Slavery. A peculiar institution of the Old World. The Greeks and Romans practiced slavery and condoned it; that is, condoned it for war, condoned it for luxury and condoned it for business. But even then, they knew it to be evil…
Slaves could be trained of course, especially if they were bought young. All vocational training in antiquity was accomplished by the apprenticeship system, and slave boys or girls were often so taught alongside their free contemporaries. Gladiators were specially trained for their profession and obviously had to be, since no one was normally brought up from childhood with that aim in view. They were an exceptional group, requiring exceptional techniques that were developed in schools established for that purpose. Probably the earliest was in Capua, and it is no coincidence that Capua was the center from which the gladiator Spartacus organized the third greatest, and the most famous, of ancient slave revolts in 73-71 B.C.
There were limits to the training of slaves, however, quite apart from the strictly economic considerations. The right raw material was a necessary precondition: in the case of gladiators, Celts, Germans, and Thracians were sought, rather than Greeks or Syrians. Or in the case of the Athenian silver mines, the preference was for men with mining experience, Thracians and Paphlagonians, and the scale of the problem is shown by the fact that in the fourth century B.C. the concentration of slaves in these mines reached a peak of perhaps 30,000. What happened, then, if in any given decade war and piracy together slacked off or turned up mostly women and children?
In the year 477 B.C or thereabouts, the Athenians established a police force of 300 Scythian slaves, owned by the state and housed originally in tents in the public square, the Agora, and later the Acropolis. The system lasted for a hundred years, and the number of men may eventually have been increased to a thousand. Now Scythians were famous as bowmen, an art little practiced among the Greeks, and they were sometimes employed in this capacity as mercenary troops. But the Athenians did not hire their Scythian policemen, they bought them. How on earth did they get this curious idea? And how could they count on regular replacements to keep the force up to par?
The answer is that there was already in existence by 500 B.C. a regular trade in “barbarians” who were bought from their own chieftains, captives in their own wars, children, human levies, and the like- exactly as most African slaves were obtained in more modern times. This trade had nothing to do with Greek or Roman military activity or with piracy. It was a purely private business carried on by traders who had their personal connections and methods in the various regions outside the Greco-Roman world proper. Entities like the Athenian state could confidently book an order with traders to supply fresh stock for its police force whenever needed.