Ancient Near East
The Sumerian 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. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, 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. 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 — 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.
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. Slaves had rights to protect them. 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, 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 king, and they had to do manual labor. 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 (1550–1295 BCE). Sales of slaves occurred in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (732–656 BCE), and contracts of servitude survive from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty (c. 672 – 525 BCE) and from the reign of Darius: apparently such a contract then required the consent of the slave.
In the Bible
Old Testament or Tanakh
- 25:39 If your brother becomes impoverished with regard to you so that he sells himself to you, you must not subject him to slave service.
- 25:40 He must be with you as a hired worker, as a resident foreigner; he must serve with you until the year of jubilee,
- 25:41 but then he may go free, he and his children with him, and may return to his family and to the property of his ancestors.
- 25:42 Since they are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt, they must not be sold in a slave sale.
- 25:43 You must not rule over him harshly, but you must fear your God.
and “bondslaves”, foreigners:
- 25:44 As for your male and female slaves who may belong to you, you may buy male and female slaves from the nations all around you.
- 25:45 Also you may buy slaves from the children of the foreigners who reside with you, and from their families that are with you, whom they have fathered in your land, they may become your property.
- 25:46 You may give them as inheritance to your children after you to possess as property. You may enslave them perpetually. However, as for your brothers the Israelites, no man may rule over his brother harshly.
As evident from the above, the Old Testament accepts the institution of slavery as such, but seeks to regulate it and ameliorate the slaves’ conditions. Transmitted throughout Western culture via Christianity (and given a slightly more anti-slavery spin in the new testament), this ambiguous message could (and did) inspire both advocates of slavery and abolitionists.[original research?]
The study of slavery in Ancient Greece remains a complex subject, in part because of the many different levels of servility, from traditional chattel slave through various forms of serfdom, such as Helots, Penestai, and several other classes of non-citizen.
Most philosophers of classical antiquity defended slavery as a natural and necessary institution Aristotle believed that the practice of any manual or banausic job should disqualify the practitioner from citizenship. Quoting Euripides, Aristotle declared all non-Greeks slaves by birth, fit for nothing but obedience.
By the late 4th century BCE passages start to appear from other Greeks, especially in Athens, which opposed slavery and suggested that every person living in a city-state had the right to freedom subject to no one, except only to laws decided using majoritarianism.