The Greeks and Romans practiced slavery and condoned it. Condoned it for war, for luxury and for business. But even they knew it to be evil. …
Aulus Kaprelius Timotheus does not appear in any history book. There is no reason why he should, but an accident of archaelogy makes him a figure of some curiosity if not importance. He was a slave in the first century C.E. who obtained his freedom, and in turn became a slave dealer himself, an occupation in which he prospered enough to have an expensive, finely decorated marble tombstone seven feet high.
The stone was found about seventy years ago at the site of the ancient Greek city of Amphipolis on the Strymon River, sixty odd miles east of Salonika on the road to the Turkish border. Nothing like it exists on any other surviving Greek or Roman tombstone, though by now the number well exceeds a hundred thousand. The stone has three sculptured panels: a typical funeral banquet scene at the top, a work scene in the middle, and a third showing eight slaves chained together at the neck, being led along in a file, accompanied by two women and two children who are not chained and preceded by a man who is obviously in charge, perhaps Timotheus himself for all we know. The inscription in Greek reads simply, ” Aulus Kapreilius Timotheus, freedman of Aulus, slave trader.”
It is not his occupation that makes Timotheus a rare figure, but his publicly expressed pride in it. The ancient world was not altogether unlike the southern United States in this respect. After the Civil War a southern judge wrote, ” In the South the calling of the slave trader was always hateful, odious, even among the salveholders themselves. This is curious, but it is so.”
More than two thousand years earlier a character in Xenophon’s Symposium said to Socrates: ” It is poverty that compels some to steal, others to burgle, and others to become slavers.” In neither case was the moral judgement quite so simple or universally accepted as these statements might seem to suggest, nor was it carried to any practical conclusion, for the most respectable people depended on these same “hateful” men to provide them with the slaves without which they could not imagine a civilized existence to be possible.
Yet contempt of the slaver was not uncommon, and this suggests that slavery itself was a little problematical, morally, even when it was taken most for granted. On this score, ancient and modern slavery cannot be wholly equated. There were special circumstances in the southern states, pulling in contradictory directions. On the one hand, slavery was “the peculiar institution” and few southerners could have been unaware of the fact that most of the civilized world had abolished the practice and did not like it; whereas Greeks and Romans had no such external voice of conscience to contend with.
On the other hand, southern slave owners found comfort in the racial factor and in its concomitant, the belief in the natural inferiority of black men, a defense mechanism of which the ancients could make relatively little use. The African American in the old South could never lose the stigma of slavery, not even when, as an exception, he was freed nor, as was often the case, when he had some white ancestry. But the descendants of an Aulus Kapreilius Timotheus could become ordinary free inhabitants of the Roman Empire, wholly indistinguishable from millions of others.