Slavery in Mesopotamia
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Categories: Ancient

Slavery in Mesopotamia

A reception at the Collège de France, Paris.

At the 65th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale I was chatting to the excellent JoAnn Scurlock and Eva von Dassow about ancient slavery. The conversation turned to abortatative attempts in the Bronze Age to require all slaves to wear a distinctive hairstyle, and I mentioned the Roman senator who laughed down a proposal to make slaves wear distinctive clothing by asking whether they wanted slaves to see how many they were (I think Seneca tells the story). And that turned the discussion to some differences between Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman slavery. As always, when I am retelling a conversation you can attribute the wise insights to other people, and the arrant nonsense to me and my poor understanding and shaky memory.

The first is that they had a hard time thinking of any mass slave revolts in Mesopotamia. We hear a great deal about runaways and about resistance by the rural population to the king’s tax collectors and the king’s conscription officers, but not so much about mass resistance by slaves or the various populations tied to the land or the temple. In the Late Bronze Age we hear a great deal about the ˁapiru, but they are people who are already free and trying to make a living from the cities, not people who are already enslaved and want to get away.

When we think about slave revolts in the classical world we often think of the late Roman republic with terrible chain gangs in southern Italy and Sicily, Spartacus ravaging Italy, and thousands of slaves worked to death in Spanish mines, but it actually goes back much earlier. The Spartans were afraid of the helots, Herodotus is full of stories about slave revolts, and in the age of Solon there was fear that debt slaves at Athens would revolt or support a tyrant.

The second is that in Mesopotamia, a freed slave (ardu) became a citizen (awīlum, mār banî) unless otherwise agreed in advance. When there is a dispute in court whether someone was really freed, the question is always whether they are a slave or a citizen. But in the Greco-Roman world, a slave normally acquired some new marginal status. In Athens after Pericles, a citizen had to be a child of two citizens, and in Rome a freedman or freedwoman became a libertus or liberta with ongoing obligations to their former master, and only their children or grandchildren had full citizenship. In Mesopotamia, it was offices with the temple which required a pure citizen bloodline and a good Akkadian name, citizenship was much more open. Moreover, Babylonians insisted on the equality of citizens. Where Greeks and Romans had all kinds of words for the citizens of higher rank, Babylonians just say “citizens.” People who have read thousands of documents notice that in any one period and city, a few families tend to lend most of the money, hold most of the high offices, and marry each other’s children, but Babylonians don’t have a name for the citizens who were more equal than others. When Darius talked about killing the false Bardiya with the help of a group of Persian nobles, the scribe who translated his words into Babylonian just said “citizens.”

One of the things I love about studying other cultures is the interplay between the things which are reinvented again and again, and the things which are specific to a single time and place. In the ancient western world we see slavery or a king/council/assembly system reappear again and again, but we also see the details vary to local taste. I don’t like the taste of the arguments that one culture’s slave system was less harsh than another’s, but when we hear the voices of slaves in recent times, they are usually very aware of their legal status and the paths to improving their position.

Further Reading: On Babylonian citizens in the long sixth century, check out books and articles by Shalom Holtz, M.A. Dandamayev, Govert van Driel, and Michael Jursa.

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