BMCR 2006.07.28

Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age

, , , Arming slaves : from classical times to the modern age. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xvi, 368 pages) : maps. ISBN 9780300134858. $35.00 (pb).

At first glance, this book may seem a disappointment to the classicist. There is only one paper among thirteen on the military deployment of slaves in the ancient world. But Peter Hunt’s work on Classical Greece alone makes the book worth picking up. And, by clarifying an unexpected and neglected phenomenon in antiquity, should pique the classically oriented reader’s interest enough to continue reading the other twelve chapters.

The thought of arming slaves must strike most of us, as David Brion Davis says in his introduction, as an oxymoron. The fear of servile revolt, which was dramatically realized more than once in antiquity, and the characterization of slaves as unmanly and ignoble, which was articulated by Aristotle and held as a revered principle in the western world, we assume, regularly prevented masters from entrusting their slaves with arms. The papers presented in this book, however, give evidence that it was not uncommon in times of war for slave-holding societies to make soldiers of their slaves. They furthermore indicate that there is nothing paradoxical in this measure, rather it can be explained in terms of the forces and pressures under which slave societies operated.

Peter Hunt’s “Arming Slaves and Helots in Classical Greece” is the first paper. In addition to their fairly well known roles as Athens’ ‘police force’ and as baggage carries for hoplites, he indicates, slaves also served extensively in the Athenian navy as salaried oarsmen. The Spartans enlisted the Helots to serve as soldiers on long-term, distant campaigns. This was not only despite the pervasive fear of a Helot uprising, but also because of that fear, since sending armed slaves on campaign allowed more Spartiates to remain in the home territory to quell potential revolts. Nevertheless, slaves were mobilized as a last resort, to compensate for a shortage of manpower, and when they were recruited their contribution is rarely discussed in our sources. This was primarily because Greek ideology equated military service with political entitlement.

The most obvious omission in the book’s coverage is a paper on the arming of slaves by the Romans. Although there should be a treatment of this topic in one of the most extensive slave-holding states, the editors do not seem to have neglected it purposefully or by oversight. There are a number of references to the Roman recruitment of slaves, as bodyguards, or emergency units in the army, in the introduction and conclusion, as well as in Hunt’s paper. The death of Thomas E. J. Weidemann, to whose memory the book is dedicated, seems to explain the absence of a paper on Rome, and is therefore to be doubly regretted.

Hunt’s paper is followed by one on the Mamluk and Ghulam slave armies of the Islamic world by Reuven Amitai. The Muslim princes were the first to institutionalize the purchase/recruitment, training, and maintenance of slave soldiers. These troops were largely drawn from the Turkic peoples beyond the borders of the Muslim Empire. Their dislocation and social disconnection from the rest of the slave and free subjects of the caliph or sultan, no less than the martial traditions of the steppe nomads, made them particularly valuable to the ruler. They owed their loyalty to their master, and were not embroiled in conflicts based on politics, doctrine, or kinship. The power and influence of these slave soldiers could, however, grow beyond their master’s control, as in Egypt where Mamluks were not only soldiers, but administrators, governors, and — after a successful coup — rulers for more than three hundred years.

There is no precedent for these institutionalized slave armies in the ancient world. Many of the other papers, however, indicate that a shortage of free manpower was the cause of slave mobilization. So a profitable field of enquiry might be to ask if the draining wars between the Romans and the Sassanid Persians, which immediately preceded the rise of the Arabs, and the chronic unwillingness of late antique citizens to serve in the army did not create a situation which offered something of a model to the Muslim princes, especially because we know that runaway slaves in large numbers joined the barbarian armies that invaded the West.

Slave soldiers were regularly employed in Africa. John Thornton describes the power and problems inherent in the use of slave armies in western Africa in the early modern period. Rulers could employ them as personally loyal troops outside of the systems of kinship and tribe to centralize the state, and private individuals could bolster their own power at the expense of the state’s with armed slaves, but the slaves themselves could always make themselves the most powerful element in this dynamic. Allen Isaacman and Derek Peterson’s paper on the Chikunda of Portuguese southern Africa details how foreign plantation owners could use one group of segregated military slaves to control their agricultural slaves and tenants and shows that this role could develop distinct institutions and eventually an ethnicity.

The remainder of the papers, the bulk of the book, deal with slave soldiers in the new world. Slaves were employed as soldiers in wars between colonial powers and on both sides of revolutionary wars for independence. Rather than discuss these in detail I would like to raise a few points which might be useful for comparative study.

The slaves of the Americas were often concentrated on vast plantations where slaves often outnumbered free men — similar to the Roman latifundia, especially the estates on Sicily — which accentuated the potential and danger of arming slaves. It was, nevertheless, in these places with slave majorities that slave regiments were raised. The arming of slaves was often initiated in regions with relatively small, and so trusted and not intimidating, slave populations, but by no means limited to those places.

Warring states could offer freedom to their enemies’ slaves in exchange for fighting, but they were usually cautious about doing this, knowing that such an action could disrupt their own slave economies. While states most often took the initiative in recruiting slaves and masters objected to an infringement on their rights and the consequent economic handicap, the side a slave took was often determined by personal loyalty to his master or to an estate.

Especially when slaves fought in wars for independence, freedom naturally became an issue. Some slaves were offered their freedom as a reward after several years of good service. Slaves were often granted their freedom before they joined an army, in accord with the military ethic that soldiering was the duty and the prerogative of the free man. In either case, masters insisted that manumission was their individual privilege and could not lawfully be co-opted by the state. Slaves in the British West India Regiments lived and fought as soldiers, but technically remained the property of the state. At any rate, it was generally agreed that slaves who had been taken from the plantations and served in the army could not profitably be returned to field work, so enlistment necessitated manumission at some point, as well as eventual deportation.

The prospect of self-assertive slaves was a minor problem compared to the real fear of slave-holders: slave revolt. Servile insurrection is not an inevitable consequence of arming slaves, but the possibility leapt to the minds of those who called slave soldiers a ‘dangerous expedient’. In American history there is no correlation between slave revolts and occasions when slaves were armed by the state, its enemies, or slave-holders. (Hunt’s paper suggests arming Helots curbed the tendency toward Helot uprisings, and there is no evidence that slave revolts against the Romans were preceded by the military deployment of slaves, even if some were led by gladiators.) But the agents of Revolutionary France employed the inflammatory rhetoric of slave liberation to recruit fresh manpower for their conflicts against rival European powers. And the extensive use of units of slaves and ex-slaves in the civil wars, invasions, and revolutions on the French colony of Saint Domingue led directly to the successful Haitian revolution, and the establishment of the ‘slave republic’. On the whole, however, slave soldiers were not necessarily revolutionary; soldiering made them part of the established order and gave them something to lose in a revolution.

Altogether, ‘Arming Slaves’ presents a number of informative and engaging essays, offering broad chronological and geographical coverage, on a fascinating, but neglected topic. Proportionally little is said about the ancient world, but what is said by Peter Hunt is thorough, solid, and perceptive, and the book as a whole is valuable to the classicist because some understanding of slavery is necessary to an understanding of the ancient world, and we should welcome insights wherever they can be found.