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Slavery in the Ancient World


By Christabelle Ilankovan and Mangala Dharshini


A person with no freedom, owned by someone else. This is essentially who a slave is.

Slaves in the ancient world were primarily owned by rich families. They were forced to do back-breaking work, with almost no reward at all. Above all, they were denied basic rights and the freedom of will. This was how slaves across the ancient world lived.

Many ancient societies practiced slavery. These societies did not respect slaves as people. They were considered to be property and were deemed as insignificant. However, I believe slaves had a far more significant impact on their societies than we realize. For us to be able to understand why, let us look at slavery in greater detail.

Slavery was prevalent in Greece from the 7th century BC onwards. Both Athens and Sparta practiced slavery although the more accurate term of that practiced in Sparta would be Serfdom. This was a practice similar to slavery but less harsh in that those conquered were forced to work on their own inherited land for their Spartan owners. They still had some rights although their existence was limited to rural living. The practice of slavery in Athens however was much worse. Slaves were considered to be ‘property’ owned by those rich enough to buy them. They had to serve their owners more often than not as domestic servants. The most unfortunate Athenian slaves were those who were forced to be miners, who often died while working due to the terrible working conditions. Other slaves also formed police forces and even worked in banking and commerce. These were more prestigious positions within the slave community. Despite this, all slaves in Athens, whether domestic servant or educated and working in commerce or banking, had no conventional rights.  

Similarly, slavery was prevalent in Rome from the 2nd century BC and was a significant part of Roman society. Slaves were in almost every aspect of Rome’s society, working in rich households, agriculture, the military, manufacturing workshops and many other areas. One can even say that Rome was built upon this foundation of forced labor.  Slavery remained the right of those who were well-off in Rome. A reasonably well-off Roman such as a business owner, artisan or military veteran would own one or two slaves while extremely wealthy families would own hundreds of slaves. For example, in the 1st century CE, the prefect L. Pedanius Secundus had 400 slaves merely for his private residence. Slaves had no rights at all in Roman society and were merely owned property, just like you could own a car or a house. They had no individuality and were not allowed to have families or own property. More often than not, slaves were seen as a status symbol by the Roman elite and these families would travel with as many as 15 of their slaves to show off their wealth and power in society.

The impact that slavery had in the ancient world is significant. Slavery was a crucial part of societies in the ancient world and allowed the ancient world to have the social order it did at the time. For instance, Rome depended on slavery to function and maintain it’s political, social and economic stranglehold on the Mediterranean area and beyond since slaves made a significant part of many sectors of their society. Slavery itself also served as a means of allowing the wealthy to display and maintain their elitist status in society. Slavery was used as a status symbol amongst the wealthier families in society, making the owning of slaves similar to our status symbols of owning a Mercedes or a penthouse suite today. Without slaves, the powerful and wealthy families in history would not have been able to lead the lifestyles that they did.

The main cause of slavery and its growth were wars that led to the capture of people during war. Slavery grew because slaves were extremely cheap for the wealthy and gave them the benefit of being able to make a handsome profit. Many owners lent their slaves out for labor and earned money by doing this. The effects of slavery were most apparent for slaves themselves. Many of them lived their lives with absolutely no hope of being able to buy their freedom (because it was too expensive), at the disposal of their owners. They had no individuality and no freedom of will. More often than not, they weren’t allowed to have families and even if they did have children, their children automatically became slaves too.

In ancient times, during the different periods in history when slavery was prevalent, slavery was mostly not seen as being terrible, or as a violation of the rights of thousands of humans who deserved to have rights. Instead, it was merely an accepted reality. It was just how their society functioned to them. Although this is how slavery was largely viewed in ancient times, today slavery is unacceptable. This comes to show that we have evolved and the way we think has as well. We now see slavery as the worst kind of treatment that any human being can be subjected to. Education, made accessible to the masses over time has enabled us to understand the importance of human rights and abolish slavery to a large extent.

I just want to say that in the process of writing this blog post I realized something important. So often in history, we learn about primary sources and records about great people. People who ruled empires or invented great things/ideas. We know about them today probably because record-keepers of their time, only thought it worthy to mention their great feats. But what we very often fail to realize is that there is so much more to a picture than the rulers or their great conquests. Many a times, the common people and slaves who would have done all the trivial things that would have led to these great achievements, are hardly talked about. There is very little reliable information and sources available to us, detailing the lives of slaves, or the problems they might have faced. This, I would think is something we ought to realize and keep in mind when studying history.