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The (In)Visibility of Workers: From Antiquity to the Modern World

By Fábio Duarte Joly, Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto.




The Covid-19 pandemic, in addition to being a serious health crisis that the world is currently experiencing, brought to light social inequalities that were already present, but which have now become more explicit. For example, in Brazil, as elsewhere, the term "invisible" has been applied to the informal workers – those without any record in official government data and who, therefore, would be as if they "did not exist", although they represent a significant proportion of the population in active age. This paradox demonstrates the limited coverage of social programs and, more serious, the perception that the State and the elites have of an important part of the body of citizens, placed in a subaltern position.


In the Greco-Roman world, a similar paradox also stands out. From time to time, in reading the old sources, we come across the tension caused by the ubiquitous presence of slaves in the city and their simultaneous invisibility, as differences in ethnicity or dress that would single out the servile sectors could not be perceived. The philosopher Seneca, in the treatise on mercy addressed to Nero, in the 1st century CE, clearly indicates this point, when he states:

"A proposal was once made in the senate to distinguish slaves from free men by their dress; it then became apparent how great would be the impending danger if our slaves should begin to count our number". (De Clem. 1.24.1; Loeb trans. by T. E. Page)

This passage from Seneca refers to the similar observation of the Old Oligarch, in the 5th century BCE, in which he laments that:

"Now among the slaves and metics at Athens there is the greatest uncontrolled wantonness; you can't hit them there, and a slave will not stand aside for you. I shall point out why this is their native practice: if it were customary for a slave (or metic or freedman) to be struck by one who is free, you would often hit an Athenian citizen by mistake on the assumption that he was a slave. For the people there are no better dressed than the slaves and metics, nor are they any more handsome." (Pseudo-Xenophon, Constitution of the Athenians 1.10; Loeb trans. by E. C. Marchant).


Historian Kostas Vlassopoulos draws attention in this document to what would be a characteristic of Athenian democracy, namely, the existence of "free spaces" such as the agora, which brought together citizens, metics, slaves and women, providing experiences and common interactions, and shaping new forms of identity. The metropolitan character of Athens, as the centre of a vast network of connections in the eastern Mediterranean, ended up reinforcing this indeterminacy of status, as the large number of artisans, salaried workers and shopkeepers prevented a differentiation between citizens, slaves and metics who worked in the same branches, bringing together, in practice, civic identities with those that did not have this status. This does not mean that hierarchical differences were abolished, but that the urban space made visual separation and, therefore, control difficult. A similar picture can be transposed for Rome, despite the few literary references.


Plutarch mentions the story of a friend of Caius Marius, Cassius Sabacus, who was implicated in fraud when Marius was accused of bribery in the 115 BCE election to praetor (Plut. Mar. 5.3-4). A slave (oiketés) from Sabacus was seen among the voters, in the space preceding the one for voting, in the centuriate assembly. Sabacus later explained that he had become thirsty and called the slave to bring him water, and shortly afterwards the slave would have withdrawn from the enclosure. It is true that the slave was not in the voting zone, but the episode indicates, as Henrik Mouritsen points out, that there was no supervision of the identity of whoever entered that space, as it probably would not happen later, at the time of voting (otherwise, the logic of the story loses its meaning: if the slave could not actually vote, there would be no charge of fraud).


Cicero, in turn, complains that, in contiones – informal public meetings, where issues were debated that would later go through the assemblies (comitia) –, not only free men, but also slaves were present (Mil. 76; Dom. 54). At first there would be no reason for slaves to be absent from the contiones, as there was no identity check to separate non-citizens from taking part. However, if any aristocrat used this resource of bringing groups of slaves with him to increase the audience, he became an object of censure by his peers. The presence of slaves at the contiones – and in the Forum itself, although the literary sources make them invisible, as well as women, children and foreigners – gains even more relevance if we take into account that this informal space for political discussion was not without importance in relation to the comitia, which had, then, the legal power of decision. The formal decision of every project presented in the contiones took place in the legislative assemblies and the evidence points to the fact that the assemblies in general agreed with what had been debated in the contiones. In this way, as Martin Jehne points out, the role of the plebs contionalis, which aggregated the population of Rome that circulated frequently and daily in the Forum, including slaves, gains a political weight no less, albeit not visible and registered, than the group of citizens able to participate in the assemblies.


The Senecan text, on the other hand, alludes to another form of elite anxiety regarding the presence of slaves in Rome. In the absence, in the Principate, of assemblies that reinforced the distinction between citizen and non-citizen, the focus now falls on the visual indifference of free and slaves within the framework of a debate on social control. The senatorial debate over Rome's servile population reveals conflicting elite interests. On the one hand, there is an impulse to promote social order in an unambiguous and clearly visible way. On the other hand, fear of a servile uprising discourages the imposition of a collective slave identity. However, by not making such an imposition, a consequence is to deny the possibility of an individual identity and a sense of belonging to a social group in the public space. The indeterminacy and blurring of status between free and slaves facilitate the fragmentation of servile groups and isolation of one slave from another, making the house the only place of reference for a collective identity, albeit more subject to master control.


Respecting the differences between ancient slave societies and our contemporary world, it would not be an exaggeration to consider that the representation of a supposed invisibility of the working class, whether slave or free, only serves the interests of those who prefer to maintain social disparities and segregation, as seen today in Brazil. Even if they have a citizenship denied (as in the case of slaves in Antiquity) or restricted by the lack of access to basic rights, as we see in Brazil today, these individuals have a political and economic role that must always be remembered.


Tags: #AncientRome #AncientGreece #workers #slaves #informality

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