Slavery in Ancient Civilizations


Figure 1.--Here is a bronze of a Roman slave boy. Among Roman slaves there were Africans, although there was no association of race with slavery. There were also blond-headed Britons as well as slaves of Italian ancestry. I am not sure where this bronze was found or how it should be dated. The clothing of slave boys in Ancient Rome depended on where they lived (city or country) and their job (domestic, field hand, etc.). The boy here appears to be a domestic servant. I am not sure if he depicted naked as a an aesthetic convention or because younger child slaves often worked that way.

In our modern world there are few human practices that inspire such profound outrage as the practice of one human being enslaving another. This is, however, a very modern sentiment. The institution of slavery probably predates civilization itself. Slavery was an accepted institution and central to the economies of most major world civilization. Slaves were were often war captives, both captured warriors and the women and children of conquered populations. The offspring of these enslaved people provided a vast slave work force. The victors in battle might enslave the losers rather than kill them. Slavery in many early civilizations is poorly understood. Slavery in ancient Egypt is a poorly understood topic. We have done some work on Egyptian social classes, but destinguishing slaves from other groups with limited freedom is a challenging task that scholars have found very difficult. The same is true for the many civilizations of Mesopotamia. Slavery in both Greece and Rome are much better understood and were major components of the work force. Slaves in Greece and Rome were drawn from widly differing peoples and there was no association with race. Slaves might be blond, blue eyed Anglo-Saxons from Britania or blacks from Sahara as well as evry other racial type. Slavery in Rome had no racial basis. This appears to have been the general pattern in the ancient world. Even those of Italian stock were enslaved. It was thus impossible to tell from one's features if they were a slave. This complicated control. The Senate debated establishing a destinctive dress for slaves. In the end, the Senate decided against a slave attire, partly because they decided it was dangerous because it would show the slaves just how numerous they were. As in the Americn South, slavery was justified on the basis of the natural inferiority of certain individuals.

Pre-history

In our modern world there are few human practices that inspire such profound outrage as the practice of one human being enslaving another. This is, however, a very modern sentiment. The institution of slavery probably predates civilization itself. There must hsve been conflict from the earliest time. And some people must have been taken as captives rather killed. It seems, however, in largely nomadic hunter-gattering socities of pre-history that slavery must have been a largely small-scale institution. The life-style and economic activities of hunter-gathers and even pastoral nomads do not seem to have been capable of maintaining and controlling substantial numbers of slaves. The slavery practiced in pre-history seems more likely to be similar to that of the nomadic North American Nastive Americans. It existed, but was not a central part of their culture and ecinomy

Ancient Civilizations

Slavery in many early civilizations is poorly understood. Slavery was an accepted institution and central to the economies of some major world civilization. Historians believe that slvery as a major institution probably occurred with the development of agriculture about 10,000 BC. This of course occurred in Mesopotamia. In effect the rise of civilization brought with it slavery. Agriculture required a labor force and thus a way of profitably utilzing war captives, both the captive warriors and civilians seized n the war. This varied substantially from civilaztion to civilization. The women and children of conquered populations. The offspring of these enslaved people provided a vast slave work force. Slavery in the early civilzations of the Middle-East is not well understood. It does not appear to hve been the fundamental basis of their ecomones and socidties. This changed with the rise of Greece and Rome. History views the struggle between Greece and Persia as the conflict between Western democracy and Eastern depotism. This is in part true, but one has to bear in mind that it was Greek society that was based on slavery. Slavery in both Greece and Rome are much better understood and were major components of the work force and social order. Slaves in Greece and Rome were drawn from widly differing peoples and there was no association with race.

Mesopotamia

Slavery was an accepted institution in all major civilizations emerging in Mesopotamia. War captives seems to have been the major source od slaves. Few details of the institution, however, are available. Historians believe that slvery as a major institution probably occurred with the development of agriculture about 10,000 BC. This of course occurred in Mesopotamia. Agriculture required a labor force and thus a way of profitably utilzing war captives, both the captive warriors and civilians seized in war. Only imited numbers of slaves coulkd be used by nomads. The supervision and control of slaves was was a problem for nomads. Escape would have been reativeky easy. Other sources of slaves were criminals as well as people who failed to pay their debts. Very little is known about slavery in the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia. Archeologists have found scattered refeences to slavery in Sumeria, Assyria, and Babalonia, mostly from remanents of legal codes which have survived. Other than the legal references, very few details are available about slavery in Mesopotamia. In general it does not seem as wide spread as in latr civilizations. The earliest known written references to slavery come from the city states of Sumer where information on the legal codes have been found dating to the 4th millennium BC. The Sumerian had a cuneiform symbol for slave, suggesting "foreign" which indicates that slaves were not from the Sumerian city states, but outsiders. The most likely source would be war captives, but wealthy Sumerian city ststes could have also purchased slaves. There are also multiple references to slavery in the Babylonian code of Hammurabi (about 1750 BC) which provide the most detailed view of slavery in Mesopotamia. Slaves under the code had the status of property or merchandise. Slaves did, however, have rights. Slaves were permitted to own property, conduct business, and even marry free women. Manumission was allowed through both self-purchase or adoption by the owner. The legal penalties for free persons and slaves were very different. No where is that more apparent than the rewards and penalties for surgeons operating on free persons or slaves. Historians disagree as to the importance of slavery in the different societies of Mesopotamia.

Egypt

Slavery in Egypt seems to have follwed the basic pattern set in Mesopotamia. Slavery in ancient Egypt is a poorly understood subject. It is not well understood how slavery fit into the overall social-class structure. One problem is that there does not seem to be a Egyptian cartouche for slave as destinct from servant. Nor is there any known way of idebtifying slaves in the reliefs and tomb paintings of ancient. Egyptian. It was once commonly thought that major construction projects were undertaken by large gags of slaves. This is generally dismissed today. It is now thought that labor at major projects was more likely peasants who had a labor obligation after the planying or harvest seasons. They might be used in the maintenance of irrigation canals or in other important projects such as the famous pyramids. This of course is not to say that there were not slaves in ancient Egypt. The major source of slaves was war captives. This would include both the captured warriors as well as the general civilian population of conquered lands. The most famous Egyptian slaves were the Hebrews who apparently migrated to Europe because of drought. Slaves also came from law violaters. And some people sold thmselves or family members into slvery. No one knows the precise extent of Egyptian slavery. Records on such matters are not known. Most of the Egyptian population appears to have been a peasantry tied to the land, probably similar to Eeudal European serfdom, but precise details on this are unavailable. Certainly slaves were also used for agricultural labor. In fact this was probsably their major use. How theur treatment and status differened from the Egyptian peasantry is not well understood. The Egyptians appear to have enslaved whole peoples. The ancient Israelites were enslaved in Egypt during the second half of the 2nd millennium BC. Here the historical records is based on the Old Testament and not on Egyptian records. It might be thought that slaves would obviously fill the lowest rank of society. It shoul be remembered that as the mzjor source of slaves were captured prioners and the people of conquered cities, these people probably came from a social strata and probably possed skills superior to the field peasant. We do know that the child of a slave imherited the slave status, even if the farher was free born. We also know that Egypt imported slaves and negotiated fugative slave treaties with neighboring states. There does not appear to have been any racial component to Egyptian slavery. In fact, some pharoes appear to have had African features. (This was a fact ignored when Egyptology became a subject of great interest in the 19th centutry.)

China

Historians have noted references to slavery during the Shang-dynasty China (about 1500-1066 BC).

India

India is the least well understood of the great river valley civilizations. The Indus script has not vyer been dechiphered, in part becsause there are so few examples found. Thus very little is known about many aspects of the Indus Valley culture, including slavery. In the Indus Valley, the first documented evidence of slavery coincides with the Aryan invasion of about 1500 BC. Ancient Indian literature indicates that slavery was sanctioned throughout India from the 6th century BC to the beginning of the Christian era.

Hittites

The Hittie Code of the Nesilim (about 1650-1500 B.C.) provide another view of slavery in the ancient Middle East. The code of the Hittites in some ways more humane than that of many neigboring states, but the slave was still seen as an inferior person.

Persia

The Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great (576/590–529 BC). Slavery was an important institution in ancient Persia and there are substantial records which provide a better idea of the institution than in earlier states of the ancient Middle East. There are still, however, many questions. The famous Cyrus Cylinder speaks of abolishing slavery, yet we know that slavery was an important institution in ancient Persia. Persia as founded by Cyrus was an agressvely expansionary military empire. War thus was the primary source of slaves. [Falcelière et al, p. 433.] This provided many opportunities for war captives and to enslave conquered peoples. Historians note numerous instances in with large numbers of peoples were enslaved, such as Persian victories over the Greeks in the Aegean islands of Chios, Lesbos, and Tenedos. Slaves taken in military campaigns were known as "the booty of the bow". [Dandamaev and Lukonin, p. 156.] The Persians are also known to have breed slaves to supplement war booty. This perhaps reflects the peace that Persian victories brought, thus reducing the supply of war captives. Rebels and crinals were also sources of slavey even after the Empire had been well established. Slaves were distributed to both Persian nobels and military commanders. Persian law made slavery hereditary. The legal status of slaves in Persia was that of livestock and other moveable property. [Dandemaev and Lukonin, p. 153.] This varied somewhat because in some provinces added to the Empire, local law and custom was allowed to remain in force. Slaves were held by the Persin monarchy itself as state slaves. They were used in different ways. The Great King or monarchy maintained a very large retinue of mostly slaves to both serve him and work his estates. Most performed agricultural labor on the monarch's estates. Others perormed a wide range of other tasks (bakers, cooks, millers, personal servants, winemakers and beer brewers, wine waiters. Boys were made into eunuchs for a range of functions in the toyal households. [Dandamaev and Lukonin, pp. 158, 170.] State slaves were used to work mines as mineral resource were owned by the state. [Olmstead, pp. 74 ff] Working in mines was a virtual death sentence for Roman slaves. One source suggests that Persian slaves working in mines were well paid. [Dandemaev and Lukonin, pp. 161-62.] Children made up a substantial portion of Persian slaves. Te Fortification Tablets at Persepolis, the Persian capital, reveal that 13 percent of the slaves were boys and 10 percent girls. I'm unsure at to the reason for this statistical disparity. The domestic arrangements are not fully understood. One source suggests that at least some slaves lived together in family units and were moved as required for work assignments in thesze units. There are documented instances of slaves being moved in groups of 100-1,500 people. [Dandemaev and Lukonin, pp. 160–61.]

Greece

Greece is the first ancient civilization for which we have a full understanding of Slavery. This is a little complicated because unlike Rome, there was no nunified state. Each city state had their own laws and in some cases like Sparta there were major differences with the rest if Greece. Our understanding of Athens is the most detailed, but a good bit is known about other city states as well. The Greek city states, despite their tradition of democracy, had economies which were to a substantial degree based on slavery. Some historians have described the Greeks as the first true slave society in history. Large scale Greek slavery emerged between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. Major slave markets developed in the larger city states (Athens, Rhodes, Corinth, Delos, and others). As many as a thousand slaves might be sold in a single day. This was in large measure determined by military action. After a particularly important engagement, a Greek city state like Athens might have as many as 20,000 captives to deal with. The institution of slavery, however, varied widely among the different city states. Athens and the other city states had what can be seen as slavery in the the standard form. Sparta was substantially different. The Spartan economy was based on labor performed by the helots. Some authors suggest that is more correct to refer to them as serfs. They were a conquered people, They did work on lrge estates run by the Spartans, but lived in family groups on hereditary land. They were required to turn over the bulk of their harvest to their Spartan master who was an absentee landholder. The rights of Greek slaves varied from city state to city state. This varied as to who owned them and the tasks assigned. Slaves were owned by both the state and idividuals. Conditions varied significantly. The mines owned by the state were worked by slaves. The state leased the mines to private proprietors who often drive the slaves savagely to maximize profits. Other state slaves were treated better. The best treated were 300 Scythian archers who somewhat strangely served as the Athens police force. Most Athenian slaves were privately owned. Most of these were employed as domestic servants. Freeborn Athenians did not work as domestics. The conditions of slavery for privately owned slaves was primarily determined by the relationship whuch developed with their masters. Here close relations were possible. Women might be used to care for the children and thus become trusted family retainers. They also might be used as concubines offering the opportunity to become emotionally close withe masters. Male slaves by take on the role of a steward and actually run the household.

Rome

Slavery was central to the Roman economy, perhaps more so than any other ancient civilization. Slavery was a minor institution in the early years of the Republic. This gradually changed as Rome expanded throygh conquest. Slaves were were primarily war captives, both captured wariors and the women and children of conquered populations. The offspring of these enslaved people provided a vast slave work force. The victors in battle might enslave the losers rather than killing them. Slavery in Rome were major components of the work force. The performed virtually every occupation required in the Romn economy. The citize farmer was the bed-rock of the early Republic. Gradually farming with the influx of slaves shifted to estate slavery which relied on chain gangs to work the fields. Large numbers of slaves were also used to work the mines, commonly under atrocious conditions under brutal overloads. Slaves were also employed as servants and artisans in the cities. Slaves working as domestics in private houshold hd the best opportunity to engratiate themselves with their masters and perhap earn their freedom. Slaves were drawn from widly differing peoples and there was no association with race. Slaves might be blond, blue eyed Anglo-Saxons from Britania or blacks from Sahara as well as evry other racial type. Slavery in Rome had no racial basis. Even those of Italian stock were enslaved. It was thus impossible to tell from one's physical appearance if one was a slave. This complicated control. The Romn Senate debated establishiung a destinctive dress for slaves. In the end, the Senate decided against a slave attire, partly because they decided it was dangerous because it would show the slaves just how numerous they were. As in the Americn South, slavery was justified on the basis of the natural inferiority of certain individuals. There were three Servile Wars or slave revolts in the 2nd and 1st century BC. Rome is noted for the barbarity with which slaves were treated. This may in part be due to the martial tradition of Rome and contempt for defeated peoples. It may also reflect the trails of the Servile Wars and need to subject such a large part of the population.

Sources

Dandemaev, M.A. and V.G Lukonin. The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989).

Falcelière, et al. (1970).

Olmstead, A.T. History of the Persian Empire (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1948).






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