After enduring slavery, some former slaves went on to become some of the most influential figures in history. Who were the most famous slaves?
There were many famous slaves, both in ancient history and more recently. In ancient history, storyteller Aesop and gladiator Spartacus were legendary figures. In the United States, former slaves such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington were among the most influential names in calling for equality for black Americans.
For more on the influence of former slaves on history and popular culture, read on.
Ancient History and Mythology
Ancient history and mythology are filled with stories of former slaves. One of the earliest famous former slaves was Aesop, the Greek storyteller who is credited with writing Aesop’s Fables.
Legend states that Aesop was a slave who used his intelligence to escape slavery and later became an influential adviser in ancient Greece. Scholars question whether or not Aesop actually existed.
If Aesop was a real person, living between about 620 BCE and 564 BCE, it’s possible that his story was heavily exaggerated. His fellow ancient Greek, Homer, perhaps the most significant writer in history, was also a possible fabrication created by a number of writers.
On the other hand, there can be little doubt that Spartacus was a real person. The early history of Spartacus is shrouded in mystery, but he is believed to have been born in Thrace, in the modern-day Balkans. He might also have served in the Roman military at some point.
Whatever his origin, Spartacus came to be a slave and was sent to Capua in Italy to be trained as a gladiator. In 72 BCE, Spartacus and his fellow gladiators rose up against their owners and escaped the school, making camp on Mount Vesuvius.
In time, many other escaped slaves joined Spartacus, resulting in a slave army that eventually numbered many tens of thousands. After winning a series of victories against Roman armies, Rome sent Crassus, one of its great generals, to deal with the threat.
In 71 BCE, the forces of Crassus and Spartacus clashed at the Battle of Cantenna, and the army of former slaves was defeated. Spartacus is believed to have died in the battle but his body was never identified, which only enhanced his legend in the centuries since.
Saint Patrick, one of the patron saints of Ireland, was born into a wealthy family in Britain in the 4th Century BCE. At sixteen, Patrick was kidnapped and spent six years as a slave in Ireland.
Patrick became devoutly religious during his enslavement. When he escaped, he became a hugely influential Catholic missionary in Ireland and modern-day Scotland. While some stories of Saint Patrick are fictional, including banishing all the snakes from Ireland, he was a very important figure.
Many of the most famous figures in the anti-slavery movement were former slaves themselves. Frederick Douglass, who was of mixed African and Native American ancestry, used his eloquence in both writing and public speaking to influence the people and encourage the abolition of slavery.
Douglass was actively opposed to discrimination for decades, including racial dsicrimination but also advocating women’s rights. Though he was never truly in contention for election, Douglass made history when he became the first black presidential candidate to receive a vote in a US election.
Booker T. Washington was also a renowned public speaker and writer, who came to serve as an adviser to President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Taft. Washington was born into slavery but freed at the end of the American Civil War in 1865.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, Washington was considered by many to be the most influential African-American in the United States. His chief concerns were improving the lives of black Americans, particularly in terms of providing a proper education that could expand their future prospects.
Washington’s politics have made him a divisive figure at times. He publicly expressed his belief that it was better for American society to remain racially segregated, so long as black Americans were eventually granted the same rights and privileges as white Americans.
Even so, Washington’s public politics and his true beliefs were not necessarily the same. Evidence proves that he secretly funded court cases that opposed segregation in the United States. In 1901, he became the first African American in history to be invited to the White House.
Many more former slaves used their freedom to strive for greater equality for themselves and others.