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.

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Staring Evil in the Face: Some Thoughts on Hanson’s “The Other Greeks”

a view to the bottom of a river on a sunny winter day

Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (The Free Press: New York, 1995)

I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labour of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labour it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern.

– John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good,” 6 February 1837

I finally read The Other Greeks by Victor Davis Hanson in summer 2018. This book, published in 1995, contains an argument that farmers working 9- to 13-acre (20-30 3 to 5 hectare) plots were key to Greek culture wrapped in two rants about the decline of the American family farm and the decadence of American academics. Victor Davis Hanson’s writings on ancient agrarianism are less famous than his political columns and his ideas about Greek warfare, but I enjoyed working through this book. Farming is obviously a topic that Hanson cares deeply about, and because he put so much care into this book I can tell that he sees some of the implications of his argument.

The ancient history in this book is interwoven with the story of a 40 acre farm near Selma, California which the Hansons have held for five generations (only three generations were able to make a living from it, his parents got jobs in town and he tried to keep the farm going after his grandfather retired but found that the only way was to use his salary and royalties from teaching and punditry to subsidize the farm). In his view, both classical Greek and modern US culture were at the best while society was dominated by rural small farmers, and any threat to this class is a threat to freedom and democracy.

To my knowledge, Victor Davis Hanson has never written about why his Swedish great great grandparents were able to take a share of “the richest farmland in the world” for a token price in 1875, just like Wikipedia estimates that the indigenous population of the San Joaquin Valley fell 93% from 1850 to 1900 but falls silent on what exactly happened (today all the nations of the Yokuts are a few thousand strong, about as many as one of the little farming towns Hanson loves).

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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.
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The Key Question in the Fall of the Roman Empire

a chart of a proxy for the height of men and women buried in the Roman empire with a dep dip from 150 BCE to 400 CE and then a dramatic rise after 400 CE
Trends in the height of men and women buried in what became, and then ceased to be, the western Roman empire. Heights are lowest in the time when Rome dominated the Mediterranean world, then as Roman power west of the Adriatic collapses heights rise farther than before. Until a 2022 blog post by Bret Devereaux, i had never encountered an ancient historian who had seen the evidence of human remains and denied that something went terribly wrong with human health in the Roman empire at the same time as humans acquired unprecedented amounts of stuff. For the technical details see W.M. Jongman, et al., “Health and wealth in the Roman Empire”, Econ. Hum. Biol. (2019), Image added 13 February 2022

A conversation with Nathan Ross inspired me to track down two essays by Steve Muhlberger on what I think is the key issue in the fall of the western Roman empire. (The debate “were foreign invasions or civil wars more destructive?” is a bit of a semantic issue, since soldiers tried to be as Germanic as possible and wealthy Germans in the Imperium tried to become as Roman as possible: its never going to be easy to define figures like Stilicho as either Roman or barbarian). It has long been obvious that the fifth century saw light beautiful pottery, stone houses, roofs with leak-proof terracotta tiles, and philosophers who could do original work vanish from Europe north of the Alps, but recently archaeologists have noticed that people buried in Post-Roman Europe seem to be living longer and eating better than their ancestors who bore the Roman yoke.

My second reflection is on the current debate about the fall of the Roman Empire (the fifth-century fall) between people who equate it with “the End of Civilization” (Bryan Ward-Perkins) and people who don’t think it was an ending of unprecedented significance (say, Peter Brown and Walter Goffart). I really think that the unresolved and maybe unresolvable debate is about what civilization is. Is it a situation where a leisured minority sit around in the palace library, enjoying bread made from Egyptian wheat and dipping it in Syrian olive oil or Spanish fish sauce, and debating the great ideas of the ages, while other people dig minerals from the earth in dirty, dangerous mines, or harvest cotton in the hot sun, and die young? If that’s it, then there was probably a lot less “civilization” in large parts of the formerly Roman world after AD 400 than there had been for some centuries, in that it was far more difficult to assemble a large variety of enviable luxuries in one spot through the routine operations of centralized imperial power. And there is more civilization now, because here I sit, not even close to being rich by Canadian standards, but able to read, think and then speak to a privileged minority around the world while hundreds of millions sweat profusely (and all too often, die young).

But it might be worth considering whether the height of luxury — whatever luxury you prefer — is the only measure of civilization.

I say, bring on those resilient decentralized networks and extend them as far as we can. The only alternative is slavery for somebody.

– Steve Muhlberger, “Brave New War, The Upside of Down, and the fall of the Roman Empire,” 22 April 2007

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