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Arming slaves as soldiers is a counterintuitive idea. Yet throughout history, in many varied societies, slaveholders have entrusted slaves with the use of deadly force. This book is the first to survey the practice broadly across space and time, encompassing the cultures of classical Greece, the early Islamic kingdoms of the Near East, West and East Africa, the British and French Caribbean, the United States, and Latin America.
To facilitate cross-cultural comparisons, each chapter addresses four crucial issues: the social and cultural facts regarding the arming of slaves, the experience of slave soldiers, the ideological origins and consequences of equipping enslaved peoples for battle, and the impact of the practice on the status of slaves and slavery itself. What emerges from the book is a new historical understanding: the arming of slaves is neither uncommon nor paradoxical but is instead both predictable and explicable.
The independent Greek city-states of the classical period, 500-338 BC, fought many wars against each other, individually or in various combinations. Many of the most important city-states were also slave societies: their numerous slaves were crucial to their agriculture and to their urban economies. In response to this pair of circumstances, cities sometimes encouraged their opponent's slaves to desert. They also mobilized their own slaves in a variety of ways ranging from emergency infantry service with the promise of freedom to regular mobilization with pay in the navy.
Warfare between the independent city-states of Greece in the archaic period, 750-500 BC, was limited and convention-bound. This type of warfare is sometimes called agonal because it resembled a contest with set rules, an agon: a single battle resulted in a clear winner and decided the war. The heavy infantry, the hoplites, who determined the battle's outcome, provided their own metal armor and thus came from the richer part of the population. This warfare regime left little scope for arming slaves, because only a fraction of the free population wasarmed, and inviting the desertion of an enemy's slaves would result only in retribution and contribute little to the single battle that counted.
In the classical period, some wars became more intense and lasted longer. They were decided not by single battles but sometimes by lengthy campaigns. Wars were no longer fought over disputed borderlands, but more often a state's independence and even its system of government were at stake. On occasion, a city's very existence could be at risk: the adult men could be killed and their women and children sold into slavery. Athens, the most populous city in the Greek world, came close to such a fate at the end of the Peloponnesian War, a particularly bitter conflict. Naval warfare, whose importance grew with the increasing importance of trade, demanded material and financial resources, centralized planning, and manpower well beyond those required by hoplite warfare. In the context of more intense wars, often involving large navies, states used every available source of manpower including their slaves. As attacks on an enemy's economy became more common, states were often tempted to try to get the slaves of their opponents to rebel or, more often, simply to desert.
Ancient Greek city-states typically possessed significant populations of chattel slaves. The commercial and prosperous islands of Chios and Corcyra seem to have had particularly numerous slaves, but agrarian Elis and Thebes had many also. Plausible estimates of the number of slaves in classical Athens range from forty thousand to more than one hundred thousand at the time of the Peloponnesian War. Since the population of Athenian adult male citizens was between thirty thousand and sixty thousand at this time, the military potential of slave manpower was obvious.
Greek agriculture was mixed, intensive, and dominated by mid-sized farms with a few slaves on each. Slaves were even more prominent in urban crafts, commerce, and mining. The greatest concentrations of slaves were employed in these sectors: one hundred slaves working in a shield workshop or a thousand owned by a single man and rented out to work in the silver mines of southern Attica, which may have employed more than twenty thousand slaves at their height. But, perhaps more typically, craftsmen worked together with a single slave or a handful of slaves. Overall, slave ownership was more widely distributed among the free than in New World slavery: at the height of Athenian wealth, fully a third of the male citizens probably owned at least one slave; very few owned large numbers of slaves, that is, more than thirty. The politics of arming slaves was influenced by this pattern of ownership within different classes. Although the common people held sway in Athens' direct democracy, widespread slaveholding meant that only in extreme emergencies would the emancipation of slaves for military service be contemplated-and even then it was controversial. As we shall see below, the regular use of slaves in the navy did not usually infringe on the interests of slave owners.
The Evidence and Its Difficulties
Our sources of information about the role of slaves in ancient Greek warfare are pitiful. Two examples show the grand scale of Greek slave recruitment and our paltry evidence for the practice. Aegospotami, the last and decisive battle of the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC, was fought between the navies of the Spartan-led Peloponnesian league and of the Athenian Empire. These navies together were manned by more than sixty thousand men including slave rowers. We have to guess, however, at the proportion of slaves in their crews and with little firm ground on which to base our speculation: at most we possess six scraps of evidence relevant to the proportion of slave rowers. Each must be squeezed to produce a possible estimate for the proportion of slaves in a particular navy. And this information is for all of Greece during the entire classical period. None of this evidence pertains specifically to the battle of Aegospotami. So the number of slaves at this battle may have been anywhere from ten thousand to forty-five thousand. We know that slaves took part in this decisive battle on a large scale, but theories about their origins, means of recruitment, and fate depend on arguments from probability-and sometime tenuous ones-rather than on hard evidence.
The second example concerns slave desertion, again in the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides mentions briefly that more than twenty thousand slaves, most of them skilled workers, ran away from their Athenian masters and escaped to a fort established by the Spartans in Athenian territory at Decelea. Whether these slaves escaped to freedom or to reenslavement under different masters or ended up as rowers in the Peloponnesian Navy is unknown. Nor does Thucydides explicitly say that the Spartans promised freedom to the slaves, although this is most likely what motivated them to desert in such large numbers.
In part, the lack of detailed information is a problem common to all ancient history: our sources are scarce and difficult to interpret even when compared to the high Middle Ages and are far inferior to the evidence for any modern period. Crucial events, matters of common knowledge and great interest throughout Greece, are insecurely known. For example, the mid-fifth-century treaty that formally ended the great Persian Wars, the Peace of Kallias, is so insecurely attested that many scholars doubt its very existence.
When, however, we consider the Peloponnesian War, we might expect our information to be much better, since we possess the long and meticulous account of Thucydides and its admittedly less competent continuation by Xenophon. But another difficulty now presents itself. Greek historians assumed informed Greek readers. They did not always detail standard practices that their readers understood already. Rather, they focused on the course of events, on its explanation, or on exceptional practices. Certain uses of slaves in war may have been taken for granted and therefore neglected.
This explanation for ancient reticence is still not quite sufficient: Thucydides would never have let the fate of twenty thousand Athenian citizens go unstated as he does the fates of the slaves who fled to Decelea. A systematic neglect of slaves mars our sources. To begin with, slaves were less important than citizens and thus less worthy of report. But even this explanation is too neutral; slave soldiers were not merely unimportant but a particularly awkward topic for two main reasons. First, classical Greece emphasized more than most other societies the importance of military service in judging a man and specifically his claims for political rights. Second, in common with a variety of slave societies, free Greeks affected to despise their slaves for a variety of faults, several of them incompatible with the virtues of a brave soldier.
From the time that the Iliad was written down, around 700 bc, a strong stream in Greek thinking put a high value on fighting for one's city and linked it with social status. Homer's aristocrats encourage each other to fight as follows:
Therefore it is our duty in the forefront of the Lykians to take our stand, and bear our part of the blazing battle, so that a man of the close-armoured Lykians may say of us: "Indeed, these are no ignoble men who are lords of Lykia, these kings of ours, who feed upon the fat sheep appointed and drink the exquisite sweet wine, since indeed there is strength of valour in them, since they fight in the forefront of the Lykians."
When hoplites came to dominate warfare in the course of the seventh century BC, military service became associated with the citizenship of the independent farmers who made up the hoplites, rather than the aristocrats of Homer. Even in classical Athens, a man could lose his rights as a citizen for cowardice in battle. Not only political rights but also basic worth depended on one's fighting ability and courage: Tyrtaeus' archaic paean to the absolute primacy of the virtues of a good hoplite was still well-known in the fourth century:
I would not say anything for a man nor take account of him for any speed of his feet or wrestling skill he might have ... not if he were more handsome and gracefully formed than Tithónos, or had more riches than Midas had, or Kínyras too, not if he were more of a king than Tantalid Pelops, or had the power of speech and persuasion Adrastos had, not if he had all splendors except for a fighting spirit ... Here is courage, mankind's finest possession, here is the noblest prize that a young man can endeavor to win.
Tyrtaeus specifies that it is fighting at close quarters in the infantry that reveals the worthy man. Classical Athens, however, depended more on its navy than its hoplites. But despite some aristocratic contempt for the naval mob, the connection between military service and rights remained strong. A fifth-century critic of Athenian democracy had to admit that the common people deserve their power because "it is the ordinary people who man the fleet and bring the city her power." Although Tyrtaeus' poem manifestly oversimplifies the actual complexity of social status in Greece, the military virtues played an unusually large role in the Greek spectrum of values. Accordingly, the question of arming slaves was always a political and ideological one as well as a practical one.
All sorts of military service, therefore, even rowing for the navy, were associated with rights that slaves manifestly did not have and, to Greek thinking, should not have. Slaves were sometimes Greek prisoners of war, but more often they came to Greece via trade from areas in the northern Aegean, around the Black Sea, and the coasts of Asia Minor and Syria. The circumstances of their original enslavement are largely unknown. Slaves were seen as inferior, having been defeated in war or coming from "barbarian" peoples. They were seen as childish and cowardly and as the polar opposites of the citizens. None of these ways of viewing slaves could easily be reconciled with their playing an important role in warfare, an activity so central to the self-definition of the male citizen.
The juxtaposition of this seemingly overwhelming ideology and the barely mentioned participation of slaves in warfare have resulted in two very different historical approaches. Some scholars have played down the evidence for slave participation, since such a practice was incompatible with Greek thinking. They tend to argue that a handful of exceptional cases constitute the whole of slave use in classical Greek warfare. I have recently argued for the opposite approach. Rival cities at war often had no choice but to press every advantage including the recruitment of slaves-and inciting desertion among their enemies. Contemporary Greek historians were not similarly constrained in what they chose to report or focus on. They could neglect slave participation or focus on other issues. So, far from looking askance at brief references to arming slaves on the grounds that such a practice was incompatible with Greek thinking about slaves and military service, we should take full account of this evidence. Indeed, other cases have very probably been completely lost from the record.
Types of Slave Use
Rather than go through the scattered individual cases of arming of slaves in the many wars of classical Greece, it is perhaps more useful first to sketch out typical practices in broad strokes. It is readily admitted that such a general picture, faute de mieux, is not as solid as one built up by the consideration of many detailed narratives. We have a few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and are trying to put them together, knowing full well that they may belong to different puzzles and simply hoping that the puzzles resemble each other, that is, that a Peloponnesian navy of 405 will resemble one of 411. This general overview focuses on three cases: slaves from Scythia, archers, who performed police functions within Athens; slaves who accompanied hoplites on campaigns but were not armed; and slaves who were occasionally armed as infantry soldiers. Then I consider in greater detail two cases that were of great military importance and about which the evidence allows more insight into the practical problems, politics, and effects of arming slaves: the military roles of Sparta's serflike Helot population and the use of slaves in the Athenian navy during the Peloponnesian War.
Athens did not have a police force; its legal system depended a great deal on self-help and social pressure. In order to maintain order in the courts and assemblies and to assist certain magistrates, Athens, in the fifth century, bought a force of three hundred Scythian slaves, armed with the traditional Scythian bow. These slaves carried these lethal weapons among an unarmed populace, but they seemed to have performed their jobs smoothly and did not evoke fears of a slave revolt. Despite being the butt of various xenophobic jokes in comedies, the archers were a favored group of slaves. Because of their homogeneity and their weapons, their lives were perhaps more like those of mercenaries-or of Muslim slave soldiers-than of individual chattel slaves. These archers may have provided a bulwark for the democracy against the possibility of coups by the oligarchs, which often depended on a surprise attack in concert with mercenaries. The Scythian archers also strengthened the state's power while maintaining equal rights among the citizens: such equality was felt to be offended if a citizen, even in the role of policeman, laid hands upon another. The Scythian archers were armed slaves, but they were armed for internal rather than external purposes.
Each hoplite, often an independent farmer, typically brought one of his slaves with him on a campaign. Such attendants played a key support role in warfare. In particular, they helped carry the hoplite's armor, which weighed up to sixty pounds and was uncomfortable in the summer heat, and thus not put on until the last possible moment. The attendants might also help plunder or ravage the enemy's countryside, throw stones at the enemy, and carry and care for the wounded. They seem not to have played a large role in battle itself and did not present the threats, both practical and ideological, that slaves in combat did. Although such slaves might take the opportunity to desert, they might also render their masters exceptional service and receive commensurate rewards, such as their freedom, or at least public commemoration if they died. More commonly they did hard but inglorious work on a campaign and returned to their previous duties afterwards.
Excerpted from Arming Slaves Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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