many shrines to the Old Gods were sacred groves of trees. Although hatred of the forest was not something necessarily shared by pagans and Christians, the use of slaves as public chattel—such as their use on prison road crews today—was held as a universal good in Plantation America and ancient Rome.

“…civic decrees had warned against illicit “wooding” and gathering in the gods’ plantations; local magistrates were to exact fines from freeborn offenders and whip the slaves, one or two strokes being equivalent to each drachma of a free man’s fine… Round Hecate’s great shrine at Lagina, in southwestern Asia, eunuchs and public slaves tended the noble trees…the triumph of Christianity was accompanied by the sound of the axe on age-old arboreta.”

Lane suggests that a slave society is defined by the fact that most income is derived from the labor of slaves, a more rational approach than the typical ancient apologetics. More importantly is the disenfranchisement of “the poor” or “the humble” free by the fact that their betters own gangs of slaves, nullifying the value of a freeman’s labor.

Lane relates from Galen, the foremost physician of antiquity, that he had a friend who split the skulls of two of his slaves on one journey and that his father had to admonish his clients to take care of their hands, by resisting the oft-served impulses to punch their slaves in the teeth, to take their time about discipline and arrange for a nice whipping or clubbing rather than battering their hands against the faces of their property. Despite Christian apologists constantly framing ancient slavery as benign, this advice alone suggests a level of casual brutality in excess of Plantation America.

What follows, is Lane’s best capstone passage on the nature of servitude under Rome:

“The very bleakness of the social pyramid may help us, paradoxically, to see how the upper families maintained order. The ultimate sanction of Roman troops was very important, but locally the social order also worked to the notables’ advantage. The households were staffed by slaves who would pay with their lives whenever theft or crime was detected against the master’s property. They were a vital, unpaid police force who were bound, in the last resort, by their lack of legal status and their sheer disposability. We meet criminals in the literature of the period, but they are not a distinctive urban underworld: they were bandits…”

And here, with the slave matrix consigning the violent criminal to exile, rather than nurturing him in urban enclaves and excusing his actions via coddling social guilt as postmodern civilization does, the reader sees a closer kinship between ancient Rome and Plantation America, which was no accident, as Plantation America—as would be the case with the very formation of the United States of America—was a conscious attempt to resurrect the very slave society of antiquity what gave birth to the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers.

To close, one parallel between antiquity and Plantation America is that in both settings slaves sought access to the religious cults of their owners, with some owners indulging this aspirational impulse and the civic authorities tending to place limits on slaves entering the religious mainstream, perhaps demonstrating systemic instinct across the ages.

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TonyAugust 18, 2019 5:45 PM UTC

I'm thankful you are deciphering this enormous book. I always knew there were some profound meaning buried in it, but reading it myself proved difficult. Hopefully you will continue to help shed light on what it is.
responds:August 19, 2019 3:45 AM UTC

It will take another year.