Pokémon and Ancient Slavery

Does everybody know what day it is?  That’s right; it’s “Chris educates his readers whether they like it or not” day!

So slavery has come up in discussions in this blog’s question-and-answer section lately – specifically, whether or not the concept of “slavery” necessarily entails lack of consent.  My judgement on the subject was that, technically, it doesn’t make a difference – legally owning another intelligent being is still slavery even if the slave is totally okay with it – but that this doesn’t really have much of a bearing on how we think about Pokémon because the idea of consensual slavery is just so unusual in the real world that we aren’t necessarily justified in extrapolating our own beliefs about it.  In fact, I couldn’t think of any examples at first – someone brought up slavery laws in ancient Jewish society, which are interesting (take a look at the comment section on that post), but I’m still not convinced that really gives us the comparison we need because slavery in that culture seems to have been intended as a punishment normally (as I currently understand, it basically takes the idea of debt-bondage that exists in a lot of ancient societies and extends that to a wider range of offences), and I don’t think that really qualifies as consent.  Anyway, my friend Jim pointed out that I’ve actually been overlooking something in the culture we study, ancient Rome, and suggested I get into the whole idea of slavery in the classical Mediterranean in a bit more detail to provide some context for all of this nonsense, so this is what I’m going to try to do.

I think the difficulty with talking about slavery today is that for a lot of people it tends to get conflated with racism, one of the cardinal sins of progressive modern society, and for Americans in particular it just hits too close to home (it’s not quite as sensitive a subject for New Zealanders since we weren’t officially colonised until 1840, by which time Britain had already outlawed slavery, so we don’t have the same historical baggage).  I certainly don’t mean to trivialise the horror of what was inflicted on African slaves in 18th and 19th century America, but I do think that becoming too fixated on a single cultural context for slavery is not particularly helpful when we’re trying to think about how our moral axioms would function in a fantasy world, which is why I want to spend a bit of time talking about a second, very different one.  I therefore want to emphasise first that the concept of using a racist ideology as a justification for slavery, as the Confederate States once did, is actually quite unusual in wider history – I’m sure there are other examples, but in many ancient societies it’s just a fact of life that anyone can be enslaved if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In classical Greece, for example, most city-states legislated to keep their own citizens from being enslaved within their borders (eventually – in the archaic period it was common for debtors to be enslaved when they couldn’t pay up), but didn’t much care about the citizens of other Greek cities.  Slaves could be taken in war, or by pirates and bandits, and in the earlier part of Greek history this sort of thing is even regarded as a respectable activity for members of the aristocracy.  The Romans were a lot more liberal about sharing their citizenship around than most Greek states were, which notionally protected more people from enslavement, but they were also quite a bit more keen on conquest than the Greeks generally were, and conquest always brought in large numbers of slaves from defeated populations (there’s actually a long and complicated debate running about whether the introduction of massive quantities of slave labour was ultimately the catalyst for the fall of the Republic and rise of the Empire, but I’ll spare you).  Under the first few emperors, the Romans did begin introducing laws to ensure humane treatment of slaves, and eventually a class of expert freed slaves became a central component of imperial bureaucracy, but that’s complicated stuff; for the most part, slaves were simply the primary source of manual labour in the ancient Mediterranean.  There are some weird ideological beliefs that go along with this, notably the fact that the Romans, traditionally, seem to have regarded working for a wage as demeaning, because it means being dependent on someone else for your day-to-day sustenance, like a slave would be.  That’s not to say poorer Romans didn’t do it, but it was definitely regarded as a socially inferior option – for the lower classes, growing your own food as a farmer was regarded as the ideal; for the upper classes, investing most of your money in land and living off rent was seen as the most respectable way to stay wealthy.  Traditionally, people have even tended to think that slavery was actually the reason the Romans and Greeks never industrialised (despite having the technology for it – Alexandrian inventors are known to have experimented with primitive steam engines, but used them to build toys!) – there was no real pressure to develop in that way, since they didn’t have a huge need for labour-saving innovations.

The reason I didn’t bring up Roman slavery earlier was that, in the vast majority of cases, slavery in the Roman world is a pretty rotten deal, and not what any sane person would describe as consensual.  Most slaves were probably better off than the African slaves on American plantations, but that’s not exactly saying much (and the worst-case scenario for a slave in the Roman world – working in the mines of Syracuse – is basically a death sentence).  Many of them could expect to be freed, though probably fewer than 1/3, and even freedmen still had some obligations to their former masters.  Depending on their situation, they might receive pocket money or (if they lived in a city) be allowed to run small businesses, but they were still entirely under the thumbs of their masters (that in itself needs some context, though, since Roman society placed an unusual emphasis on the authority of the patriarch as head of the household – a father basically had the same rights over his children as a master over his slaves, and was even allowed to kill them if he chose, though this right was rarely exercised in the historical period).  In short, Rome is emphatically not an example of a society where slavery is normally a consensual arrangement… but it does provide two prominent exceptions.

One is the professional gladiator.  Most gladiators were prisoners of war or condemned criminals, and some were born into slavery, but a few people choose the arena as a career – which entailed selling oneself into slavery.  Gladiators were slaves by definition.  Why would anyone do this?  Well, people of noble birth wouldn’t – it would bring tremendous shame upon one’s family, which for a high-born Roman is pretty much the worst thing you can possibly do.  Even to fight in the arena without becoming a true gladiator, as some of the emperors did, was regarded as a fairly serious offence against one’s own personal dignity (and if the emperor was doing it, the dignity of all Roman citizens by extension).  For a lower-class citizen, though, it could be the only practical route to fame and fortune, since Roman society wasn’t exactly progressive in terms of class mobility.  Successful gladiators who lasted long enough were paid, and could potentially buy back their own freedom (if they ever felt like it!) – and were also immensely popular with the common people, partly because of the stigma attached to their position by ‘traditional’ codes of civic virtue.  It’s not hard to understand how this might be attractive to a few people dissatisfied with lower-class Roman life.  It’s also a very interesting comparison for Pokémon, simply because of the nature of what a gladiator is and does.

The other, and perhaps even more curious, example we have in mind is that of the educated Greek slave (I will emphasise, again, that like the professional gladiator this is a very small subset of the Roman slave population).  Romans, of course, had absolutely no problem with enslaving Greeks, but unlike slaves from Gaul, or Spain, or Africa or wherever, Greek slaves came from a culture which the Romans regarded as basically equivalent in stature to their own.  This was particularly important if the slave in question was educated, high-born, or capable of speaking Latin (imagine a minor French nobleman as a slave in 18th century England).  Slaves like these would be wasted on manual labour – instead they were typically used to fill the professions which Roman education did not normally prepare people for.  As a result, many teachers and doctors in Rome were in fact well-paid, well-treated and highly respected slaves.  An educated Greek who sold himself to an upper-class Roman family in such a capacity could expect not only a sizeable lump sum when he first became a slave, but a generous allowance, free food and board, instant access to the upper echelons of Roman society, an easy way out of any legal difficulties that might arise from being a resident foreigner, and a good chance of ultimately being freed again anyway (which would probably secure Roman citizenship for his children or grandchildren).  All in all, a pretty attractive package – whether it’s worth the sacrifice of becoming another person’s legal property is surely a matter of opinion, but there was no shortage of Greek professionals in Rome willing to make the trade.  There’s even some evidence for perfectly well-off Greek freedmen selling themselves again (although that’s from the Roman satirist Juvenal, who is a very strange man, so take it with a grain of salt).

Why do I think these examples are important?  Well, it shows that from at least some points of view, the idea of being owned by another person is not actually all that horrifying, per se, to the point that some ancient Greeks and Romans even regarded it as a viable career choice.  The things that are horrifying about slavery are how easy it is to abuse the power that comes with that, how extensive that abuse can become, and how hard it is to prevent – but, for whatever reason, the Pokémon world does not appear to have these problems (EDIT: or rather, they don’t appear to be systemic – that is, Team Rocket are the exception, not the rule).  For me, the real puzzle here is how it manages to escape them, and I think the answer must have its origins in a similar relationship to that of the Greek doctors – a widely-held and strongly-defended ideological stance that Pokémon are in some senses equal to humans, which attaches a major stigma to any conspicuous mistreatment of Pokémon.  To wrap up, I still think that calling Pokémon training ‘slavery’ is unjustified because that chains it to a whole slew of connotations that aren’t necessarily inherent in the idea of slavery but tend to go along with it; however, provided we’re careful with our terminology and try to maintain a detached view, I think slavery can produce some very interesting comparanda for our ongoing meditations.

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