Slavery in Antiquity & in Ancient Egypt

A mural fragment shows slaves building a wall in ancient Rome
... Images

Slavery was a widespread practice in the ancient world, with almost every country in the Mediterranean basin and the Babylonian-Persian world using slave labor -- in fact, references to slavery can be found as far back as the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. The widespread use of slaves in antiquity was due both to the amount of physical labor needed in a world where sophisticated labor-saving machines and devices had not yet been invented and to widespread warfare, in which those captured were customarily enslaved.

1 Slaves As Property

The Greek city-states were heavily dependent on slave labor and had been since the time of Homer. Slaves worked in households and on farms and were considered chattel – i.e., the property of their owners. Although there were laws that protected them from being severely abused, they had no rights in courts of law, as Greek citizens did, and could be sold by their owners. Some Greek slaves, however, enjoyed wider freedom, and even lived separately from their owners, maintaining “primarily an economic relationship with their masters,” according to Peter Hunt, author of “Slaves, Warfare and Ideology in the Greek Historians.”

2 Agricultural Slavery

The ancient Romans, too, used slaves on a widespread scale. By the first century B.C., thousands of slaves were employed in what was called estate slavery -- large-scale agricultural slavery akin to that practiced in the American South using African slaves. As the Roman Empire grew, slaves poured into Italy from all over the known world. The more educated ones, particularly the Greeks, became tutors. Some were sold into prostitution. And others became gladiators -- Spartacus, the most famous gladiator of all, led a bloody slave revolt in 73.B.C., defeating the Romans in battle after battle with a slave army that is estimated to have reached 100,000. He was finally hunted down and killed, along with thousands of his followers, in 71 B.C.

3 Myths About Egyptian Slaves

The ancient Egyptians probably did not use slaves to build the pyramids, as is widely assumed -- tombs near the pyramids of Giza, built more than 4,000 years ago, show that workers were buried with proper honors, not something that would have been accorded to slaves. Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin asserted that Jews built the pyramids in 1977, giving rise to another myth. While the ancient Hebrews are described in the Bible as serving as slaves in Egypt, the pyramids would have already been built centuries before that time.

4 A Common Practice

However, slavery did become a common practice in Egyptian society from about the time of the New Kingdom (beginning ca. 1550 B.C.), with most of the slaves having been captured in war. As in other ancient societies, Egyptian slaves worked domestically or labored in the fields. There apparently were no public slave markets in ancient Egypt; instead, slave dealers approached private customers personally, offering slaves for sale. And, as a particularly horrible coda to their existence, slaves who worked within royal households could suffer execution, to be buried and sent to the afterlife in company with their mummified masters.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.