Lost Civilizations and Found Adventures:
Enslaved by the Arms of Nemesis
Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup (1853). Dr. Sue Eakin (1968).
The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870, by Hugh Thomas (1999). PB
Arms of Nemesis, by Steven Saylor (1992). PB
Given the embarrassing flap caused by Ben Carson’s terrible statement during Black History Month that slaves were akin to poor, happy immigrants coming to America for employment opportunities, I thought it would be a good time to reread some slave classics, from the recent bestselling book and blockbuster movie adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave all the way back to the gladiator Spartacus and his slave rebellion in ancient Roman times.
In one sense, Carson was correct. Slavery is part of an economic system, but a horribly abusive one without freedom of choice. It is one of the most ancient systems of exploitation, in which the abuser exploits the abused without the right to choose to agree to participate. It is a lazy system, where one party decides to force another party to do their work for them without pay or fair compensation because they are too pathetic to work for themselves.
For most modern Americans the most famous book and later movie that shows the horror of slavery is the novel Roots, by Alex Haley. A monumental tour de force, it has been ranked as one of the most important American books ever written. (I am well aware both of the historical research/nonfiction claims of Haley and his loss in court for plagiarizing Harold Courlander’s work. This review is not the place to discuss these facts.) The point is that Roots stands as one of the touchstones of American literature and the entire issue of slavery. This was a turning point for Americans to become aware of and be able to openly discuss slavery and its ramifications.
Which leads us to the most important actual memoir of slavery in recent times, the rediscovered masterpiece Twelve Years a Slave. Solomon Northrup’s experience is horrifying and enlightening, because it also shows the corrupt nature of a system that can kidnap honest, functional, free people off the street and plunge them into the nightmare, rather than the myth that one is somehow born into it or by Nature designed by an apparently hateful Creator to be a substandard part of a repressive system so that superior beings can prosper. A novel can be compelling and more well written than an actual slave diary, but it remains fiction. The horrors captured in slave narratives is authentic and cannot be matched by all the purple prose in the world. Northrup’s tale resonates so deeply because it is utterly true.
“Think of it: For thirty years a man, wit all man’s hopes, fears and aspirations–with a wife and children to call him by the endearing names of husband and father–with a home, humble it may be, but still a home…then for twelve years a thing, a chattel personal, classed with mules and horses….Oh! it is horrible. It chills the blood to think that such are.” (Twelve Years a Slave)
The last thing concerning Twelve Years, I want to strongly recommend reading the Dr Sue Eakin version of the text, because of all the supporting material it has, complete with biographical and bibliographical data, photographs, and maps.
However, whether by experiencing Northrup’s nightmare or exploring our Roots, there is nothing new here. Slavery is one of the original sins of mankind. The Bible itself is a tale of the Jews being endlessly conquered and abused over the centuries, moving from one slavery (Babylon) to another (Egypt), before finally being liberated by having the true nature of their God revealed. Every ancient culture seems to have practiced it in one form or another. No one enjoys slavery but the whipmaster and thus it must be violently overthrown time and again.
Which naturally led me to rereading the history of the most famous slave revolt of all time. Spartacus was a Roman gladiator who had been a Thracian warlord in happier times before becoming enslaved to Rome. Read Ben Kane’s excellent books on Spartacus for an exploration of his early years, though in fact we know precious few details of his life. The most familiar book to Americans will be Howard Fast’s Spartacus, which gave us the classic movie. Spartacus took part in a slave rebellion that grew on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and threatened to spread empire-wide. He was elected the leader of this ragtag band, due to his intellect and martial skills, but he quickly started drawing more slaves to him, which was the real threat. The Roman Empire’s economy was unfortunately based on slavery. Hence, the lure of slaves to freedom offered by the successes of Spartacus was an example that could not stand. At first this rebellion had staggering and embarrassing successes against Roman Consuls and their legions, becoming a true threat to the empire and Rome itself. The Spartacus War as it was sometimes called in ancient texts thus became the most famous slave revolt of all time.
The best ancient records we have of Spartacus and the slave revolt are histories from Plutarch and Appian. Appian wrote a massive set of Histories, which included The Civil Wars. By Plutarch, it is recorded in his book, The Life of Crassus, concerning the general who fights Spartacus. General Crassus also appears in the mystery book I mention below, because he is a powerful, important, yet tragic figure. Rome saw the slave revolt as such a grave threat that all powers were given to their generals, and Crassus, for instance, decimated his own troops (killed every tenth man by drawing lots) in order to make a point against cowardice.
Both of these histories are important, tantalizing reads, because while they illuminate so much of the ancient world, they mention so much more. Each author has his own style and shows events from different perspectives, so both are important to read to give a full comprehension.
After reading all these texts on slavery, though, I found I had to lift myself up. I needed something to make it palatable. Being a mystery lover, I turned to one of my favorite genres because I had to find a way to lighten the mood from studying too many of the horrors of slavery, which led me to the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor. The protagonist, Gordianus the Finder, alive during the tumultuous period of decline in the Roman Republic following the dictatorship of Sulla and the rise of Julius Caesar as emperor, is one of the best historical detectives ever conceived. From his numerous mysteries, I chose Arms of Nemesis, because it involves a murder on an estate on the Bay of Naples during the Slave Revolt led by Spartacus. Nemesis details the events of a murder of a master apparently by slaves. The traditional Roman punishment for such a crime is for all the slaves of the household to be put to death within three days time. So Gordianus is racing the clock to solve the murder and save ninety-nine innocent slaves.
Saylor is such an excellent researcher and writer that it makes reading about Ancient Rome an absolute joy. He shows the brutality of slavery side by side with the humanity of those who are caught in it and opposing it. Besides, it is always pleasant to have an heroic solution to the murder of innocents.
I urge people to seek out these truths, though. Whether you find them in dry histories, mysterious novels, or exciting films, uncover these truths and learn their lessons. We must not forget them. History must not be repeated.