Sumeria 2100 BCE; Slavery Is Not A White Mans Thing nor is it Just an American who used Slaves

Slavery Is Not A White Mans Thing nor is it Just an American who used Slaves: the colour of your skin had nothing to do with slavery it had to do with what power and force an ethnic group could muster to seize captives who then became slaves. If a nation was conquered in war all its citizens became the property of the victors and went into servitude to their captors. This practice goes right back to Ancient Mesopotamia & Sumerian kings; and these people were not white skinned; white privileged people.

The account of Moses (c. 1340 BCE) and the children of Israel is about a people who came to Egypt (The Patriarch Jacob) seeking refuge from a great famine. Jacob (Israel) were welcomed and his household, settled in Egypt and withing 400 years his household had grown to a Nation of Israelis the King Ruling at that time was induced to fear the possible reality that the Israelis would shortly grow in such numbers that the Egyptians would become the minority and the loss of power could eventuate to the Israelis, the King acted forced the Israelis into forced servitude and treated them harshly; to oppress and disempower this rising threat.


The Sumerian king Code of Ur-Nammu includes laws relating to slaves, written circa 2100 – 2050 BCE; it is the oldest known tablet containing a law code surviving today.

One mina ( 1/60 of a talent ) was made equal to 60 shekels ( 1 shekel = 11 grams ) . Among the surviving laws are these:

4. If a slave marries a slave, and that slave is set free, he does not leave the household.
5. If a slave marries a native (i.e. free) person, he/she is to hand the firstborn son over to his owner.

8. If a man proceeded by force, and deflowered the virgin female slave of another man, that man must pay five shekels of silver. (5)
17. If a slave escapes from the city limits, and someone returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who returned him. (14)

24. […] If he does not have a slave, he is to pay 10 shekels of silver. If he does not have silver, he is to give another thing that belongs to him. (21)
25. If a man’s slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with 1 quart of salt. (22)

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The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi[1]The Code of Hammurabi was one of the earliest and most complete written legal codes and was proclaimed by the Babylonian king Hammurabi, who reigned from 1792 to 1750 B.C. Hammurabi expanded the … Continue reading, dating to c. 1700 BCE, also makes distinctions between the freeborn, freed and slave.

Hittite texts from Anatolia include laws regulating the institution of slavery[2]SEE URL:

Of particular interest is a law stipulating that reward for the capture of an escaped slave would be higher if the slave had already succeeded in crossing the Halys River and getting farther away from the center of Hittite civilization[3]SEE URL: — from which it can be concluded that at least some of the slaves kept by the Hittites possessed a realistic chance of escaping and regaining their freedom, possibly by finding refuge with other kingdoms or ethnic groups.

In ancient Sumer, kings would send bands of men out to plunder neighbouring city-states in the hill country in order to acquire slaves (Moorey). In order to justify the acquisition of slaves, these kings would claim that their gods had given them victory over an inferior people.

Slavery was a huge part of civilization and how the ancient near east lived (Moorey). They depended on slaves to build their empires. Deportees were chosen for their abilities and were sent away where they could make the most of their talents.

Not everyone in the conquered population was chosen for deportation and families were surely separated. The supply of war captives and native born slaves at times were not sufficient enough to satisfy the demand for help in agriculture, industry, and in the households of the wealthy.

Therefore, the need for importing slaves from the neighbouring countries was vital to the growth of powerful city-states. Importing and exporting slaves played an important role in the country’s economy, this could be a large portion of ones income and slaves were surely not cheap.

Slaves were imported and exported by private merchants who dealt in various commodities. Strictly speaking, there were no slave merchants in the Ancient Near East or a single person just buying and selling slaves.  

The demand for slaves was not large enough to call for specialization in this field of commercial activity (King). Prisoners of war, foreign slaves, and their descendants made up a huge part of the slave population in Mesopotamia (King).

The bulk of the Sumerian and Akkadian slaves originally came from the ranks of the native population, which is the case for every city-states at some point in time. The slaves came from citizens who were defaulting debtors, unemployed men and women who sold themselves voluntarily into slavery, and minors who were either sold by their parents or who were forced into a position in which only slavery could save their lives (King).  

Merchants who dealt in wheat, cattle, real estate, and so on would also deal in buying and selling slaves as an extra source of income (King).

As we follow evidence through history, we see that slavery was a huge advantage for any new empire to become a success and thrive. Evidence has shown us that this was a way life for nearly every country in existence.

Slaves were needed for labour whether it be for farmers or building walls to the empire. Slaves were therefore very important to their success.

Above is the Standard of Ur. On the top panel, prisoners are being brought before the king .

On the right side, the prisoners are naked and bleeding from their wounds.

King Ur-Pabilsag stands in the center of the panel, reviewing the prisoners.

Behind the king are three soldiers, each armed with spears and axes.

In the rear is the royal chariot, held by the axe-armed driver.

The elite warriors and charioteers all seem to be dressed in some type of animal skin or fringed leather kilts and wear cloaks over one shoulder.

The common soldiers wear the polka-dotted capes, most likely meant to represent metal studs to make the cloak stronger and more protective in battle. Both classes have the same caps and or helmets.


King, Leonard William. A History of Sumer and Akkad: An Account of the Early Races of Babylonia from Prehistoric Times to the Foundation of the Babylonian Monarchy. Vol. 1. Chatto & Windus, 1923.
Moorey, Peter Roger Stuart. “The emergence of the light, horse‐drawn chariot in the Near‐East c. 2000–1500 BC.” World Archaeology 18.2 (1986): 196-215.


Original Source: Ancient Mesopotamian Warfare Slavery


Slave market, with Nubian slaves waiting to be sold

In Ancient Egypt, slaves were mainly obtained through prisoners of war. Other ways people could become slaves was by inheriting the status from their parents.

One could also become a slave on account of his inability to pay his debts. Slavery was the direct result of poverty.

People also sold themselves into slavery because they were poor peasants and needed food and shelter.

The lives of slaves were normally better than that of peasants. Slaves only attempted escape when their treatment was unusually harsh.

For many, being a slave in Egypt made them better off than a freeman elsewhere. Young slaves could not be put to hard work and had to be brought up by the mistress of the household. Not all slaves went to houses.

Some also sold themselves to temples or were assigned to temples by the king. Slave trading was not very popular until later in Ancient Egypt.

Afterwards, slave trades sprang up all over Egypt. However, there was barely any worldwide trade. Rather, the individual dealers seem to have approached their customers personally.

Only slaves with special traits were traded worldwide. Prices of slaves changed with time.

Slaves with a special skill were more valuable than those without one.

Slaves had plenty of jobs that they could be assigned to. Some had domestic jobs, like taking care of children, cooking, brewing, or cleaning. Some were gardeners or field hands in stables.

They could be craftsmen or even get a higher status.

For example, if they could write, they could become a manager of the master’s estate.

Captive slaves were mostly assigned to the temples or a king, and they had to do manual labour. The worst thing that could happen to a slave was being assigned to the quarries and mines.

Private ownership of slaves, captured in war and given by the king to their captor, certainly occurred at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty Sales of slaves occurred in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, and contracts of servitude survive from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty and from the reign of Darius: apparently such a contract then required the consent of the slave.


Slaves working in a mine of Laurium

Slavery was an accepted practice in ancient Greece, as in other societies of the time. Acquired through war and conquest, kidnap and purchase, slaves (douloi) were simply amongst life’s losers. Some Ancient Greek writers (including, most notably, Aristotle[4]SLAVES SEE: paragraph 1 SEE URL which propounded the belief that slaves were demonstrably inferior, a product of their environment and inherited characteristics. Greeks persuaded themselves that it was they who had the best environment and characteristics and the purest bloodline and were, therefore, born to rule.

This paradigm was notably questioned in Socratic dialogues; the Stoics produced the first recorded condemnation of slavery. 

The principal use of slaves was in agriculture, but they were also used in stone quarries or mines, and as domestic servants.

Estimates of the slave population in the Greek world range from between 15 and 40% of the total population[5]SLAVES SEE: paragraph 2 SEE URL Athens had the largest slave population, with as many as 80,000 in the 5th and 6th centuries BC, with an average of three or four slaves per household, except in poor families. A defence speech[6]SLAVES SEE: paragraph 2 SEE URL made in a court case in Athens by Lysias, and hints from others such as Demosthenes, strongly suggest that if every citizen did not have slaves then they certainly desired them and to be a slave owner was considered a measure of social status. Slaves were not only owned by private individuals but also by the state, which used them in municipal projects such as mining or, as in the case of Athens, the police force.Slaves were legally prohibited from participating in politics, which was reserved for citizens.

The relationship between slaves and owners seems to have been much as in any other period of history with a mix of contempt, distrust, and abuse from the owners and contempt, theft, and sabotage from the enslaved. Source material is always from the viewpoint of the slave owner but there are references in literature, particularly in Greek comedy, of friendship and loyalty in at least some owner-slave relationships. Whilst the flogging of slaves is commonly referred to in Greek plays, there were also treatises written extolling the benefits of kindness and incentives in slave management.[7]SLAVES SEE: paragraph 3 SEE URL

Slaves worked in all spheres and over 200 hundred occupations have been identified. These include working in the home, in agriculture, industry workshops (e.g.: making shields, food, clothes and perfumes), mines, transport, retail, banking, entertainment, in the armed forces as attendants to their owner or as baggage carriers, as rowers in naval vessels or even as fighters. Farms were generally small affairs with even the richest citizens tending to own several small farms rather than one large estate, therefore, slaves were not concentrated into large groups as in later ancient societies[8]SLAVES SEE: paragraph 4 SEE URL

For slaves there was, at least for some, a glimmer of hope to one day achieve their freedom. There are instances when slaves, particularly those involved in manufacturing and industry, living separately from their owners and given a certain financial independence, could pay for their freedom with money they had saved. Also, slaves in the army were sometimes given their freedom by the state following their victorious exploits.[9]SLAVES SEE: paragraph 5 SEE URL

Modern historiographical practice distinguishes between chattel slavery (personal possession, where the slave was regarded as a piece of property as opposed to a mobile member of society) versus land-bonded groups such as the penestae of Thessaly or the Spartan helots, who were more like medieval serfs (an enhancement to real estate). The chattel slave is an individual deprived of liberty and forced to submit to an owner, who may buy, sell, or lease them like any other chattel.

The academic study of slavery in ancient Greece is beset by significant methodological problems. Documentation is disjointed and very fragmented, focusing primarily on the city-state of Athens. No treatises are specifically devoted to the subject, and jurisprudence was interested in slavery only as much as it provided a source of revenue. Greek comedies and tragedies represented stereotypes, while iconography made no substantial differentiation between slaves and craftsmen.

Athens had various categories of slave, such as:

■ House-slaves, living in their master’s home and working at home, on the land or in a shop.

■ Freelance slaves, who didn’t live with their master but worked in their master’s shop or fields and paid him taxes from money they got from their own properties (insofar as society allowed slaves to own property).

■ Public slaves, who worked as police-officers, ushers, secretaries, street-sweepers, etc.

■ War-captives (andrapoda) who served primarily in unskilled tasks at which they could be chained: for example, rowers in commercial ships, or miners.


Rome differed from Greek city-states in allowing freed slaves to become Roman citizens. After manumission, a slave who had belonged to a citizen enjoyed not only passive freedom from ownership, but active political freedom (libertas), including the right to vote, though he could not run for public office.

During the Republic, Roman military expansion was a major source of slaves. Besides manual labour, slaves performed many domestic services, and might be employed at highly skilled jobs and professions.

Teachers, accountants, and physicians were often slaves. Greek slaves in particular might be highly educated. Unskilled slaves, or those condemned to slavery as punishment, worked on farms, in mines, and at mills.


Slavery in the Roman World[10]by Mark Cartwright published on 01 November 2013 SEE URL:

Slavery was an ever-present feature of the Roman world. Slaves served in households, agriculture, mines, the military, manufacturing workshops, construction and a wide range of services within the city. As many as 1 in 3 of the population in Italy or 1 in 5 across the empire were slaves and upon this foundation of forced labour was built the entire edifice of the Roman state and society.

Slavery as An Accepted Reality

Slavery, that is complete mastery (dominium) of one individual over another, was so imbedded in Roman culture that slaves became almost invisible and there was certainly no feeling of injustice in this situation on the part of the rulers. Inequality in power, freedom and the control of resources was an accepted part of life and went right back to the mythology of Jupiter overthrowing Saturn. As K.Bradley eloquently puts it, ‘freedom…was not a general right but a select privilege’ (Potter, 627). Further, it was believed that the freedom of some was only possible because others were enslaved. Slavery, was, therefore, not considered an evil but a necessity by Roman citizens. The fact that slaves were taken from the losers in battle (and their subsequent offspring) was also a helpful justification and confirmation of Rome‘s (perceived) cultural superiority and divine right to rule over others and exploit those persons for absolutely any purpose whatsoever.

Aside from the huge numbers of slaves taken as war captives (e.g. 75,000 from the First Punic War alone) slaves were also acquired via piracytrade, brigandage and, of course, as the offspring of slaves as a child born to a slave mother (vernae) automatically became a slave irrespective of who the father was. Slave markets proliferated, perhaps one of the most notorious being the market on Delos, which was continuously supplied by the Cilician pirates. Slave markets existed in most large towns, though, and here, in a public square, slaves were paraded with signs around their necks advertising their virtues for prospective buyers. Traders specialised in the commodity, for example, one A. Kapreilius Timotheus traded throughout the Mediterranean.

Map of the Roman Empire in 125 CE:

A map of the Roman Empire and Europe in 125 CE, at the time of Roman emperor Hadrian.

“Barbarian” names and locations are given as found in the works of Tacitus (written c. 100 CE).

The Status of Slaves

The number and proportion of slaves in society varied over time and place, for example, in Augustan Italy the figure was as high as 30% whilst in Roman Egypt slaves made up only 10% of the total population. Although slave ownership was wider than in the Greek world, it remained a prerogative of the reasonably well-off. A more modest Roman business owner, artisan or military veteran might own one or two slaves whilst for the very wealthy, the number of slaves owned could run into the hundreds. For example, in the 1st century CE, the prefect L. Pedanius Secundus had 400 slaves merely for his private residence.

Slaves were the lowest class of society and even freed criminals had more rights. Slaves had no rights at all in fact and certainly no legal status or individuality. They could not create relations or families, nor could they own property. To all intents and purposes they were merely the property of a particular owner, just like any other piece of property – a building, a chair or a vase – the only difference was that they could speak. The only time there was anywhere near equality for all persons in Roman society was during the Saturnalia festival when, for a few days only, slaves were given some freedoms usually denied them.

Slaves were, for many of the Roman elite, a status symbol and, therefore, the more (and the more exotic) one had, the better, so that wealthy Romans very often appeared in public accompanied by an entourage of as many as 15 slaves.

The Roles of Slaves

Slave labour was used in all areas of Roman life except public office. In addition, slaves were often mixed with free labour as employers used whatever human resources were available and necessary to get a job done. If one could not find enough slaves or skills were needed which only paid labour could provide, then labourers and slaves would work together. In the agricultural sector such a mix of labour was particularly common as the work was seasonal so that at harvest time paid labour was brought in to supplement the slave staff because to maintain such an extended work force year-round was not economically viable.


Slaves, then, were employed by private individuals or the state and used in agriculture (especially the grain, vine and olive sectors), in mines (especially for gold and silver), manufacturing industries, transportation, education (where they brought their specialist knowledge of such topics as philosophy and medicine to the Roman world), the military (principally as baggage porters and camp assistants), the service industries (from food to accounting), in the private home, in the construction industry, on road-building projects, in public baths, and even to perform tasks in certain cult rituals.

The lot of agricultural slaves (vincti) was probably one of the worst as they were usually housed in barrack buildings (ergastula) in poor, prison-like conditions and often kept in chains. Pompeii has revealed such work gangs chained together in death as they were in life. Other skeletal remains from Pompeii have also revealed the chronic arthritis and distortion of limbs that could only have been produced by extreme overwork and malnutrition.

Winning Freedom

There was, at least for a small minority, the possibility of a slave achieving freedom to become a freedman or woman, and this incentive was fully exploited by slave owners. That manumission occurred is attested by the many ancient references, both in literature and art, to the presence of freed slaves. Freedom could be granted by the owner but in most cases was actually bought by the slaves themselves, allowing the owner to replenish his workforce. Freedom could be absolute or might be limited and include certain obligations to the former owner such as inheritance rights or the payment of a portion (statuliber) of their earned assets (peculium). The freed slave often took the first two names of their former master, illustrative that manumission was rare, as the family name held great importance in Roman society so that only the most trusted individual would be allowed to ‘wear’ it.

Children of a freed woman would not have any limits on their rights (although social status might be affected in terms of reputation). Also, former slaves could become citizens (especially from the Augustan period) and even become slave owners themselves. One famous example was the freedman C. Caecilius Isidorus who would eventually own over 4,000 slaves. This prize of freedom and integration back into society was also used by owners and authority to convince slaves of the benefits of working hard and obediently.

Slave Rebellions

There is some evidence that slaves were better treated in the Imperial period as fewer wars resulted in slaves being in less ready supply and, therefore, they increased in value and it was recognised that harsh treatment was counter-productive so that there were even laws which provided against excessively cruel owners. However, in practical terms, one can imagine, that owners were at liberty to treat their property as they thought best and the only real constraint was the desire to maintain the value of the asset and not provoke a drastic and collective reaction from those enslaved. Indeed, treatises were written advising the best methods of management regarding slaves – what food and clothing was best, which were the most efficient methods of motivation (e.g. giving time off or better food rations), and how to create divisions amongst slaves so that they did not form dangerous protest groups.

Sometimes, however, these careful plans and strategies proved ineffective and slaves could turn against their owners. Undoubtedly, the most famous examples of such uprisings were those led by Eunus in Sicily in 135 BCE and Spartacus in southern Italy in 73 BCE but slaves could protest against their lot in life in much more subtle ways such as working more slowly, stealing, truancy, and sabotage. We have no records from the viewpoint of slaves themselves but it is not difficult to imagine that, faced with the personal risks to oneself and the relations one might have developed, there was not much a slave could do to change their lot other than hope that one day freedom could be legitimately won.

The case of Spartacus, then, was an unusual but spectacular one. It was not an attempt to overthrow the entire system of slavery but rather the actions of a disaffected group willing to take the risk to fight for their own freedom. Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who had served in the Roman army and he became the leader of a slave rebellion beginning at the gladiator school of Capua. Supplementing their numbers with slaves from the surrounding countryside (and even some free labourers) an army was assembled which numbered between 70,000 and 120,000. Amazingly, the slave army successively defeated two Roman armies in 73 BCE. Then in 72 BCE Spartacus defeated both consuls and fought his way to Cisalpine Gaul. It may have been Spartacus’ intention to disperse at this point but with his commanders preferring to continue to ravage Italy, he once more moved south. More victories followed but, let down by pirates who had promised him transportation to Sicily, the rebellion was finally crushed by Marcus Licinius Crassus at Lucania in 71 BCE. Spartacus fell in the battle and the survivors, 6000 of them, were crucified in a forceful message to all Roman slaves that any chance of winning freedom through violence was futile.


The entire Roman state and cultural apparatus was, then, built on the exploitation of one part of the population to provide for the other part. Regarded as no more than a commodity, any good treatment a slave received was largely only to preserve their value as a worker and as an asset in the case of future sale. No doubt, some slave owners were more generous than others and there was, in a few cases, the possibility of earning one’s freedom but the harsh day-to-day reality of the vast majority of Roman slaves was certainly an unenviable one.

Original Source: Date-stamped: 2013 NOV 01 | Author: Mark Cartwright | Article Title: Slavery in the Roman World | Article Link:



In remarkable contrast to the other major ancient cultures of the region, the Achaemenid Persians, during the time of Cyrus the Great, formally banned most slavery of non-combatants within the empire. Indeed, Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Persians, was built with paid labour.

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1 The Code of Hammurabi was one of the earliest and most complete written legal codes and was proclaimed by the Babylonian king Hammurabi, who reigned from 1792 to 1750 B.C. Hammurabi expanded the city-state of Babylon along the Euphrates River to unite all of southern Mesopotamia SEE URL:
4 SLAVES SEE: paragraph 1 SEE URL
5, 6 SLAVES SEE: paragraph 2 SEE URL
7 SLAVES SEE: paragraph 3 SEE URL
8 SLAVES SEE: paragraph 4 SEE URL
9 SLAVES SEE: paragraph 5 SEE URL
10 by Mark Cartwright published on 01 November 2013 SEE URL:
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