Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Roman Slavery: Retrospect and Prospect

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Roman Slavery: Retrospect and Prospect

Article excerpt

   For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
      W. H. Auden, Night Mail

   ... for we possess nothing certainly except the past
      E. Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

The session this afternoon concerns, as I understand it, the modern historiography of ancient slavery. (1) My charge is to assess the contribution to the study of Roman slavery I have made myself. I am aware that this raises a danger of self-indulgence and of creating the impression of attributing to my work a value it does not have. This is not my intent. If I speak about myself, and speak personally and subjectively, you have only the organizer of the conference to blame.

Self-delusory temptations aside, I can make the required assessment objectively because the work concerned belongs to a twenty-year period, from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties, that is now well distant; and because, while still broadly engaged with the topic, I am unable any longer, for various reasons, to offer anything substantially new or different on it. Much of what I will say therefore will be explanatory narrative. In an effort to be constructive, however, and also to avoid simply writing my own obituary, I shall include some thoughts about the future of the subject. Other contributors will discuss the work of institutions such as the Mainz Academy and the Besancon group (GIREA), with none of which I have any affiliation. I have always worked independently and cannot locate myself in a specific tradition of research. I have been described as a "Finleyschuler," but this is not true in any formal sense. Finley gave me considerable encouragement and I was much influenced by him. But that is all.

I will begin with the historiography of American slavery. When I arrived in the United States in 1970, I was unaware that the history of American slavery was undergoing a profound transformation; I had then no particular interest in the subject of slavery, whether ancient or modern. It is easy now to understand what was happening. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the United States was in the midst of radical social change, and the legacy of antebellum slavery was very much alive in the form of a racism which has not yet altogether disappeared. (2) Recent events had been cataclysmic, especially in the dreadful year of 1968, when the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. produced a new wave of race riots in many American cities, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos drew international attention to the cause of Black Power at the Olympic Games held in Mexico City. Three years earlier, in 1965, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had stirred controversy when he claimed that the Negro family [sic] was in a state of dissolution directly attributable to slavery. More or less simultaneously there were other forms of social upheaval adding to the chaos caused by the racial question, notably those associated with the women's movement and the accompanying sexual revolution; and there was of course Vietnam. It is hardly surprising therefore that historians in universities, with Black Studies suddenly emerging as an academic discipline, should have been concerning themselves with re-examining the history of slavery. The connection between past and present was at the forefront of national attention, and the country's democratic institutions, especially its foundational ethos of liberty and justice for all, were under severe scrutiny.

It was not that American historians had neglected slavery and abolition beforehand. But the work in progress in 1970, which had begun in the aftermath of World War II and was to continue into the nineties, was heavily revisionist in character, in part because of the rise in the academy of anthropologically based history in the tradition of Fernand Braudel, but even more so because of the force of current events. The problem of how to create a polity in which the descendants of slaves might participate equally with other citizens, how racial harmony between the descendants of black slaves and white masters might be achieved, was more pressing than ever. …

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