Slavery in the ancient world, specifically, in Mediterranean cultures, comprised a mixture of debt-slavery, slavery as a punishment for crime, and the enslavement of prisoners of war.
The institution of slavery condemned a majority of slaves to agricultural or industrial labour and they lived hard lives. In some of the city-states of Greece and in the Roman Empire, slaves formed a very large part of the economy, and the Roman Empire built a large part of its wealth on slaves acquired through conquest.
Masters could free slaves, and in many cases such freedmen went on to rise to positions of power. This would include those children born into slavery but who were actually the children of the master of the house. Their father would ensure that his children were not condemned to a life of slavery.
 Slavery in ancient Egypt
Historians can trace slavery in Egypt from an early date. 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 (ca 672 - 525 BCE) and from the reign of Darius: apparently such a contract then required the consent of the slave.
The Old Testament also recounts tales of slavery in Egypt: slave-dealers sold Joseph into bondage there, and the Hebrews suffered collective enslavement (Exodus, chapter 1) prior to the Exodus. However, the historicity of the Biblical account is questioned. It is noteworthy that outside of the Biblical account, no evidence has ever been found indicating the systematic enslavement of Jews.
 Slavery among the Hittites
The Hittite texts discovered by archaeologists since the 19th Century 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.
 Slavery in the Bible
See Sabbatical year, Onesimus, Bible-based advocacy of slavery, in addition to the details of the Book of Exodus.
 Old Testament or Tanakh
Leviticus draws a distinction between Hebrew debt slavery:
- 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.
You could beat a slave within an inch of his or her life and if they died in the first day your punishment was a fine. If they survived one day and died, there was no fine.
- Exo 21:20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
Exo 21:21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.
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.
 Slavery in Greece
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. Alcidamas, for example, said: "God has set everyone free. No one is made a slave by nature." Furthermore, a fragment of a poem of Philemon also shows that he opposed slavery.
Greece in pre-Roman times consisted of many independent city-states, each with its own laws. All of them permitted slavery, but the rules differed greatly from region to region. Greek slaves had some opportunities for emancipation; though all of these came at some cost to their masters. The law protected slaves, and though a slave's master had the right to beat him at will, a number of moral and cultural limitations existed on excessive use of force by masters.
In Ancient Athens, about 30% of the population consisted of slaves. The system in Athens encouraged slaves to save up to purchase their freedom, and records survive of slaves operating businesses by themselves, making only a fixed tax-payment to their masters. Athens also had a law forbidding the striking of slaves ' if a person struck an apparent slave in Athens, that person might find himself hitting a fellow-citizen, because many citizens dressed no better. It startled other Greeks that Athenians tolerated back-chat from slaves (Old Oligarch, Constitution of the Athenians). Pausanias (writing nearly seven centuries after the event) states that Athenian slaves fought together with Athenian freemen in the Battle of Marathon, and the monuments memorialize them. Spartan serfs, Helots, could win freedom through bravery in battle. Plutarch mentions that during the Battle of Salamis Athenians did their best to save their "women, children and slaves".
On the other hand, much of the wealth of Athens came from its silver-mines at Laurion, and slaves, working in extremely poor conditions, produced the greatest part of the silver (although recent excavations seem to suggest the presence of free workers at Laurion). During the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, twenty thousand Athenian slaves, including both mine-workers and artisans, escaped to the Spartans when their army camped at Decelea in 413 BC.
Other than flight, resistance on the part of slaves occurred only rarely. GEM de Ste. Croix gives two reasons:
- slaves came from various regions and spoke various languages
- a slave-holder could rely on the support of fellow slave-holders if his slaves offered resistance.
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.
The comedies of Menander show how the Athenians preferred to view a house-slave: as an enterprising and unscrupulous rascal, who must use his wits to profit from his master, rescue him from his troubles, or gain him the girl of his dreams. We have most of these plays in translations by Plautus and Terence, suggesting that the Romans liked the same genre. And the same sort of tale has not yet become extinct, as the popularity of Jeeves and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum attest.
In some areas of Greece there existed a class of unfree labourers tied to the land and called penestae in Thessaly and helots in Sparta. Penestae and helots did not rate as chattel slaves; one could not freely buy and sell them.
 Slavery in Rome
Estimates for the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire vary. Some estimate that the slave population in the 1st century consisted of approximately 1/3 of the total. At the least, some 25% of the population of Ancient Rome was enslaved. A high proportion of the populations in Italy, present-day Tunisia, southern Spain and western Anatolia consisted of slaves. The overall proportion of slaves may not have reached 20% for the whole Empire of 12-15 million people, but there are few reliable statistics. The best statistic that we have refers to Roman Egypt, in which slaves made up only 7% of the total population. The provinces with more expensive labour (like Roman Italy) absorbed a large number of slaves that came from provinces with low wages.
In the Roman Republic, the law recognized slaves as a social class, and some authors have found in their condition the earliest concept of a proletariat, given that the only property they might own was the gift of reproduction. Slaves lived then within this class with very little hope of a better life; and free men owned and exchanged them just like goods. They had a price as "human instruments"; their life had not, and their patron could freely even kill them.
Most of the gladiators came from the ranks of the slaves. One of them, Spartacus, formed an army of slaves that battled the Roman senatorial forces for several years in the Third Servile War (73 - 71 BCE).
Augustus punished a wealthy Roman, one Vedius Pollio, for feeding clumsy slaves to his eels; and the Empire brought into force and steadily extended laws restricting the power of masters over their slaves and children; however, we cannot know how well the authorities enforced such laws.
Martial's epigrams refer to the extreme cruelty shown to slaves in Roman society. He chides, for example, a man named Rufus for flogging his cook for a minor mistake:
- "You say, Rufus, that your rabbit has not been cooked well,
- and you call for a whip.
- You prefer to cut up your cook,
- rather than your rabbit."
Book III, No. 94
Claudius (ruled 41 - 54 CE) ruled that if a master abandoned an old or sick slave and the slave recovered, the slave became free. Under Nero (ruled 54 - 68 CE), slaves gained the right to complain against their masters in court. Under Antoninus Pius (ruled 138 - 168), a slave could claim his freedom if treated cruelly, and a master who killed his slave without just cause could go on trial for homicide. At the same time, it became more difficult for a person to fall into slavery under Roman law. By the time of Diocletian (ruled 284 - 305), free men could not sell their children ' or even themselves ' into slavery, and creditors could not claim insolvent debtors as slaves.
Freedmen and freedwomen, called liberti, formed a separate class in Roman society at all periods. They had the Phrygian cap as their symbol. These people remained few in numbers, but Rome needed to demonstrate at times the great frank spirit of this "civitas", and so trumpeted the freed slaves as hopeful examples. Freed people suffered some minor legal disabilities that show in fact how otherwise open the society was to them ' they could not hold certain high offices and they could not marry into the senatorial classes. They might grow rich and influential, but free-born Romans still looked down on them as vulgar nouveaux riches, like Trimalchio. Their children had no prohibitions.
The Latin poet Horace, the son of a freedman, served as a military officer in the army of Marcus Junius Brutus and seemed headed for a political career before the defeat of Brutus by Octavian and Mark Antony. Though Horace may count as an exceptional case, freedmen did become an important part of Roman administration. Freedmen of the Imperial families often provided the main functionaries in the Imperial administration. Some rose to positions of great power and influence, for example Narcissus, a freedman of the Emperor Claudius.
Many historians credit this improvement to the influence of Stoicism and of Christianity. The Stoics regarded all men as manifestations of the same universal spirit, and thus by nature equal. At the same time, however, Stoicism held that external circumstances (such as being enslaved) did not truly impede a person from practicing the Stoic ideal of inner self-mastery: one of the more important Roman stoics, Epictetus, spent his youth as a slave.
Both the Stoics and the early Christians opposed the ill-treatment of slaves, rather than slavery itself, and Saint Paul's Epistle to Philemon directly addressed a Christian master's treatment of his Christian slave. While just and fair treatment of slaves was enjoined upon slave masters in the New Testament, and which forbade threatening (as masters also had a Master in Heaven), and slaves were advised to lawfully obtain freedom if possible (Ephesians 6:5'9; Colossians 4:1); 1Corinthians 7:21), Keith R. Bradley argues, indeed, that the influence of such texts as "obey your masters...with fear and trembling" may have made beatings more common in late Antiquity. Many Christian leaders (such as Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom) often called for good treatment for slaves and condemned slavery. In fact, tradition describes Pope Clement I (term c. 92 - 99), Pope Pius I (term c. 158 - 167) and Pope Callixtus I (term c. 217 - 222) as former slaves.
Saint Acacius of Amida gained his fame and eventual canonization by having taken the initiative to ransom several thousand Persian prisoners, captured in recent war, held under appalling conditions and but for his kindness destined to a life of slavery.
A type of slave marriage called 'contubernium,' was permitted, but it had no legal power, and could only exist as long as permitted by the slave owner. The children of the union of slaves would become slaves instantly and belong to the same master, and were called 'vernae'. As these had known no other estate but that of slavery, owners tended to believe that these were the more easily managed.
 See also
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press.