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Slavery in works based during Classical Antiquity

Phietadix

Auror
One thing that I found myself often on the fence about when doing Worldbuilding for worlds set during Classical Antiquity, which for me is most of my worlds, is how to handle slavery within said worlds

My understanding is that the dynamics of slavery were very different in that time period than in the chattel slavery of later European imperialism and what occurred in America. Slavery was usually done as a result of warfare; many of the people being enslaved were from the same basic culture as the ones doing the enslavement; similarly, and related to the previous, many of those enslaved we're from societys that themselves practiced slavery; and finally, slaves often had more rights and easier paths to becoming freeman.

All the above being said, writing will always be viewed in light of the time in which it was written and in light of the time in which it is being read; and slavery discussions in our time are rooted in American and Western European chattel slavery.

As a result of all of this, I find myself wondering how slavery should be handled in this type of work. Leaving it out seems dishonest, and as if we are only showing the good of a very morally grey part of history. On the other hand, including it means having to overcome the cognitive biases of the reader towards the present situation.

On top of all of this is the fact that I am very, very, white. While I am working to overcome my own racist biases and history, I still benefit a lot from white privilege, and I still live in a very white are. Because of this my whiteness is absolutely going to come into play when writing about a very black topic in current discourse; even if slavery in Classical Antiquity did tend be more white on white than in later times (and was happening when the modern day "race" distinctions we're not relevant concepts. Xenophobia being the problem of the time rather then modern racism.

What do the others on this forum think of this perspective? What do I get right, what parts of this are racist bullshit? What are your own thoughts on the topic as a whole, and had how has it affected your own writing (or Worldbuilding, if you're like me and never getting around to the actual "writing" part of this "
 

pmmg

Vala
Well... All those things may be issues, but they have little to do with my story.

I don't think there is a culture on earth that has not once been a slave and also been a slave owner. Its a likely occurrence in places with a large, diverse and even more primitive populations (and intersecting I should add). And in spite of those who have sensitivity to it, still goes on today. I'd include it as I felt it belonged if such was to come up. I suppose my measure for most things is the likeliness of events and not the sensibilities of today. I suppose I also feel that it does not help anyway to not include it, or walk on eggshells if I did.

I am okay if some don't like it.
 
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Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
In my opinion you might be a bit wrapped up in a cultural prism. Slavery as a practice is not colour-bound, nor did modern slavery exist solely, or even predominantly, in the form of American chattel slavery. During that same time period slavery remained as rampant throughout the world as it was in the centuries past, whether that be through the Barbary states' piracy and enslavement of Europeans, the Arab slave trade in Africa or the massive systems of serfdom which persevered throughout many contemporary countries, not to speak of the continuing, and thriving forms of modern slavery. Of course though, one's worldview is one's worldview. If slavery in your mind is too wrapped up in a colour dichotomy, and you're uncomfortable tackling that, than simply ignore the subject matter.

As for how I tackle this subject matter, I don't have much of an issue with it, though the slavery I do depict (rarely) is either of a thralldom or a serfdom nature. That is not to say I wouldn't tackle more extensive slavery, be it the American/Atlantic or Roman model (for make no mistake, Roman slavery was every bit as horrendous), but I haven't so far. I find the former models easier to implement because they do not rely on the same societal ubiquity as the latter models. If I were to write about the Roman variety for example, I would have to hinge the in-world economies and cultures on said model, which I so far haven't seen fit to do for any setting.
 
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Phietadix

Auror
I am an American. My theoretical readers will, by extension, likely also be largely American. Like it or not, the cultural construct that is "Race" "Black" and "White" is deeply connected with the United States history of slavery, regardless of it's nature in the culture of the Mediterranean Antiquity cultures I prefer to write about. Moreover, the modern day slavery in America is still disproportionately Black, as the 13th Amendment built in an exception for prisons that made it so slavery in America never actually ended (or so is my present understanding).

I agree that it should be possible to still write about this topic with the care it deserves. But as someone who is still unraveling my own internal biases, and who isn't very connected to the sections of my society most affected by slavery, I still feel unease with every possible option related to this topic
 
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Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
Alright, than you know what to do. Yours wouldn't be the first work that didn't opt for historical accuracy and I see no reason why you should force it if you're set (and it seems to me pretty confident) in your stance and you have a grip on your intended audience.
 

Phietadix

Auror
Alright, than you know what to do. Yours wouldn't be the first work that didn't opt for historical accuracy and I see no reason why you should force it if you're set (and it seems to me pretty confident) in your stance and you have a grip on your intended audience.
But part of my problem is that I'm not confident in my stance. I'm not even confidant in my understanding of the American political aspect of this.

Plus part of what I described in my first point is that explicitly leaving out slavery has just as many problematic aspects as including it.

The conclusion I am coming to now, is to get more involved within the communities that are more directly connected and affected by this, and to diversify my perspective. Something I have been meaning to do anyway, but haven't been able to do to the extent that I'd like
 

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
Sure you could do that. Personally I'm just not bothered with avoiding all problematic content. Nothing can be perfect for everyone and do justice to everything. I feel that at a certain point, though that point can differ for different people, a writer should just pursue their vision and throw their cares to the winds. If it ends up rubbing people the wrong way, that's a learning opportunity if you wish it to be. Just my two cents of course.
 

pmmg

Vala
I agree that it should be possible to still write about this topic with the care it deserves. But as someone who is still unraveling my own internal biases, and who isn't very connected to the sections of my society most affected by slavery, I still feel unease with every possible option related to this topic

This is external to the story, and something you bring into it. If you want to say something about today's attitudes with your story, then the floor is open, but there is no care it deserves. It just a thing like anything else, used well or not. The story deserves to be the best story it can be. Twisting around the perceived sensibilities of others is a disservice to it.
 

Phietadix

Auror
Sure you could do that. Personally I'm just not bothered with avoiding all problematic content. Nothing can be perfect for everyone and do justice to everything. I feel that at a certain point, though that point can differ for different people, a writer should just pursue their vision and throw their cares to the winds. If it ends up rubbing people the wrong way, that's a learning opportunity if you wish it to be. Just my two cents of course.

Certainly a perspective that has it's merits. My perfectionism runs deep within me, certainly too deep to an extent. It's also tied into why I spend so much more time world building, and so little time actually writing.

This does, however, feel like one of those topics that does merit more depth. On the plus side, many things I want to do in life besides writing should help provide that depth (should I ever get around to them).

I do think that I shouldn't stop this from having me actually write these stories though. I have to great a tendency to forget about the concept of "editing" despite it's importance to the writing process
 
Phietadix how does slavery fit into your story?

Do you have any characters who are slaves? Or slave owners? Or are slaves simply part of the scenery, seen in passing?

How to approach it depends on how it fits in. And keep in mind that for everyone in that time and place, slavery would be normalized. The existence of slaves would be as banal as the existence of traffic lights is for us.

People wouldn't think about it any more deeply than that, although they might personally have issues with the system.
 

Miles Lacey

Maester
The American domination of the Internet means the only narrative about slavery we hear about most of the time is that of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and how it impacts on race relations in the United States. Yet, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was only one of many examples of slavery throughout history.

If you are going to set a story in a society where slavery was widely practiced then you cannot delete it from that society because of the current American hyper-sensitivity about the issue unless you're writing an alternate history where slavery didn't exist back then.

Also, you need to treat the reader with some respect. Anyone who picks up a book featuring characters living in the Classical World where slavery was widespread will expect those characters to reflect the values of that time about slaves and slavery.

The important thing is to be absolutely thorough in your research about slavery and the role of slaves in the Classical World.
 
There have been complaints about slavery in fantasy books because somehow having a form of slavery different than the chattel slavery in the US "offended" someone. One, If I recall correctly, was in a fictional southeast Asia and based on the historical slave trade of the region, but that didn't matter to those complaining. I actually think the argument was that someone not Black should not write about slavery. Huh. The Asian writer was mystified and felt horrible, but in the end, the book didn't change. The author probably suffered a Twitter deluge but managed to survive, far as I know.

Now, I could certainly see crossing a serious line with respect to slavery in fantasy fiction, but I'm not sure what it is. As with most things, treat a subject with respect and even if you offend a few, you hopefully won't offend too many.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
So, what does success look like for you? Are you aiming not to offend any reader anywhere? Are you aiming only not to have something that would more or less universally offend? Those are the two extremes. Likely it's something at neither extreme, but that doesn't let you off the hook for identifying what is, more or less, your target.

I'm saying this because there are scores of ways to answer your question. What I *think* you're going for is some sort of assurance, but at an unknown level. If you can get clearer about that, you might come closer to that confidence you seek.

Meanwhile, why not do a bunch of reading? It's not like this issue isn't being addressed across our whole culture, and has been for decades. You'll find scores of opinions and perspectives. I'm sure some will resonate and some won't. And some will probably repel (don't overlook those). Yes, that's a lot of reading, but you've chosen to tackle a complex and controversial topic.
 

Phietadix

Auror
Pulling a story summary from a thread in the "Research" subforum.
The the one set in 50 BC is a Story based on Julius Caesar's invasion of the Gauls. It is essentially asking, in a Fantasy context, what if Rome wasn't able to conquer the Gauls, but Gaul instead held their ground, united with the other nearby Celtic peoples and the nearby regions of Carthage, Greece, Hispania, and North Africa, to force the Roman Republic back onto it's own peninsula. Sadly, I don't have a particular area of Gaul and or the Celts, but the historical premise should help clear some things up at least
So this a story that's about anti-imperialism (I know Rome wasn't an empire yet, but it's close enough). Additionally, the magic in this story is something I had been treating as the magical equivalent of the Industrial Revolution

Edit: Accidentally hit post, additions coming below this line
 

Phietadix

Auror
In a story with those focuses, with the dynamics of power shifting within an entire continent at massive degrees, obviously slaves are going to be coming into play somewhere. The leaders of this "War" and "Magical Revolution" are all from regions outside the Republic and it's particular dynamics of Slavery though (a couple of them are also immortals, but that's not entirely relevant). How Roman Republican Slavery, as well as the various Celtic tribes versions of Slavery, differed both from each other and the American version feel like they would almost have to be examined in such a work for it to function
 

Gurkhal

Auror
What do the others on this forum think of this perspective? What do I get right, what parts of this are racist bullshit? What are your own thoughts on the topic as a whole, and had how has it affected your own writing (or Worldbuilding, if you're like me and never getting around to the actual "writing" part of this

What I would suggest, from my own experiences and beliefs is that you could/should do two research areas. One of ancient slavery and the second on modern slavery and its discourse.

There was after all a huge difference between slavery in Antiquity. Look at the Archaic Greek world where a farmer family might have one or two slaves who work alongside the farmer and his family doing pretty much the same work but being a slave, with what came with that status. To the great latifundas of the Roman Republic and so when the massive influx of slaves from the Roman wars of conquests made chattel slavery very profitable for the landowners to employ thousands of slaves as expandible products, more or less. And that's just talking about slaves in the agricultural sector and two cultures and timeframes out of the whole Antiquity.

The second subject to research would naturally be on slavery in the modern, or near modern, world to have a good look for how to handle the issue with a modern audience in mind. I understand with your desire to not get burned on a potential contriversal topic and I think its sensible approach to this..
 
There was after all a huge difference between slavery in Antiquity. Look at the Archaic Greek world where a farmer family might have one or two slaves who work alongside the farmer and his family doing pretty much the same work but being a slave, with what came with that status.
The same thing happened in the American South. The majority of slaves were on plantations because it was plantation owners who could afford to keep large numbers of them, but there were also less wealthy families who only had one or two slaves to help with the work. Those slaves worked alongside, not instead of, their owners, and usually were treated, if not exactly as equals, closer to equals than the plantation slaves were.

We hear the most about plantation slavery, but it wasn't the only form of slavery by any means.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Much depends on how you wish to approach the topic. If slavery as an institution is important to the story, then by all means do the research. Heck, do the research anyway, but slavery can exist in a story without it being the focus of the story.

In my first novel, which takes place in the late 4thc AD, the main character is a Roman aristocrat (Julian) who is accompanied by a family slave (Avitus). I modeled Avitus after slave characters in Greek comedy, where they often (well, ok, Aristophanes) were commentators on the foibles of their owners. It's a running joke, sort of, through the story that Julian keeps freeing Avitus, but Avi refuses. He's older and without prospects and the last thing he wants is to be thrown out on his own. Moreover, he's been a kind of surrogate father to the young Julian and feels like if he isn't around, Julian will get into trouble (he's quite correct).

IOW, slavery is present, but isn't the focus. I don't try to pretend it didn't exist. I didn't try, in my alternate history, to wave away slavery and say it never happened. It's just that the story I had to tell didn't really have much to do with slavery. This was also the third or so generation of Romans to be bound by law to the profession of their fathers, but the story wasn't about that either, so this bit of socio-economic history doesn't make an appearance.

It's really a matter of figuring out what story you want to tell, and doing whatever is the appropriate research around that. Much easier said than done!
 

Phietadix

Auror
I'm thinking the thing to do is to simply make slave revolution and/or reform a more central part of the plot. Add some of their perspective into the leadership of the alliance against "Rome". I do definitely like the angle you took in your story, and will likely try to utilize some of that part of the culture of slavery at the time, my instincts are leading me towards emphasizing the revolution angle over reform though
 

Solusandra

Minstrel
the dynamics of slavery were very different in that time period than in the chattel slavery of later European imperialism and what occurred in America.
Chattel slavery was actually fairly common across history. Usually in the later stages of a slave holding nation as the source of incoming slaves either dried up or was outlawed by the slave-holding country.
Slavery was usually done as a result of warfare; many of the people being enslaved were from the same basic culture as the ones doing the enslavement;
eeeehhh, for relative value of "same basic culture". If we're talking African, south asian and Native american local slavery, it was the neighboring tribe. If we're talking european, Persian, east asian and the rare african nation local slavery, it was the neighboring kingdom.
Even then however, it was primarily "those other bastards who're culturally not like us, but live nearby". And oddly enough, it was considered an act of mercy to enslave them rather than simply kill them all in victory, to the last man woman and child.

If you really wanna get into same culture doing the enslaving, you need to talk about indentured servitude; or people selling themselves into slavery to pay or some sort of debt or other; be it monetary or criminal. Post Roman Empire, this was the primary method of slavery in europe (and china, incidentally) far outweighing the transatlantic African chattel trade.

The other example of same culture slavery is one that's rather heavily argued, and that is Caste. Most heavily a thing in India, Caste slavery existed over most of the world for most of history, and focused pretty heavily on guilds. You were born into your father or mothers profession, and you could never leave or marry outside that profession on pain of death. This was broken in china, europe and persia by a series of plagues (particularly bubonic) creating severe and uneven labor shortages, but it survived in India until the British solidified their control over the region and instituted Partition, forcefully migrating large populations to stop the constant Caste, Racial and Religious Warfare.
similarly, and related to the previous, many of those enslaved we're from societys that themselves practiced slavery;
Literally every nation for 99% of recorded history practiced slavery, so... yes. It was more a question of manner and degree.
slaves often had more rights and easier paths to becoming freeman.
Not often, actually. A path from slave to member of society was pretty much restricted to times and nations where indentured servitude has outstripped and largely replaced outright slavery. The major exception to this was the Roman Empire, who had their path to citizenship before ever coming up with indenture.
slavery discussions in our time are rooted in American and Western European chattel slavery.
an honest pity, really. but getting into why that is would devolve into /Pol.
On top of all of this is the fact that I am very, very, white. While I am working to overcome my own racist biases and history, I still benefit a lot from white privilege, and I still live in a very white are. Because of this my whiteness is absolutely going to come into play when writing about a very black topic in current discourse; even if slavery in Classical Antiquity did tend be more white on white than in later times (and was happening when the modern day "race" distinctions we're not relevant concepts. Xenophobia being the problem of the time rather then modern racism.
First, I'd say if you wanna write a good story, get that shit out of your head. Continue your research on slavery across the world and across time and simply write your story as your research says would best fit the geographical, temporal and religious conditions of your setting.
As a result of all of this, I find myself wondering how slavery should be handled in this type of work. Leaving it out seems dishonest, and as if we are only showing the good of a very morally grey part of history. On the other hand, including it means having to overcome the cognitive biases of the reader towards the present situation.
Detail your setting. What, aside from slavery, is your geography, religious structure, government structure, comparative military might and tech level, population density and distribution, food and water quality, resource distribution and healthcare like?
 
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