It seems unfathomable. In the ancient world, some people not only voluntarily became slaves but paid to do so. From reading a papyrus containing a slave contract, Egyptologist Kim Ryholt of the University of Copenhagen discovered that some slaves paid a monthly fee to work in temples, says a recent report in Nature:
I am your servant from this day onwards, and I shall pay 2½ copper-pieces every month as my slave-fee before Soknebtunis, the great god.
The scrap of papyrus this was written on was found (as have many ancient papyri) in a rubbish dump in the ancient Egyptian temple city of Tebtunis. In his article A Self-Dedication Addressed to Anubis – Divine Protection against Malevolent Forces or Forced Labour?, Ryholt also discusses some of 100 other slave contracts. One reveals that voluntary slaves sometimes signed up their descendants also to be slaves: “I am your servant with my children and the children of my children.”
Slaves in antiquity and modern times, says Ryholt, “were generally allowed to earn some money on their own,” by doing manual labor, and so would have used this to pay fees.
But why people chose to become slaves is not spelled out in the contracts. As Ryholt says in Nature, ”these individuals were not driven by some inexplicable masochist streak – as one may be tempted to assume – but were poor individuals at the bottom of the social hierarchy seeking asylum from a worse fate: forced labor,” such as digging canals. Temple slaves were more likely to work in agriculture, thereby avoiding harsh labor.
Another example of people choosing slavery occurred in the Roman Empire when Roman citizens (such as discharged soldiers) and freed slaves chose to become gladiators and, therefore, slaves. Considering that a professional gladiator had perhaps a one in ten chance of surviving a fight, it can seem baffling as to why anyone should choose such a fate. As in the case of the ancient Egyptian temple slaves, economic realities were the reason: Gladiators were housed, clothed, fed and had access to medical treatment that was simply unavailable to most.
Slavery on the Silver Screen: Lincoln and Django Unchained
The ancient slave contracts and accounts of gladiators underscore the realities of slavery, a topic that remains very much in the public mind, with two major films about slavery in contention for best movie. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln shows the U.S.’s 16th president politicking and negotiating with lawmakers to get the 13th Amendment passed. As Gene Demby observes on NPR, Lincoln is a Hollywood movie about slavery though “there aren’t actually all that many slaves depicted in it”; Spielberg’s film is a reverential depiction of a great man that avoids some of the messiness and ugliness of slavery.
Quentin Tarentino’s Django Unchained has come under fire for seeking to show precisely that. A number of its characters are slaves or (in the case of the main character) former slaves. The film (like all of Tarentino’s films) has been criticized for its violence, which includes slaves being whipped and worse. But then, Django Unchained “never shies away from the quotidian, petty terror that undergirded American slavery; it gives every interaction between blacks and whites a frisson of mortal risk,” says Demby.
Like the ancient slave contracts that Ryholt has translated, Django Unchained seeks to present the uncomfortable realities of slavery without any romanticizing or white-washing. The film demands that we take a hard look at the U.S.’s racial past and how this history still informs the present.
Yes, it is thrilling that the U.S. will soon be inaugurating President Barack Obama for his second term; that, for four more years, this country’s leader will be African-American. But as anti-Obama criticism (more than a little of it racially charged) reveals, racism remains very much an issue in the U.S. Racism and slavery are topics that make us squirm but this very response is a reminder of why we need to acknowledge ugly truths. We have come a long way from the times of the ancient Egyptians and Romans but we still have very far to go.
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