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. It is a bronze anthropomorphic chandelier (dated 1st-2nd century AD). It was found in the 19th century in Tarragona (Spain). Now it is in the Tarragona National Archaeological Museum. It is interesting because slaves throughout history have not been the subject of artistic depiction by the sociries which enslaved them. 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. We are 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 economy

Specific 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 in the war or raids. This varied substantially from civilaztion to civilization. Some ivilizations did not have large slave populatins because the common people were largely serfs and peasants with only limited rights or prospects. The women and children of conquered populations weecsubject to enslavement. 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 subequent rize of other ancient civilizations. We know the most about Greece and Rome because of the written historical and literary record. 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.

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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Created: 2:17 AM 5/2/2006
Last updated: 2:03 AM 4/28/2014