Teaching Slavery in the High School Latin Classroom

Some books and teachers try to downplay the horrors of slavery — but is that the right approach?

Roman soldier leading collared captives off to slavery, relief from Smyrna in the Ashmolean, Oxford. (Creative Commons/via Dorieo’s Flickr.)

A recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center highlighted gross inadequacies in the way slavery is taught in American schools. This deficiency in our education system extends well beyond gaps in knowledge. When American slavery is taught poorly, young people miss out on important context for modern-day racial inequalities. Dr. Hasan Jeffries of Ohio State University explained in the SPLC report, “Public policies tend to treat this racial inequality as a product of poor personal decision-making, rather than acknowledging it as the result of racialized systems and structures that restrict choice and limit opportunity.”

What does this have to do with Latin? By the third chapter of Ecce Romani, we have met Davus, an enslaved person whom Sextus and Marcus love to annoy. A few chapters later we learn that after Davus was purchased he was fearful about his future with his new master, but “he needn’t have worried. Old Titus proved the be the kindest of masters.”

Because of rhetoric like this, many secondary students end up forming the impression that slavery in the ancient world was not that bad. Dr. Sarah Bond of the University of Iowa has witnessed this in her own classes, recounting, “In many students’ minds slavery in the ancient world wasn’t as bad because of the high rates of manumission and because it wasn’t predicated on race.” This sanitized view of slavery can inadvertently reinforce misguided beliefs that slavery was an acceptable part of life in other periods of history. Dr. Jeffries told me, “It is important to teach all slavery accurately and truthfully. Slavery is not just unfortunate, it is a crime against humanity.”

Two years ago, troubled by the way slavery is portrayed in many resources I have typically used in my classroom, I changed my approach. My current goals are for students to recognize that all slavery is a crime against humanity, understand the role of race in transatlantic slavery, and contemplate the impact slavery on our country today. This new approach has sparked very productive classroom conversations and helped students broaden their perspectives on slavery, both ancient and American.

Property vs. Social Death

I start our class dialogue by asking students to write about the word ‘property.’ They explore the word’s definition, connotations, and uses. They can also write about what the word means on a personal level. Students share their responses and generally agree that people should not be property, but then focus on property they enjoy having (or would like to have). When I ask them to rate the word in terms of its overall connotation, they usually rate it as a neutral or positive word.

Next, I ask students to write about two phrases: social death and absolute domination. For background, it is worthwhile to read Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson’s seminal work Slavery and Social Death, which provides a transhistorical definition of slavery: “The permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.” Unlike the word ‘property,’ ‘absolute domination’ and ‘social death’ evoke extremely negative responses and feelings. And, unlike ‘property,’ students have no positive or even neutral opinions about these phrases in any context.

At this point, we write about and discuss how the language we use to describe slavery informs our perspective and opinions about it. While all students agree that slavery is bad, many discuss the institution in purely economic terms, which completely omits its dehumanizing nature. With some classes, I solicit their perspectives on the use of the phrase “enslaved people” instead of “slaves.” This fits in well with the conversation about property and social death because when we sanitize slavery, we often remove the human element to make it more palatable. Occasionally students will comment on the implications of our language for slave owners. Owning property is not intrinsically bad, but inflicting social death and degrading another human being is.

Ecce Romani does eventually acknowledge that some enslaved people were treated poorly, but reducing the institution of slavery to a question of mistreatment is superficial and fails to capture the horror of the larger institution. It is important for students to understand that even if Davus had a benign master, all slavery is dehumanizing and predicated on both violence and degradation.

Loss of identity is part of this violence and degradation, described even by the ancient Romans themselves. Varro described enslaved people as verbal tools in De Re Rustica 1.17:

Quas res alii dividunt in duas partes, in homines et adminicula hominum, sine quibus rebus colere non possunt; alii in tres partes, instrumenti genus vocale et semivocale et mutum, vocale, in quo sunt servi, semivocale, in quo sunt boves, mutum, in quo sunt plaustra.

Upon enslavement, people lose their humanity and become instrumenta, on the same level as semiverbal oxen and mute wagons.

Loss of humanity also entails loss of identity, which Dr. Patrice Rankine, a classicist and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Richmond, describes in his essay “Odysseus as Slave,” writing, “The slave’s true identity is relegated to the realm of memory, to the past.” When I ask students to reflect on this quotation, they always have a lot to say about elements of identity and loss of identity. After all, a key developmental task of their age group is to form an identity independent of their parents.

We also discuss the ways ancient enslaved people were subject to absolute domination and unprotected under the law. Dr. Bond said, “If you look at the law codes instead of Cicero, you see the brutal nature of slavery in a whole new light. If you read the Codex of Justinian, the Theodosian Code or earlier laws preserved on bronze, you see it was permissible to beat a slave until they die, with impunity.” The possibility of manumission and kind treatment do not mitigate the horror of slavery in the ancient world. Dr. Rankine told me, “The post-Augustan notion that no slave could be freed before the age of 30 speaks to the power that a master had over his household. Indeed the power of life and death over the familia​ is precisely a site of the notion of social death.” Though Ecce Romani portrays Davus’ life as pleasant, his body and life were not his own.

These discussions help students replace simplistic, sanitized accounts of slavery with a more accurate concept. By the end of this part of the conversation, they understand that our language often reflects our attitudes about slavery; that the problem of slavery extends well beyond the treatment of enslaved people; and, most importantly, that the institution of slavery is a dehumanizing abomination.

Making Connections

After this dialogue, I ask students to make connections between ancient Roman slavery and American slavery. At this point, students can identify that a commonality is dehumanization. An obvious difference is the role of race, a topic the SPLC has found that many classroom discussions of slavery nationwide are inadequate. The SPLC report explained, “We often avoid the topics of white supremacy and racist beliefs altogether when talking about slavery, even though slavery required both to persist.”

Race is absolutely critical in any discussion of American slavery. Dr. Jeffries explained, “When your status is based upon race, it becomes hereditary.” A manumitted ancient Roman could overcome the macula servitutis, or stain of slavery, and children born after manumission in ancient Rome enjoyed the full rights of citizenship. To contrast, after emancipation, African Americans were denied full rights because of their race. Dr. Jeffries continued, “That separates you not only in terms of your social rights but also your basic human rights. We have the inhumanity of an entire people based on the myth of white supremacy.”

Because of this systemic racism, it took over a century post-emancipation for African-Americans to have the same rights as white Americans. Even today, we are suffering the consequences of this legacy of racial injustice. Some students have not considered this reality before. For students who are inclined to frame American slavery in purely economic terms, it can be helpful to provide information about the impact of slavery on income equality. Harvard economist Nathan Nunn found that regions in the United States that relied on slave labor are economically underdeveloped and exhibit extreme income inequality. Who profited from the labor of enslaved people? Who continues to benefit now?

Understanding the racist roots of slavery also helps students place the civil rights movement and current events in a broader, more meaningful context. At this point, students who initially thought it was important to learn about slavery so that we don’t repeat past mistakes, begin to understand that legacy of slavery still plays out in society today. Learning about slavery can help us remedy current injustices.

Confronting the true horror of slavery is jarring for students accustomed to sanitized versions of history. It can also be empowering, though. Dr. Jeffries said, “It is a brutal system. Africans were torn away from their ancestral home, but in response to that they craft and create new culture. They never surrender their core humanity. That is why they are forming families, that is why they are resisting in every way possible, even when there is no reason to be optimistic, there is no reason to be hopeful. There is no hope on the horizon, and yet they never give up. That to me is the ultimate sense of empowerment.”

It is almost impossible to teach or learn Latin without encountering slavery. Because of the role of slavery in our own country’s history, it is important to teach slavery accurately. Ecce Romani’s account of Davus would lead us to believe that ancient slavery was tolerable — even acceptable. Presenting a richer definition of slavery helps students understand ancient slavery and also avoids feeding into dangerous myths and misconceptions about American slavery. Jeffries said, “If this is the only discussion they are getting, this is what they are transferring to slavery in the American context. That is the danger.”

What we teach about slavery has implications far beyond our classroom. We have a responsibility to teach the difficult truth.

A Final Note

This topic can be emotional for some students. By the time we embark on this unit, students have had practice engaging in respectful, productive classroom conversations. It helps to establish these routines and practices before jumping into this unit to keep the exchange of ideas productive and respectful for all students. The teacher’s role is to facilitate a student-centered conversation.

I generally use “think, write, share” format. Since my students write daily in composition books, they are used to writing reactions to quotations, ideas, and new learning. Composition books are particularly effective for shy students who have good ideas, but are uncomfortable sharing with the rest of the class. For these students, I respond to their entries with comments and follow-up questions so that they can participate in an asynchronous discussion and benefit from an exchange of ideas.