It all gets lost in the crowd

Monday, December 16th, 2019

I expected The Roman Guide to Slave Management to include more tips like this:

Gang labour makes slaves work faster, harder and better. You should form them into groups of about ten. This is a particularly easy number of men to keep watch over. Larger gangs can be difficult for an overseer to control on his own. So, on your estate, you should assign these groups to different sections of it, and the work should be distributed in such a way that the men will not be on their own or in pairs, since they cannot be supervised properly if they are scattered all over the place. The other problem with larger groups is that the individuals within the group will not feel that the work has anything to do with them personally. It all gets lost in the crowd.


  1. CVLR says:

    The two-pizza team circa 100 B.C.?

  2. McChuck says:

    There is a reason why infantry squads are the size they are.

  3. Albion says:

    Does this book (however tongue-in-cheek) mean that we are somehow acknowledging that slavery exists–and if it doesn’t but should do, how to manage it better?

    Is it really just another way of saying work and the management of work, or does it run into an area that most won’t even want to acknowledge?

    You might think we are okay with it (reports are that it exists in countries who are our allies, allegedly) but worth remembering that the former Wesley Crusher — aka Will Wheaton — who does videos on board games was upset that a good game called “Five Tribes” had people/objects/resources labelled as slave.

    Personally, I didn’t care as it had a resource called assassin.

  4. Graham says:


    Interesting take.

    I just took it as an entertaining attempt to cash in by uniting perennial fads for ancient Roman books and books on management or self-improvement. Never occurred to me to take it as an endorsement of the existence of contemporary slavery.

    I hadn’t heard the Will Wheaton story, but that about matches my estimate of his intellect. Seriously, games have given players the ability to sack cities, bomb continents, and commit genocide on a planetary scale or better for kicks. Or, for Grand Theft Auto fans, shoot up the ‘hood, steal cars, and beat up hookers.

    It’s not immediately clear to me how I can see my way clear to a mindset in which slave trading in a game format is worse than most of those things. Must have pushed some hidden button for him.

  5. Kirk says:

    Wil Wheaton–Virtue-signalling, pure and simple. The man is a tool, and pretty much Wesley Crusher in real life as well as on the stage. An annoying prat of no real consequence or accomplishment–He couldn’t even keep a career going as a professional poseur (actor).

    In other words, a non-entity of zero real significance to much of anything at all.

    The way I read this book was as a legit attempt for someone to “get inside” the mindset of a Roman upper-class “Pater Familias”. I don’t know how good a job the author did, but it isn’t completely out of whack with my reading in that area.

    One of the really major ways we get things wrong is by templating our own attitudes and beliefs back onto historical figures. The Romans had a collection of attitudes and beliefs that are quite frankly, horrible. If we had these people for neighbors, we’d likely look at them as being worse than the North Koreans, or the Nazi Germans. They’re that bad–If you actually read the various sources we have left for comprehension, and try to encompass what individuals like Julius Caeser were casually describing about their actions…? Holy crap–The man was an avowed war criminal of epic proportion. The Romans used rape and enslavement as deliberate policy tools, legitimized in everything they did. Their leaders were actually censored in the Senate for not doing enough of it, on occasion.

    All told, the one criticism I’d lay against this book is that it really doesn’t go far enough in terms of expressing the utter and essential inhumanity of the Roman upper classes. It took the whim of an Emperor to prevent one of them from feeding a slave to his eels because of a broken glass at a banquet, and that was such an unusual event that we have it preserved for posterity. And, there were contemporaries who thought that the Emperor was wrong to have intervened…

  6. CVLR says:


    Consider the phrase: “human capital”.

    Or how about: “you have to sell yourself”.

    “Human resources”.

    “Student debt”.

    We’re told the Civil War was fought to abolish slavery.

  7. Graham says:

    I’ve run hot and cold on the Romans for decades.

    Glorious empire whose fall set back our civilization.

    Decrepit empire whose fall was necessary for our civilization.

    Empire whose fall let in too many barbarians.

    Empire whose weaknesses deserved to be punished.

    Empire whose fall let in the barbarians who included my ancestors, plus the ancestors of those I still think as enemies.

    Predatory empire whose aggression and corruption destroyed the dreams of better peoples [here the Robert E Howard position on Rome, more or less], even if or perhaps because they were less “civilized”. Civilization comes up with more refined cruelty than any barbarian, by some peoples’ lights.

    For some, even now, predator who almost wiped out the Jews, or universal empire that, with the Jews, paved the way for Christianity.

    I’m still torn. Did the Romans first gut and then overcivilize my Celtic forebears and leave them weakened when its legions faded away? Or did it advance them culturally, economically and organizationally far beyond the [respectable] level they’d achieved, and the 5th century was just tough luck for all? What about my ancestors who were Germans, in all that?


    But their elites did produce plenty of eloquent men of law, philosophy and culture, and their statecraft was not looked to in the Enlightenment wholly for naught, and Cicero was not alone in combining a man who could speak eloquently of justice in language we recognize, and sentence the Catiline conspirators to death as an act of executive fiat. Although that last might be a poor example- on one hand the Roman elite was fully equipped and reverent for law to condemn him for that, just as we would, and on the other we today might make that same decision under comparable circumstances and I might agree.

    AS to the rest, yep. They even at their best were casually cruel in ways we can scarcely believe, and they got called on it even by some others in ancient times. Still, they weren’t as much outliers as all that. Classical Greek society was pretty ghastly if looked at through the same lenses and, although it has acquired many modern apologists for not having the specific and uniquely horrible evil of slavery, ancient Persia would be cruel to us too.

    And, alas, so would those peoples conquered and extinguished by Rome, although not always in the ways that one has to be civilized to practice. If I ever met one of my ancestors in period Caledonia, I’d run and hide fast.

    The past really is another country. I recently read Orwell’s “Such, such were the joys”, about his experience as a lower middle class boy at a pretty crappy private school. The real upper classes went to cruel schools too, but not quite as slovenly, and the worker kids, if they got school, were treated less badly.

    One can really overdo the notion that the Victorians were horrid, martial, war drooling boorish beasts [I recently saw the graphic novel version of this] since they were also gauche, weepy sentimentalists, but they demanded quite a lot of their own class and were no slouches demanding even more of their underlings. And that not so far out of living memory even now.

    It’s no wonder generations can’t understand one another now. The continuity of mindset and experience has been broken two or three times in the past century somehow.

  8. Kirk says:

    I’ve always been highly ambivalent about the ancients that everyone’s in love with &mdsh; Spartans, Greeks, Romans, all of the bastards.

    They’ve all got convenient little details about them that all their fanboys like to overlook. You listen to them rave about the glories of Ancient Wherever, and you wonder why they’re so in love with a culture that espoused slavery, exposure of unwanted children, sacrifice of human beings, and all the rest. I particularly love hearing some of my “proud Aztec warrior” acquaintances go onandonandonandon about the glories of Tenochtitlan, completely oblivious to the fact that they weren’t actually from an Aztec tribe, and quite probably would have been served up for dinner after having their hearts torn out of their chests on the peak of the local pyramid…

    I look back at all these cultures with an open set of eyes, and I don’t glorify any of them–Yeah, there’s a lot of things to look at and admire about many of them, but you have to acknowledge both the good and the bad–For every profound Roman statesman, you have some sumbitch lining up little girls to be raped in the Colosseum for the amusement of degenerates.

    In other words, people then were pretty much like people now: Bastard-coated bastards with a bastard filling.

  9. Graham says:

    I’ve never much been persuaded of either the peculiar sins or the glories of Christianity, but there is this much:

    They pretty much hated most of the stuff you cite, and I think their beliefs started the process of inoculating us against them. No one has ever quite taken most of those things as casually as the iron age did, ever again. Not even slavery in the 18th century or unwanted infants today, not quite. We have to come up with elaborate justifications the Romans and their ilk would have dispensed with entirely. Or conceal the activities in ways they would have disdained.

    I figure if you belong to a society you take your chances by its rules, if you don’t you keep your head down. If you’re a time traveller, you reset the dials to come home immediately and make sure no one follows you. The thing I might dread is that that applies to the future, too.

    The other thing you remind me of is that every society has those things it abhors. The Romans were fantastically cruel in all the ways to which you’ve alluded, but seemed to abhor human sacrifice. A lot of the iron age peoples seemed to have that taboo, even if their own ancestors had once practiced. The Romans may have made up the Carthaginian infant sacrifices or not, but even if they did it is telling that they would come up with it as propaganda.

    Seems everyone has their limits. Doubtless the Aztec priests cutting out the hearts of their victims and eating them would have found something Roman quite distasteful.

  10. Harry Jones says:

    Christianity gave us the moral axioms by which western society judges most things, including Christendom itself. But by what do we judge moral axioms?

    It’s all just social conditioning wiring the superego. I think there might be general moral ideas that are genetically determined, having been dictated by selection pressures. But the specifics of every moral code are culturally determined. The niggling details are arbitrary. Even some of the broad strokes may be arbitrary.

    That we can be outraged over someone eating the wrong kind of meat or saying the wrong sort of word is evidence of societal brainwashing, more commonly known as social conditioning. Every society is a cult.

    Say what you will about evolutionary psychology, but it’s a more valid basis for an ethical code than the prejudices we happen to have been brought up with. It may or may not be legitimate science, but at least it’s not arbitrary. Start with this and then derive the specifics by reason and experiment.

    I’m contemplating a blog series on Christian ethics as overcompensation. My thesis is that most of what Christendom preaches is an over-reaction to some long dead way of living that had bad consequences back before Christ. It’s taking me a while to get my thoughts together. It’s just such a huge topic.

  11. Kirk says:

    The fact of the matter is that we’re all living in a world, here in the West, that is informed by the Judeo-Christian majority worldview and mindset. One which has unique benefits and disadvantages. The mental and cultural infrastructure that we plug into is influenced so very deeply by it all that it’s not even funny; even those who deny it, and who are determinedly transgressive of the whole thing operate in accordance with it all, unknowingly.

    What’s really humorous is to hear the transgressive types couch their arguments in terms that rely on the supporting infrastructure based on what they hate. Were they to abandon it all, their whole basis would evaporate in a puff of nothingness, which is incredibly humorous. It’s like the various Satanist cults–At the same time they’re trying to take up opposition to the mainstream, the fact that they’re couching it in Christian terms and arguments means that they’ve really already conceded the existence of the whole supporting structure. You can’t be a Satanist operating in opposition to the Church without acknowledging the existence of the Church in the first place, now can you?

    Of course, there are those Satanist cults who do operate in complete denial of Christian ethos, but what’s funniest is to note that few of them really abandon the base concepts. I mean, you read the literature, and much of it just echoes the whole Christian ethos all unknowingly, which is just… Bizarre as hell. Look up LaVey’s Eleven Rules, sometime, and note the consonance with a lot of basic Christian teachings. Then, compare that with the rest of the crap that’s really pagan, like what the Carthaginians had going… Very limited congruence. The LaVey Satanists plump down the very Christian “protect and cherish children” thing, while the actual pagans were throwing the firstborn into the furnaces of Moloch…

    We’re still gonna be Christian a thousand years after the last church closes its doors.

  12. Harry Jones says:

    I think there is something like a Sapir-Whorf effect here, plus the constraints of the Overton window. LaVey knew what he could and couldn’t get away with.

    Concepts are tools for thinking. Ordinary people use the tools given them, and exceptional people create their own tools. Thus Sapir-Whorf is a half-truth, and the Overton window applies only to the ordinary masses.

  13. Kirk says:

    Language is a tool; culture reflects back into it, because the uses it is put to make that inevitable. Likewise, language influences culture.

    The whole thing is a self-licking ice-cream cone. I’m not sure that you can really tease out the full meaning of anything outside of the original context of both its users and its environment–Trying to figure out what the hell the original Homeric Greeks were like based on the Odyssey is probably a bit of a fool’s game, because we can’t really pick up on all the nuance in Homer, lacking the cultural cues and markers that went all unspoken.

    What we’ve got of Homer is actually our interpretation of it, filtered through a carnival fun-house mirror that’s influenced by the impact Homer had on our culture down the years, and the possible/probable misinterpretations overlaid on top of it all. For examples, see the controversy over the “Wine-dark sea” thing, and all the rest. Did the ancients have a word for blue? Did they see the color as green? Did physics or the structure of the human eye change, or did we change nature by observing it and naming it?

    The whole thing becomes so much irritating solipsism after a bit, and you want to just slap the crap out of all the over-analyzing literary and cultural types, and just take Homer and all the rest of the ancient root sources as you interpret them for yourself. Down the other path lies madness, in other words.

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