Servile Literacy 



Meno Grammarian Slaves
Human Resources One Third
Great Emancipator Servius Tullius
Phaedo Epictetus
Prohibition Braggart Soldier
Arms Control Sparta
Bookkeeping First Generation
Peevishness Shepherd of Hermas


Meno

In Plato's dialogue 'Meno,' a slave-boy is brought forward, as a fit test-subject because he can be presumed innocent of education:



  • Meno. Certainly. Come hither, boy.


  • Socrates. He is Greek, and speaks Greek, does he not?


  • Meno. Yes, indeed; he was born in the house.


  • Socrates. Attend now to the questions which I ask him, and observe whether he learns of me or only remembers.


  • Meno. I will.


  • Socrates. Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?


  • Boy. I do.


  • Socrates. And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?


  • Boy. Certainly. [. . .]


  • Socrates. And that is the line which the learned call the diagonal. And if this is the proper name, then you, Meno's slave, are prepared to affirm that the double space is the square of the diagonal?


  • Boy. Certainly, Socrates.


  • Socrates. What do you say of him, Meno? Were not all these answers given out of his own head?


  • Meno. Yes, they were all his own.”


  • (Plato's Dialogue, 'Meno').




It seems to be taken for granted that this slave, though home-born, has not received instruction in geometry, and that thus his answers, elicited through Socrates' questions, can serve as proof in favor of innate ideas, a sound idea, or Plato's theory that learning is reminiscence, a not-so-sound idea. As goes geometry, so, presumably, goes literacy. It seems likely most slaves in the ancient world were in similar condition to Meno's slave-boy, with little effort expended on their education. As seen on the main literacy page, free-born male citizens were expected to be literate; there was no comparable expectation for slaves. However, as we shall see, not all of this population was illiterate by any means.

Grammarian Slaves

The literacy rate amongst the slave population, amounting to perhaps a third of the total population, cannot have been high, yet it was not zero. Exquisitely educated Greek philosophers fell into this condition when their towns were sacked. Some home-born slaves were educated by their masters, including the playwright Terence:

"Publius Terentius Afer, a native of Carthage, was a slave, at Rome, of the senator Terentius Lucanus, who, struck by his abilities and handsome person, gave him not only a liberal education in his youth, but his freedom when he arrived at years of maturity." (Suetonius, Lives of the Eminent Grammarians, Lives of the Poets, Life of Terence.)

Terence was far from being the only talented but low-born youth who went on to a glittering literary career. As Publius Syrus, another freed slave, put it, "A great man may commence life in a hovel." (The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus, 246, Kindle location 663, The Cynics). The comic poet Caecilius was a slave:

"Now Statius was a slave-name. In old times there were many slaves of that name. Caecilius too, the famous comic poet, was a slave and as such called Statius. But afterwards this was made into a kind of surname and he was called Caecilius Statius." (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, Book IV, Chapter XX).

The home-born slave who fetched the highest recorded purchase price in antiquity was a grammarian:




  • “The highest price ever given for a man born in slavery, so far as I am able to discover, was that paid for Daphnus, the grammarian, who was sold by Natius of Pisaurum to M. Scaurus, the first man in the state, for seven hundred thousand sesterces.”
  • (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book VII, Chapter 40).




Shall we take comfort, reflecting upon our fallen race, or suffer perplexity, that the costliest slave on record should have been a grammarian? The enthusiasm for this science knew no bounds in antiquity: "'We are given over to Grammar,' says Sextus Empiricus, 'from childhood, and almost from our baby-clothes.'" (Citation from Adv. Gramm. 1.44, p. 28, 'The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity,' Edwin Hatch). Seneca knew of nouveau-riche gentleman who, to appear learned, purchased at great cost slaves who knew Homer by heart, and could prompt him:

"Within our own time there was a certain rich man named Calvisius Sabinus; he had the bank-account and the brains of a freedman. . .His memory was so faulty that he would sometimes forget the name of Ulysses, or Achilles, or Priam,— names which we know as well as we know those of our own attendants. No major-domo in his dotage, who cannot give men their right names, but is compelled to invent names for them,— no such man, I say, calls off the names of his master's tribesmen so atrociously as Sabinus used to call off the Trojan and Achaean heroes. But none the less did he desire to appear learned. So he devised this short cut to learning: he paid fabulous prices for slaves,— one to know Homer by heart and another to know Hesiod; he also delegated a special slave to each of the nine lyric poets. You need not wonder that he paid high prices for these slaves; if he did not find them ready to hand he had them made to order. After collecting this retinue, he began to make life miserable for his guests; he would keep these fellows at the foot of his couch, and ask them from time to time for verses which he might repeat, and then frequently break down in the middle of a word." (Seneca, Epistle XXVII).

These high-priced slaves must have been literate, to learn the poets by heart. Those "made to order" must have been instructed to read and master the poets, a task requiring the purchase of a second reader-slave if the first had not been literate! These literary achievements were integral to Greek civilization: "But when Alexander was civilizing Asia, Homer was commonly read, and the children of the Persians, of the Susianians, and of the Gedrosians learned to chant the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides." (Plutarch, Moralia, On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander, Book I, Chapter 5, Complete Works of Plutarch, Kindle location 41469).

Some in antiquity critiqued literacy as if it were the enemy of memorization, when in fact it is the stepping-stone that makes this feat possible. Plato, perhaps following Pythagoras, suggested that literacy degrades memory rather than enhances it.

Aulus Gellius mentions a slave whose task it was to read aloud during supper: "Whenever we were at an entertainment given by Favorinus the Philosopher, and the dishes began to be served, a slave placed at the table read something of Greek literature or our own." (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, Volume I, p. 229, Book III, Chapter XIX). One time when the author was present, the reading was from Gavius Bassus' 'On the Origin of Verbs and Substantives!'

Human Resources

Some slaves' daily tasks required literacy, like that speedy slave who took shorthand dictation for Ausonius. No field hand, this highly skilled operator knew what he was doing:

"'Slave, skillful minister of swift notes, come hither. Open the double page of thy tablets, where a great number of words, each expressed by different points, is written like a single word. I go through great volumes; and like dense hail the words are hurled from my noisy lips, but thine ears are not troubled, nor is thy page filled. Thy hand, scarcely moving, flies over the surface of the wax, but if my speech runs into a long circumlocution, you put the ideas on the tablets as if I had already spoken them. I wish my mind had as swift a flight as your right hand when you anticipate my words.'" (Ausonius, Epigram CXLVI, quoted p. 15, 'Later Roman Education in Ausonius, Capella and the Theodosian Code,' with translations and commentary by Percival R. Cole).

Cato the Elder conducted a speculative business in training slaves to enhance their market value: "He used to lend money also to those of his slaves who wished it, and they would buy boys with it, and after training and teaching them for a year, at Cato's expense, would sell them again. Many of these boys Cato would retain for himself, reckoning to the credit of the slave the highest price bid for his boy." (Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder, Chapter 21, 7).

Titus Pomponius Atticus followed a similar policy: "He kept an establishment of slaves of the best kind, if we were to judge of it by its utility, but if by its external show, scarcely coming up to mediocrity; for there were in it well-taught youths, excellent readers, and numerous transcribers of books, insomuch that there was not even a footman that could not act in either of those capacities extremely well. Other kinds of artificers, also, such as domestic necessities require, were very good there, yet he had no one among them that was not born and instructed in his house;. . ." (Cornelius Nepos, Lives of Eminent Commanders, Book XXV, Titus Pomponius Atticus, Chapter XIII). Some ancient slave-owners were willing to make a considerable investment in human capital; however, such generosity does not seem to have been the rule.

The normal 'career path' for diligent slaves in ancient Rome led them from slavery through manumission to a higher, more independent status as clients of their former owner, so an investment in human resources might have been been a good deal for the patron. Martial's copyist was a young slave, whom he freed when he became ill, though tragically he died anyway:

"Once the trusty copyist of my poems, his hand a treasure to his master and to the Caesars known, Demetrius in his fresh prime has left behind him years yet young: a fourth summer had been added to three lustres. Yet, that he should not go down to the shades of Styx a slave, when a cursed contagion held him fevered in its toils — to this I took heed, and to his sickness resigned all a master's rights: worthy was he by my gift to have seen health once more! He felt with failing strength the boon and called me 'patron,' now that he was passing down, a free man, to the nether wave." (Martial, Epigrams, Book 1, CI, Complete Works of Martial, Kindle location 871).

The prevalence of slavery in the ancient world changes the economics of production: labor was cheap, raw materials dear. It is assumed that hand-copying books made them prohibitively expensive, which would be true if the people doing the work were paid a living wage.

Cicero's slave Tiro served as his secretary. Tiro, first a slave then a freedman, was far more than a transcriptionist, he edited Cicero's works after his assassination:

"Now Tullius Tiro, Marcus Cicero's freedman, was unquestionably a man of refined taste and by no means unacquainted with our early history and literature. He had been liberally educated from his earliest years, and Cicero fund in him an assistant, and in a sense a partner, in his literary work." (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, Book VI, Chapter III).

Like Cicero, Julius Caesar employed a slave to take dictation, a treacherous one: "The slave Philemon, his amanuensis, who had promised Caesar's enemies that he would poison him, he merely punished by death, without torture." (Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Julius Caesar, p. 40 Modern Library). When Nero Caesar ordered a call-up of corvee labor, though unfortunately no estimate is made of percentages, slaves employed as secretaries are mentioned: "He summoned the city-tribes to enlist; but no qualified persons appearing, he ordered all masters to send a certain number of slaves, the best they had, not excepting their stewards and secretaries." (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Nero Caesar, Chapter XLIV.).

In some cases, teaching slaves a trade may have been an enlightened provision for their future freedom. John Chrysostom, Christian bishop of Constantinople, urged his audience to purchase slaves, teach them a trade, then manumit them: "Since if it be in care for them, I bid thee occupy none of them in ministering to thyself, but when thou hast purchased them and hast taught them trades whereby to support themselves, let them go free." (John Chrysostom, Homily 40 on 1 Corinthians 15:9, Chapter 6, ECF 1_12, p. 557)

Up



One Third

Some people think the great majority of the population in antiquity were slaves, but a more realistic figure is a third, as in the American south-land before the Civil War. A society one third slave and two thirds free is stable and sustainable. See, for instance,



  • “For of adult citizens [of Rome] there were more than 110,000, as appeared by the latest census; and the number of the women, children, domestics, foreign traders and artisans who plied the menial trades [γυναικων δε και παιδων και της οικετικης θεραπειας εμπορων τε και των εργαζομενων τας βαναυσους τεχνας μετοικων] — for no Roman citizen was permitted to earn a livelihood as a tradesman or artisan — was not less than treble the number of the citizens.”
  • (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book IX, Chapter XXV).




Women + children + artisans + slaves = 3x male citizens. In other words, the (male) citizens make up one-fourth of the total populace; add to these a second fourth, their citizen wives, for one half (six-twelfths). Of the remainder, subtract the citizen children, resident aliens, and such of the artisan class as were free but did not enjoy political rights,— very conservatively, one sixth, which leaves four-twelfths, or one third, in servitude. Naturally this percentage must vary with the fortunes of war, because every citadel stormed loosed a flood of slaves on the market. But averaging out the ups and downs, it cannot be expected the 'normal' figure was very much higher. Those places which did have a higher ratio of slave to free stand out, because society must be organized like an armed camp, as was Sparta, if a minority of free men must keep the chained majority in subjection. Warfare in antiquity was labor-intensive,— numbers matter,— and so no slave-owner can sleep without one eye open if slaves are the most numerous class.

There is no doubt that, owing to the prevalence of warfare, there were times and places where a majority of the populace was enslaved, for instance,

"But Ctesicles, in the third book of his Chronicles, says that in the hundred and fifteenth Olympiad, there was an investigation at Athens conducted by Demetrius Phalereus into the number of the inhabitants of Attica, and the Athenians were found to amount to twenty-one thousand, and the Metics to ten thousand, and the slaves to four hundred thousand." (Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, or Banquet of the Learned, Book VI, Chapter 103).

But these same people remembered a past in which slavery was uncommon! Before the onset of the big empire-building wars, Herodotus says, there were not so many slaves: ". . .the daughters and sons of the Athenians were wont ever to go for water to the spring of Enneacrunos; for at that time neither they nor the other Hellenes as yet had household servants. . ." (Herodotus, Book VI, Chapter 137, p. 122). Whether there ever was an 'age of Saturn' in which slavery was unknown, it does stand to reason that there would have been less conflict, accordingly less slavery, because war and slavery go hand-in-hand, when populations were more sparse.

However, in the ancient world, it is not safe to assume the free population was small: "At the time when we were in Egypt, those who kept the census returns of the population said that its free residents were more than three hundred thousand, and that the king received from the revenues of the country more than six thousand talents." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Book XVII, Chapter 52). Tacitus reports a census under Claudius which returned a figure for Rome of nearly 6 million: "He also closed the lustrum, the census showing 5,984,072 citizens." (Tacitus, The Annals, Book XI, Chapter 25, Complete Works of Tacitus, Kindle location 11135). Recall, the census counts free citizens, not slaves. Can anyone seriously believe the true population was ten times that number? 'Critical' historians do not believe these census numbers anyway, any more than they believe any of the rest of the documentary evidence that survives from classical antiquity; they routinely discount them, because they think they are too large. If the stated numbers must be inflated by a factor of ten to arrive at the real numbers, then they would have a case! It is always difficult, even hazardous, to generalize; however, citizens cannot have been a small minority of the populace.

It is frustratingly difficult to cull precise figures from the ancient historians. Diodorus Siculus mentions a Roman siege of the Sicilian city of Acragas, then held by the Carthaginians: "After a siege of six months they became masters of Acragas in the manner described and carried off all the slaves, to the number of more than twenty-five thousand." (Siculus, Diodorus. Library of History, Book XXIII, Chapter 9.1. Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Classics) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32) (Kindle Locations 26255-26256).) Though it was common for the civilian population of conquered cities to be sold into slavery, this language suggests rather that they carted off the existing servile population. This same city had undergone prior sieges, including one for which the total free population is given: "For at that time the citizens of Acragas numbered more than twenty thousand, and when resident aliens were included, not less than two hundred thousand." (Siculus, Diodorus. Library of History, Book XIII, Chapter 84.3. Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Classics) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32) (Kindle Locations 13514-13515). This city evidently had an oligarchic constitution according to which only a slice of the free-born population were citizens with political rights. It would be attractive to the compare the slave population upon its Roman conquest: 25,000,— with its prior total free-born population of 220,000, giving a rate of enslavement of ten per cent. Unfortunately this is comparing apples with oranges, as there is no way of telling what population losses this city had sustained in the Sicilian wars. This fruitful island was a prize contended for between Romans, Carthaginians, Greeks, the native population, and various tyrants and adventurers. A figure of one third slave is probably closer to normal conditions, though this can vary from near 100 percent as the captive population is led out from a sacked city to lower rates under circumstances of peace and prosperity.

The percentage of slaves in the population of the holy land appears to have been smaller than the norm for classical antiquity, presumably owing to Moses' institution of the sabbatical year, "An official document of the year AD 71 shows that in one region where the fiscal authorities counted three hundred and eighty-five tax-payers, all these people together owned no more than forty-four slaves, that is to say, one slave between nine of them." (Henri Jules Charles Petiot, Daily Life in Palestine at the Time of Christ, p. 141.)




So if, in general, we count slaves as one-third the population, then free-born men would be one-third and freeborn women one-third of the total. One third of the population, therefore, inherited literacy as a birth-right; however, disadvantages such as rural residence would have impeded their progress. Not until big yellow school buses criss-crossed the land was universal rural literacy in view. Yet there were volunteers to fill in the depleted ranks, from the outlying groups: slaves and women; their literacy rate was not zero, though literacy was not their norm. But perhaps there were not so many literate volunteers as to fill up the gap completely, of free-born men 'missing in action.'

A conservative estimate of ancient literacy would thus be one-fourth of the total population, 25%, not the 5% we hear of today, much less 2-3% as the Jesus Seminar would have it. Bart Ehrman even struggles to bring the number down to 1%! Most people were illiterate, yet this skill was not so uncommon as to force the gospels to have been written long, long after and far, far away, which was the point of scaling down this number. Ancient testimony will not allow such a dramatic down-grade.

It is often presupposed that widespread literacy would not have been possible prior to the Industrial Revolution. There is no evidence in favor of this view, and to the contrary, consider the case of Sequoyah, the Cherokee blacksmith who in the early nineteenth century invented a syllabary for his language. Even though this complex alphabet cannot have been as easy to learn as the mean and lean phonetic alphabets, he reportedly achieved near universal adoption by the tribe:

"Sequoyah's syllabrary is widely admired by professional linguists for its good fit to Cherokee sounds, and for the ease with which it can be learned. Within a short time, the Cherokees achieved almost 100 percent literacy in the syllabary, bought a printing press, had Sequoyah's signs cast as type, and began printing books and newspapers." (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs & Steel, p. 229).

The tribe was not known for its advanced industrialization at the time. People should accept the evidence from antiquity in its natural sense, without casting about for other, less literate societies to substitute via the 'cross-cultural' method popular with anti-Christian authors.




A Priori Desiderata
Reality It Takes a Village
School-houses Quintilian
Public Library Grants to Education
Normalcy Hellenic Civilization
Voting Child of Destiny
Liberal Education Old Deluder
A Father Set Free Caius and Caia
Down on the Farm Learned Slaves
Women's Literacy Enlightened Audience
Fame and Fortune The Public
Sign-board Fair Warning
Inscriptions Spare No Pains
Those Left Out Shorthand
Caesar's Army Small Print
Writing on the Wall Ordinary
Believe it or Not Barbarians
Balance



Jesus Christ Pantocrator


Great Emancipators

Slavery was very much an entrenched institution in the ancient world. However, the history of antiquity does not display only an unrelieved tableau of oppression, with no resistance or contrary tendencies; there were great liberators in the ancient world, like Solon the Athenian:

"But most agree that it was the taking off the debts that was called Seisacthea, which is confirmed by some places in his poem, where he takes honor to himself, that
"'The mortgage-stones that covered her, by me
Removed,— the land that was slave is free;'
"that some who had been seized for their debts he had brought back from other countries, where
"'— so far their lot to roam,
They had forgot the language of their home;'
"and some he had set at liberty,—
"'Who here in shameful servitude were held.'"
(Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Life of Solon).

Solon did not, nor did he intend to, eliminate the institution of slavery, though he broke the chains off many a slave's neck. Abraham Lincoln had predecessors, including Moses, whose institution of the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee freed countless slave down through the years, or would have had these enactments been faithfully observed. We today do not think of Nero Caesar in any positive light, yet the Greeks of that latter day considered him their emancipator, restoring their civil rights.

In some cases, the last measure of desperation of the Southern Confederacy in the Civil War was adopted by ancient polities on the ropes, in this case hoping to turn back the implacable Romans, and liberty was offered to those slaves willing to take up arms in defense of the society which enslaved them:



  • “Upon this the infantry joined battle; the barbarians pushed forward their long spears and endeavored by locking their shields to maintain their ranks in line: the Romans hurled their javelins, and then drawing their swords, endeavored to beat aside the spears, that they might forthwith close with the enemy; for they were irritated at seeing drawn up in front of the enemy fifteen thousand slaves, whom the king's generals had invited from the cities by a proclamation of freedom, and enrolled among the hoplitae. A Roman centurion is said to have remarked, that slaves had only freedom of speech at the Saturnalia, so far as he knew. Now, owing to the depth of the ranks of these slaves and their close order, it was some time before they could be made to give way before the heavy-armed Roman soldiers, and they also fought with more courage than one expects from a slave; but the missiles from the slings and the light javelins which were showered upon them unsparingly by the Romans in the rear, at last made them turn and put them into complete confusion.”
  • (Plutarch, Life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Chapter XVIII, Plutarch's Lives, Volume II, Kindle location 5682).




Hannibal, having crossed the Alps with his elephants but then frustrated by General Fabius' inaction, reportedly made a similar promise to his troops, offering foreign allies valuable citizenship rights: "Next I say to the allies of foreign blood who fight in the ranks of Carthage: if any of you lift up a hand red with Roman blood, he shall be henceforth a citizen of Carthage." (Silius Italicus, Punica, Book IX, Kindle location 2679).

Even the Spartans, willing to make their society into an armed camp so as to maintain control of the Helots, in desperation when their city was under siege offered freedom to these disenfranchised people:

"As for the people in the city [Sparta], the women could not even endure the sight of the smoke, since they had never seen an enemy; but the Spartiatae, their city being without walls, were posted at intervals, one here, another there, and so kept guard though they were, and were seen to be, very few in number. It was also determined by the authorities to make proclamation to the Helots that if any wished to take up arms and be assigned to a place in the ranks, they should be given a promise that all should be free who took part in the war. And it was said that at first more than six thousand enrolled themselves, so that they in their turn occasioned fear when they were marshalled together, and were thought to be all too numerous. . ." (Xenophon, Hellenica, Book VI, Chapter 5).

This last, desperate measure of a slave society seeking to preserve its existence, bought little respite in the American Civil War because they waited to employ it until a Union victory was a foregone conclusion.

Servius Tullius

This ancient king of Rome grew up in the slave quarters: "Or Tullus's reign, who by the power of Fate, Was born a slave, yet ruled the Rome state" (Manilius, The Rule of Fate, Modern Library, The Latin Poets, p. 505). He took over after the murder of the prior king, not openly at first but by failure to issue accurate reports of his medical condition. The Red Chinese used to put out photos of Mao swimming, when people said that he was dead; but Tarquinius really was dead:

"Servius Tullius, who followed Lucius Tarquinius, was the first king, according to tradition, who ruled without the sanction of the people. It is said that his mother was one of Tarquinius' slaves, while his father was one of the king's clients. Although he was reared among slaves and served the king's table, the spark of genius, which even then was evident in the boy, was not obscured, so intelligent he proved himself in every word he said and in every service he performed. And although Tarquinius then had children who were quite young, he loved Servius so deeply that the latter was commonly reputed to be his son. Moreover, he took the utmost care to instruct Servius, according to the finest patterns of Geek education, in all the arts which he himself had learned. After Tarquinius was treacherously murdered by the sons of Ancus, Servius began his reign, as I said before, not by the command of the citizens but with their leave and approval. For when it was falsely said that Tarquinius had been sick from a wound but was still living, Servius assumed the royal insignia, administered justice, and relieved debtors out of his own purse." (Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Commonwealth, Book II, Chapter XXI).

It seems that the popular conjecture, that this was his natural child, is the most plausible explanation for Servius' succession to the monarchy. Slavery opens up possibilities of sexual harassment beyond anything experienced today. When the slave screams 'Rape!' she gets nothing but a perplexed look from the constable; after all she is the master's property. American slavery was nothing out of the ordinary in this respect. What was unusual is the absence of stories like this one: we do not hear of slave-children inheriting the plantation, as Servius inherited his father's kingdom. Evidently the poison of racism was sufficiently toxic to smother the natural human feeling of paternal pride.

Phaedo

According to Aulus Gellius, Phaedo, in whose honor one of Plato's dialogues is named, was a slave:

"Phaedo of Elis belonged to that famous Socratic band and was on term of close intimacy with Socrates and Plato. His name was given by Plato to that inspired dialogue of his on the immortality of the soul. This Phaedo, though a slave, was of noble person and intellect, and according to some writers, in his boyhood was driven to prostitution by his master, who was a pander. We are told that Cebes the Socratic, at Socrates' earnest request, bought Phaedo and gave him the opportunity of studying philosophy. And he afterwards became a distinguished philosopher, whose very tasteful discourses on Socrates are in circulation.
"There were not a few other slaves too who afterwards became famous philosophers, among them that Menippus whose works Marcus Varro emulated in those satires which others call Cynic, but he himself, Menippean.
"Besides these, Pompylus, the slave of the Peripatetic Theophrastus, and the slave of the Stoic Zeno who was called Persaeus, and the slave of Epicurus whose name was Mys, were philosophers of repute."
(Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, Book II, Chapter XVII).

Slave-philosophers must however be considered the exception rather than the rule.

Epictetus

The philosopher Epictetus was a slave, and one with a broken leg:

"In the next place, consider Epictetus, who when his master twisted his leg violently, said, smiling gently and without being terrified, 'You will break my leg;' and when his master had broken his leg, only observed, 'Did I not tell you that you would break it?'" (Celsus, On True Doctrine, Arguments of Celsus, Porphyry, and the Emperor Julian Against the Christians, Thomas Taylor Kindle location 417).

The literate Epictetus commends this Stoic indifference to others in his treatises:


 Epictetus 
Manual
Epictetus
Discourses


Prohibition

At some times and places it seems the laws may have discouraged educating slaves: "For in these matters we must not believe the many, who say that free persons only ought to be educated. . .How then can we continue to believe you, most dear legislators, when you say, We only allow free persons to be educated?" (Discourses of Epictetus, as transcribed by Arrian, Book II, Delphi Complete Works of Arrian, Kindle location 5983). Students of American history are familiar with this phenomenon. Under American slavery, education was discouraged: "Soon after he purchased me, Epps asked me if I could write and read, and on being informed that I had received some instruction in those branches of education, he assured me, with emphasis, if he ever caught me with a book, or with pen and ink, he would give me a hundred lashes." (Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave, p. 95). Educated slaves might 'get ideas,' they might read the Declaration of Independence and discover that all men are created equal.

Readers may enjoy perusing 'The Manual' written by Epictetus, the slave. Nonetheless, those masters who educated their slaves were felt to be going beyond what was required of them:

"There are certain things with which a master is bound to provide his slave, such as food and clothing; no one calls this a benefit; but supposing that he indulges his slave, educates him above his station, teaches him arts which free-born men learn, that is a benefit." (Seneca, On Benefits, Book III, XXI).

Many slaves were not 'indulged' by their masters. How many were left out? It's difficult to give a number, but it is assumed in these pages that most slaves were not literate.

The Braggart Soldier

The braggart soldier's slave writes a note to his former master:



  • “On learning of the woman's inner feelings, I
    Compose a letter, sign and seal it secretly
    And get a merchant to deliver it for me
    To my old master -- he who still adored
    This girl here. And my note to come was not ignored!
    He came!”
  • (Plautus, The Braggart Soldier, 130-135).




Modern readers may complain, 'So what if slaves in theatrical plays could read? People do all kind of implausible things in soap operas on TV.' But the Roman audience was a very tough audience. Like the audience at the old Harlem Apollo theater, they were quick to hoot and holler. One of the things they were looking for was verisimilitude:

"If words the speaker's station fail to suit,
The Roman knights and commons laugh and hoot;
And wide indeed the difference it will make
Whether a rich man or a hero speak,
An aged man or man of youthful force,
A noble matron or a fussy nurse,
A merchant wont both near and far to roam
Or tiller of a thriving farm at home..."
(Horace, The Art of Poetry)

The audience's willingness to offer feedback imposed a discipline on these writers lacking for the soap operas.

Arms Control

The Romans were so afraid of slave rebellions like the nearly successful one led by Spartacus, that they made ownership or possession of swords or other weaponry illegal for slaves:



  • “For ever since Marcus Aquillius left it all the regulations and edicts of the praetors have been to this effect, that no slave should ever be seen with a weapon. . .They tell a story that Lucius Domitius was praetor in Sicily, and that an immense boar was brought to him; that he, marveling at the size of the beast, asked who had killed it. When he was told that it was such-an-one's shepherd, he ordered him to be summoned before him; that the shepherd came eagerly to the praetor, expecting praise and reward; that Domitius asked him how he had slain so huge a beast; that he answered 'With a hunting spear;' and that he was instantly crucified by order of the praetor.”
  • (Marcus Tullius Cicero, Against Verres, The Fifth Book of the Second Pleading in the Prosecution Against Verres, Chapter 1, Complete Works of Cicero, Kindle location 8742).





The second amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms; nevertheless, this right was routinely denied, by law, to a large chunk of the population in the Southern states: "No objections are made to hunting, inasmuch as it dispenses with drafts upon the smoke-house, and because every marauding coon that is killed is so much saved from the standing corn. They are hunted with dogs and clubs, slaves not being allowed the use of fire-arms." (Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave, p. 83). You can't have slavery and also, at the same time, a second amendment.

The Roman army, in this early period, was a citizen army; an armed man was a citizen, generally speaking, not a slave. In Lucan's 'Pharsalia,' Caesar is quoted as telling his rebellious soldiers, "'Quit ye, then, my camp, And leave my standards to the group of men, Coward Quirites!" (Lucan, Pharsalia, Book V, 413-415, p. 136). He is calling them 'citizens,' i.e., no longer soldiers, civilians, a stinging rebuke— but the fact is, they were citizens, as was any man bearing arms. The necessity for this is obvious. Armed slaves are slaves no longer; you must say 'please' and 'thank you' when you talk to them. The exceptions, noted above, when slaves were offered freedom in exchange for taking up arms, were an infrequent final act of desperation taken by societies on the ropes.

Though their treatment of their slaves could be brutal, the Romans were reminded of better things, every year at the festival of Saturnalia, a drunken riot, but one which encoded the memory of a happier time, when there were no slaves and no masters:

"Numa's muse was a gentle and loving inspiration, fitting him well to turn and soothe his people into peace and justice out of their violent and fiery tempers; whereas, if we must admit the treatment of the Helots to be a part of Lycurgus's legislations, a most cruel and iniquitous proceeding, we must own that Numa was by a great deal the more humane and Greek-like legislator, granting even to actual slaves a license to sit at meat with their masters at the feast of Saturn, that they, also, might have some taste and relish of the sweets of liberty. For this custom, too, is ascribed to Numa, whose wish was, they conceive, to give a place in the enjoyment of the yearly fruits of the soil to those who had helped to produce them. Others will have it to be in remembrance of the age of Saturn, when there was no distinction between master and slave, but all lived as brothers and as equals in a condition of equality." (Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius, Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Kindle location 1970).

The Romans rationalized slavery, on the grounds that the conqueror of a city had the right to put the population to the sword; if in his mercy he spared them, selling them into slavery instead, they ought to be grateful rather than complain. This argument ran into rough sledding in Christian times, because no Christian ethicist could be found who agreed the conqueror has the right to massacre the civilian populace:









In its early years, Rome was reluctant to arm not only slaves, but even the poor class of free citizens:

"Laudable also is the modesty of the people, who by briskly offering themselves for the toils and dangers of military service saw to it that commanders did not have to ask capite censi to take the military oath, whose excessive poverty made them suspect and on that account they did not trust them with public arms. But this custom, fortified though it was by long observance, was broken by C. Marius when he enlisted a capite census into the army." (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, Book II.3, pp. 147-149 Loeb edition).

This class was free, and thus counted in the census, but too poor to present any property for valuation. Marius' military reform had the unfortunate, unintended consequence of making the soldier more loyal to his general, who dispensed rewards, than to the state.

Sparta

The worst case scenario for ancient slavery were places like Sparta or Sicily where huge numbers of people, amounting to a majority of the populace, were enslaved. Compare the numbers of Spartans, a warrior elite who made it their full-time occupation to suppress the remainder of the population, made up of indigenous groups like the Helots, to those oppressed by them, as unfolded during this investigation of a revolutionary conspiracy:

“And when the ephors asked how he had said that the plan would be carried out, the informer replied that Cinadon had taken him to the edge of the market-place and directed him to count how many Spartiatae there were in the market-place. “And I,” he said, “after counting king and ephors and senators and about forty others, asked `Why, Cinadon, did you bid me count these men?’ And he replied: `Believe,’ said he, `that these men are your enemies, and that all the others who are in the market-place, more than four thousand in number, are your allies.’”. . .
“When the ephors asked how many Cinadon said there really were who were in the secret of this affair, the informer replied that he said in regard to this point that those who were in the secret with himself and the other leaders were by no means many, though trustworthy; the leaders, however, put it this way, that it was they who knew the secret of all the others — Helots, freedmen, lesser Spartiatae, and Perioeci; for whenever among these classes any mention was made of Spartiatae, no one was able to conceal the fact that he would be glad to eat them raw."

(Xenophon (2013-10-31). Hellenica, Book III, Chapter 3, Complete Works of Xenophon (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Location 10293-10303). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.)

Notice that the proportion here,— four thousand to forty,— is only 1 percent! However, technically, the larger, disaffected class amenable to this abortive revolution included legally free persons, including low income Spartans; exactly what ratio the disenfranchised Helots bore to their Spartan masters is unstated, but they certainly outnumbered them to a very great extent. Young Spartans would make KKK-style terrorist raids into the country-side, murdering any hapless Helot, walking down the road, they came upon, just to send a message. It was an ugly, brutal, oppressive society, a slave-state, hell on earth for the majority of inhabitants. And those who ran it had to sleep with one eye open.

Some people assume that population figures like these were normal for the world of classical antiquity as a whole, that slaves greatly out-numbered free persons, in all polities at all times. Those who defended American slavery often made this argument. I cannot confirm any such set of circumstances, and the mere fact that most ancient communities were not constituted as armed camps, as was Sparta, serves as credible circumstantial evidence to the contrary. This bears upon the question of literacy, because slave education was neglected by most masters, although some enterprising entrepreneurs like Cato sponsored vocational education for this group.

Marxism was given a full and fair trial during the twentieth century, and it failed abysmally. When it became impossible to ignore the bankruptcy of their economies, most of the nations which had adopted this system abandoned it. But one place where this system entrenched itself, and still continues to be taught, in spite of its near-universally acknowledged failure, is academia, where professors continue patiently to explain to their charges that the means of production determine history. Everything else that might seem to be important, such as political arrangements or religious or ethical ideals, are mere epiphenomena thrown off by the one moving engine of history, the one independent variable, which is the means of production. It's good to look at the ancient world for a fact-check on this theory. Instead of seeing one uniform type of polity, corresponding to the 'iron plow' or whatever, we see the widest variety, from pure democracy, to communism, to tyranny. These little social experiments worked their way to completion, showing what happens when you set the system up this way or that way.

One horrible way is mass slavery, pioneered by the Carthaginians. They bundled together vast estates worked by slave labor. This system was adopted throughout their domains, which at one time included much of Sicily. How well did this innovation turn out? For the estate owners, fabulous. For the slaves, miserable. For the family farmer toiling on his small plot, it meant ruin; a free man cannot compete with slave labor. Like a parasitic organism attached to a host, slavery can kill the organism it latches onto. In these settings, the observer will notice that periodic slave rebellions are a given. So we see in Sicily. Athens, during her imperial phase, lost an army in Sicily; one must wonder if any enslaved survivors of this military adventure, several generations later, could still recall their family tradition. Still remembering and knowing what freedom was, did they explain it to their slave-fellows? However, where we don't see persistent slave rebellions, we are not justified in assuming the conditions that generate them are present. A far-seeing Moses or Solon may have legislated to control the beast.

The Greek and Roman world labored under irremediable ignorance of economics; they never got away from seeing wage and price controls as the remedy for inflation, for instance. But many did fully understand that slavery is bad medicine, as indeed it is; this cruel and inhuman institution was not a given realizing the extreme poverty of the day, rather it was itself a major cause of that poverty: "The gangrene of a slave-proletariat gnawed at the vitals of all the states of antiquity, and the more so, the more vigorously they had risen and prospered; for the power and riches of the state regularly led, under the existing circumstances, to a disproportionate increase of the body of slaves." (Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Book V, Chapter II, Kindle location 26906). When Henry Ford paid his workers enough so that they could afford to purchase the machines they were making, the American economy took off for the stars. When large numbers fell into slavery, the ancient economy dove for the abyss:




Incidentally, these people would do well to believe in their own world view. One of the great technological inventions which changed history is the phonetic alphabet, invented by the Phoenicians. Teach a child this alphabet, a fairly small task, and he can in theory read. Actually it's not so easy; how, after all, do you pronounce 'ough'? Cough? Through? Doughnut? Ought? Borough? English, we know, has a history. But when the phonetic alphabet was first enunciated, it went to work on languages with no recorded history, a clean slate. One of the ways in which the 'Jesus Seminar' spreads its confusion is by importing low literacy rates from societies with pictographic alphabets, like medieval Japan, into antiquity. They insist the literacy rate in the first century Roman empire must have been 2-3%, because after all they used the iron plow. This is a non sequitur. They should take notice of this great innovation, the phonetic alphabet, which really did change history, as did no doubt the iron plow.

A form of writing, like cuneiform, which requires the student to memorize long lists of syllables, or ideographs like the Egyptian hieroglyphics, requires a huge investment of time to master. The bait and switch they've done on us is to substitute languages, like Chinese, which were and remain difficult to learn, for the easy Phoenician alphabet Cadmus gave the Greeks. The phonetic alphabet made mass literacy possible. The earnest inquirer should reject this switcheroo, reject the 'cross-cultural' approach, and insist on studying only data from the civilization under scrutiny, not foreign societies with completely different alphabets, not to mention social structures, not to mention world-denying ideologies like Buddhism which ensure stagnation. If you do that, then it's an entirely new ball game. If it should turn out that a world-changing technology like the phonetic alphabet actually has no effect on literacy rates, so that societies which employ these alphabets have no higher literacy rates than those which do not, then their system is disconfirmed anyhow. Maybe the iron plow isn't such a big deal, versus the digging stick, either.

Bookkeeping

The slave administrator of a rural estate owned by an absentee landlord was expected to keep written records:

"They themselves even steal it [grain], and they certainly do not guard against theft by others. And they don't even record the amount of grain honestly in their account book." (Columella, De re rustica 1.7.6-7, quoted in Entrusted with the Gospel, Andreas L. Kostenberger and Terry L. Wilder, Kindle location 2441).

How? With picture stickers? Cato advises the proprietor to stage unannounced visits to check the books before they could be doctored:

"Look over his account books for ready cash, grain, fodder supplies, wine, oil— what has been sold, what payments have been collected, how much is left, and what remains to be sold." (Cato, De agricultura, 2, quoted in Entrusted with the Gospel, Andreas L. Kostenberger and Terry L. Wilder, Kindle location 2449).

The Romans were good bookkeepers, if they required keeping an eye on, and not because they were illiterate. The beneficent institutions of democracy and republicanism did their social molding work in antiquity as well as today, improving civic awareness and literacy. Slavery, a brutal and barbaric practice, did no one any good but may not have functioned to suppress literacy as much as might be assumed.

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First Generation

Under the rules of ancient warfare, the entire population of a captured city could be led out in chains. These people entered into slavery in the same condition of literacy which they had been under while free. Epic poet Silius Italicus tells a tangled tale of a father, captured in war by the Carthaginians, enslaved and sold, who then returns to Italy with the troops under Hannibal's command, only to suffer the tragic fate of death at the hands of his surviving son. He took it in his mind to visit his old farm-stead as the army was passing through, and unwittingly strips the arms from his dead son on his way out from the camp. Returning through the lines, he is impaled by the surviving son's javelin. Looking with horror upon his dying father, this victorious son, now a parricide, commits suicide, but before dying relays his father's parting warning to the Romans against entering the death-trap of Cannae: "With these words he drove his sword into his own body; and, when the blood flowed forth from the dark wound, he checked it and wrote his father's message in letters of blood upon his shield — "Varro, beware of battle!" Then he hung the shield on the point of his spear, and threw himself down upon the body of the father he so deeply mourned." (Silius Italicus, Punica, Book IX, Kindle location 2658). The son being literate, it seems likely so was the slave-father; the family's socio-economic status is unlikely to have risen after the father's capture.

One interesting feature of the story is the way the advancing troops, moving in early morning optimism to meet disaster at Cannae, are stopped in their tracks by an ominous message written in blood: "The vanguard halted, forbidden to go on by the letters of blood upon the lifted shield; the portent struck them dumb and motionless. A fearful sight was before them: the ill-fated pair lay locked in an embrace, and the son had laid his hand on his father's breast, to hide the fatal wound." (Silius Italicus, Punica, Book IX, Kindle location 2691). A legend? Perhaps. While I wouldn't bet the farm that this incident took place in just the way described, it does give us a slave from a literate family, the turning wheel of fortune having up-ended his prior social status, and a literate army concerned by ill-omened warnings writ in blood.

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Peevishness

Historian Cassius Dio accuses Nero Caesar of "peevishness" because he was sometimes not even on speaking terms with the people he worked with: "Likewise he was very liable to peevishness that showed in his behavior, and at such times he would not speak a word to his servants or freedmen but write on tablets whatever he wanted as well as any orders that he had to give them." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 62, Chapter 14). If his "servants" were not literate, then he was guilty not of peevishness but of insanity. As it happens Nero was rather unhinged, but in any case it seems likely the "servants" assigned to work in government ministry would be literate, since their duties would involve record-keeping. Oh, I forgot, this was an 'oral culture' that didn't keep records.

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Shepherd of Hermas

The narrator of the 'Shepherd of Hermas' refers to a stage in his life history when he was "sold:"

"The man who brought me up sold me to a woman named Rhoda in Rome. Many years later I met her again and I began to love her as a sister." (Shepherd of Hermas, Vision I, 1, p. 194, The Apostolic Fathers, J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, revised by Michael W. Holmes).

He is instructed by one of his docents to write his instructions down, "'First of all, write down my commandments and parables; but write down the other matters as I show them to you.' . .So I wrote down the commandments and parables, just as he commanded me." (Shepherd of Hermas, Revelation 5, 25, p. 214, The Apostolic Fathers, J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, revised by Michael W. Holmes). Given that 'Hermas' reads like a work of fiction, this former slave's literacy has little evidentiary value, although the author, at least, must have found his literate slave narrator credible.

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