History has lessons for us. What can looking into the past tell us about issues like slavery, the value of women’s work, and the right to bear arms? I recently listened to a series of lectures on Late Antiquity published by The Great Courses. Unexpectedly, the lecture titled ‘The Social World of Late Antiquity’ had interesting information bearing on contemporary issues.
When was Late Antiquity? I think it’s something like 200AD – 600AD. The lecturer’s geographic focus was basically the Mediterranean world, on occasion adding in the British Isles and Persia.
It may be, as claimed by a Forbes magazine writer on this page, a popular misconception that slavery was invented in the American colonies. But actually, slavery was invented before the invention of writing. Slavery was commercialized by the Romans, and practiced everywhere in the Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity. The Catholic Church owned slaves. Slave versus free was the most basic distinction in society at that time.
Quoting from Prof. Noble:
“Slavery was a feature of all these late antique societies. … Slavery was more prominent in the Islamic world than it was in the Germanic world. … The legist Ulpian said ‘We compare slavery approximately to death.’ … The number of slaves declined in Roman and barbarian society. Generally speaking it expanded pretty rapidly in the expanding Muslim society.”
The value of women’s work
Placing a lower value on the work of women was common in Late Antiquity, as reflected in the prices of different classes of slaves. Prof. Noble provided the following prices as of 301AD, denominated in solidi, a gold coin issued in the Late Roman Empire.
- ages 16-40: males 51.5; females 43 (20% discount )
- ages 40-60: males 43; females 34 (26% discount)
- ages 60+: males 26; females 17 (53% discount)
Ethnic conflict seems to be ‘everywhere and all the time’ today. We have probably lost memory of times when ethnic conflict was uncommon. Prof. Noble begins by describing how people defined themselves at the time he recorded the lecture. The copyright date on the recording is 2008, and here is his description of ‘identity’:
“How would people listening to my words right now identify themselves? They might say I’m an American, or I’m a Californian or a Virginian, or I’m a Republican or a Democrat, or I’m a Catholic or a Jew. We can all have many many identities. I’m a student, I’m a worker, I’m a doctor, I’m a dentist, I’m a plumber.”
Ethnic identity is unmentioned! Prof. Noble continues by showing that ethnic conflict was not present in Late Antiquity:
“The Romans were a political union made in historical times. They were not a race. They were not an ethnicity. … The sources reveal to us in antiquity very little evidence of anything like ethnic antipathy. The kind of virulent prejudices and hatreds of modern times are simply not in evidence in antiquity. These cannot be traced back to antiquity. They don’t have roots there. It’s not our place here to talk about how these awful kinds of invidious distinctions and comparisons emerged in modern times but suffice it to say they’re not there in antiquity.”
Prof. Noble makes the point that where hostility existed between groups in the Roman Empire, it was over religious doctrine:
“Christianity was universal. … But there were certainly strains that inevitably attended the divisions that we’ve talked about earlier in these lectures, of people into Chalcedonian, Monophysite, Nestorian, Coptic communities and so on. There were some real antipathies here, but it wasn’t because people were of a particular ethnicity; rather because people disagreed on certain fundamental points of doctrine.”
The absence of ethnic sensibility extended to the barbarian tribes:
“Barbarian cultures on the whole were remarkably open. Adherence to a tribe for example was very largely a matter of choice, and a matter of personal identity. We’ve talked about the fact that our barbarian peoples generally speaking were confederations. … Once people entered one or another of these confederations and sort of began moving along the historical path that that particular confederation which now maybe had the name Visigoth or now had the name Franks or now had the name Lombard one begins moving along that path one doesn’t find evidence of hostility either inside the groups or between and among the groups.
One can’t find evidence that Franks didn’t like other peoples because they were Goth, or they didn’t like other people because they were Lombards. That sort of thing just doesn’t appear in the sources.”
Right to bear arms
In the US today we focus on the minutia of defining terms like ‘militia’ and ‘assault rifle’. In Late Antiquity they saw the heart of the issue: the right to bear arms was a basic mark of freedom. Prof. Noble said:
“Ordinary free men had the right to bear arms. So, interesting enough one of the things throughout much of the history of Western civilization that marks a person’s loss of freedom is his loss of the right to bear arms.”
The lecturer was Thomas Noble, Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. Prof. Noble is winner of the Edmund P. Joyce, CSC Award for Excellence in Teaching, and coauthor of the textbook Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment.
The Bottom Line
Slavery was not invented by racist American colonists. The connection between the right to bear arms and freedom was understood well before the 2nd Amendment was written. The value of women’s work was probably discounted as long ago as the time of Cleopatra.