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Classical and Near Eastern slavery in th

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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
Oxford Handbooks Online
Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First
Millennium bce
David M. Lewis
The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Slaveries
Edited by Stephen Hodkinson, Marc Kleijwegt, and Kostas Vlassopoulos
Subject: Classical Studies, Ancient Greek History, Ancient Roman History, Social and Economic
History, Middle Eastern Languages and Culture
Online Publication Date: Dec 2018 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199575251.013.42
Abstract and Keywords
Twentieth-century scholarship, guided in particular by the views of M. I. Finley, saw
Greece and Rome as the only true ‘slave societies’ of antiquity: slavery in the Near East
was of minor economic significance. Finley also believed that the lack of a concept of
‘freedom’ in the Near East made slavery difficult to distinguish from other shades of
‘unfreedom’. This chapter shows that in the Near East the legal status of slaves and the
ability to make clear status distinctions were substantively similar to the Greco-Roman
situation. Through a survey of the economic contribution of slave labour to the wealth
and position of elites in Israel, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and Carthage, it is shown that
the difference between the ‘classical’ and ‘non-classical’ worlds was not as pronounced as
Finley thought, and that at least some of these societies (certainly Carthage) should also
be considered ‘slave societies’.
Keywords: Greece, Rome, Israel, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Carthage, slavery, freedom, economy
Abbreviations
Cyr.
= Inschriften von Cyrus, König von Babylon (538-529 v.Chr.), by J.N. Strassmeier,
Leipzig 1890.
Dar.
= Inschriften von Darius, König von Babylon (521-485 v.Chr.), by J.N. Strassmeier,
Leipzig 1897.
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
SAA VI
= Legal Transactions of the Royal Court of Nineveh, Part I: Tiglath-Pileser III through
Esarhaddon, ed. T. Kwasman & S. Parpola, Helsinki 1991. (State Archives of Assyria
Volume VI.)
TAD
= Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt, by B. Porten & A. Yardeni,
Jerusalem 1987-1999. In 4 volumes.
TCL 12
= Contrats néo-babyloniens I: de Téglath-phalasar III à Nabonide, by G. Conteneau,
Paris 1927.
TCL 13
= Contrats néo-babyloniens II: achéménides et séleucides, by G. Conteneau, Paris
1929.
Introduction
A surge of interest in ancient slavery since World War II has bequeathed to current
scholars a robust field marked by numerous advances, both in the understanding of the
historical aspects of Greco-Roman slavery and in methodological approaches to the
analysis of ancient evidence. But it has also bequeathed a set of fixed horizons that are
rarely if ever questioned.1 One key assumption, which has profoundly shaped the
contours of enquiry, is that slavery was qualitatively different, and—quantitatively
speaking—vastly more significant in Greece and Rome than in the ‘non-classical’ cultures
of both the ancient Mediterranean and the Near East. This contrast is firmly articulated
by the most influential twentieth-century student of ancient slavery, M. I. Finley:
The pre-Greek world—the world of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and
Assyrians; and I cannot refrain from adding the Mycenaeans—was, in a very
profound sense, a world without free men, in the sense which the west has come
to understand that concept. It was equally a world in which chattel slavery played
no role of any consequence. That, too, was a Greek discovery (1981: 114–115).
For many classical historians, this claim remains valid. The recent Cambridge World
History of Slavery, Volume I: The Ancient Mediterranean World (Bradley and Cartledge
2011) provides an apt example of how Finley’s view of Greco-Roman exceptionalism has
set the agenda of ancient slavery studies. Although purporting to cover the
Mediterranean world, it is overwhelmingly focused on Greco-Roman subject matter: of its
509 pages of text, only two are devoted to Iron Age Israel, one and a half to pre-Ptolemaic
Egypt, and, most remarkably of all, a single footnote to Carthage’s large-scale slave
system. Despite the complexity of the ancient Mediterranean world, Greece and Rome,
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
according to this approach, constitute the only civilizations that really matter for
antiquity’s place in the global history of slavery.
This chapter will argue that this framework ought to be abandoned. First, it will outline
the methodological background to the received picture of Greco-Roman exceptionalism.
Second, it will focus on slave status, Finley’s conception of freedom, and the supposed
qualitative difference between ‘classical’ and ‘Near Eastern’ slavery. Third, it will discuss
the exploitation of slaves in several regions of the Near East, and will argue for a more
nuanced, less stark picture than that of Finley. Finally, it will conclude by examining the
variables and processes that lay behind differentials in the economic significance of
slavery across various ancient societies.
Methodological considerations
A key analytical tool of twentieth-century scholarship on ancient slavery was the notion of
‘slave society’. This concept was used by Finley as a benchmark for assessing the
structural, socio-economic importance of slavery. Whereas others (e.g. Hopkins 1978: 99–
102) argued that the distinction between ‘slave societies’ and ‘societies with slaves’ ought
to be marked by a specific percentage of the overall population constituted by slaves,
Finley provided a more flexible definition that was more applicable to societies for which
little hard statistical data survived. Finley’s definition focused on the location of slavery in
the socio-economic structure. More specifically, a society could be called a ‘slave society’
if its elite derived a significant proportion of its wealth from slave labour (Finley 1980:
80–82). As a basic yardstick of the economic importance of slavery, this heuristic tool was
extremely useful. However, its repeated use—without adequate attention to its
shortcomings—has caused a number of problems. What was perhaps originally intended
as a means to an end (assessing the relative importance of slavery in different societies)
has at times become an end in itself (was X a slave society?). Hence, the category of
‘slave society’ has been treated (to borrow a Greek distinction) more as physis, a
primordial fact, than nomos, an invented category (e.g. Andreau and Descat 2006: 17–20).
More hazardous is the lack of explicit acknowledgement of the blind spots that
mechanical use of this category can create. To classify a given society as a ‘slave society’,
historians need to be able to identify its elite and that elite’s full range of income sources,
and then to determine the importance of slave labour to the elite’s overall wealth. This
operation can be undertaken only for ancient societies for which we possess abundant
sources. Where we lack such sources, the society in question, rather than being treated
as a ‘possible’ slave society, is typically dismissed as a ‘society with slaves.’ When Finley
wrote that ‘although slaves have been exploited in most societies as far back as any
records exist, there have been only five genuine slave societies’ (1980: 9); that positivistic
sorting of societies into two boxes was implicit in his reasoning. The mechanical
application of this concept produces a black-and-white picture of the importance of slave
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
labour in ancient societies. Unsurprisingly, Athens and Rome—with their large and varied
bodies of evidence—emerge as the only ‘slave societies’ of antiquity.
So the idea of ‘slave society’ is a useful tool, but one with serious limitations that need to
be confronted explicitly. A more useful approach has recently been proposed by Lenski,
who argues for an ‘intensification’ model, a sliding scale running from societies in which
slavery existed but played no important economic role, to those in which it was an
economically central institution.2 This approach is better adapted to capturing the full
range of historical circumstances without straitjacketing them in two absolute, inflexible
categories. Yet the epistemological problem, viz. the huge gaps in our knowledge caused
by the relative lack of evidence for slavery and its role in many parts of the ancient world,
remains.
Other problems have arisen through scholars of the ancient Near Eastern not using the
concept of ‘slave society’ at all, but instead evaluating their societies by a different,
essentially Marxist standard, the ‘slave mode of production’, viz. the contribution of slave
labour to the aggregate production of a given society. This standard, paired with a
popular but misleading stereotype of Greece and Rome as teeming with vast numbers of
slaves, has led to exaggeration of the difference between these regions. For instance,
Roland de Vaux wrote that ‘in Israel and the neighbouring countries, there never existed
those enormous gangs of slaves which in Greece and Rome continually threatened the
balance of social order’, but also that slave labour was a key source of elite income in
Israel.3 Faust (2012: 15), citing de Vaux, has recently written that ‘the economy of the
kingdoms of Israel and Judah was probably not slave-based’. Dandamaev (1984: 218–219)
wrote of Babylonia in the mid-first millennium BCE that ‘it is possible that the free
population was only two or three times that of the slaves’ (a guess, but one that would
have remarkable implications), but also that Babylonian slavery was much less developed
than in classical societies. These views not only depend on unrealistically high estimates
of Greco-Roman slave numbers; they also look at the problem differently from classical
historians of the last half century. Classical historians have long admitted that slave
labour was negligible in terms of overall production, placing stress rather on its role in
the production of elite wealth. The fact that historians of the classical and Near Eastern
world have been using different criteria for the importance of slave labour has added to
the general confusion and mutual misapprehension.
It is necessary, then, to use a single standard of comparison (whether ‘slave society’,
‘intensification’, or another metric), and yet to be aware of the limitations that any
criterion for defining ‘slave society’ will have. It is also crucial to be aware of the huge
differences in the quality, quantity, and generic attributes of the evidence for slavery in
different ancient societies. As Vlassopoulos (2016b) has recently discussed regarding
Athens, the sources’ generic features privilege certain ‘normative discourses’ and ‘fields
of vision’. In other words, they illuminate only certain aspects of ancient realities, leaving
other aspects in the dark; and that illumination is often refracted and distorted through
generic lenses to produce certain kinds of discourse. For slavery at Sparta, the problem is
compounded; for not only are the sources far fewer than at Athens, they are generally
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
written by non-Spartans and conform to the well-known ‘Spartan mirage’, a particularly
pronounced version of the ‘normative discourse’ problem that focuses on the unusual and
exotic.4
The evidence for slavery in the ancient Near East is no less diverse than for Greece,
varying in quantity and type from region to region. For example, the cuneiform
documentary record of sixth-century Babylonia, mainly private legal documents, poses a
complex set of problems. The dry, legal, and private nature of much of this documentation
means that the ‘normative discourse’ problem is less acute than for Athens; but the ‘field
of vision’ problem is much worse. Instead of a multiplicity of genres, Babylonian legal
documents are generically quite homogeneous in the kind of information they convey,
leaving much in the dark.5 For example, a document concerning the division of
inheritance within the Egibi family indicates that this family owned around 100 slaves;
but the work assigned to those slaves is not well documented (Dandamaev 1984: 249;
Jursa 2010: 233). The evidence for Iron Age II Israel, on the other hand, poses different
challenges. The epigraphic record is comparatively sparse, and the texts of the Hebrew
Bible comprise a series of layered sources, resulting from a long process of editing and
redaction, a problem exacerbated by the tendency of biblical scribes not to sign their
individual contributions, in order to maintain the text’s authoritative, canonical status
(Carr 2010; Levinson 2010). These differences in source material need to be constantly
borne in mind. Rather than simply presenting their ‘final results’, the most useful studies
rigorously illustrate their workings and explicitly show their readers the problems of the
source material.6
Slave status in comparative perspective
In a recent study of Hellenistic slavery, Thompson has written of the spread of ‘Greekstyle chattel slavery’ throughout the east following Alexander’s conquests, and of ‘the
introduction of chattel slavery to areas where previously it had not formed part of the
culture’. She treats Dandamaev’s book on Babylonian slavery as an exception to the rule
where Asiatic societies were more generally characterized by ‘non-Greek forms of
dependence’ (2011: 194, 195, 202). But what was specifically ‘Greek’ about chattel
slavery, and what was specifically ‘non-Greek’ about ‘non-Greek forms of dependence’?
The reduction of outsiders to the status of property and their trade over great distances
can be found in the east long before the first millennium BCE; the slave trading by
Assyrian merchants at Kaneš in the twentieth century BCE is just one example (Bayram
and Çeçen 1996; cf. van Koppen 2004). The Finleyan line on eastern forms of dependence
followed by Thompson has puzzled scholars of the Near East (Dandamaev 1984: 67–80;
van der Spek 1990). The supposed distinction between ‘Greek’ chattel slavery and ‘nonGreek’ forms of dependence rests on two problematic premises. First, although Finley
admitted that slavery sensu stricto existed in the Near East, he claimed that status there
existed in a continuum, with one status shading into the next (1981: 132). Second, he
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
believed that the Greeks invented the concept of freedom, allowing a clear distinction
between slaves and everyone else that was impossible in societies where status existed as
a fluid continuum. A few words need saying on each of these problems.
First, the idea that in the Near East slave, or any other, status shaded into other statuses
is contradicted by the sources. A good illustration of how status distinctions functioned in
practice can be seen in the trial in 548 BCE of a slave named Bariki-ili, who ran away
from his owner, was apprehended, and claimed to be a free man. The case went to trial,
and Bariki-ili’s owner was able to produce a series of clay tablets documenting his various
conveyances from owner to owner over the years. Bariki-ili, in contrast, was unable to
produce a tablet of manumission and was therefore returned to his owner. Several similar
cases from Babylonian legal documents attest an ability to make such razor-sharp status
distinctions.7 Other legal documents from the Near East—such as the Elephantine papyri
or the Samaria papyri from Wadi Daliyeh—show that a slave’s position was essentially
similar to that of the so-called ‘Greek-style chattel slave’. He or she was the permanent,
alienable, heritable property of the owner; and although the owner’s rights over the slave
might be restricted in different ways from place to place, the basic legal framework of
slavery across the ancient world was fundamentally similar (Porten 1996: 199–201; Gropp
et al. 2001). Moreover, we find slaves from the same ‘barbarian’ regions exploited by the
Greeks being imported by easterners too: like the Greeks, Phoenicians, Assyrians, and
Persians all imported Anatolian (especially Phrygian) slaves.8
Second, on the issue of freedom, Finley believed that a strong causal connection existed
between the economic role of slavery and the emergence of a concept of freedom. On this
view, in the early Greek world, as well as in the Near East and archaic Rome, slavery
played a minimal role in the economy and statuses existed in a fluid continuum. When
slavery emerged as the major source of elite wealth in Athens following Solon’s reforms
in 594/3 BCE, this putative change at the base level of production spurred a cultural
development in the conceptual superstructure, viz. the crisp division of everyone into two
categories: free and slave (Finley 1981: 114, 149, 155). There are several problems with
this view. The category ‘slavery’ does not require an antonym, ‘freedom’, to be crisp and
comprehensible; and in many historical societies where it has been given an antonym, it
was not ‘freedom’, but other concepts such as mastery or kinship.9 In fact, concepts of
freedom did exist in the Near East, though they had a different currency from their
Greco-Roman equivalents.10 There is no reason to insist on a causal relationship between
the growing economic role of slavery and the emergence of the concept of freedom.11
The major differences between classical and Near Eastern societies lay not in the sphere
of legal praxis, but in culture—and more specifically, in the metaphorical extension of the
terminology of slavery to other aspects of social life in which asymmetries of power were
in play. In the Greek world, the terminology of douleia (‘slavery’) held generally negative
connotations of domination by the superior party and, for the inferior party, the sense of
being ensnared into a course of action dictated by the former (be that a tyrant, a more
powerful neighbour, or one’s own irresistible appetites).12 In the Near East, in contrast,
the terminology of slavery was commonly enlisted into the etiquette of deference in social
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
interactions between unequals: thus individuals might be described (or describe
themselves) as slaves of a god, of a king, or simply of a social superior, despite the fact
that they were not legally enslaved to them. This connoted a positive sense of deference
to rank as well as loyal service; but such language would have seemed intolerably
obsequious to an Athenian of the classical period (Harris 2006: 278–279; cf. Missiou
1993). Political concepts of freedom in the Near East were of minor and restricted
importance, whereas in the classical world freedom as a political value became
immensely important.13 Not all slavery metaphors in the Greek world were negative, and
not all in the Near Eastern world were positive; but in broad terms, the major difference
between slavery and freedom in the ancient Near East and in Greece and Rome was
located in this cultural sphere.
Elite exploitation of slave labour
I will now survey several regions of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East where slave
labour played a significant role in elite wealth. Slave labour did not play a significant role
in all regions: in Egypt, for instance (except under the Persians: see the section on Persia
below); and in many other regions we have only a hazy idea of the sources of elite wealth.
However, even in those cases (e.g. Assyria and Babylonia) that Finley would not have
classified as ‘slave societies’, it will be instructive to consider the evidence in some detail.
First, it will show how the gulf in economic praxis between east and west is exaggerated,
more a difference between shades of grey than between black and white. Second, it will
illuminate the diverse and uneven nature of the documentary evidence and the limits of
potential historical reconstructions from region to region. I will focus mainly on elite
slaveholdings, which are best attested in the evidence; but, where possible, I will also
discuss the distribution of slave ownership further down the wealth spectrum.
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
Israel
Let us begin with Iron Age II Israel, the period of the monarchies in Israel and Judah,
roughly the first half of the first millennium BCE. This period can be studied using two
main categories of evidence: archaeological data and the Hebrew Bible. The modern state
of Israel has since its inception devoted considerable resources to archaeological survey
and excavation; consequently, much is known about urbanism, household economies, and
settlement patterns in the first half of the first millennium BCE (Faust 2012). The Hebrew
Bible, on the other hand, is a complex anthology of individual books which were generally
edited over time and comprise material dating to different epochs. In what follows, I will
refer therefore mainly to texts that are securely dated to the monarchical period.
First, then, the patriarchal narratives of Genesis. Generally regarded as part of Israel’s
legendary proto-history, they convey cultural assumptions from the monarchical period in
which they were written down (King and Stager 2001: 7). As Hezser (2005: 286–288)
notes, the patriarchs are consistently portrayed as wealthy men with large slaveholdings.
Other Israelite stories contain the same assumption: for example, the demolition of
statues of Baal by Gideon and his ten slaves (Judg. 6:27); or the tale of Gehazi, Elisha’s
dishonest servant, who would have spent his ill-gotten gains on olive groves, vineyards,
livestock, and slaves, had his master not caught him red-handed (2 Kgs 5:26). Normative
texts also presume slave ownership, at least among the elite: from versions of the
Decalogue (Exod. 20:2–17; cf. Deut. 5:12–15, 12:18, 16:11) to the vignette of the ideal
elite wife in Prov. 31:10–31, whose duties include managing her female slaves and
producing a textile surplus for sale to merchants. More traditionally ‘historical’ texts
convey a similar picture. The courtier in 2 Sam. 9:1–13 is granted land worked by a
bailiff, his fifteen sons, and twenty slaves. In Jer. 34:8–22 the elite of Judah are criticized
for holding poor Judahites as slaves contrary to the law (cf. Neh. 5:1–13).14 Hired workers
also appear; but there is no sign of agricultural tenancy until New Testament times (de
Vaux 1961: 167; cf. Lemaire 2015). Although these texts are short on detail and often
hard to assign to an exact date, they convey a consistent picture: rich men often own
many slaves and use some hired workers too, a picture not markedly different from that
attested in another region of the archaic eastern Mediterranean, Aegean Greece (Harris
2012; Lewis 2018: ch. 5).
Assyria
The evidence for slavery in Assyria during the eighth to seventh centuries BCE is
markedly different. We possess a body of quotidian legal documents, mostly from centres
of elite activity, especially royal palaces such as at Nineveh; they provide a detailed (but
selective) view of legal transactions of the Assyrian elite.15 The first point of note is the
sheer scale of their slave ownership. A few examples will illustrate its upper end.
Mušallim-Issar, village manager for the chief eunuch to Tiglath-Pileser III, purchased
slaves on at least nine occasions (SAA VI 1–9), with one transaction including nine,
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another five, slaves (SAA VI 2, 6). Šumma-ilani, a chariot driver in the royal chariot corps
(SAA VI 34–56), overall ‘bought at least 50 slaves, including seven families, attested in 12
legal transactions, in the course of about 30 years (709–680 BC).’16 Nabu-šumu-iškun,
chariot driver to Sennacherib, once expended ten silver minas on twenty slaves (SAA VI
57) and on another occasion spent thirteen silver minas on an unknown (but probably
larger) number of slaves (SAA VI 58). According to the palace archives from Kalhu, the
palace scribe Nabu-tuklatua purchased at least forty-five slaves (mostly male), including
eight slaves in three transactions in the year 788 BCE.17 The slave purchases of Šulmušarri—attested in the detailed archive from his mansion (the so-called ‘Red House’) in
Dur-Katlimmu, a provincial settlement on the Khabur River18—show a different pattern,
involving more female slaves than males (viz. thirty-five females, fifteen males).19 Note
that all these archives document only purchases of slaves and not the extent of prior
slaveholding, such as slaves these persons inherited: hence they provide only the minima.
The slaveholdings of these elite Assyrians place them, at the very least, in the same
league as the wealthiest fourth-century Athenians.20
Slaveholding in eighth to seventh-century BCE Assyria, however, was apparently more
upwardly concentrated than in classical Attica. Comparison of slave prices and labouring
wages shows that slave ownership was well beyond average Assyrian labourers.21
Furthermore, despite the size of some slaveholdings, it is unclear how important a
component of elite wealth production slave labour constituted; and there is good evidence
for other forms of labour exploitation: e.g. forms of bound tenancy resulting from the
state-run system of mass deportation (Oded 1979). Although elite Assyrian slave
purchases were seemingly based to a considerable degree on economic motives,22 Assyria
was probably not a ‘slave society’ in Finleyan terms. Nevertheless, slavery was a major,
entrenched institution in Assyrian society, a fact that is negated if we simply classify
Assyria as a ‘society with slaves’.
Babylonia
The documentary sources from Babylonia during the so-called ‘long sixth century’
following the downfall of Assyria in 612 BCE display both similarities and contrasts with
the Assyrian material. As in Assyria, much of our evidence pertains to the elite; but its
quantity and quality are far greater.23 Assyriologists have generally treated the
Babylonian elite in terms of two ideal types, ‘prebendaries’ and ‘entrepreneurs’.
‘Prebendaries’ held benefices in urban temples, entitling them to an income for
performing sacred duties, and typically drew further income from real estate in and
around Babylonia’s major cities.24 ‘Entrepreneurs’ frequently came from less
distinguished backgrounds, but through hard work and innovation some acquired
considerable fortunes and political connections. The most famous example is the Egibi
family, whose income derived from commodity trading, rents on agricultural land and
urban real estate, tax farming, and payments from slaves (Wunsch 2007, 2010).
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
The scale of slave ownership among elite Babylonians is again not vastly different from
the elite of classical Athens. As noted above, a document of 508 BCE (Dar. 379) indicates
that the Egibis owned around 100 slaves. The inheritance of a younger son of the Bābāya
family contained 118 slaves (TCL 13, 223), implying family holdings of at least several
hundred (Jursa 2010: 233), reminiscent of the large urban slaveholdings of Romans like
Pedianus Secundus (Tacitus, Annals 14.42–5). These families were from the very richest
stratum; at a rung below, patrimonies of 30, 27, and 25 slaves are attested (TCL 12, 43;
Cyr. 161; Dar. 429).25 More common among the lower echelons of the propertied classes
were holdings of 3–5 slaves (Dandamaev 1984: 216; Jursa 2010: 233). We have already
noted the problems with discovering the occupations of these slaves, since the
documentation mainly captures legal information (such as that contained in contracts,
accounts, and promissory notes). However, two points need to be noted. First, as Jursa
(2010: 234–235) has observed, the nature of the documentation makes balanced appraisal
of agricultural slavery impossible. Slave owners did not generally make contracts with
slaves ordered to farm their lands, making them largely invisible; whereas there is ample
evidence that families like the Egibis rented out much land to free tenant farmers on a
sharecropping basis. Comparison of slave prices in sixth-century Babylonia with the costs
of renting land shows that the latter made more economic sense.26 Second, the role of
slaves as managers is better attested: from the sixth to the fifth century BCE the range of
activities undertaken by entrepreneurial families broadened, creating more need for
expert managers. This role was apparently often filled by slaves (Jursa 2010: 240); some,
indeed, became fairly wealthy and successful (Dandamaev 1984: 345–371).
On balance, then, like eighth- and seventh-century Assyria, sixth-century Babylonia was
not a ‘slave society’ in the Finleyan sense; but slavery played a major role in elite
economic activities, especially among ‘entrepreneurs’; and their multifarious business
dealings were probably heavily reliant upon the managerial support of slaves, even if
primary agricultural production was largely performed by free tenants. Again, simply
relegating Babylonian slavery to the category of ‘societies with slaves’ leads one to miss
the many similarities between slaving practices in Babylonian cities and those in urban
centres in the Greco-Roman world.
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Persia
Slavery played a more dominant role in elite wealth in several regions of the Persian
Empire. During the late fifth century BCE the Persian satrap of Egypt, Aršama, used
slaves, many of them Cilicians, on his Egyptian estates. In one letter, TAD A6.10, Aršama
excoriates his subordinate for mismanaging his property, and demands that workers—
who must be slaves—be acquired for his estates and branded (or tattooed) with his mark,
as on other Persian noble estates in the satrapy (Tuplin 2013: 77–78). A similar situation
is apparent c.400 BCE in another region, Anatolia, regarding a wealthy Persian named
Asidates. Xenophon relates how he and a band of Greek mercenaries conducted a nightraid on Asidates’s estate in the Caicus valley (Anabasis 7.8.7–22). Most of Asidates’s
slaves escaped; but some 200 were captured, hinting at much larger slaveholdings. This
ties in with the fact that the Greeks acquired many slaves from Anatolia. Asidates, living
closer to the supply source, would have been able to acquire slaves even more cheaply
(de Ste. Croix 1981: 508).
In Fars, the Persian heartland, a different forced labour system existed, attested mainly in
the so-called Persepolis Fortification Texts. These texts, mostly written in Elamite,
document inter alia ration disbursements to an estimated population of c.10–15,000
forced labourers (kurtaš, ‘workers’) at the beginning of the fifth century (Aperghis 2000:
138–139). Their work gangs were drawn from across the empire and included Greeks,
Thracians, Lycians, Egyptians, and Cappadocians. Their scanty rations indicate that they
were not working in Fars voluntarily; and the bonuses paid to pregnant mothers suggests
an incentive system for the long-term reproduction of the workforce (Dandamaev 1975;
Briant 2002: 435). Most of the kurtaš were probably enslaved war captives and their
descendants; but some of the workers may have held a different status, drafted in as
temporary corvée labourers (Dandamaev and Lukonin 1989: 173–174). According to
Diodorus (17.69.2–9), as he approached Persepolis, Alexander the Great met a gang of
800 Greeks, many of them mutilated, whose ancestors had been carried off to Persia. As
Dandamaev noted, ‘it is obvious that these Greeks comprised part of the
kurtaš’ (Dandamaev and Lukonin 1989: 171; cf. Briant 2002: 434).
Carthage
Shortly before Alexander invaded the Persian Empire, a serious slave revolt erupted in
the Phoenician city state of Tyre.27 But it is Tyre’s colony, Carthage, that constitutes our
last case study. Carthage dominated trade in the western Mediterranean for several
centuries before its destruction by Rome in 146 BCE. Although there is some Punic
epigraphical evidence for slavery, the most telling accounts were written by classical
authors (Lemaire 2003: 219–222). They describe large numbers of enslaved war captives
being brought to work in Carthage’s hinterland,28 which was intensively farmed and
irrigated during the Hellenistic period (Diodorus 20.8.2–4). The size of Carthage’s slave
population was proverbial (e.g. Justin 21.4.6); and its scale was noted in a speech in the
Page 11 of 22
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
Roman senate during the debate over Carthage’s surrender in the Second Punic War
(Appian, Punica 9.59). Evidence for elite slaveholdings is lamentably limited to single
source (Polybius 38.8.4). In the year before its destruction, the Roman general Scipio
offered a deal to a Carthaginian aristocrat named Hasdrubal, including allowing him to
keep a hundred of his slaves: evidently a small fraction of his overall slaveholdings (cf.
Polybius 38.8.11). The richest Carthaginians clearly had slaveholdings well in excess of
their classical Athenian counterparts. As Flaig (2009: 56) notes, the evidence for
Carthaginian slavery, though patchy, is sufficient to indicate a major slave society.
Page 12 of 22
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
Understanding regional variation in the
economic role of slavery
I have argued that when one employs a common standard of comparison to elite
exploitation of slaves in different regions of the ancient world and pays close attention to
the differing quantity, quality, and generic attributes of the evidence for different locales,
the socio-economic differences in the exploitation of slave labour between the GrecoRoman world and ‘non-classical’ societies are revealed as far less stark than Finley
asserted. But this revisionist view still presents a far from uniform picture, and this
requires explanation. Why, for instance, was slavery deployed to a far greater extent in
agriculture in Athens in the fifth century BCE, or Carthage (and then Italy) in the second
century BCE, than in Roman Egypt during the first few centuries CE, or Assyria and
Babylonia in the eighth to sixth centuries BCE? Why was slave ownership practised by
many, perhaps most, citizens in classical Attica, whereas in Assyria and Babylonia it was
largely restricted to the propertied elite?
Any answer to this complex problem must currently be provisional; but a number of
shifting variables affecting the overall economic prominence of slavery can be noted.29
One key variable is the real costs of slave labour relative to other forms of labour
available in a region’s labour market. Scheidel (2005, 2008) has shown that the real costs
of slavery in classical Athens were lower relative to wages and subsistence costs than in
Imperial Rome or the nineteenth-century US South; and, conversely, that tenancy and
wage costs were low in Roman Egypt relative to slave prices. A similar comparison
applied to Assyria and Babylonia shows that slaves cost far more in terms of average
wage units than in Athens (Lewis 2018: 228–229, 239). This does not mean that slavery in
Mesopotamia was necessarily unprofitable, but that it was a viable option for a narrower
section of the wealth spectrum, and that in certain sectors of the economy where it was in
competition with wage labour, tenancy, or other forms of labour, its role will have been
rather muted. This, for example, is precisely why sharecropping tenancy was so
important to Babylonian propertied families in the sixth century BCE. That said, these
various forms of labour were not simple, fungible substitutes for one another in the
labour market; for their differing legal, institutional attributes placed them at an
advantage in certain sectors of the economy and at a disadvantage in others (Harper
2011: 149–179). For example, the legal tools possessed by slaveholders in classical
Athens enabled them to compel slaves to work in the Laureion mines in a manner
impossible with free wage labourers. Hired labour, on the other hand, was preferable for
short-term labour needs (Epstein 2008). This institutional dimension adds another layer
of complexity to the issue.
These observations constitute only the first step in explaining regional difference. To
progress further, we must next ask why slaves were relatively cheap in Athens, and
relatively expensive in other locations. This lay partly in the relationship between demand
and supply. It also depended on the nature of the broader labour market, viz. what other
Page 13 of 22
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
options were available to those who were seeking to employ extra-familial labour, and at
what costs. Regarding the slave supply, demand and supply is partly a matter of
demography: i.e. how many potential slave-buyers there were relative to the number of
available enslaveable persons. It is also partly one of political arrangements: some
ancient societies banned the enslavement of their own people, creating what Fynn-Paul
(2009) has called ‘no-slaving zones’, while other ancient societies did not. Classical
Athenians, for example, were banned from enslaving free persons in Athenian territory,
and therefore had to rely on reproduction by existing slaves as well as imports from the
‘slaving zones’ of Thrace and Anatolia. Access to enslaveable persons, then, was
structured by political geography and differing degrees of state formation. We must also
take into account differing cultural traditions regarding what was considered honourable
employment, for this might limit the intrusion of free hired labour into certain
occupations that were considered demeaning. Transport costs add a further layer of
complexity. Slaves required supervision and feeding on their journey from their point of
origin to the end buyer: every day spent travelling meant more food consumed by the
slaves, greater supervision costs, and the potential for their physical deterioration. Travel
by sea lessened the expense, whereas land travel exacerbated it; but routes could be
affected by climatic conditions. We must also note the effect of resale of slaves along the
route, which increased the end buyer’s costs at each iteration, as did tolls on slave sales
by states where resales took place (Lewis 2015).
Let us envisage the operation of these variables in geographical terms: where were
‘slaving zones’ located relative to ‘no-slaving zones’? How developed or underdeveloped
were these regions’ economies? How populous were they, and what routes linked them
together? This static perspective then needs augmenting by the dynamic forces of
historical change, taking into account various shifting processes: the effect of seasonal
changes on maritime and overland traffic; population movements; demographic changes
resulting from war and famine; political changes shaped by exogenous and endogenous
forces such as warfare and civil strife; and growing market integration as Roman control
increased across the Mediterranean world. That is hardly an exhaustive list, but it
conveys some indication of the complexity of the issues, and the fixed and moving parts of
the processes behind the price variants noted above.
It is through considering this complex matrix of shifting variables that we might begin to
understand some aspects of regional variation visible in the evidence for ancient slavery.
Athens, for instance, had two enormous reservoirs of slave labour, Thrace and Anatolia
within easy maritime reach; and market fragmentation in the pre-Roman Mediterranean
limited the competition the Aegean Greeks faced for supplies of Thracian and Anatolian
slaves. Carthage was in a similar position during the early Hellenistic period, with a
hegemonic command of extensive trade networks and ready access to slave-rich
hinterlands in politically undeveloped regions of the western Mediterranean. The
Mesopotamian slave systems of Assyria and Babylonia, in contrast, were mostly
surrounded by politically developed neighbours and geographically separated from the
nearest ‘slaving zones’ by lengthy, inefficient overland routes. There is much work to be
done in refining this approach; and we should not be overly sanguine about how much of
Page 14 of 22
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
the picture will prove explicable, given the highly lacunose and uneven nature of the
evidence. But it provides the basic components for tentative answers as to why slavery’s
economic role differed across the regions of the ancient world. This question can no
longer be tackled within the balkanized fields of Classics and Near Eastern Studies:
progress requires inter-disciplinary collaboration.
Suggested Reading
Everything covered in this chapter is discussed in greater detail and with reference to
extensive bibliography in Lewis 2018. On slave status in the Near East, see Dandamaev
1984: 67–80; Westbrook 1995. On the issue of freedom, see Snell 2001; von Dassow
2011. On Israel, see Levinson 2005 and 2006 on the so-called ‘slave laws’ of the Torah;
on the economy, see Lemaire 2015. On Assyria, see Radner 1997: 219–248; Fales 2001:
170–178; Baker 2016. On Babylonia, see Dandamaev 1984; Ragen 2006; Head 2010;
Kleber 2011; Wunsch and Magdalene 2012 and 2014; and for an overview of the
Babylonian economy, Jursa 2010. On Persia, see Dandamaev 1963 and 1975; on the
kurtaš, see Aperghis 2000; Briant 2002: 422–448. On Carthage, see Mattila Vicente
1977; Lemaire 2003; Ameling 2012. On the drivers of the economic importance of
slavery, see Hahn 1971; Scheidel 2005 and 2008; Harper 2011: 100–200.
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Notes:
(1.) This chapter condenses much of my discussion in a larger study, Lewis 2018. I thank
the editors for their useful suggestions on an earlier draft of this chapter.
(2.) Lenski 2018a. On the ‘slave society’ issue, Vlassopoulos 2016a: 8–11; Lenski and
Cameron 2018; Lewis 2018: ch. 4.
(3.) de Vaux 1961: 80; cf. 167. The ‘slave gang’ model has rarely been accepted for the
Greek world; and it has been disproven for the Roman world: Roth 2005.
(4.) Ollier 1933–1943. For the methodology required to uncover the historical Sparta,
Hodkinson 2015: 11–34.
(5.) Van de Mieroop 1997. On sixth-century Babylonian archives, Jursa 2005.
(6.) Recent work on sixth-century Babylonian economy and society (e.g. Wunsch 2010)
provides a good exemplar.
(7.) Dandamaev 1984: 221–2, 440–3; further discussion in Lewis 2018: ch. 3.
(8.) Phoenicians: Ezek. 27:13; Assyrians: Radner 1997: 227–30; Persians: TAD A6.7, A6.9,
A6.15.
(9.) Antonym not needed: Goody 2006: 58; mastery/kinship: Vlassopoulos 2016a: 10; see
also Lewis 2018: ch. 3.
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
(10.) van der Spek 1990: 249. See also Wunsch and Magdalene 2014; Lewis 2018: ch. 3.
(11.) Vlassopoulos 2016b: 10; Lenski 2018b; Lewis 2018: ch. 3.
(12.) For differing views on this issue, Vlassopoulos 2011; Lewis 2018: ch. 2.
(13.) On freedom in the Near East, Snell 2001; von Dassow 2011; Kuhrt 2014.
(14.) The so-called ‘slave laws’ of the Torah aimed to reserve slave status sensu stricto for
foreigners, and restrict the bondage of Israelites to a limited form of indenture: Lewis
2018: ch. 9.
(15.) For a detailed overview of Assyrian slavery in legal and economic terms, Lewis 2018:
ch. 10, with references to the specialist literature.
(16.) Galil 2007: 50.
(17.) Ahmad and Postgate 2007: xi, with a conspectus of the slave sales in these archives
at p. x.
(18.) For Šulmu-šarri’s archive, Radner 2002: 70–146; for a useful vignette of Šulmu-šarri,
Radner 2017: 220–1.
(19.) Summary in Radner 2002: 71–2.
(20.) Demosthenes 27.9, 37.4; Plato, Republic 9.578d–e; cf. Lysias 12.19.
(21.) Lewis 2018: ch.10. Compare the slave prices in Radner 1997: 230–48 with the wages
discussed in Radner 2015.
(22.) Discussion in Lewis 2018: ch. 10.
(23.) Conspectus of the sources in Jursa 2005.
(24.) Baker 2004. In general see Jursa 2010: 155–65.
(25.) Dandamaev 1984: 215–16.
(26.) On slave prices, Dandamaev 1984: 200–6; Jursa 2010: 745 n. 3780. On the more
economical exploitation of land by tenants, Dandamaev 1984: 270–8 with the notes of
Jursa 2010: 234–5.
(27.) Justin 18.3.1–19, with Elayi 1981.
(28.) Diodorus Siculus 15.38; Appian, Punica 15; Polybius 3.24.4–14; cf. Appian, Punica
1.3; Diodorus 20.13.1.
(29.) What follows summarizes several parts of Lewis 2018: ch. 14.
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Classical and Near Eastern Slavery in the First Millennium BCE
David M. Lewis
David M. Lewis is Assistant Professor of Ancient History at the University of
Nottingham, and works on Greek socio-economic and legal history in its wider
eastern Mediterranean context. He has published a number of articles on these
subjects, and co-edited (with E.M. Harris and M. Woolmer) The Ancient Greek
Economy: Markets, Households and City-States (Cambridge and New York 2015). He
is the author of Greek Slave Systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c.
800-146 BC (Oxford 2018).
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