As part of our research for a book called Time of Troubles, Christina Petterson and I have been developing an approach to understanding slavery. It is predicated on the Roman legal invention of absolute property.
In the late second century BCE, Roman jurists first defined absolute private property as the relationship between a human being and a thing (res). The catch was that the res in question was none other than a human being, a slave who had progressively been redefined as a res. The property in question was described as dominium, a new word coined at the time with obvious connections to dominus, master. With this in mind, we began to explore the implications for the understanding and nature of abstraction in the Graeco-Roman era. The following reflections are part of those implications, which will appear in the book when it is published by Westminster John Knox.
The redefinition of a human being and the reduction to the status of res requires a significant step in abstraction, let alone the abstraction concerned with invention of private property, dominium, as the relation between a dominus and that res. We now wish to deepen the argument by connecting it with the invention of coinage, which signals in itself a major step in abstraction – usually connected with the “axial age” – a few centuries before the invention of private property.
In this case, the attachment of a certain quality or value to a piece of metal shaped in a certain way is comparable to, and indeed connected with, the abstraction entailed in attaching a quality to another object, specifically a human being who functions as an object.
In order to get to this point, we need to take a necessary detour, tracing the way the invention of coinage determined the development of markets in the later part of the first millennium BCE. These markets arose as the byproduct of a significant logistical problem facing ancient states. In order to provision an army on the move, as many people were needed as in the army itself.
In a context of almost continual warfare, with the Neo-Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, and especially the Persians, this reality required significant organization. The invention of coinage – almost simultaneously in about 600-500 BCE in three parts of the world from (China, India, and Lydia) without evident contact – provided the circuit-breaker.
Rulers soon saw a distinct logistical benefit of this invention. Instead of the immense resources devoted to provisioning armies, rulers began to demand taxes in coin from the people they controlled. At the same time, the soldiers were paid in coin, the first properly anonymous form of payment. So how could people get hold of such coins to pay taxes? Exchange agricultural produce with the soldiers for the aforesaid pieces of metal with a ruler’s head imprinted upon them, usually for a customary price.
Local, intermittent, and decentralized practices of exchange were now transformed into markets to supply passing armies, which could be quite large (the Roman armies numbered around 300,000 in total). The practice was soon extended by the Persians to many other areas of its administration of the relatively vast territory it claimed to control. Indeed, it enabled the Persians to develop an extensive taxation system, which was far more stable that the loot-oneself-into-oblivion approach of the Neo-Assyrians (although the Persians could be deploy terror with the worst of them).
The initial point is that markets arose as a byproduct of a logistical problem that faced states in an almost constant state of warfare. In a similar way, the markets of the Greeks and then Romans served to supply the economically necessary slaves. Of course, such markets were not invented as such, since they already existed for another logistical purpose, but they were bent, reshaped, and expanded to the new logistical exercise. Once again, they were the byproduct of a specific condition.
At the same time, the Greeks and especially Romans continued to use and even expanded markets for the sake of supplying armies. Time and again, we come across evidence that local people did not immediately adopt coinage with enthusiasm. Instead, they tended to resist coinage, which had to be forced upon them. For example, during the Roman Empire’s expansion from the third century BCE onwards, the Romans demanded taxes in coin and evidence shows that coinage followed in the path of Roman armies, with hunters and local farmers taking up the use of coins only when they were forced to do so – hardly surprising, given the association between invasion, coins, and taxes.
Now we can address the issue of abstraction entailed with coinage. This took place during the much-discussed and much-celebrated “axial age,” in which abstraction is supposed to have been discovered, with the consequent henotheisms, monotheisms, and ethical codes of Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), and Zoroaster. However, this was an extremely violent age, with the breakdown and reforming of states and the reshaping of social and economic conditions. Armies, gangs, and bands cut swathes through the land and its peoples, while despots sought for new ways to extract plunder and tribute as ways of feeding larger state machines, and above all keeping the armies and bands fed and armed.
In this situation, itinerant armed men were a distinct risk and the last thing one wanted to do was extend credit to such a person (credit was a much older practice that relies on people actually knowing one another). For any transaction, it was better to have something that was assumed to have an objective value, a value that was marked as such. Here coinage was ideal, much like the drug dealer’s bag loaded with unmarked bills. They were object without history, with a value that was not tied to person in question.
In this context, a new level of abstraction comes into its own. Coinage embodies an abstract value, a value instituted and guaranteed by a state (hence the ruler’s head or at least an inscription) and thereby agreed upon by its users. Obviously, we are not persuaded by the suggestion that abstraction was first invented out of the air and ushered in during the “axial age.” According to this suggestion, coinage could take place only after this wondrous step in the human ability of thinking in a sustained and abstract manner.
But we also do not adhere to a mechanistic materialist argument, according to which the invention of coinage caused abstract speculation. Instead, the situation was clearly a dialectical one, in which material and idealist conditions interacted with one another in a complex fashion, the details of which are now lost to us. And we are not persuaded by the strange argument that human beings first learned to think abstractly during this period, having previously operated only in concrete and immediate terms. Instead, it was a new level or new type of abstraction, moving into hitherto unexplored areas beyond the abstractions of language and the classification of the natural world.
Thus, the coin with objective value signals in a concrete way the new type of abstraction. While a coin is objectively universal, with the same objective value for the peasant who produces food and the hungry mercenary seeking a feed (neither of whom will see each other again), so also were the new types of religious and ethical expression universal, with theological systems and their single gods who laid claim not to a tribe or region or palace-temple, but to the whole known cosmos.
An analogous process appears with slavery, especially with the slave as “human res” and the eventual definition of private property in response to slavery. This definition – in terms of the slave as res owned by a dominus – both took place within a wider context and pinpoints the specific moment when the abstraction underway was explicitly recognized. As for the context, this was not only the result of a long development relating specifically to slaves: the influx of slaves from Roman expansion, their saturation and consequent determining of markets, and the process of reducing a human being to the full status res. It was also made possible by the invention of coinage and the attendant new form of abstraction outlined above.
Let us explain. It is no coincidence that the flourishing of Greek economy, society, and thought in the fifth century BCE took place not long after the invention of coinage in this part of the world. More specifically, the development of Greek philosophy, with its sustained abstraction of thought, could take place only in the wake of the achievements of the previous century. Now we find the elevation of logos over mythos (Plato), the valorization of truth and beauty, the fundamental place of precarious freedom, the nature of democracy, the first elaboration of a system of ethics – in short, the development of full systems of what we now call philosophy, which now, in terms of the classicist narrative, forms the basis of “Western” thought.
None of this would have been possible without slavery, although the usual argument is that slavery provided aristocratic thinkers like Plato and Aristotle with the means and leisure to engage in philosophy, or – more sharply – that the class formations signaled by “slave” and “free” needed the theorists and ideologues to justify such a system.
We add to these arguments the crucial point that the abstraction entailed in slavery went hand-in-hand with the abstraction required for such developments in thought. In short, philosophy as we know it could not have arisen without slavery, since both entail a significant process of abstract thought. However, it fell to the Roman jurists to pinpoint what had actually been taking place for some time. Earlier laws might have identified a slave as res and that such a thing had a master with almost limitless power over the thing.
But what did this really mean? For the Roman jurists and their definition of absolute private property, it meant that a distinct, objective, and abstract value could also attach to a human being and not just to a piece of metal or indeed any other object. The condition for such attachment was crucial, for the human being had to become a thing like everything else. This was clearly a step beyond coinage, or even the application of the logic of coinage to a loaf of bread, leek, sheep, mug of beer, or indeed an ancient sex toy.
Now human beings could have an abstract value. And the markets in question were retooled to ensure that these objects were sourced, transported, sold, bought, and put to work.
Roland Boer is Professor of Literary Theory at Renmin (People’s) University of China, Beijing, and Research Professor in Religious Thought at the University of Newcastle, Australia. An internationally recognized lecturer, he is the author of numerous articles and books, including In the Vale of Tears (Historical Materialism Books, 2014); Lenin, Religion, and Theology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Criticism of Earth (Historical Materialism Books, 2014); and Political Grace (Westminster John Knox, 2009).