At September Crown, one sweet gentle took offense to me referring to Drusa as my slave. “Maybe you could call her… your ladies’ maid?”
My reaction was “Um… but in my period that would have been a slave.” I chalked it up to my passion for Getting It Right (even in my non-SCA life I am all about accuracy) but something about it has been tickling the back of my brain. This morning I finally placed it.
Ignoring a truth because it makes you uncomfortable is not okay.
Owning a human being is wrong. I am NOT trying to say slavery wasn’t that bad, or that slaves didn’t endure unspeakable hardship. I’m saying it existed.
My friend Kate playacting as Drusa is wonderful because 1) It’s consensual on her part, 2) It allows me to fully immerse and live how a Roman matron would. When I am fully dressed in my palla, I need my hands free to hold it on as I walk. As with much of high-status clothing through the ages, the point of it is that I am not doing physical labor. I need a slave to carry my things. If our goal in the SCA is to actually understand lost cultures – not just to wear a Halloween costume – social context is important!
Slavery in ancient Rome was very different from the American form of slavery. Although I’m sure abuse existed, it was more rare. The vast numbers of slaves (up to 75% of the population, depending on the period) meant that slave owners policed themselves. There was considerable social pressure to be fair and humane to avoid uprisings. It wasn’t racially based. Some slaves owned slaves of their own! Slaves were captured spoils of war, or poor people who sold themselves or their children into captivity, or those who were unfortunate enough to be born into servitude. Being freed was common. It was often a reward for good service. Slaves could also be freed in a will, or save up money to buy their own freedom. Even after liberation was gained, many relationships were maintained. We can see that business and emotional ties remained strong in the multiple epitaphs put up by a freedman for his former master, and vice versa.
Still, the sexual and physical control of another human is abhorrent. The Romans, as well as many other cultures, built their empire on this horrible practice. Some still do. To sweep it under the rug and pretend otherwise is to whitewash history.
ADDENDUM: This sparked a lively debate on Facebook with a dear, trusted friend. It occurred to me that this is a cultural difference. I’m 100% ethnically Jewish. At Passover every year, the Seder dinner is a retelling of the Jews’ escape from Egypt. Specifically, it’s designed to teach the “youngest child” – We want to be sure the next generation knows the history. I would love it if someone had an Egyptian persona and mentioned their Jewish slaves. It happened. Wishing it didn’t can’t change history. So I’m coming at it from that perspective – loathing the whitewashing. But I totally respect others’ feelings to want to be isolated from a hated word. I’m very sorry I made anyone uncomfortable.
PPS: Drusa asked for this status. She was concerned about being uncomfortable not knowing anyone / not knowing what to do. It’s worked beautifully to bring her into the SCA. It helped that we didn’t have the racial issue to complicate things.