Byzantine slavery

Feb 2019
5
London
#1
In respect of rowing the ships, it is known that the upper bank (at least) dromon oarsmen were heavily armed, to fight as marines.......which would not suggest that they were slaves!
Civilian merchant ships, however, might well have used slaves as oarsmen, since high performance (unlikely, from slaves) was unnecessary in a merchantman (which would, anyway, have spent most of its cruising, under sail.)
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
5,148
Portugal
#2
In respect of rowing the ships, it is known that the upper bank (at least) dromon oarsmen were heavily armed, to fight as marines.......which would not suggest that they were slaves!

Civilian merchant ships, however, might well have used slaves as oarsmen, since high performance (unlikely, from slaves) was unnecessary in a merchantman (which would, anyway, have spent most of its cruising, under sail.)
You didn’t formalize a question here.

I never studied much Bizantine history, but as far as I know the oarsmen were free men. The oarsmen being slaves/convicted is a medieval feature.

Merchant ships usually weren’t of the galley type, so they hadn’t permanent oarsmen.
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,669
Blachernai
#3
There's an old myth, presumably inspired by Ben Hur, that oarsmen even in Roman times were slaves. At least from the imperial age, they were all professional soldiers, and the same is true in Byzantium. The tenth-century documents referrning to the navy list entire dromon crews on the payroll, so they're not slaves. Merchant vessels did not operate under oar power - we have a plethora of references to merchants and travellers being stuck in places because of unfavourable winds. There's little value in having any more bodies than one absolutely needs on a merchant vessel. Sailing in the Mediterranean is sweaty work, and that means more time and energy spent in watering the ship and more water to carry and less cargo. It's also hard to row a merchant vessel - the hulls are more rounded than those of warships and they are significantly heavier with way fewer oars.

Slavery in Byzantium is a problematic topic given the language used to describe slaves and the limited legal evidence. The most recent book on the topic is not particularly good, but we are fortunate that there's now an excellent book on slavery in late antiquity.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
5,148
Portugal
#4
There's an old myth, presumably inspired by Ben Hur, that oarsmen even in Roman times were slaves. At least from the imperial age, they were all professional soldiers, and the same is true in Byzantium. The tenth-century documents referrning to the navy list entire dromon crews on the payroll, so they're not slaves. Merchant vessels did not operate under oar power - we have a plethora of references to merchants and travellers being stuck in places because of unfavourable winds. There's little value in having any more bodies than one absolutely needs on a merchant vessel. Sailing in the Mediterranean is sweaty work, and that means more time and energy spent in watering the ship and more water to carry and less cargo. It's also hard to row a merchant vessel - the hulls are more rounded than those of warships and they are significantly heavier with way fewer oars.
Indeed, that was my idea. In My previous post, in Medieval, I should have written Late Medieval.

But, on the other hand, having a slave oarsmen wouldn’t be necessarily the same of having an unable men for the oar or for the fight. In the 15th and 16th century quite often Portuguese slaves were essential fighters, both in the ships as in shore. And there were slave-warrior systems and castes in many cultures.

Today’s imaginarium is too much tainted with the Black USA slavery and, like you say, with works like "Ben Hur", themselves tainted with the USA black slavery theme.
 
Feb 2019
5
London
#6
I had not formulated a question, because I was simply continuing an earlier subject (but am unfamiliar with this system).
High-performance warships required skilled/experienced/committed seamen-marines - for which slaves need not apply!
Merchant ships certainly used sail for their voyages....but required rowing for inshore work. This would require a small crew of multi-skilled seamen.....unlikely to be slaves.
In my own view....whilst Romans and Arabs used galley-slaves (relatively unproductively!), Byzantines would generally have eschewed this practice.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
5,148
Portugal
#7
I had not formulated a question, because I was simply continuing an earlier subject (but am unfamiliar with this system).
Ah! Ok. Since I was commenting your first post, the OP, I was (and still am) unaware of any earlier subject.

In my own view....whilst Romans and Arabs used galley-slaves (relatively unproductively!),
It would be interesting if you could source this. For instance, it goes against what Kirilax stated.

By the way, welcome to Historum!
 
Feb 2019
5
London
#8
Thank you for your kind welcome.
If you are asking me to source "relatively unproductively"........I think it is generally agreed that slave labour is unproductive - and the food-for-work principle is practically the archetype of the Law of Diminishing Returns!
If it is the Roman usage, that you question........while Rome usually employed freemen/soldiers in its warships, it used slaves in times of crisis. Notably, in the 2nd Punic War, both sides used galley-slaves (Carthage - egregiosly - having purchased some 6,000 slaves for that purpose).
My own interest in slavery is twofold.....1) that it was not the heinous thing of today's popular regard - but for centuries a perfectly respectable part of most social structures.....and 2) The subject has been entirely hijacked by the racial issue - ignoring that, for millenia before (relatively underpopulated) Africa became a slave source, others (conquered peoples, Slavs, Irish, etc) were routinely enslaved.
Indeed....our very word "slave" is from Byzantine/Greek for Slav!
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,669
Blachernai
#9
Indeed....our very word "slave" is from Byzantine/Greek for Slav!
I thought that came to English via medieval German? Sklavenos has no connotation of slavery in medieval Greek.

For a short and solid (if unsatisfying, but only because of the state of research) on medieval Roman slavery, see: G. Prinzing, “On Slaves and Slavery” in The Byzantine World, ed. Paul Stephenson (Routledge: London and New York, 2010), pp. 92-102.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
5,148
Portugal
#10
If you are asking me to source "relatively unproductively"........I think it is generally agreed that slave labour is unproductive - and the food-for-work principle is practically the archetype of the Law of Diminishing Returns!

If it is the Roman usage, that you question........while Rome usually employed freemen/soldiers in its warships, it used slaves in times of crisis. Notably, in the 2nd Punic War, both sides used galley-slaves (Carthage - egregiosly - having purchased some 6,000 slaves for that purpose).
My question was for the second issue. And that was my idea, that Rome usually employed freemen as oarsmen, even if slaves could also be employed. On other words, the free status was not the main question.

My own interest in slavery is twofold.....1) that it was not the heinous thing of today's popular regard - but for centuries a perfectly respectable part of most social structures.....and 2) The subject has been entirely hijacked by the racial issue - ignoring that, for millenia before (relatively underpopulated) Africa became a slave source, others (conquered peoples, Slavs, Irish, etc) were routinely enslaved.

Indeed....our very word "slave" is from Byzantine/Greek for Slav!
Well, “perfectly respectable” at the eyes of their times was for the most part, even during the Atlantic Slave trade.

For the rest I mostly agree with you. The racial issue of slavery was born after the 16th century when begun to be built the equation black=slave. Before that the slaves could have many origins. The Slavs were a good source in the medieval period. In the process of the Reconquista we read often in the chronicles the enslavement of captives in the consequence of the raids (razias, cavalgadas, fossados).
 

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