In 1957, the town of Sugar Grove in Pendleton County, West Virginia, had a population of twenty-one residents. A single crossroad marks the center of the community, with the post office, general store, and gas station combined in a single structure overlooked by a church from across the street. The rest of the town’s center would have consisted of a few houses lining Sugar Grove and Moyers Gap road. These roads, like most in this part of Appalachia, follow the curves of fluvial plains long dammed up by civil workers employed through the New Deal. Although rich with sediments, the rocky soil would only yield a limited number of plots suitable for agriculture, thus limiting the effects of any consequent population booms. And so whereas towns like Charlestown and Harrisonburg saw upticks in both population and wealth, Sugar Grove remained small and remote. Few who heard the steady beep from the Soviet satellite Sputnik that October could have imagined its ramifications on the small town.
Even in the darkest moments of the human condition, the desire for freedom and self-determination has never been extinguished. Even in societies which generation after generation kept others in bondage, time has preserved for us the aspirations of slaves seeking liberty and greater control over their fate. Roman society was particularly generous, granting the children of freedmen the full rights of citizenship, an especially coveted status that would enable the numerous descendants of freedmen to enter public life and eventually rise to positions of influence among the highest authorities in the Empire.
Individuals who today state that many slaves were “better off” in their servitude and even that they preferred bondage are sadly deluded, ignoring the evidence of history — and of their own eyes. Human trafficking in the present is simply the latest way of referring to the ongoing slave trade, one which may at times mirror low-wage employment. But any form of compulsive, imposed dependence is itself a form of oppression, and one which unwillingly restricts self-determination is nothing less than slavery. Indentured servitude is another such polite way of expressing the same basic idea, though in this case the promise of freedom is held out as motivation, like a carrot on a stick, but much like the cartoon analogy, the prize is all too often an illusion. Some see this reality, others do not or choose to ignore it, but all work towards a single common goal. Unlike most common goals, however, this particular goal is shared in name only, for despite the fact they all seek the same end-state, they work towards it individually rather than collectively.
What is this goal? Quite simply, the betterment of their offspring. Continue reading
In the late 2nd and early 1st centuries BCE, the Roman army underwent major reforms which changed both its organizational structure and ideological orientation. Foremost among these was the recruitment of men from among the capite censi, a class of landless urban peasants who had previously been exempted from military service. Although there is evidence to suggest that capite censi — like slaves — had previously been enrolled as soldiers in the army, it has become something nearing scripture to see the year 107 BCE as a watershed moment. In that year, Marius, having experienced difficulty filling the ranks of the army bound to fight Jugurtha, admitted members of the capite censi. It is as that moment, the narrative continues, that the aspirations of the peasant-soldiery for land first began to hold the state hostage to their demands in a cycle that would bring about the series of disastrous civil wars which ultimately undid the republic.
Not that anybody asked, but I want to share my current personal reading list – much of which is motivated by current events. It obviously skews towards my personal interest in ancient history, particularly Roman history, but I hope that others might likewise find it useful. I welcome any suggestions, recommendations, and feedback. They are listed in the order in which I am planning to read them, though I am tackling a number of them concurrently and will undoubtedly change the order as I proceed.
We may have underestimated the ways in which a Roman popularis (s.) could motivate the passions of the people. Populares (pl.) were individuals who, in the last years of the Roman republic (133-49 BCE), were able to successfully use the concerns of the Roman populace — that is to say, the population at Rome — to their political advantage. In practice, they would circumvent the authority of the Roman Senate and magistrates by making proposals directly to the popular assembly, thereby forcing the Senate to either accept or be seen to oppose the populace.