Traditionally, slavery has been strongly criticized, owing to the fact that it is considered as the opposite to freedom. It is thought to be a life without any rights, a life in which you are not considered as a real person. Nevertheless, we do not really know (and we will never do) what the slaves thought, what they felt. All of us take for granted that those people had a hard life, but it is due to our current mentality (in fact, most of the historical films and novels show precisely that). We are educated in a way of life apparently characterized by democracy, freedom of expression and those kinds of things. Otherwise, in Antiquity mentality was quite different; two thousand years ago hardly anyone could imagine a society without slaves.

Photogram of Ben-Hur, a 1959 film

It is worth pointing out that history is never black or white, but grey. We simply have to reason in a logical way: masters invested a big amount of money in buying slaves; so mistreating them would have been a stupid choice. A person who does not eat, who does not sleep well, who is hurt, is not going to be productive. Furthermore, several times manumission could be a tragedy, because becoming a freedman implied to stop being supported. A pregnant woman, for example, could barely survive. There were, in fact, a great variety of labours for a slave. Mineworkers and gladiators were tough ones, but a slave could also be a tutor or an accountant.

Obviously, we cannot think that slavery was a good situation, but it must be accepted that for some people it could mean a beneficial status. They were not free, but at least they could eat. On the other hand, slaves had to obey master’s orders; if not, they were usually punished. And many of them were captured in wars, meaning that they had been previously free. Bearing in mind these cases, it is understandable that there were rebellions, such as Spartacus’ one. Those slaves did want freedom, and they died trying to reach it.

Current society only points out the worst aspects of the slavery, showing an unreal version of our past. And it occurs because we think present time is better and more civilized. But, is it? Every day news talks about wars, about people who are suffering worldwide. There are slaves too: thousands of people are forced to look for diamonds in Africa, a huge amount of them are exploited in industrial workings in China (most of them children, indeed), etcetera.

And what about our country? We are witnessing dramatic cases, such as desperate people who decide to kill themselves instead of losing their home. The current economic crisis we are suffering, is an excuse for our Government to eliminate some of the civil rights we used to have, and nevertheless the crisis only keeps on deepening. This situation, if pushed to the limits, is what happened in Antiquity: the economical structure lied in social stratification, that is to say, rich people could only exist because they had slaves to maintain their way of living. Obviously, this is an extreme case, but a certain paralelism can be drawn.

To conclude, there are two different choices for our society: is it better to have a job, but with a considerable lack of freedom (thus, nearer to slavery)? Or vice versa: Is it better not to have a job but with more freedom in the end? Ancient slaves had to decide upon a similar question.

Diego Chapinal