Where Did Ancient Slaves Come From?
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

Where Did Ancient Slaves Come From?

a phoot of a cat walking determinedly across an asphalt street
This Tirolean cat has a place to get to and does not care what tries to get in its way, like me when I get a research burr in my blanket! Photo by Sean Manning, May 2020

A retired economist in another country wants to know how we know that many ancient slaves were prisoners of war, kidnap victims, or the children of slaves. Ok! Readers who don’t want to hear about slavery and child abandonment might want to skip this one.

So in the Ur III period around 2000 BCE we see massive numbers of people being rounded up and deported into labour camps near Ur. Some were starved to death so their supervisors could sell their rations, and others seem to have been blinded to stop them running away (they could still haul water and do other simple tasks). A bit later we have contracts where parents sell their children to someone willing to feed them during sieges or famines. Moving on to the 8th and 7th century BCE, the archive from Nippur (Oriental Institute Publication 114) and the Iliad describe people being captured by raiders and bandits and either ransomed or enslaved. A little later we see massive numbers of captives being dedicated to the gods in Babylonia, where they would work for the rest of their lives for the temple (although it is worth noting that these širāku had what we would call human rights other than the right to move freely and choose their employer- there were even worse statuses to be placed in). We also see that people with unfree status were tattooed or branded so they could be identified if they ran away. Later stories about Solon around 600 BCE describe how farmers in Attica fell into debt and were forced to sell themselves and their lands, possibly share-cropping for one sixth of the produce (the ἑκτημόριοι “sixth-parters”).

Starting with the first surviving Greek historians Thucydides and Herodotus at the end of the 5th century BCE, we have account after account of prisoners of war and the populations of captured cities being sold into captivity or executed by Greek cities or Persian kings. We also know that one of the biggest employers of slaves near Athens was the silver mines, and mine slaves seem to have had a very short life expectancy. Early Greek and Latin had words for “home-born slave” and “bought slave” and slave-holders told each other that the first kind was best. In Egypt under the Ptolemies, letters and slave names indicate that many slaves were abandoned children left out with the trash: whoever took them in and fed them owned them. There is an Akkadian phrase which may mean something similar: where Greeks said that these foundlings came “from the dungheap” (ἀπὸ κοπρίας), Babylonians seem to say they came “from the dog’s mouth” (ie. they were about to be eaten by stray dogs: ša pī kalbi). The idea that if someone was going to die and you save them, you can do what you like with them is very common in different cultures because it let masters tell themselves that whatever they did was not as bad as killing.

So up to the year 1 BCE, we have lots of evidence of slaves as captives, slaves as people forced to sell themselves or sold by their parents while they were still minors, and slaves as children of slaves. Its possible that there were also some slaves more like indentured servants in the 17th century CE, but I don’t know of evidence for that, whereas anyone who spends a summer reading Akkadian, Greek, or Latin texts from before the year 1 BCE will find all kinds of references to these three kinds of slaves. And we can look at similar situations in the past few hundred years, Highland ‘volunteer soldiers’ in Mughal India or Bangladeshi ‘temporary foreign workers’ in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and ponder about what kind of circumstances lead a some ancient people to ‘chose’ to sell themselves. When the ancient sources I read give a reason, they talk about starvation and usury.

The slave-holders who wrote Greek and Latin literature were not particularly sentimental about slavery. In the Odyssey, the ghost of Achilles says that the underworld is so bad he would rather be a slave of a landless man on earth. Athenians believed that self-enslavement had almost lead to a revolution in Solon’s time; Ctesias tells a story about a similar custom among the Medes where the plot turns on a law that if a poor person pledges himself for a rich one for food and clothing, he or she can go to someone else if the rich one fails to fulfil their side of the bargain. Aristotle pontificates about natural slaves but admits that in practice when all kinds of people are enslaved slavery is a status which is contrary to nature and inspires hatred. Theophrastus’ example of a man with bad timing is someone who watches a slave being whipped and comments that one of his slaves was beaten like that and killed himself (Characters 12/9: don’t give the talking tools ideas, mister!) Ancient Greek men were obsessed with freedom and allergic to salaried work or obeying orders because freedom meant not being a slave, “obey or be punished” was a slave’s choice, and salaried work with your hands (“poverty”) was what slaves did. And while I am not qualified to talk about the Roman imperial period, my understanding is that the Roman law of slavery from this period was so harsh that the history of Roman slave law after this period is a history of mass protests and slow reduction in the rights of masters by imperial decree.

That retired economics professor was clearly offended by a book review which emphasized that an economic history of ancient Greece needs to talk about slavery and the ancient vision of the good life as funded by slaves or rent. So he commented on that review with the following note:

Reviewer faults author for failing to consider the role of slaves in raising the standard of living of the free population: “Every time we observe Greek wealth, from the thousand slaves of Nicias through the workshop of Demosthenes to the farming of Ischomachus, it is slavery that is at the centre.” Reviewer believes the slaves were forcible captives not volunteers seeking to improve their living standard. It would be helpful if he cited his evidence.

The retired college professor (link is to DuckDuckGo not their site) has a few journal articles pushing his theory using evidence from the Roman empire, but I think this comment shows why he has devoted so much time to this topic.

Ever since people in the 19th century started to realize that slavery was not just wicked but a wickedness they could end, apologists have trotted out this argument: “yes, they work for us, but have you considered what we did for them? We brought them the true faith/carried them to a rich and flourishing land! They should be grateful to harvest our crops and scrub our chamber pots!” The fact that actual slave owners in the Caribbean and the Thirteen Colonies tended to be very suspicious of missionaries, and that an important reason why the places slaves came from were so poor was that they were ravaged by gangs of kidnappers, was irrelevant, because this is not really an argument, it is an excuse for something the speakers have already decided to do.

Its hard to know that some of the people you think of as your ancestors did terrible things. Its even harder to suspect that many of the good things you now have are built on those terrible acts. But trying not to see what slavery or empire are can’t change the past. We can only change how we live now and in the future. And hovering in the shadows on the edge of our political conversations are people whose question “did you ever consider that slavery might not be so bad?” is just a warm-up for “ok, so who should we sell first?” Those people are sure that they will never be on the auction block, so you might.

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Further Reading: You can read more about slave names in Gabriella Spada, “Two Old Babylonian Model Contracts,” Cuneiform Digital Library Journal 2014:002 The Papyrus Stories blog has an excellent post on child abandonment in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. Rebecca Futo Kennedy has a book which I have not read called Immigrant Women in Athens: Gender, Ethnicity, and Citizenship in the Classical City on female metics (free resident non-citizens) in classical Athens and just how the system was set up to marginalize them; she also has a blog, Classics at the Intersections.

Edit 2020-08-10: the article Christopher Stedman Parmenter, “Journeys into Slavery along the Black Sea Coast, c. 550-450 BCE,” Classical Antiquity (2020) 39.1 pp. 57–94 https://doi.org/10.2307/25010830 discusses ways in which Greek courts (like those in some big countries today) could enslave free people for various offences, so that a slave trader who misjudged the local politics or found himself short of cash could find himself in shackles.

And if you want someone else who is interested in these questions for different reasons than most ancient historians, the blog Racial Reality has a post from 22 December 2006 highlighting things in a book by Nathan Rosenstein which let the blogger believe that few Italians are descended from foreign slaves. (Slaves continued to be imported into Italy from Africa and the countries around the Black Sea until a few hundred years ago). It is not at all the case that people outside the university ignore what scholars are writing: they are very eager to find something they can use, and the trade book read by a bookish teenager becomes the series of columns by a pundit 40 years later.

Edit 2020-06-21: and oh wow, there is a whole book by Milo Yiannopoulos about the online spat between medieval literature people who want to focus their work day on lefty activism and the ones who want to focus their work day on teaching their students and trying to understand the past! Middle Rages: Why the Battle for Medieval Studies Matters to America (2019). He is definitely someone with a big audience using arguments between academics as weapons in larger political struggles!

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6 thoughts on “Where Did Ancient Slaves Come From?

  1. Prufrock says:

    Thanks Sean. A nice little rabbit hole to go down!

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You are welcome. It is good practice for teaching, because in teaching you need to be able to rattle off the ancient evidence for basic aspects of the ancient world. This is all stuff which in an academic book review you can take as read … (ok, the classicists might not know the cuneiform sources or the evidence that Egyptians thought child abandonment was gross, but they know the Iliad and the stories about Solon and what the Athenians did to cities which were insufficiently submissive).

    2. Sean Manning says:

      Also, the one article I read by the economist was interesting, but I think he has REASONS for not wanting to talk about these other kinds of slavery which are the easy ones to find in ancient texts. Cicero’s secretary Tiro was not a typical slave; a typical Roman slave was a farmhand or shepherd or weaver or potter who was never going to be rich but might be free and have someone to take care of them when they could no longer work.

  2. Pen Name says:

    Some Islamic ‘temporary foreign workers’ who thought they were going from :Pakistan, for example, to work in the Gulf States found themselves arriving in Baghdad to work on the USA Embassy / Fortress. Pretty hard to walk away from that one without a passport, let alone air fare..


  3. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Thanks for unknown book title Sean! I have terribly long list of unread books, and I want to buy many books (list is like some magazine). Among these two seas is one particular title which awaits me https://www.amazon.co.uk/Life-Bottom-Babylonian-Society-Centuries/dp/9004206892 and of course classical Dandamaev work about slavery in Babylonia https://www.amazon.co.uk/Slavery-Babylonia-Nabopolassar-Alexander-626-331/dp/087580621X/

    By the way, some people in Czech lands and other countries of Austria-Hungarian empire lived in servitude long after cancelation of serfdom https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serfdom_Patent_(1781) I was visiting different museums of mining, like in Příbram, Zastávka, etc. Those mining shafts (18th-19th CE) were in many cases only for children, 12 years old was maximum usable age, so small and confined the space was. Deads and wounds were daily mounting, and many farmers have to tend aristocracy fields anyway, not mention the property of clergy.

    I have one chapter in Xenophon about economy, the lifespan of mining slave was propably short, but it’s not so simple matter. There are direct and indirect evidences, that even this class of slaves could end up metics or citizens. I can’t remember my sources exacatly, but I could find them for You (mostly it was some Brill collective monography from this decade or other new books). Xenophon in Póroi plan wasn’t to have 100 000 – 150 000 slaves in Laurion (he gives just example and says, what could be possible), his goal is to have enough workers, qualified workers, metics, so they could found a new city there with 10 000 – 20 000 citizens. I have also read one Ph.D. for Xenophon thougts about economy http://bbktheses.da.ulcc.ac.uk/137/ very good work, but I didn’t have the time, to use this source in my work. Perhaps in some appendix or different edition Miss Powell will be given space she deserves…

    Last, but not least, I always like kicking into Rome and especially imperial period, I’m also not an expert, but data are clear (I wrote one article about Politics and architecture, I made there comparsion of different Greek areas (5th-2nd CE BC) and Southern Italy in 1st CE BC, so I know something). Slavery in those times was worse and in bigger scale. Enfranchised people cannot be in offices during Marcus Aurelius reign, so much for the Rome enlightment rule of the world (idea which still lives in some Czech academic circles).

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Thank you Pavel! I think there are people who argue that imperial Roman city or farm slaves might expect to be freed after ten years or so. There are lots of details to think about, as long as we don’t slip into “the slaves/serfs/peasants in my favourite ancient culture were much better treated than in that other ancient culture.” There are always greedy people who want others to work in the hot sun or the smoky mine-shaft while they sit on a couch eating and drinking.

      I still like JoAnn Scurlock’s point that in Late Babylonia, a freed person becomes a full citizen immediately (they can’t hold offices with the temple, but they have the same status as other citizens).

      I do not know this book about the bottom at Babylon, a book on the Kassite period sounds interesting.

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