Slavery in Antiquity

Shout the glad tidings o’er Egypt’s dark sea
Jehovah  has triumphed, his people are free!

~ Freedmen’s hymn

Slavery has existed, in one form or another, through the whole of recorded human history — as have, in various periods, movements to free large or distinct groups of slaves.  It can be traced back to the earliest records, such as the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1760 BCE), which refers to it, even then, as an established institution. Slavery in ancient cultures was known to occur in civilizations as old as Sumer, and it was found in every civilization, including Ancient Egypt, the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire. Chaos and invasion made the taking of slaves habitual throughout Europe in the early Middle Ages. The Vikings raided across Europe, keeping some slaves for themselves as servants, known as thralls. Most people captured by the Vikings would be sold on the Byzantine or Islamic markets.

The Islamic World was also a main factor in Medieval European slavery. From the early 700’s until the 19th century Muslims consistently took European slaves. Jewish participation in the slave trade was recorded starting in the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius permitted Jews to introduce slaves from Gaul into Italy, on the condition that they were non-Christian. Christians were also selling Muslim slaves captured in war. The Knights of Malta attacked pirates and Muslim shipping, and their base became a center for slave trading, selling captured North Africans and Turks.  Mongols also enslaved skilled individuals, women and children and sold them throughout Eurasia.  In 1382 the Golden Horde under Khan Tokhtamysh sacked Moscow, burning the city and carrying off thousands of inhabitants as slaves. Between 1414 and 1423, some 10,000 eastern European slaves were sold in Venice. In Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica the most common forms of slavery were those of prisoners of war and debtors. As we see from just this snapshot, the sad history of slavery bridges centuries, continents religions and cultures.

According to the biblical Book of Exodus, Moses led Israelite slaves out of ancient Egypt — possibly the first written account of a movement to free slaves. Whether or not one accepts the historical truth of that event, this quintessential story of enslavement and the struggle for liberation has rung through the ages, motivating abolitionists of the Enlightenment, lending hope to the slaves of the African diaspora, and inspiring others even to this day.

The story of the Exodus is celebrated every year at Passover by Jews around the world, including many who are not otherwise religiously observant. In a tradition rich with symbolism, a bitter herb, often grated horseradish, is consumed to recall viscerally the bitterness of slavery, salt water reflects the tears of bondage, and a mixture of nuts and wine the mortar used in arduous labor. Most famously the matzoh, the “bread of affliction”, is unleavened bread that was baked in haste as the slaves fled toward freedom. Participants are pointedly commanded to consider that it is as if they themselves had been enslaved, and might be so still but for the miracle of liberation.

Ancient Rome is well remembered for its slave culture and gladiator games. It is estimated that over one quarter of the Empire was enslaved, and as much as 40 percent of the population in Italy! Most Roman citizens merely viewed this as an entitlement of empire. Some historians suggest that Rome’s decline was in no small part due to the corrosive effect of its reliance upon slave labor. In his book Rubicon, (2003), Tom Holland offers this glimpse:

“It was hard not to be overwhelmed by the discovery of just how many slaves there were in Italy. Human beings were not the least significant portion of the wealth to have been plundered by the Republic during its wars of conquest. The single market established by Roman supremacy had enabled captives to be moved around the Mediterranean as easily as any other form of merchandise, and the result had been a vast boom in the slave trade, a transplanting of populations without precedent in history. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, had been uprooted from their homelands and brought to the center of the empire, there to toil for their new masters. Even the poorest citizen might own one. In rich households the labor glut obliged slave owners to think up ever more exotic jobs for their purchases to specialize in, whether dusting portrait busts, writing invitations, or attending to purple clothes…

“The work of most slaves was infinitely more crushing. This was particularly the case in the countryside, where conditions were at their worst. Gangs were bought wholesale, branded, and shackled, then set to labor from dawn until dusk. At night they would be locked up in a huge, crowded barracks. Not a shred of privacy or dignity was permitted them. They were fed the barest minimum required to keep them alive. Exhaustion was remedied by the whip, while insubordination would be handled by private contractors who specialized in torture–and sometimes execution–of uppity slaves. The crippled and prematurely aged could be expected to be cast aside, like diseased cattle or shattered wine jars. It hardly mattered to their masters whether they survived or starved. After all, as Roman agriculturists liked to remind their readers, their was no point in wasting their money on useless tools.”

Wherever slavery has existed, slave rebellions have occurred as well. Rome saw three distinct uprisings known as the Servile Wars. The last and most spirited of these was led by the gladiator slave Sparticus, who originally came from Thrace in what is now the Balkans. In 73 BC, he and seventy gladiators escaped from their barracks in Capua. Soon Sparticus’ slave revolt saw him leading an army of 70,00 untrained and ill-equipped slaves. Though ultimately defeated, the Third Servile War was the only rebellion to directly threaten the Roman heartland of Italy. The revolt ushered in a change in the way slaves and slavery were perceived. Wealthy landowners began to reduce the number of agricultural slaves, opting to employ the large pool of formerly dispossessed freemen. The legal status and rights of the Roman slave also began to change.  A constitution was enacted which made the killing of an old or infirm slave an act of murder, and decreed that if such slaves were abandoned by their owners, they became freedmen. The legal rights of slaves were later further extended, holding owners responsible for the killing of slaves, and forcing the sale of slaves when it could be shown that they were being mistreated. It is difficult to determine the extent to which the events of this war contributed to the changes in the use and legal rights of Roman slaves. But it is worth noting that even views which could not possibly have been more firmly entrenched, proved malleable and evolved toward a more just disposition.

It is hard not to notice many parallels in these accounts, not only to the brutal African slave trade, but to many of the conditions that exist today. Human beings have become plentiful, cheap, and expendable; ease of transportation has lowered costs and risks; and with few impediments to global trade, slavery has again become a commercial venture, an investment opportunity for the cold-hearted.  One important distinction is that today, much of this abuse takes place in the shadows, half a world away from most consumers. It is our belief that the world today would not be so indifferent to the plight of slaves if only they were made aware of it, and of the steps they can take to help end it.

Lend your voice. Join us. Fight Slavery Now!


Pirate, colonist, slave, The Economist, Dec. 17, 2011: The admirable adventures and strange fortunes of Master Anthony Knivet.

The Justification for Slavery, Delancy Place, 10/07/14, excerpt from Brazil: Five Centuries of Change by Thomas E. Skidmore.

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