Early History of Slavery


The earliest evidence of slavery is from the Neolithic Revolution period, around 11,000 years ago. As societies transitioned from hunting-gathering to farming and settling, the need for labour to cultivate the land and tend to animals led to the first known instances of slavery. As far as we know, this early practice was not based on racial discrimination but on social status and warfare – war captives were the primary source of slaves.


Slavery was present in many cultures long before the Atlantic slave trade.

Slavery in Ancient Civilizations

Slavery was present in many ancient civilizations, with the framework and customs varying significantly across different cultures and periods. We do know that slavery played a crucial role in the economy and society of many early civilizations, including Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome.

Across all these civilizations, the common themes in slavery include the use of slaves as laborers, the hereditary nature of slavery in many cases, and the acquisition of slaves through war, trade, or as a form of legal penalty. However, the specific roles and treatment of slaves varied greatly. For example, in some societies, slaves could own property, marry, and even earn their freedom, while in others, they were treated as chattel with almost no rights.

In many ancient civilizations, slavery was an accepted and integral part of society that contributed to the economic and social structures of the times. Its manifestations were as varied as the cultures that practiced it, reflecting the complexities and ethical norms of ancient societies.

Ancient Egypt

Slaves filled important social and economic roles in Ancient Egypt (circa 4300 – 332 BC). They were primarily used as domestic servants, agricultural labourers, and workers in the construction of monumental structures such as pyramids and temples. In general, slaves in Ancient Egypt were permitted to own property and there was no ban against them marrying a free citizen. Well-educated slaves sometimes held “white collar jobs” such as being a scribe, a secretary, or a manager.

Many slaves in Egypt were prisoners of war or were brought from foreign lands. However, slavery was not the dominant labor force in Egypt; much of the workforce consisted of peasants who worked on their own land or on the land of the pharaoh or nobility.

Slaves in Ancient Egypt were divided into three classes:

  • Chattel slaves, which were seen as commodities.
  • Corvée laborers, who were forced to labor for the state for a specific amount of time.
  • Bonded slaves, who had went into slavery to pay a debt or to simply get access to food and shelter.

In the 8th century BC, debt slavery was outlawed in Egypt, but other forms of slavery remained legal.

The earliest written evidence for slavery in Egypt that we know of is from the Old Kingdom (circa 2675 – 2130 BC). During this period, a majority of the slaves were either war captives or corvée laborers. During the Middle Kingdom (circa 1980 – 1630 BC), the societal structure became more strict when it came to differentiating between slaves who were war captives and all other slaves. During the New Kingdom (circa 1550 – 1069 BC) the number of war captive slaves increased in Egypt, since there were more wars going on. This was also a period where more opportunities opened up for slaves in Egypt to earn back their freedom.


Slavery existed in the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, including the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires. Slaves in Mesopotamia were used for a variety of purposes, including labor in the fields, workshops, and as household servants. The Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world, includes laws pertaining to slaves, demonstrating the legal recognition of slavery.

Ancient Greece

Slavery in Ancient Greece varied from one city-state to another. In Sparta, for instance, a class of people known as Helots lived in a state of servitude that was hereditary. They were primarily agricultural laborers for the Spartan citizens. In Athens, slaves were both publicly and privately owned, performing tasks ranging from domestic chores to more skilled labor in crafts. Slavery was integral to the economy and social structure in Athens, and slaves could be found in all areas of life.

In 594 BC, the work of the statesman Solon resulted in debt slavery becoming outlawed in Athens, but other forms of slavery remained.

Ancient Rome

In Rome, slavery was deeply embedded in the fabric of society and the economy. Slaves in Rome could be found in households, fields, mines, and even in administrative offices. They were often prisoners of war, victims of piracy, or the descendants of slaves. The Roman economy relied heavily on the labor of slaves, particularly in agriculture and mining. Over time, the treatment of slaves and their legal rights evolved, and during the late Roman Empire, laws were passed that improved their conditions slightly.

Ancient China

In ancient China, slavery existed at least from the Shang dynasty (around 1600 – 1046 BC).

During the Shang dynasty and the following Zhou dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC), slaves were usually war captives, criminals, or debtors, and they were used in agricultural labor and military service. Another class of slaves were those who deliberately agreed to become slaves in order to escape taxation. They were considered to be of a higher status than other slaves. There were also peasants who were not considered slaves but were living in conditions of perpetual servitude and were not permitted to leave the land they worked. From the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) to the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), slavery expanded in China. The Qin rulers relied on large numbers of slaves for public endeavours such as creating roads and canals and land reclamation.