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The Ancients’ Slave Trade

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Some Scythians farm, Hippocrates’ encyclopedia declares; others were nomads; yet others called Sauromatae, the Amazons of the Palus Maeotis/Sea of Azov region, seem constantly to be at war. Before young girls reached puberty, Amazon mothers cauterized their right breasts, arresting the breast’s development and immensely strengthening the right shoulder and arm. Thus did young Amazon women become warriors; raised to throw javelins from horseback and to fight like men—as long as they remained virgins. Their potency demanded abstinence, of course, which lasted until each Amazon had killed three enemies, whereupon the Amazon performed certain ritual sacrifices before engaging in sex with men. Once married, however, Amazons settled down peaceably, returning to war only during times of dire crisis. This lack of a breast seems not to have interfered with Amazon sexuality.


Babylonian Marriage Market (partial) by Edwin Long (1875)

Babylonian Marriage Market (partial) by Edwin Long (1875)


The slave trade from the Black Sea region (of people later considered white) continued for more than two thousand years, ending only with Ottoman modernization at the turn of the twentieth century. Such was the lot of masses of Europeans in ancient Greece.


In fact, throughout Airs, Waters, and Places one is never far from sex. Hippocrates ties some Scythians’ low rate of reproduction to climate, culture, and the bodies of men and women, including the many eunuchs said to be living among them who obviously did not father children. Furthermore, Scythian women, often fat, are said to have damp bellies that tended to close out semen and nullify conception, a serious problem since a rampant effeminacy among Scythian men curtailed the production of semen anyway. Moistness and softness, “the greatest checks on venery,” meant that Scythian men “have no great desire for intercourse.” Horseback riding creates further obstacles to fertility. Scythian men remedied the lameness caused by horseback riding through a dubious cure: cutting the vein behind each ear and bleeding until they passed out; then “[a]fterwards they get up, some cured and some not. Now, in my opinion, by this treatment the seed is destroyed. For by the side of the ear are veins, to cut which causes impotence, and I believe that these are the veins which they cut. After this treatment, when the Scythians approach a woman but cannot have intercourse, at first they take no notice and think no more about it.” After several failures at sex, they conclude they have sinned against the gods and become transvestites, even though ashamed of comporting themselves like women.


Turning to the east, Hippocrates rates the milder Asian (i.e., Persian and Babylonian) climate more highly than that of Europe (around Greece). Living in perpetual springtime, the civilized men of Asia were “well nourished, of very fine physique and very tall, differing from one another but little either in physique or stature.” Nature and culture do produce weaknesses, however. The lack of well-defined seasons made Asians “feeble.” Climatic sameness, puzzlingly, retards fetus development, too, no matter what the season of fertilization. More to the point, monarchy made men into cowards: “For men’s souls are enslaved, and refuse to run risks readily and recklessly to increase the power of somebody else.” Hippocrates says earlier, “All their worthy, brave deeds merely serve to aggrandize and raise up their lords, while the harvest they themselves reap is danger and death.”-


Not surprisingly, conditions improved closer to home. Unlike Asians, Hippocrates says, the Europeans/Greeks have no kings to tell them what to do. (In fact, he conveniently ignores a complication—that while his Greeks did live in more or less democratic city-states, warlords ruled the surrounding barbarians, many also European.) In any case, Hippocrates sings the praises of European political institutions that encourage individualism: for “independent people, taking risks on their own behalf and not on behalf of others, are willing and eager to go into danger, for they themselves enjoy the prize of victory. So institutions contribute a great deal to the formation of courageousness.” Over succeeding millennia, this contrast between king-ridden Asia and enterprising, individualist Europe hardened into a trope, even amid redefinitions of Europe and even though many Europeans remained under the thumb of kings while others violently overthrew them.


Missing in this analysis is any ambivalence regarding slavery. Although Herodotus mentions slaves repeatedly, he always does so in an offhand, matter-of-fact manner, as merely a system within the common hierarchies of antiquity—in Greece, throughout the Greek empire, and among barbarians across the known world. At least as early as the seventh century BCE, nomadic, loosely organized societies around the Black Sea region established an efficient trade network furnishing slaves to the wealthy of Greek society. Regions long fabled in myth, such as Thrace (now southern Bulgaria, northeastern Greece, and northwestern Turkey, homeland of the Roman slave Spartacus) and Colchis (now Georgia), in particular, seem to have supplied the bulk of them. Impoverished parents and kidnapping pirates delivered slaves to the market, and famine and warfare regularly increased the supply of people offered up for sale.


Could oligarchic Greece have thrived without slavery? Could the philosophers and citizens attending to their businesses and that of the state ever have arisen without such a lower class doing the work? Plato owned fifty slaves, and households with ten or more bondspeople were common. Going about town or on long military campaigns, Athenian gentlemen always took along a slave or two. Quite likely, slaves outnumbered free people in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, probably numbering 80,000 to 100,000 in Athens alone. Multitudes of enslaved women worked primarily at household tasks, providing services that could be sexual, medical, and domestic, while male slaves, skilled and unskilled, labored in the fields, on board ships, and in industrial workshops. Athens used an enslaved Scythian police force numbering between 300 and 1,000, for Scythians were known as skilled archers.


The slave trade worked like this: as noted, the Black Sea line of supply began with barbarian chiefs whose endless warfare steadily drove refugees onto the market, where chiefs sold them to Greek slave traders for luxury goods like wine and clothing. Not that war was a prerequisite—thousands of children also entered the market, having been sold by their parents for salt or other necessities. Two cities, Byzantium (later Constantinople and then modern Istanbul) and Ephesus, Asia Minor’s most important Greek city, dominated the market in slaves. (Ephesus is probably best known today as the home of the Ephesians of the Bible, whose Christian church was one of seven in Asia to which Saint Paul addressed his letters.)


No shame attended this brutal business. A Greek Macedonian proudly listed his occupation as slave trader on his funeral stele and had engraved on it the image of eight slaves chained together by their necks. To be sure, some practices did offend Greek morals. Herodotus mentions a slave trader who was punished for castrating freeborn boys and selling them as eunuchs. But even so, ancient Greeks are rightly known for their appreciation of good-looking boys, and when ancient sources speak of the beauty of slaves, they mean boys, not women and girls.


A ruling class quite easily judges the lower orders to be innately servile. More than a century before Aristotle discoursed on the naturalness of slavery and the inherently slavish nature of the enslaved in Politics (books 1, 3–7) and Nicomachean Ethics (book 7), Herodotus scolds the Thracians for so readily selling their children for export. Not that matters of slavery were always so simple.


Herodotus relates an anecdote demonstrating the two sides of slave life: a chance for upward mobility and a circumscribed possibility for success. In roughly 512 BCE the Scythian army undertook a war against the Persian king Darius that continued for twenty-eight years. And the Scythians won. But twenty-eight years of absence had wrought changes at home. As Herodotus explains, “For the Scythian women, when they saw that time went on, and their husbands did not come back, had intermarried with their slaves.” On the warriors’ return, children of the slaves and the Scythian women put up stiff resistance so long as the warriors fought with spears and bows. But the warriors succeeded once they capitalized on the essentially servile nature of the half-slave children. “Take my advice,” one Scythian warrior told his army, “lay spear and bow aside, and let each man fetch his horse-whip, and go boldly up to them. So long as they see us with arms in our hands, they imagine themselves our equals in birth and bravery; but let them behold us with no other weapon but the whip, and they will feel that they are our slaves, and flee before us.” Herodotus tells us that this tactic worked: the slaves’ progeny “forgot to fight, and immediately ran away.” A mere sight of the whip had returned the children of slaves to their innate, slavish character, an early example of the close association of status and temperament.


Whatever the truth of that self-serving story, power relations clearly ruled the day, and the powerful would have their due. According to Herodotus, once again, every fifth year the Colchians and peoples around them traditionally paid a tribute to Persia of one hundred boys and one hundred girls. Already well established in Herodotus’s time, this levy’s origins could not be traced. And it must have continued long past the days of Herodotus, for more than three hundred years later, the Greek historian Polybius (ca. 203–120 BCE) notes the Black Sea origin of life’s everyday necessities: “cattle and slaves.” Indeed, this slave trade from the Black Sea region (of people later considered white) continued for more than two thousand years, ending only with Ottoman modernization at the turn of the twentieth century. Such was the lot of masses of Europeans in ancient Greece.


 


Photo (partial) by ©Robin Holland

Photo (partial) by ©Robin Holland


Nell Irvin Painter, Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University, is the author of seven books, including Sojourner Truth and Standing at Armageddon. She has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the Southern Historical Association, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She lives in Newark, New Jersey, and the Adirondacks.


© W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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