Home      Discussion      Topics      Dictionary      Almanac
Signup       Login
Slavery in antiquity

Slavery in antiquity

Discussion
Ask a question about 'Slavery in antiquity'
Start a new discussion about 'Slavery in antiquity'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
 
Encyclopedia
Slavery in the ancient world, specifically, in Mediterranean cultures, comprised a mixture of debt-slavery, slavery as a punishment for crime, and the enslavement of prisoners of war
Prisoner of war
A prisoner of war or enemy prisoner of war is a person, whether civilian or combatant, who is held in custody by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict...

.

The institution of slavery
Slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 condemned a majority of slave
Slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

s to agricultural or industrial labour and they lived hard lives
Personal life
Personal life is the course of an individual's life, especially when viewed as the sum of personal choices contributing to one's personal identity. It is a common notion in modern existence—although more so in more prosperous parts of the world such as Western Europe and North America...

. In some of the city-states of Greece
Greece
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

 and in the Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

, slaves formed a very large part of the economy, and the Roman Empire built a large part of its wealth on slaves acquired through conquest.

Masters could free slaves, and in many cases such freedmen
Freedman
A freedman is a former slave who has been released from slavery, usually by legal means. Historically, slaves became freedmen either by manumission or emancipation ....

 went on to rise to positions of power
Power (sociology)
Power is a measurement of an entity's ability to control its environment, including the behavior of other entities. The term authority is often used for power perceived as legitimate by the social structure. Power can be seen as evil or unjust, but the exercise of power is accepted as endemic to...

. This would include those children born into slavery but who were actually the children of the master of the house. Their father would ensure that his children were not condemned to a life of slavery.

Slavery in the Ancient Near East


The Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu
Code of Ur-Nammu
The Code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest known tablet containing a law code surviving today. It was written in the Sumerian language circa 2100 BC-2050 BC...

 includes laws relating to slaves. written circa 2100 BCE - 2050 BCE, it is the oldest known tablet containing a law code surviving today. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi
Code of Hammurabi
The Code of Hammurabi is a well-preserved Babylonian law code, dating to ca. 1780 BC . It is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world. The sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, enacted the code, and partial copies exist on a human-sized stone stele and various clay...

, dating to ca. 1700 BCE, also makes distinctions between the freeborn, freed and slave.
Hittite
Hittites
The Hittites were a Bronze Age people of Anatolia.They established a kingdom centered at Hattusa in north-central Anatolia c. the 18th century BC. The Hittite empire reached its height c...

 texts from Anatolia include laws regulating the institution of slavery. Of particular interest is a law stipulating that reward for the capture of an escaped slave would be higher if the slave had already succeeded in crossing the Halys River
Halys River
The Kızılırmak , also known as the Halys River , is the longest river in Turkey. It is a source of hydroelectric power and is not used for navigation.- Geography :...

 and getting farther away from the center of Hittite civilization - from which it can be concluded that at least some of the slaves kept by the Hittites possessed a realistic chance of escaping and regaining their freedom, possibly by finding refuge with other kingdoms or ethnic groups.

Slavery in ancient Egypt


The difficulty of distinguishing between slaves and levied peasant labour has bedevilled the study of this subject. Private ownership of slaves, captured in war and given by the king to their captor, certainly occurred at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty
Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt
The eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt is perhaps the best known of all the dynasties of ancient Egypt...

 (1550 - 1295 BCE). Sales of slaves occurred in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty
Twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt
The twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt, known as the Nubian Dynasty or the Kushite Empire, was the last dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period of Ancient Egypt....

 (732 - 656 BCE), and contracts of servitude survive from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty
Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt
The Twenty-sixth Dynasty of Egypt was the last native dynasty to rule Egypt before the Persian conquest in 525 BC . The Dynasty's reign The Twenty-sixth Dynasty of Egypt (also written Dynasty XXVI or Dynasty 26) was the last native dynasty to rule Egypt before the Persian conquest in 525 BC...

 (ca 672 - 525 BCE) and from the reign of Darius: apparently such a contract then required the consent of the slave.

The Old Testament
Old Testament
The Old Testament, of which Christians hold different views, is a Christian term for the religious writings of ancient Israel held sacred and inspired by Christians which overlaps with the 24-book canon of the Masoretic Text of Judaism...

 also recounts tales of slavery in Egypt: slave-dealers sold Joseph
Joseph (Hebrew Bible)
Joseph is an important character in the Hebrew bible, where he connects the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Canaan to the subsequent story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt....

 into bondage there, and the Hebrews suffered collective enslavement (Exodus, chapter 1) prior to the Exodus
The Exodus
The Exodus is the story of the departure of the Israelites from ancient Egypt described in the Hebrew Bible.Narrowly defined, the term refers only to the departure from Egypt described in the Book of Exodus; more widely, it takes in the subsequent law-givings and wanderings in the wilderness...

. However, the
historicity of the Biblical account is questioned. It is noteworthy that outside of the Biblical account, no evidence has ever been found indicating the systematic enslavement of Israelites.

Slavery in the Bible


See Sabbatical year
Sabbatical year (Bible)
Shmita , also called the Sabbatical Year, is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the Land of Israel, and still observed in contemporary Judaism....

, Onesimus
Onesimus
Saint Onesimus |churches]]) was a slave to Philemon of Colossae, a man of Christian faith. Eventually, Onesimus transgressed against Philemon and fled to the site of Paul the Apostle's imprisonment to escape punishment for a theft he was said to have committed, there, he heard the Gospel from...

, Bible-based advocacy of slavery, in addition to the details of the Book of Exodus.

Old Testament or Tanakh


Leviticus
Leviticus
The Book of Leviticus is the third book of the Hebrew Bible, and the third of five books of the Torah ....

 draws a distinction between Hebrew debt slavery:
  • 25:39 If your brother becomes impoverished with regard to you so that he sells himself to you, you must not subject him to slave service.
  • 25:40 He must be with you as a hired worker, as a resident foreigner; he must serve with you until the year of jubilee
    Jubilee (Biblical)
    The Jubilee year is the year at the end of seven cycles of Sabbatical years , and according to Biblical regulations had a special impact on the ownership and management of land in the territory of the kingdoms of Israel and of Judah; there is some debate whether it was the 49th year The Jubilee...

    ,
  • 25:41 but then he may go free, he and his children with him, and may return to his family and to the property of his ancestors.
  • 25:42 Since they are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt, they must not be sold in a slave sale.
  • 25:43 You must not rule over him harshly, but you must fear your God.


and "bondslaves", foreigners:
  • 25:44 As for your male and female slaves who may belong to you, you may buy male and female slaves from the nations all around you.
  • 25:45 Also you may buy slaves from the children of the foreigners who reside with you, and from their families that are with you, whom they have fathered in your land, they may become your property.
  • 25:46 You may give them as inheritance to your children after you to possess as property. You may enslave them perpetually. However, as for your brothers the Israelites, no man may rule over his brother harshly.

You could beat a slave within an inch of his or her life and if they died in the first day your punishment was a fine. If they survived one day and died, there was no fine.
  • Exo 21:20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.

Exo 21:21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

As evident from the above, the Old Testament accepts the institution of slavery as such, but seeks to regulate it and ameliorate the slaves' conditions. Transmitted throughout Western culture via Christianity (and given a slightly more anti-slavery spin in the new testament), this ambiguous message could (and did) inspire both advocates of slavery and abolitionists.

Slavery in Greece


The study of slavery in Ancient Greece remains a complex subject, in part because of the many different levels of servility, from traditional chattel slave through various forms of serfdom
Serfdom
Serfdom is the status of peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to Manorialism. It was a condition of bondage or modified slavery which developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe and lasted to the mid-19th century...

, such as Helots
Helots
The helots: / Heílôtes) were an unfree population group that formed the main population of Laconia and the whole of Messenia . Their exact status was already disputed in antiquity: according to Critias, they were "especially slaves" whereas to Pollux, they occupied a status "between free men and...

, Penestai, and several other classes of non-citizen.

Most philosophers of classical antiquity
Classical antiquity
Classical antiquity is a broad term for a long period of cultural history centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, collectively known as the Greco-Roman world...

 defended slavery as a natural and necessary institution Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 believed that the practice of any manual or banausic
Banausos
Banausos is an epithet of the class of manual laborers or artisans in Ancient Greece. The related abstract noun – banausia is defined by Hesychius as "every craft [conducted] by means of fire", reflecting the folk etymology of the word as coming from "furnace" and "to dry"...

 job should disqualify the practitioner from citizenship. Quoting Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

, Aristotle declared all non-Greeks slaves by birth, fit for nothing but obedience.

By the late 4th century BCE passages start to appear from other Greeks, especially in Athens
Attica
Attica is a historical region of Greece, containing Athens, the current capital of Greece. The historical region is centered on the Attic peninsula, which projects into the Aegean Sea...

, which opposed slavery and suggested that every person living in a city-state had the right to freedom subject to no one, except only to laws decided using majoritarianism
Majoritarianism
Majoritarianism is a traditional political philosophy or agenda which asserts that a majority of the population is entitled to a certain degree of primacy in society, and has the right to make decisions that affect the society...

. Alcidamas
Alcidamas
Alcidamas, of Elaea, in Aeolis, Greek sophist and rhetorician, flourished in the 4th century BC.He was the pupil and successor of Gorgias and taught at Athens at the same time as Isocrates, whose rival and opponent he was...

, for example, said: "God has set everyone free. No one is made a slave by nature." Furthermore, a fragment of a poem of Philemon
Philemon (poet)
Philemon ; was an Athenian poet and playwright of the New Comedy. He was born either at Soli in Cilicia or at Syracuse in Sicily but moved to Athens some time before 330 BC, when he is known to have been producing plays....

 also shows that he opposed slavery.

Greece in pre-Roman times consisted of many independent city-state
Polis
Polis , plural poleis , literally means city in Greek. It could also mean citizenship and body of citizens. In modern historiography "polis" is normally used to indicate the ancient Greek city-states, like Classical Athens and its contemporaries, so polis is often translated as "city-state."The...

s, each with its own laws. All of them permitted slavery, but the rules differed greatly from region to region. Greek
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 slaves had some opportunities for emancipation; though all of these came at some cost to their masters. The law protected slaves, and though a slave's master had the right to beat him at will, a number of moral and cultural limitations existed on excessive use of force by masters.

In Ancient Athens
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

, about 30% of the population were slaves. The system in Athens
Athens
Athens , is the capital and largest city of Greece. Athens dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, as its recorded history spans around 3,400 years. Classical Athens was a powerful city-state...

 encouraged slaves to save up to purchase their freedom, and records survive of slaves operating businesses by themselves, making only a fixed tax-payment to their masters. Athens also had a law forbidding the striking of slaves—if a person struck an apparent slave in Athens, that person might find himself hitting a fellow-citizen, because many citizens dressed no better. It startled other Greeks that Athenians tolerated back-chat from slaves (Old Oligarch, Constitution of the Athenians). Pausanias
Pausanias (geographer)
Pausanias was a Greek traveler and geographer of the 2nd century AD, who lived in the times of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. He is famous for his Description of Greece , a lengthy work that describes ancient Greece from firsthand observations, and is a crucial link between classical...

 (writing nearly seven centuries after the event) states that Athenian slaves fought together with Athenian freemen in the Battle of Marathon
Battle of Marathon
The Battle of Marathon took place in 490 BC, during the first Persian invasion of Greece. It was fought between the citizens of Athens, aided by Plataea, and a Persian force commanded by Datis and Artaphernes. It was the culmination of the first attempt by Persia, under King Darius I, to subjugate...

, and the monuments memorialize them. Spartan serfs, Helots
Helots
The helots: / Heílôtes) were an unfree population group that formed the main population of Laconia and the whole of Messenia . Their exact status was already disputed in antiquity: according to Critias, they were "especially slaves" whereas to Pollux, they occupied a status "between free men and...

, could win freedom through bravery in battle. Plutarch
Plutarch
Plutarch then named, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus , c. 46 – 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia...

 mentions that during the Battle of Salamis
Battle of Salamis
The Battle of Salamis was fought between an Alliance of Greek city-states and the Persian Empire in September 480 BCE, in the straits between the mainland and Salamis, an island in the Saronic Gulf near Athens...

 Athenians did their best to save their "women, children and slaves".

On the other hand, much of the wealth of Athens
Athenian democracy
Athenian democracy developed in the Greek city-state of Athens, comprising the central city-state of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica, around 508 BC. Athens is one of the first known democracies. Other Greek cities set up democracies, and even though most followed an Athenian model,...

 came from its silver
Silver
Silver is a metallic chemical element with the chemical symbol Ag and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it has the highest electrical conductivity of any element and the highest thermal conductivity of any metal...

 mines
Mining
Mining is the extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the earth, from an ore body, vein or seam. The term also includes the removal of soil. Materials recovered by mining include base metals, precious metals, iron, uranium, coal, diamonds, limestone, oil shale, rock...

 at Laurion, where slaves, working in extremely poor conditions, produced the greatest part of the silver (although recent excavations seem to suggest the presence of free workers at Laurion). During the Peloponnesian War
Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian War, 431 to 404 BC, was an ancient Greek war fought by Athens and its empire against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Historians have traditionally divided the war into three phases...

 between Athens and Sparta, twenty thousand Athenian slaves, including both mine-workers and artisans, escaped to the Spartans when their army camped at Decelea
Decelea
Decelea , modern Dekeleia or Dekelia, Deceleia or Decelia, previous name Tatoi, was an ancient village in northern Attica serving as a trade route connecting Euboea with Athens, Greece. The historian Herodotus reports that its citizens enjoyed a special relationship with Sparta. The Spartans took...

 in 413 BC.

Other than flight, resistance on the part of slaves occurred only rarely. GEM de Ste. Croix gives two reasons:
  1. slaves came from various regions and spoke various languages
  2. a slave-holder could rely on the support of fellow slave-holders if his slaves offered resistance.


Athens had various categories of slave, such as:
  • House-slaves, living in their master's home and working at home, on the land or in a shop.
  • Freelance slaves, who didn't live with their master but worked in their master's shop or fields and paid him taxes from money they got from their own properties (insofar as society allowed slaves to own property).
  • Public slaves, who worked as police-officers, ushers, secretaries, street-sweepers, etc.
  • War-captives (andrapoda) who served primarily in unskilled tasks at which they could be chained: for example, rowers in commercial ships; or miners.


The comedies of Menander
Menander
Menander , Greek dramatist, the best-known representative of Athenian New Comedy, was the son of well-to-do parents; his father Diopeithes is identified by some with the Athenian general and governor of the Thracian Chersonese known from the speech of Demosthenes De Chersoneso...

 show how the Athenians preferred to view a house-slave: as an enterprising and unscrupulous rascal, who must use his wits to profit from his master, rescue him from his troubles, or gain him the girl of his dreams. We have most of these plays in translations by Plautus
Plautus
Titus Maccius Plautus , commonly known as "Plautus", was a Roman playwright of the Old Latin period. His comedies are the earliest surviving intact works in Latin literature. He wrote Palliata comoedia, the genre devised by the innovator of Latin literature, Livius Andronicus...

 and Terence
Terence
Publius Terentius Afer , better known in English as Terence, was a playwright of the Roman Republic, of North African descent. His comedies were performed for the first time around 170–160 BC. Terentius Lucanus, a Roman senator, brought Terence to Rome as a slave, educated him and later on,...

, suggesting that the Romans liked the same genre. And the same sort of tale has not yet become extinct, as the popularity of Jeeves
Jeeves
Reginald Jeeves is a fictional character in the short stories and novels of P. G. Wodehouse, being the valet of Bertie Wooster . Created in 1915, Jeeves would continue to appear in Wodehouse's works until his final, completed, novel Aunts Aren't Gentlemen in 1974, making him Wodehouse's most famous...

 and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart....

attest.

In some areas of Greece there existed a class of unfree labourers tied to the land and called penestae
Penestae
The penestae were a class of unfree labourers tied to the land once inhabiting Thessaly, whose status was comparable to that of the Spartan helots.-Status:...

in Thessaly
Thessaly
Thessaly is a traditional geographical region and an administrative region of Greece, comprising most of the ancient region of the same name. Before the Greek Dark Ages, Thessaly was known as Aeolia, and appears thus in Homer's Odyssey....

 and helots in Sparta
Sparta
Sparta or Lacedaemon, was a prominent city-state in ancient Greece, situated on the banks of the River Eurotas in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese. It emerged as a political entity around the 10th century BC, when the invading Dorians subjugated the local, non-Dorian population. From c...

. Penestae and helots did not rate as chattel slaves; one could not freely buy and sell them.