History for Kossacks: Of Slaves and Serfs (Special Guest Edition)

Originally posted by aphra behn on 11/13/06

Greetings Cave Dwellers! aphra behn guest-hosting here. Tonight The Moonbat and I continue our exploration of the history of “unfreedom,” with a special focus on the institutions that led to the development of slavery in the United States.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

If you missed last week, UM got us started with a look at the roots of slavery in the ancient Western world. Tonight we’ll continue the journey  with a wildly experimental attempt at co-authoring! He’ll talk for a while (and I’ll interrupt) about slavery in the Roman world. Then I’ll pick up where he leaves off and look at several kinds of “unfreedom” in Western Christendom, in Byzantium, and under the Ottoman Empire.  There’s plenty of room in the Cave for guests, so pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup of tea, grab some pie (leave the doughnuts for the trolls) and follow us below the fold to the Hills of the Eternal City….

(Crossposted at Never in Our Names and Progressive Historians.)

The following section on ancient Rome comes to you straight from the pen of the Moonbat!—ab

Slavery and Freedom in Ancient Rome

It’s hard to say if slavery existed in the vicinity of the Seven Hills during the time of Romulus and Remus, ca. 753 BCE, as the Etruscan then-masters of the Italian Peninsula didn’t leave much in the way of written records – currently, only a couple of hundred or so words of Etruscan are known.  Still, slavery must have been a practice of Rome’s northern neighbor/overlords; this Etruscan Dictionary lists five or six different ways of referring to slaves as an individual or as a class, and it certainly was known among the Greek colonies in southern Italy.

The Romans liberated themselves from Etruscan-puppet oppression in 509 BCE, and though they swore to themselves that they would never be ruled by a king again (ha!), the newfound freedom to make Senatorial orations about what a great thing is liberty was not to be extended to every level of society.  By 451 BCE, when the Romans were ready to carve their legal code into stone, slavery already had a considerable body of laws regarding the status of slaves.  According to The Twelve Tables:

Table IV.

2. If a father sell his son three times, the son shall be free from his father.

Table VIII.

2. If one has maimed a limb and does not compromise with the injured person, let there be retaliation. If one has broken a bone of a freeman with his hand or with a cudgel, let him pay a penalty of three hundred coins.  If he has broken the bone of a slave, let him have one hundred and fifty coins. If one is guilty of insult, the penalty shall be twenty-five coins.

Historiorant:  there’s a lot of people out there that owe me a lot of money – u.m.)

Table XII.

2. If a slave shall have committed theft or done damage with his master’s knowledge, the action for damages is in the slave’s name.

Via Ancient History Sourcebook

        Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Later legal advances regarding slaves included laws against selling them to fight beasts in the amphitheater, killing them due to age or infirmity, and executing them without due process of law (Fun with History – insert your own Military Commissions Act joke here), but back in those pre-Imperial times, life wasn’t all legal protections and protected status for the Roman slave:

The master’s power over the slave was called dominica potestas, and it was absolute. Torture, degradation, unwarranted punishment, and even killing a slave when he was old or sick, in the eyes of the law, slaves were property who could not legally hold property, make contracts, or marry, and could testify in court only under torture. The death of his master did not free a slave.

classicsunveiled.com (an excellent resource, btw – u.m.)

Sub Hasta Venire

The Romans acquired many (probably most) of their slaves through warfare, but their military wasn’t really in the slaving business per se.  Since the legions were military outfits not designed for the long-term care and feeding of a captive population, they were usually followed by slave wholesalers, who bought people in bulk and arranged for their shipment back to civilization.  After a victory, the army’s quaestor (paymaster), would oversee the sale of the newly-enslaved, usually with a spear marking the site of the auction and wreaths used to mock/identify the victims, and those slaves who were not to be retained for the public good (on construction sites and in city maintenance) were auctioned off to the private market.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Not that it mattered much to a slave, who might find himself (or herself) with an iron band riveted around his (her) neck like the one in Rome which reads: “I have run away. Catch me. If you take me back to my master Zoninus, you’ll be rewarded”.  They might also find themselves owned by anyone from Cicero, who really liked his slave Tiro, to somebody like Vedius Pollio, who once ordered a slave thrown into a pool of carnivorous fish because the guy dropped a goblet.  The reputation of the Romans as brutal masters was not one that was ignored by people who saw the legions approaching, either – at the siege of Alesia in 50 BCE, in which Julius Caesar’s 60,000 men were encircling a fortress containing 80,000 warriors and 100,000 civilians, the Celtic chieftain Critognatus let his people know in no uncertain terms what was at stake:

“What counsel, then, have I to offer?  I think we should do what our ancestors did in a war that was much less serious than this one.  When they were forced into their strongholds by the Cimbri and Teutoni, and overcome like us by famine, instead of surrendering they kept themselves alive by eating the flesh of those who were too old or too young to fight.  Even if we had no precedent for such action, I think that when our liberty is at stake it would be a noble example to set to our descendents.  For this is a life and death struggle, quite unlike the war with the Cimbri, who, though they devastated Gaul and grievously afflicted her, did eventually evacuate our country and migrate elsewhere, and left us free men, to live on our own land under our own laws and in possession of our rights.  The Romans, we know, have a very different purpose.  Envy is the motive that inspires them.  They know that we have won renown by our military strength, and so they mean to install themselves in our lands and our towns and fasten the yoke of slavery on us for ever.  That is how they have always treated conquered enemies.  You do not know much, perhaps, of the condition of distant peoples; but you need only look at that part of Gaul on your own borders that has been made into a Roman province, with new laws and institutions imposed upon it, ground beneath the conqueror’s iron heel in perpetual servitude.”

extract from The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar (tr. S.A. Handford), London, 1982.

Historiorantrix:Lemme interrupt the Moonbat just briefly to point up an example of Roman slavery that may be familiar to some of us. It’s found in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10: the story of the centurion with a sick “servant,” whom he begs Jesus to heal. The centurion clearly loves his slave a great deal–so much that he is willing to beg a Jewish prophet man for assistance. (To put this in modern terms, imagine the circumstances that might drive a U.S. Marine officer to beg an Iraqui holy man for help.)

Why did the centurion care so much about his slave? Matthew and Luke don’t tell us directly; apparently their first century audiences would have found it perfectly understandable that a centurion might care so much about one of his household slaves. Matthew uses the Greek word “pais” to describe the servant; in the context of the story, it sounds very much as if the servant is a male concubine to the centurion. As Moonbat noted, male heads of household had absolute power over their slaves. This included the  right to sexually access any of their slaves, male or female.

    Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

 Romans did not view this as adultery, even if the slaveholder was married. Some of these encounters consisted of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape. Others may have been intense, loving relationships.

So, here’s a little “Good News” for Ted Haggard. It’s possible that  centurion was begging Jesus to heal his male lover. The earliest readers of the Gospels would have understood that possibility. And ya know what? Jesus didn’t say, “Gee, Roman dude, I’d love to heal your servant…but are you gay? Because that is the Worst. Thing. EVER!!!” Nope. Jesus doesn’t say anything disapproving about “teh gay.” He just praised the centurion’s faith and healed the man’s “pais.” No questions asked. Food for thought, eh?—-a.b.

…..and now back to your regularly scheduled Moonbat:

A Couple of Ways Out

Say you’ve recently been enslaved by the Romans.  Right now, your prospects for freedom don’t look so good, but you’ll find there are several possible avenues that might open up later on.  You might find yourself sold to a wealthy aristocrat, for example – Horace, ca. 20 BCE, implied that even a man of moderate circumstance would own around ten – and so might be able to set yourself up to buy your freedom with a small hoard of tips collected as you ingratiate yourself to your master’s buddies.  Long-term loyal service could also occasionally result in deathbed manumission, and depending on the relative gratitude of an owner, a single, particularly thanks-worthy act might rise to the level of a proclamation of emancipation.  Should your owner decide to grant you your freedom thus, try’n make sure it’s official by getting it done in front of a praetor, but legally, any witnesses will do in a pinch.  Getting manumitted in this way will entitle you to wear a cap on your head and call yourself a libertinus, which you’ll find is an increasingly large socioeconomic class as the Pax Romana (27 BCE – 180 CE) rumbles on.

If you’re a farm slave, or one bought as part of a labor-force-for-hire, then it’s probably your dream to run away and be a slave in the city, where you’d most likely get to focus on one, single task – looking after master’s sandals, scrubbing out master’s crapper, say – instead of doing the varied (but all hard) tasks that come your way as an involuntary agricultural worker.  If you do run away, and you’re caught, you’ll likely be branded on the forehead with a big “F” (for fugitivus).  Do that enough, and you’ll probably be sold as gladiator fodder.

                            Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

You could always go that route: try for fame and fortune in the ring, and win your freedom by public acclaim.  Since this would have been about as likely to happen then as it is in our modern gladiatorial arenas, counting on this approach is not recommended.  Of course, if you’re the rabble-rousing type, a gladiator school might be just the thing for you: Though the First and Second Servile Wars (135 & 104 BCE, respectively) were localized Sicilian uprisings that didn’t threaten the Republic as a whole, the Third Servile War, led by the slave Spartacus from 73-70 BCE, began in a gladiator school.

For that little act of freedom-assertion, Spartacus and his 6000 of his closest friends suffered the terrible fate of the rebellious slave: crucifixion, in their case along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua.  This led to the slave-slang Cheneyism, i ad malam crucem, “Go to the bad cross.”

The population of slaves kept growing into and throughout most of the Imperial period, and many slaves found themselves with increasingly less to do.  To avoid a reprise of the Spartacus Incident, the Emperors and the Senate began turning to bread and circuses to keep the mobs of idle slaves mollified – but like all things Roman, this, too, eventually got out hand, and by 400 CE, nearly half of the Roman calendar consisted of holidays.  To add inevitability to ineptitude, as the Empire’s economy decayed, the currency devalued, making it more expensive to buy slaves and less profitable to employ their labor – and of course, there was the increasingly powerful sect of Christians, who were denouncing the institution even as they were trying to wean themselves off the habit.  By the time the Western Empire lay prostrate before Attila in 453 CE, much of the slave population of Rome had either died or had melted back into populations around Europe, there to provide a ready source of labor for the feudal warlords that would come to dominate the land.    

We now end your evening’s  Moonbat programming. Welcome to the aphra behn show!

Historiorantrix: Hmm. Trust the Moonbat to leave me here with an Empire laying prostrate before me!

Decline and Fall

Slavery in Western Europe outlived the slow deflation of the Roman Empire. Things got pretty hairy for a while; without the protection of a central authority, rural people became especially vulnerable to kidnaping and subsequent enslavement. A Romanized Briton named Succat (that’s St. Patrick to you and me ) was kidnaped by Celtic raiders and spent time as a slave, herding goats in Ireland. He later returned as a bishop to try to convert the Irish.

                    Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Unsurprisingly, Patrick did not approve of Christians being enslaved by other Christians:

Now you, Coroticus— and your gangsters, rebels all against Christ, now where do you see yourselves? You gave away girls like prizes: not yet women, but baptized. All for some petty temporal gain that will pass in the very next instant. “Like a cloud passes, or smoke blown in the wind,” so will “sinners, who cheat, slip away from the face of the Lord. But the just will feast for sure” with Christ. “They will judge the nations” and unjust kings “they will lord over” for world after world. Amen. —Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus (c.450?) at at Wikipedia.

The idea that Christians should avoid enslaving other Christians meant that most slaves in later antiquity came from outside the Christian world, members of Germanic or Slavic groups. There is a story that Pope Gregory, (late 500s) was walking through the Roman market and was struck by the appearance of some fair-haired slaves. He asked what tribe they were form and was told they were Angles. Vowing to work for their conversion, he is supposed to have quipped “Non Angli, sed angeli”–“Not Angles, but angels.” (So that’s why those Christmas angel tree-toppers are always blondes—ab.)

    Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

The spread of Christianity diminished the practice of slavery in Europe, but certainly didn’t eliminate it. Some Germanic law even made slavery a punishment for certain crimes: exposing a newborn, for example. In hard times, desperate men and women might offer themselves as slaves to anyone who could offer them food and shelter.

By the 1200s, slavery was in great decline in the Christian West. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in 1256 that slavery ran counter to the idea of free will-that each person is responsible for his or her own spiritual choices. Yet he also accepted the church’s position that slavery was acceptable as long as it was practiced only on non-Christians.

The Bonds of Feudalism                           

The decline of slavery didn’t mean that most people were “free” in medieval Western Europe, at least not in the sense that we know it. Rather, the feudal system ensured that pretty much everybody had obligations of some sort to a higher authority. At the risk of oversimplifying, one of the most important reasons that feudalism worked was fear of guys like this:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Historiorantrix: Scary, huh? And I don’t just mean the wax job.–ab

Like St. Patrick, many people in rural Europe needed protection from Republican governors bandits, barbarians, pirates, and kidnappers of all sorts.  The classic formulation of medieval society is that it was made up of “those who pray” (that the bandits will stay away) “those who fight” (kings, knights and other members of the hereditary ruling classes–the guys with big swords who keep the bandits away) and “those who work” (everybody else–no swords for you!)

At the bottom of the “those who work” scale were two groups: serfs and slaves. They weren’t the same thing. Yet in some ways serfdom–the largescale use of less-than-free agricultural workers–looks a lot like later slavery  in the Americas. Where did it come from?

Let’s re-visit Moonbat’s Rome for a moment and check out the scene when Constantine came to the imperial throne. He had to deal with the fact that a lot of small farmers had fled their lands during the uneasy 200s (Rome had 35 rulers in 40 years–lots of civil warring and instability.) The collapse of the small free farming class left most land in the hands of large landowners on estates (latifundia) where coloni, or tenant farmers, rented land. These coloni paid rent on their own plots and also farmed the fields of their landlord.

Many coloni were unable to pay their debts, thanks to the crumbling economy. They faced eviction and exploitation by landowners eager to bind them into permanent service. Many simply ran away, skipping out on the untenable (ha ha) situation.  In an effort to fix the labour problem, Constantine issued a fateful edict in 322 that both protected and restricted coloni

            Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Coloni were protected from eviction and unreasonable raises in rent under Constantine’s edict; however, they were permanently fixed in their status. They could not leave the estate, or marry someone from outside it, without the landlord’s permission.

The binding of the coloni coincided with the settlement of large numbers of barbarian hordes immigrants in the former Roman Empire. Germanic peoples–Lombards, Franks, Angles, and all the rest–took up the reigns of government that had once been held in Rome. They blended Roman and German customs, laws, and culture.

Germanic tribes generally considered their society to include 3 kinds of people: free men and women, slaves, and half-free people. The half-free men and women were not technically “owned” by any person, but they were tied to the land on which they worked, just like the coloni They might be called haleffreemen or geburs or ceorls (although some Germanic tribes regarded “churls” as free men) or any number of things, but the point was the same: they weren’t slaves, but they were legally tied to a person or place.

Having workers tied to the land is a useful thing when you become an agrarian society. The blending of the coloni with the Germanic half-free workers gives us the concept of “serf,” from the Latin servus, to serve. They formed the backbone of the farming culture of early medieval Europe. And they performed other work too; on larger estates in particular, serfs might serve as bakers, cobblers, smiths, and a wide range of other functions.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Here is a description of the serf’s obligations from Louis the Pious in 817:

He is to plough, sow, enclose, harvest, haul, and put away the crops from the regular enclosures—which are four ten-foot measuring rods in width and forty in length. He is to enclose, reap, gather, and put away one arpent in meadow. Every colonus ought to collect and put away corn to the value of a triens for seed. He is to plant, enclose, dig up, extend, prune, and collect the harvest of the vineyards. They each pay ten bundles of flax. Four hens they must pay also. –Duties of the Coloni from the Internet History Sourcebook

Serfdom Vs Slavery

So how much did serfdom really differ from slavery? In many ways, quite a lot. Here is Professor Lynn Nelson on the distinction between slaves and serfs:

The man (and of course there were women slaves) who was enslaved in ancient times was considered to have died; all that was his passed to his master, including the power of life and death. …The serf, by contrast, was a free man except for the obligations he owed to his lord and the rights his lord claimed over him…The master could not deny his serf the amenities of the Church, work him on holy days, or demand actions of him that were immoral. As a living creature, the serf had the rights accorded him by natural law. He could resist a lord attempting to take his life or one attempting to withhold the necessities of life from him and his.Lynn Nelson, “Classical Slavery and Medieval Serfdom”

Guillaume Serf’s life was better than Joe Slave’s…but being free would be best of all. Serfdom declined throughout Western Europe in the 1200s and 1300s. (Interestingly, it actually became more extensive in Eastern Europe at this time…but serfdom in Eastern Europe is a whole different story.) In part, the Black Death is responsible. As it ravaged Europe in the mid 1300s, it killed off countless thousands—including a lot of surplus labor.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

If you managed to survive, then hey presto! You were suddenly worth a lot more. And if, as  a tenant farmer, you still couldn’t make the rent, he could run away to one of the burgeoning cities and melt into the general population. Here is Henry, King of Romans, on the proof needed for a landlord to reclaim his serf:

That if any person pertaining to any noble or ministerial betake himself to our cities with the idea of staying there, and his lord wish to reclaim him, the lord ought to be allowed to take him, if he has seven relatives on the mother’s side, who are commonly called nagilmage, who will swear that he belongs to the lord by right of ownership. But if for any reason the lord be unable to obtain the relatives or friends, let him obtain two suitable witnesses from the neighborhood from which the fugitive came, and let him prove that he had that man in his undisturbed possession by right of ownership before he betook himself to our cities, and with his witnesses let him take oath on the relics of the saints, and so let his man be restored to him.  —Concerning Serfs Who Flee to the Cities of Alsace, 1224at the Internet History Sourcebook.

Landlords had to spend a lot of time to hunt down serfs in urban centers; was it really worth it? Increasingly, the answer was no.

FREEDOM! (Or…not so much.)

Still, the decline of serfdom in the West does not mean that personal “freedom” as we understand it was the rule. For example, serfdom declined early in England, but if we had been around in, say, 1600, we might be shocked by how proscripted the life of an average person (let’s call him Johnny Worker) really was.

For Johnny to learn a trade, he must bind himself as an apprentice–or rather his parents would. Johnny then comes under the near-complete authority of his “master” who is authorized to punish Johnny just as he can punish ay member of his own family–with physical force. If Johnny has a cruel master, too bad. It is a crime for him to run away.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

And Johnny’s sister Jane Worker doesn’t have it so good either; she’s a servant and cannot freely leave her service. Although the law no longer gives the paterfamilias legal sexual access to his servants and/or slaves, it will be difficult for her to do anything about it if her master decides to seduce or rape her. Johnny and Jane will still need a pass to travel freely–they have to prove that they are not “idle poor”–vagabonds–or they might be whipped publicly in the streets.

And remember, these are free people. Whether “slave,” “serf,” or “free,” ordinary Western Europeans lived in a world that emphasized hierarchy and obedience to a degree unimaginable to most living in America today. Slavery was just a very low rung on a long ladder of reciprocal relations: obedience in return for some kind of patronage and/or protection.  

And, after 1569, that rung disappeared in England, at least in theory. In that year, an English court ruled against an Englishman who had been accused of beating a slave he had acquired while living in Russia. The “slave” accused the “master” of assault. The court ruled that English common law made no provision for slavery–and therefore, slavery did not exist in England. So how could English become slaveholders in the Americas? That’s a story we’ll get to. To really answer that question, we’ve first got to set sail for a more exotic location:  Byzantium!

Slavery in the Eastern Empire

The Roman Empire didn’t fold up shop when Attila did his horde thing. Its center had already shifted eastward. What we call “Byzantium” was then simply called “Rome.” The empire ruled from Constantinople  maintained strong continuities with old Roman culture, and viewed itself as the continuance of the old Empire. In the 520s, the  Emperor Justinian set about tidying up the mess of laws and legal opinion that made up Roman law. His 5-volume Corpus Juris Civilis (better known to you and me as the Justinian Code) included definitive clarifications on the  Roman laws of slavery.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

In the Justinian Code, society is described as divided between slave and free:

The Law of Persons

In the law of persons, then, the first division is into free men and slaves.

Freedom, from which men are called free, is a man’s natural power of doing what he pleases, so far as he is not prevented by force or law. 1

Slavery is an institution of the law of nations, against nature, subjecting one man to the dominion of another 2.  

The name ‘slave ‘ is derived from the practice of generals to order the preservation and sale of captives, instead of killing them; hence they are also called mancipia, because they are taken from the enemy by the strong hand.  3

Slaves are either born so, their mothers being slaves themselves, or they become so; and this either by the law of nations, that is to say by capture in war, or by the civil law, as when a free man, over twenty years of age, collusively allows himself to be sold in order that he may share the purchase money.4 The Justinian Code,  Title III, Book I at Humanistic Texts.

So, according to the interpretations favored by Justinian, and slavery goes against nature. In his view, one can be born a slave, if one inherits that state from one’s mother. (Note that the law makes no assumptions about the skin color or ethnicity of a slave.)  The code is actually fairly generous about those born into slavery. It can’t be inherited from the faher, only the mother. And if she is free at the time of birth or conception, the child is still free, even if the mother’s status has changed:

It is enough if the mother be free at the moment of  birth, though a slave at that of conception: and conversely if she be free at the time of conception, and then becomes a slave before the birth of the child, the latter is held to be free born, on the ground that an unborn child ought not to be prejudiced by the mother’s misfortune. Hence arose the question whether the child of a woman is born free, or a slave, who, while pregnant, is manumitted, and then becomes a slave again before delivery. Marcellus thinks he is born free, for it is enough if the mother of an unborn infant is free at any moment between conception and delivery: and this view is right.  Title IV, Book I

The code encouraged manumission; a vow in the church, a verbal statement before witnesses, a letter or a will could all be used to free a slave. The code also removed obstacles to masters who wished to free all of their slaves at their own deaths.

As in Rome, a few slaves in Byzantium might achieve high status, by serving as assistants to the Emperor or his household. Perhaps the most interesting of these were the eunuchs–usually slaves or free servants. Because they were castrated, they were freed of the ties of family that were believed to drive most corruption and disloyalty. (They also made “trustworthy” guards for elite women, for obvious reasons.)

        Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

 In later Rome, emperors often preferred that their personal assistants be eunuchs–if a guy is going to, say, give the emperor a shave or a haircut, then you want to make sure he doesn’t have any ambitions or reason to let the razor slip. In Byzantium, eunuchs formed an important class within the imperial government, with archieunuchs in charge of other groups of eunuchs. In theory, it was a crime to  kidnap and castrate unwilling boys; eunuchs were supposed to be purchased from abroad. In practice, foundlings and poor children were vulnerable to this abuse because eunuch were such profitable slaves to sell.

It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople

So this more-or-less Roman version of slavery flourished in Byzantium, where slaves of many nations were traded freely. The slave trade continued, within certain limitations, as the Ottoman Turks nibbled away at the empire. Their conquests quickly gobbled up much of Byzantium’s old lands, and culminated in the fall of the city of Constantinople in  1453 CE.

Islamic law forbade the enslaving of one’s own countrymen—if they were Muslim, that is. In Islamic law, one might become a slave under two circumstances only: capture in war, or birth to slave parents. If either parent was free, then so was the offspring.

Slaves from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe might be captured or kidnaped and then sold in the great markets of the Islamic world. (In theory, the Ottomans frowned on kidnaping, but it was pretty hard to prove that a slave hadn’t been taken in legitimate warfare.)  If you became a slave, then as long as you remained loyal, you had the right to good treatment under Islamic law Freeing a slave was considered a holy act.

            Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

It wasn’t all roses and puppies for slaves. Islamic law did not give them any legal standing in court, nor did it guarantee their right to own property, nor were they allowed to marry without permission of their master. And married women taken as captives were required to engage in sexual intercourse with their masters if he so desired; previous marriages were essentially annulled.

The Ottomans limited the slave trade in their empire, but several forms of slavery flourished in their empire. First and foremost, the sultan technically “enslaved” many of the ruling elite; they owned their properties and estates at his whim. On a more general level, slaves usually served as domestic servants, not agricultural workers. Some enslaved captives of war manned the navy’s galley oars. And eunuchs continued to serve in the Sultan’s household, often guarding the women of the harem.

The Ottomans also practiced a form of slave-tax called the  devshirme. This  child-levy required non-Muslim subjects to contribute a certain percentage of their children to the state.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Beginning in the 1400s, some of these became soldiers; they might convert to Islam and be pressed into the “Janissaries,” the 30,000 man army of the Sultan. Janissaries were highly disciplined elite soldiers who considered the corps their family and the Sultan as their  father. They enjoyed significant privileges and could amass quite a bit of property–property that reverted to the order upon a Janissary’s death. Except for the killing and dying part, this wasn’t a bad deal.

Not  all levied children ended up in the army. For some, becoming a slave was actually a good career move. In the Ottoman world, slaves served as administrators, statesmen, and in a wide range of government positions.  Some Christian families were actually eager to turn their children over to the Sultan, because it was a way for those with talent to rise to the top. Color and ethnicity were no bar—only religion was.  If one was Muslim, then one’s ethnicity mattered not one bit.  

One of these extraordinary success stories is of an enslaved woman named Roxelana, or Hurrem (“cheerful one.”) Probably born to a Polish family around 1500, she was kidnaped and sold into slavery. She ended up in the harem of Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent and quickly became his favorite concubine, bearing him five children.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Now the story takes a turn for the unusual; Suleiman, not content to have Roxelana as his concubine, actually married her. She served as one of his most important advisors and may have helped him keep peaceful relations with the Polish king. Before her death in 1558, she founded schools, mosques, a hospital and several other public works. Not bad for an ex- slave.

Why are these Byzantine and Ottoman concepts of slavery important to our story? Because they influenced, both directly and indirectly, the re-envisioning of slavery by Western Europeans in the Era of Encounter. Tune in next week to see how. We’ll take a look at the institution of slavery in Africa, the rise of unfree labor in the Americas, and the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade.  Until then, this has been aphra behn guest-hosting in the Cave of the One and Only Moonbat!


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: