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A recent post on Twitter tried to sum up the difference between learning ancient and learning modern languages:

True enough, but it didn’t touch on one of the biggest problems facing anyone who tries to teach students, or at least American students, about the ancient world: what do we say about slavery? And how do we handle sentences like this, from the Cambridge Latin Course: “Ego servo epistulas dictabam,” inquit Caecilius?

The first thing to do is to get rid of the translation, still found in a few older textbooks, of servus as “servant.” But then an American teacher is left with two hard facts:  the ancient world depended on slaves, and we have our own contentious history of slavery. Our students know about slavery.  They know that slavery is wrong, and when they imagine slavery, they imagine a world of black slaves and white masters. It can be a challenge to help them understand the complexities of ancient slavery.

The past is a foreign country, of course, and every word in that sentence from the CLC, even ego, means something different from its standard English equivalent. That’s because slavery in the ancient world was different—perhaps even a different institution—from slavery in the United States before the mid-nineteenth century. At least three features of ancient slavery need explanation: slaves were invisible, they were ubiquitous, and they did work that we do not associate with slaves. Sometimes thought experiments help students understand what these things meant.

I’ve tried asking students how many intelligent devices are in our classroom.  Usually the number surprises them—each student has a phone, and maybe a laptop, and there is the classroom computer, and so on.  “Those are the slaves,” I say, and to the Romans, slaves, like our smartphones, were little more than intelligent devices, and worth about as much attention. Most of the time, they were, if not actually invisible, unseen.

And like our intelligent devices, they were always there.   In our society, having sex is something that normally happens in private, in a space with only two people present. This fresco from the House of Caecilius Iucundus at Pompeii is one of several ancient representations of people engaged in this intimate activity with a third figure in the background—a slave, smaller and faded, almost but not quite invisible. The two people in the foreground aren’t paying attention to her (I think it is), any more than two people similarly occupied nowadays would pay attention to a television or computer.



Students have difficulty grasping what it was for a free Roman to live in a world where he or she was almost never alone, never in a room or outdoors without someone else.  (For today’s students, though, being alone might have been something like being without their phone!) It’s probably not a good idea to introduce scenes like the one from Caecilius Iucundus’ house into a school classroom, but explaining that being alone was an untypical experience for most Romans can help students understand, for example, why Ovid’s Ariadne in Heroides 10 seems so distraught when she is abandoned by Theseus on Naxos.  Part of her hysteria is Ovidian hyperbole, but some of it is an understandable Roman response to solitude.

Thinking about the kinds of work that slaves did in the Roman world underscores the difference between ancient and modern slavery more than perhaps any other feature. It can also make students uncomfortably aware of some features of their own world that often escape notice.  Roman slaves managed estates, drew salaries (their peculium, which, like their persons, remained their owner’s property but could be used to buy their freedom), taught in schools and tutored Roman home-schoolers, treated patients, and did all sorts of work that we don’t associate with slavery.  I invite students to imagine a time-traveling ancient Roman trying to figure out how our world works, and who works in our world; for myself, I often imagine riding the bus with Cicero.  SEPTA’s route 44, which goes from the western edge of Philadelphia almost to the Delaware River on its eastern border, is a good place to start.

Cicero would have had no difficulty identifying the slaves on that ride.  There’s the bus driver, for one, and the people in teal jackets from the Center City District pushing their giant vacuums, and the policemen, and the firemen in their station at 21st and Market –clearly public slaves, servi publici, and so perhaps a bit better off than others.  There are also the clerks glimpsed inside stores, and the servers in restaurants. And what about all those young men and women in business suits scurrying in and out of the tall buildings in the financial district? For Cicero, in fact, almost everyone who did some kind of work, and especially anyone who worked with his or her hands, would seem to be a slave.  Imagining a bus ride with Cicero can help students think about a fundamental difference between the Roman world and ours, and about people who are often unnoticed and everywhere, doing the necessary work of society.

–Lee T. Pearcy

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Cicero’s De Officiis (“Tully’s Offices,” as it used to be called) was a late addition to my summer reading.  I dipped into it thinking that a work written in 44 B.C. and called “On Obligations” (or, as Andrew Dyck suggests in his magnificent 1996 commentary, “On Appropriate Actions”) might have some relevance to a problem that I’m now thinking about, moral agency in the Aeneid.  I found in addition a book that is helping me think in a new way about some of our current political dynamics.

Writing as he did before Christianity and before Kant, Cicero assumes that being good—being just, honorable, or humane—is not solely a matter of the choices that we make as individuals.  Humans in his world are not autonomous agents acting on the basis of individual will and intellect.  For Cicero, our moral agency, and in fact our very humanity, is in part created by other people through our connections with them, and being good and human in turn depends on our participation in those connections:

But because, as has been brilliantly written by Plato, we are born not only for ourselves, but our country claims one share in our upbringing, and our friends claim another. Moreover, as the Stoics like to say, all things which the earth bears are created for the use of humans, but humans are created for the sake of humans, so that they themselves can be of benefit to one another. In this matter we ought to take nature as our guide, contribute our part to the common good, and by the exchange of obligations, by giving and receiving, now by arts, now by labor, now by talents, bind tight the social union of human with human. (De Officiis 1.7,22)

That takes me to a recent article in the Philadelphia papers (the Inquirer and Daily News, both owned by the same company, share a web site). Helen Ubinas writes about a controversy over signs–not semiotics or the feminist journal, but actual signs, which people have been putting in their yards.  We’ve all seen the “Hate Has No Home Here” signs, with a stars-and-striped heart and the same message in Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, and other languages used by immigrants to America.  They sprang up in the aftermath of President Trump’s first immigration order (or Muslim ban), and there are still a lot of them around, at least in my neighborhood.

It doesn’t take much political savvy to conclude that the people with HHNHH signs probably aren’t Trump supporters, and so a Republican commissioner in Springfield Township has come up with an alternative sign, which Ubinas calls “a not-so-subtle, right-leaning, middle finger directed at those inclusive messages”–meaning the HHNHH signs. The alternative or Republican sign reads, “Love Lives Here. Love of God, Family, Friends, Country, Community & the U.S. Constitution.”

I want to use Cicero to suggest that these two signs show why Republicans, despite their unfailing fondness for ignoring economic reality, slashing social services, making abortion illegal, and blundering into wars in the Middle East, still manage to get people to vote for them in numbers sufficient to control the current Congress and send an ignorant, vulgar, misogynist liar to the White House. The fact is, Republicans are better at framing their message in a way that appeals to voters, as George Lakoff has been arguing for almost 40 years. “Love Lives Here” will win more votes than “Hate Has No Home.”

For a person who agrees with Cicero that being a moral human being means being involved in communities, families, and networks of mutual obligations, “Love Lives Here” is a better sign than “Hate Has No Home.” Helen Ubinas valiantly tries to invoke the inclusivity trope by proclaiming HHNHH “inclusive” and suggesting that mentioning God somehow amounts to “cutting out people who might believe in someone or something else,” but that seems a counsel of desperation. Ignore the messages, implied or not, in the two signs and look at their vocabulary, syntax, and rhetoric. One sign features a negative sentence (“has no”) about hate. The other has an affirmative sentence about love. Both signs exploit alliteration, but one pants feebly (H … H …N… H…H…), like an out-of-shape jogger, while the other piles it on: three Ls, two Fs, and a concluding series of Cs. One doesn’t just hint at the interlocking communities that make up human life, but talks about them. Given a choice between family, friends, country, and community, and maybe even God on the one hand, and merely excluding hate on the other, which would you pick? I know which I would choose, and I think Cicero would agree.

–Lee T. Pearcy


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