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Slavery started appearing in past civilizations probably around 11,000 years ago, when with the wide spreading of agriculture, humanity started experiencing a surplus of food.  Before, humans sustained themselves with hunting and gathering. It would be untrue to say that they did not engage in fights with other humans, because, even then, warfare between different tribes was probably not uncommon.  The only reason why, at that time, the captured enemies were not turned into slaves, was a logistic one. Usually the amount of food available was always meager and increasing the amount of food needed to feed the prisoners would have required only one solution: the utilization of the vanquished enemies by making them  participate in the hunt. But, it was totally impractical to provide the vanquished enemy with the weapons and the freedom needed for hunting. The most practical way to dispose of an enemy was either to kill him immediately on the battle field or to kill him later and consume the spoils. Considering the shortage of food the latter choice was considered a good alternative. Recent discoveries show evidence of this practice in many of early man's dwellings. Cannibalism was still wide spread, when in the past centuries more civilized nations came in contact with tribes still living by hunting and gathering.

Things changed with the advent of agriculture. The surplus of food allowed part of the population not to work in the fields. Societies started organizing themselves into more specialized categories of workers. There were soldiers, farmers, stone cutters, builders etc... The soldiers, when they won a war, made prisoners. These same soldiers, during peace time, were ideal for watching over the prisoners. Now, there was a considerable advantage in keeping the prisoners alive by turning them into slaves working in the quarries, in the fields or in various household mansions. In ancient Sparta there were so many slaves that the Spartan army was reluctant to  leave the city, when engaging into wars, for fear of slave revolts at home and only in rare cases they did decide to participate in far away wars.

Until the advent of the industrial revolution, slaves were the most valuable commodity on the market. It is said that the average roman soldier would have to serve for twenty years in the army to be able to afford the purchase of a slave. A beautiful female slave was thought to cost ten times the price of an average slave and therefore she was totally unaffordable to the average soldier. In the American South the average slave would have cost more than a modern luxury car. At the eve of the Civil War, slaves represented more than two thirds of the total wealth of the Southern States. At the end of the Civil War, these states lost most of their wealth.

In ancient Rome, slaves were the biggest factor contributing to an owner's wealth. Julius Caesar was nominated proconsul in 58 BC and, soon after, he left Rome to start the Gallic wars. When leaving the city, he was chased by numerous creditors for the money he had borrowed during the election campaign. The election had left him in heavy debt. He came back in 51 BC, just after seven years, and by then he had become, by far, the richest citizen in the Roman Empire. This change in his personal fortune was due to the hundreds of thousands of prisoners taken during the Gallic wars. These same prisoners were later sold to slave merchants generating his great wealth.  The wars of expansion, made by the Romans, had the slave trade as one of the major motivations. One other motivation was the safe transportation of goods traded among the different parts of the empire and even the far Orient. All these wars increased the wealth of the higher classes in the Roman society, while requiring a great amount of sacrifice for the lower classes that had to serve in the army. The emperor Hadrian (117- 138 AD) stopped the Roman territorial expansions and made treaties with other nations to assure that the trade routes stayed open and safe. He opened an era when all the citizens could participate and enjoy the great achievements of the Roman Empire. He ushered in an era of about one hundred years of almost total peace in the western world, that never was to be experienced again.

Logistics in the agricultural age had permitted the development of slavery, but logistics changed with the advent of the industrial age about three hundred years ago and this event promoted the total abolishment of slavery in most nations. With the industrial age came the development of giant factories in the textile, the iron works and many other enterprises. If these enterprises had to work with slave labor, they would have needed capital to build lodging and to provide all the necessities in order to keep a slave work force healthy and dependable. It was a lot more convenient to let the workers fend for themselves with the bare existence wages they were being paid. When the workers got sick and died, the event did not imply a loss of capital as in the case of slaves. The deceased workers could be easily replaced with others on the factory floor. This explains why at the time of the Civil war, with the Southern States being mostly agricultural, and the Northern States being mostly industrial, a workable solution for avoiding the conflict could not be found.

It would be too cynical not to mention that empathy probably  did play a role in the demise of slavery in most of the world. Prosperity allows people in general to behave in a more humane way, but the question we have to ask ourselves is: if prosperity were to diminish, would this empathy diminish too?

 

Marcello Veneziano

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