Slavery in ancient Egypt: The enslavement, the slave trade, the price of a slave, the slave population, the treatment of slaves, runaways, the setting free, the status of women and foreigners.
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There is some controversy whether there was slavery at all in ancient Egypt. The differences of opinion stem mostly from how slavery is defined . Theory and practice of Egyptian slavery were, as far as we can ascertain, quite different from those of Greece, Rome or the southern states of the USA, where slaves were wholly at the mercy of their owners with little protection from society, and more in line with the kind of slavery practiced in the rest of Africa .
Hem (Hm), generally translated as 'slave' and originally meaning body, was seemingly a person with lessened rights dedicated to a certain task such as the service of a god (since the 1st dynasty) or the royal administration. The hemu (pl. of hem) are mentioned in the context of private persons only since the end of the Old Kingdom .
There were presented to him the things of his father, the judge and scribe Anubisemonekh; there was no grain or anything of the house, [but] there were people and small cattle.
Were these people just tenants, free to move away if they wanted to, or - as the context seems to suggest - more like part of the estate, perhaps with a social position similar to that of a medieval serf? Such inscriptions, tying together land and labourer, occur frequently throughout Egyptian history .
Some Egyptians were sold into slavery because of debts or sold themselves to escape poverty. As indentured slaves they did not lose all their civil rights; and sometimes the economic security they gained through their new status might seem to be worth giving up some freedoms for.
A woman paid a temple to be accepted as a servant :
The female servant ... has said before my master, Saknebtynis, the great god,
But whether this kind of voluntary servitude was anything like the bondage imposed on a destitute debtor cannot be answered.War
While there had been slaves in Egypt since the beginning of its history, their numbers greatly increased during the New Kingdom, when the pharaohs were committed to a policy of foreign involvement and conquests in Nubia, Canaan and Syria brought in many prisoners of war, seqer-ankh, who were enslaved, at times branded with the sign ki
I gave to them captains of archers, and chief men of the tribes, branded and made into slaves, impressed with my name; their wives and their children were made likewise.and often given to deserving servants of the crown:
Then Avaris was despoiled, and I brought spoil from there: one man, three women; total, four persons. His majesty gave them to me as slaves. Then Sharuhen was besieged for three years. His majesty despoiled it and I brought spoil from it: two women and a hand.
During the campaigns of Thutmose III prisoners of war were taken and slaves were part of the tribute paid by the defeated.
The number of spoil taken in them ..... of vile Naharina who were as defenders among them, with their horses, 691 prisoners, 29 hands [of slain], 48 mares ... in that year 295 male and female slaves, 68 horses, 3 gold dishes, 3 silver dishes, ..........In the 41st (?) year of Thutmose's reign he received from the Hittites among other things eight male and female black slaves, calling it tribute. The Hittites must have thought of them as presents, probably quite valuable ones, as black persons were a rarity among them.
Defeated nations like the Nubians which lost their independence and were administered by the Egyptians, paid taxes which often included slaves. Their number was not as great for Lower Nubia as it was for Kush which produced less gold than its northern neighbour.
The successful defence against the Sea Peoples resulted in large numbers of slaves as well, when whole wandering peoples were defeated and captured. The following, somewhat generalizing and possibly exaggerated report describes the exploits of Ramses III
... I laid low the Meshwesh, the Libyans, the Esbet, the Keykesh, the Shai, the Hes and the Beken.
The least fortunate captives were sent to work as slaves in the dreadful gold and copper mines of Nubia and Sinai, where, according to the Greeks, water was rationed and men died in great numbers from exhaustion and dehydration in the desert heat. On the other hand not all the prisoners were enslaved: some were absorbed into the army, where Sherden for instance constituted a large part of the bodyguard of Ramses II.Many slaves laboured on the estates of the pharaohs, the nobility and the priests. Seti I announced on the Wadi Halfa stela how he had endowed Min-Amen's temple at Buhen, so that his storehouse was filled with male and female slaves from the captivity of his majesty, L.P.H. Ramses III is said to have given 113,000 to the temples during the course of his reign.
The slaves who found themselves serving the royal family  or the nobility were generally the lucky ones. Their life was often less hard than that of the native peasants. The children of a few of these slaves, foreigners or Egyptians, who had exceptional ability, made themselves indispensable to their masters and rose to high positions in the bureaucracy or married into their former owners' families after being set free.
By birthIn the Roman empire the offspring of slaves inherited their parents' status . At times, similar circumstances seem to have ruled the destinies of Egyptian slaves . On a stela Sheshonq lists his endowments of supplies, land, gardens and people and states their value:
[...] Nesitetat, triumphant , whose mother is Tedimut, the female slave, daughter of Nebethapi; her mother, Ero ....ekh; [the female slave], [Tepiramenef], daughter of Paynehsi, triumphant; ......... for each one; 5 2/3 kidet of silver being the price of the man; amounting to 3 2/3 deben.Children of dependants were passed on together with their parents:
I bequeath to the Citizeness Ineksenedjem, the woman who is in my house, all that I have acquired with her, namely, two male servants and two female servants, total 4, and their children.
CaptureThere were apparently times when order was barely enforced and people, above all women, were abducted and enslaved. In a letter from the late New Kingdom the owner of such kidnap victims complained to the trader from whom he had purchased them, that the woman's family had come to claim her and he demanded compensation . Similar incidents happened during the Roman periods, when policing was in the hands of the Roman army instead of the professional policeforce which had come into existence in the second millennium BCE .
Strangers were in even greater danger. According to the apocryphal story in the Bible Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and taken abroad by the merchants 
26 And Judah said unto his brethren: What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?Similar occurrences took place all over the ancient world: Travellers were easily and often illegally captured in foreign lands where nobody knew them, and sold into slavery; and there was often no one they could appeal to for help. 30]. During pharaonic times no slave markets seem to have existed. But even if slavery was never as pervading in Egypt as it was to be in other ancient societies, such as the Greek or Roman, it appears that slaves were traded widely from the New Kingdom onwards.
Slaves were sold all over the Middle East, and Egypt was an, albeit rather insignificant, partner in these exchanges. Slaves were traded internationally when they had special qualities, rare skills of the kind Amenhotep III was looking for, when he wanted to buy beautiful concubines, i.e. weavers, or perhaps exotic looks such as those of some dark-skinned Nubians who were sent to Hatti as a gift.
Sometimes slaves were tattooed to mark their status. When Meshullam wanted to free his slave Tapmut and her daughter he described her as
...the woman Tapmut (as she is called), his slave, who has on her right hand the marking "Of Meshullam"...Slaves were apparently also brought to Egypt by foreigners, who used them to pay services with. In the grave of the New Kingdom physician Nebamen there is the depiction of a scene showing a Syrian bringing offerings to the physician, which included young women and girls. This has been interpreted as being the remuneration for medical treatment he had received. 26]. Iry-nofret paid the equivalent of 4 deben  and 1 kit of silver, (i.e. 41 kit, about 370 grammes) for a Syrian girl
"... The woman Iry-nofret said:Amenhotep III ordered 40 girls from Milkilu, the Canaanite prince of Gezer, at 40 kit of silver each
Behold, I have sent you Hanya, the commissioner of the archers, with merchandise in order to have beautiful concubines, i.e. weavers; silver, gold, garments, turquoises, all sorts of precious stones, chairs of ebony, as well as all good things, worth 160 deben. In total: forty concubines - the price of every concubine is forty of silver. Therefore, send very beautiful concubines without blemish.Male slaves were at times significantly cheaper than these accomplished females, probably depending on their abilities and the uses they were going to be put to. Their price could be as low as 20 kit of silver.
Prices during the 21st dynasty were not the same as those during the New Kingdom. Caution is therefore required when making comparisons. The stela of Sheshonq lists the following:
There were brought the people of the .... of the great chief of the Me, who came with the statue: A Syrian servant (named) Ikhamon ...., a Syrian (named) Ekptah; the price of the first was 14 deben of silver; his majesty gave [for the second] 20 deben of silver, total 35 deben of silver, the tale thereof.A case of dodgy mathematics, occurring quite frequently in the many lists drawn up by Egyptian scribes. A second batch mentioned was cheaper
His [slave] Pewer, son of ....f; his slave Ebek, his slave Bupenamonkha; his slave Neshenumeh; his slave, Dene; total of slaves: 6; amounting at 3 deben 1 kidet of silver each, to 1 deben [6 kidet] of silver.population may have been greatest during the expansionary stage of the New Kingdom empire, when whole populations were enslaved at times. Thutmose III for instance is reported to have returned from a campaign in Canaan with almost 90,000 prisoners. Given the small size of armies - generally thousands rather than tens of thousands of soldiers - most of these prisoners must have been civilians.
The Egyptians may have preferred to make slaves of the able bodied soldiers of defeated enemy armies than of the inhabitants of captured cities, the majority of whom were children and women. During antiquity there was a preponderance of male slaves, who were often more valued than the females for the hard labour they could perform. But the most cherished - and expensive - were generally those who had special or rare skills.
Compared with the vast empires of the Persians, Macedonians or Romans the Egyptian conquests in Africa and the Middle East were not very extensive. The subjugated populations were correspondingly small. Once these territories were 'pacified', the number of prisoners of war that could be enslaved was limited.
The temples, above all those of Amen, enjoyed unprecedented prosperity during the New Kingdom. Except during the Amarna episode, they were generously endowed with land and people to work it. They must have owned hundreds of thousands of slaves.
John Madden of the University College of Galway thinks that in Roman times perhaps 10% of the Egyptian population was enslaved, with their density varying greatly throughout the country , as opposed to the Roman heartland where about every third inhabitant was a slave . society, their lot was rarely as bad as that of slaves in other societies. As servants in a temple or in the household of a rich family it was often better than that of the "free" peasants, the serf-like meret  and the sejdemash  called up for the unloved corvée .
Treating a slave well was a moral precept, but the very fact that decent treatment of slaves was a moral duty means that they must have been treated badly quite often. In the Book of the Dead two of the dead person's virtues recited in order to join the company of the gods among others like not having inflicted pain or not having committed murder are
I have not domineered over slaves.The slaves filled a wide range of positions, from lowly labourers to government administrators. On temple estates they performed many non-clerical tasks:
I appointed slaves as watchmen in thy harbour, in order to watch the harbour of the Heliopolitan canal in thy splendid place. I made door-keepers of the slaves, manned with people, in order to watch and protect thy court. I made slaves as watchmen of the canal-administration, and the watchmen of the pure barley, for thee likewise.In a society where people lived mostly in nuclear families, life expectancy was low and one could lose all one's close relatives through accident or disease in the span of a few years, slaves might become the only family a person had
I have taken them, I have fed them, I have brought them up. I have reached this day with them and they have done me no harm. They have rather treated me well. I have no son, no daughter apart from them. And if I have fields in this country, if I have goods in this world, .... these shall divided between my four children, Padim being one of them.On the other hand there were times during the pre-dynastic period, when the belongings buried with a dead king may have included some of his servants . Such practices were unknown in historic times , and during the Old Kingdom ushabtis were called upon to serve the dead king and perform his civic duties in his stead. Since the Middle Kingdom these ushabtis were generally represented as mummyform statuettes.
Slaves could be sold, given as presents or bequeathed in wills. The four Canaanites in the following testament had been left to Wah as family dependants in his brother's will. Whether they were slaves or just servants, tradition required their master to take care of them.
Year 2, Month 2 of the Inundation Season, day 18. Will made by the Priest in Charge of the Duty-shifts (of priests) of (the god) Sopdu, Lord of the East, WahProblems arose when the master had sex with his female slaves which could threaten the relationships between the family members, above all when children were born. Little is known about the fate of such issue, but they seem to have have inherited their mothers' social status.
Sex with a slave could also solve problems. At Deir el Medine a childless couple bought a slave girl who, subsequently, gave birth to three children. Their father is not named, but may well have been the husband. They were raised by the wife who later freed them and married one of them to her younger brother . pursued and recaptured if possible. The reason for attempted escapes was often harsh treatment.
Two men escaped from the supervisor of the stables, Neferhotep, who had ordered them to be beaten. Since their flight there is no one to plough the earth. I'm sending this to inform my lord.There were apparently two options open to a runaway: one was crossing the desert in order to reach a foreign country, the other seeking asylum in a temple and becoming a temple servant:
Now there was upon the shore, as still there is now, a temple of Heracles, in which if any man's slave take refuge and have the sacred marks set upon him, giving himself over to the god, it is not lawful to lay hands upon him; but this custom has continued still unchanged from the beginning down to my own time.The road through the desert was hazardous, and only a desperate man would attempt it on his own and without proper preparations. Even if the runaway succeeded in crossing the wilderness without falling into the hands of roving bands of robbers, he wasn't necessarily safe. International treaties were concluded which stipulated extradition of free people, commoners or noblemen, between countries.
If a man or two men who are unknown flee, and if they escape from the country of Egypt and if they don't want to serve him, then Hattusili, the great king, the king of the country of Hatti, has to deliver them into his brother's hands and he shall not allow them to inhabit the country of Hatti.One suspects that extradition of slaves may also have been practised.
The slave given to me for my own and whose name is Amenyoiu, I have won him by the force of my arm when I accompanied my king. Listen .... He shall no longer be stopped at any of the king's gates. I have given him the daughter of my sister Nebetta as wife, who is named Takamenet, and have bequeathed him a portion equal to my wife's and my sister's. As for him, he has emerged from need and is poor no longer.Manumission might be accompanied by the imposition of quasi-filial duties on the freed slave. When Tapmut and her daughter were set free they declared:
And Tapmut and her daughter Yehoyishma' declared: We shall serve you [a]s a son or daughter supports his or her father as long as you live; and when you die, we shall support your son Zakkur like a son who supports his father, just as we shall have been doing for you while you were alive.They were even liable to a fine if they did not perform their duties. Among Hellenists this kind of obligation was referred to as paramoné.
Some people seem to have expected former slaves to continue to be servile. A woman who had freed and adopted her slaves used rather graphic language in an attempt to protect her charges from annoyances: May a donkey copulate with him and a donkey with his wife, whoever it be that shall call any of them a servant. 
The only direct 'evidence' for the sudden rise of a freedman on the Egyptian social ladder is literary : After interpreting the Pharaoh's dream and giving good council Joseph not only regained his freedom, but was appointed to a high governmental position :
41 ... the Pharaoh said unto Joseph, See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt.The number of people with Asiatic names serving as royal officials was significant during the New Kingdom . If they had not been slaves themselves, they were probably descendents of slaves. The Egyptians do not seem to have had any problems with this.
Nubians appear to have fared less well than Asiatics, and they rarely reached high office. The reasons for this are unknown, but quite possibly there were many more Asiatic than African slaves during the New Kingdom, or the Nubians may have been better integrated into Egyptian society and we cannot single them out as well as the Asiatics. Slaves regained their freedom through their own efforts, by somebody else's munificence or, as in the case of the courtesan Rhodopis, by a combination of the two.
As for Rhodopis, she came to Egypt brought by Xanthes the Samian, and having come thither to exercise her calling she was redeemed from slavery for a great sum by a man of Mytilene, Charaxos son of Scamandronymos and brother of Sappho the lyric poet. Thus was Rhodopis set free, and she remained in Egypt and by her beauty won so much liking that she made great gain of money ...Appendix
WomenIn Egypt free women, who were often little more than chattel in many Mediterranean countries, enjoyed many rights and were according to Egyptian custom at least in theory mostly equal to men in the eyes of society and before the law. They had the right to possess property and to dispose of it , though they seem to have been more vulnerable to being dispossessed, as testators often added threats and curses against people trying to violate the rights of their female heirs.
Their persons did not belong to their fathers or husbands; and they could decide - again at least theoretically - about their own marriage or divorce. But until the Late Period it was generally the father of the bride who decided whom his daughter should marry. Given the young age at which many girls were married, this is hardly surprising.
ForeignersIn many countries foreigners had few rights during ancient times, and their status was at times little better than that of slaves. In Egypt resident foreigners had rights, sometimes secured by bilateral international conventions. Their person and property were protected by law, though sometimes their kings had to intervene on their behalf . Only in the case of their having fallen into captivity during a war could they be enslaved. It is unlikely for instance that the Hebrews after entering Egypt peacefully, would have been treated as slaves, but they would have been drafted like everybody else and set to work on public buildings at Per-Atom (the biblical Pithom) .
The tradition of tolerating foreigners settling in Egypt went hand in hand with contempt for their culture and military prowess
..... Asiatics; others have been placed in their abodes ...... the have been destroyed, and their town laid waste, and fire has been thrown ....... [they have come to entreat] the Great in Strength to send his mighty sword before ...... Their countries are starving, they live like goats in the mountain, [their] children ...... saying: "A few of the Asiatics, who knew not how they should live, have come [begg]ing [a home in the domain of Pharaoh, L.P.H., after the manner of your fathers' fathers since the beginning, under ....... Now, the Pharaoh, L.P.H., gives them into your hand to protect their borders."
 This passage should not be read as a document recording a historical fact but rather as an expression of how the ancient Hebrew tradition saw this aspect of Egyptian slavery
 Twenty pieces of silver: 'Essrim kessef (i.e. 20 silver) in the Hebrew bible, there was no coined money during the latter half of the second millennium.
 Deben: weight, about 90 grams, divided into ten kit
 There is no Egyptian evidence that the Hebrews sojourned in Egypt during the New Kingdom. But, being a semi-nomadic people, they would have been likely to migrate towards the Nile during times of prolonged drought in Canaan. Being forced to do corvée work might have looked very much like slavery to wandering nomads used to few restrictions. The Egyptian authorities did not take kindly to what they considered corvée dodging.
 There may have been a short-lived resurgence of the practice of human sacrifice (the term is used loosely) during the Second Intermediate Period: The skeleton of a servant girl was found in a warrior's grave (p/14 - Nr. 18 [L 468]) at Avaris .
 meret : mr.t, underling. Breasted translated it as peasant-slaves, Beinlich gives serfs or subjects. The meret are mentioned in quite a few donation records, but their legal status remains remarkably ill-defined. They were mostly, but not exclusively, rural workers, and could be donated to individuals or institutions, but, as Allam remarks, were - to the best of our knowledge - never bought and sold.
 sedjemash : sDm or sDm-aS , servant
 Some of them achieved the highest ranks in the royal hierarchy. Bay, butler and chancellor of Ramses Siptah was a Syrian. Wentawat, Viceroy of Nubia under the late 20th dynasty, may have been an Asiatic too.
 This is reminiscent of what happens de facto to quite a few retired people today, who pay to be looked after and then virtually lose their freedom, cooped up in their retirement homes and dominated by the nursing staff.
 It was these mrt and sDm-aS who supplied the unskilled labour for building the pyramids, not the Hebrews.
 cf. a letter from Burnaburiash, another from Burnaburiash and one from the King of Alasiya.
 Diodorus Siculus - not always to be trusted - who lived in the first century BCE, was of the opinion that the pharaohs had been served by young noblemen only and not by servile dependents, in order to prevent them from sinking into depravity
For servants they did not have slaves, neither bought nor born in the house, but only sons of the most noble of priests, who were older than twenty years and the best educated among their countrymen. Any ignoble act of the king was to be prevented by the fact that he was surrounded day and night by the most noble in charge of caring for his body. No prince can sink too deep into evil, if he does not have compliant servants of his passions. triumphant: deceased
 Dr.Akosua Perbi, 2001, Slavery and the slave trade in pre-colonial Africa, University of Illinois, http://www.afrst.uiuc.edu/SEMINAR/perbi.pdf, last accessed 2002, 
 La esclavitud en el antiguo Egipto accessed 2005 at http://egiptologia.net/seshat/seshlr01.html (La Esclavitud en el antiguo Egipto on the Wayback Machine)
 rights: While mention of duties is frequent in ancient Egyptian texts, personal rights are mostly implicit and dependent on social position and rank in the hierarchy. Royal edicts such as the Great Edict of Horemheb sometimes redefine or reassert personal rights in an attempt to protect the citizens from arbitrariness and greed of badly supervised officials.
 During the Roman domination of Egypt slavery may well have become harsher, and there were cases of local people being abducted and enslaved and their families appealing to the authorities using the argument that the captured woman could not be a slave as her brothers were free:
I married a woman of my own tribe . . . a free-born woman, of free parents, and have children by her. Now Tabes, daughter of Ammonios and her husband Laloi, and Psenesis and Straton their sons, have committed an act that disgraces all the chiefs of the town, and shows their recklessness; they carried off my wife and children to their own house, calling them their slaves, although they were free, and my wife has brothers living who are free. When I remonstrated, they seized me and beat me shamefully.The woman's children inherited her status, as her kidnappers argued seemingly basing their claim on Roman law. Egyptian law was apparently similar  and 5th century BCE Jews saw it likewise.
 Chances are freedmen occasionally did achieve a social breakthrough. From Imperial Rome cases of freedmen who became extremely powerful are known, though they derived their power from their benefactor upon whom they remained entirely dependent.
 From a temple inscription at Abydos
My majesty gave it (i.e. the temple) fields [/////], gardens 500 arouras, high-lying fields 500 (arouras). [My majesty] gave [it ///////]. My majesty [gave] it serfs (mrt), [///////] anew in order to make pqt-linen and white linen, in order to [////////] In Roman times about one household in six had at least one slave.
 The ushabtis were little figurines placed in graves since the Middle Kingdom. They were supposed to replace the deceased when called upon to perform his civic duties - labour intensive tasks such as irrigating and ploughing the fields of the underworld. They came to be referred to as Hm.w, slaves, in the late New Kingdom. Interestingly, during the 21st dynasty, the wife of a High Priest called upon the oracle of Amen to endorse the 'enslavement' of the ushabtis she had bought.
 In a book written in 1920 Margaret Alice Murray proposed that people were killed during royal funerary ceremonies (Murray, Legends of Ancient Egypt, Dover 2000, p.68). Phiroze Vasunia of Reading University on the other hand is not convinced of this (Vasunia, The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander, 2001, p.191.) Toby Wilkinson thinks that retainer sacrifice ceased after the first dynasty (Toby A. H. Wilkinson, Early Dynastic Egypt, 1999, p.266).
There is some evidence for what may be interpreted as sacrificial killings of one kind or another:
- In the pre-dynastic cemetery of Adaima bodies have been found whose throats had been cut (Jean-Pierre Albert, Béatrix Midant-Reynes, Le sacrifice humain en Égypte ancienne et ailleurs).
- A wooden label shows a bound prisoner who is about to have his throat cut (Michael Rice, Egypt's Making: The Origins of Ancient Egypt 5000-2000 BC, p.121).
- Semerkhet's tomb contains burial chambers for his servants and, possibly, members of his family, who appear to have been buried there together with their king (Toby A. H. Wilkinson, Early Dynastic Egypt, 1999, p.80).
 According to Bagnall and Frier, 1994, the slave population in Middle Egyptian towns amounted to 13.5% in Roman times, while in the country it was about 8.5%. F. Rodriguez Adrados, L. A. Ray, G. Van Dijk, History of the Graeco-Latin Fable, 1999, think that outside Alexandria the slave population did not exceed six to seven percent.
 cf. The peace treaty between Ramses II and Hattusili III
 Diamantis Panagiotopoulos, "Ein ungewöhnlicher Besuch. Überlegungen zu einem thebanischen Ereignisbild" in T. Hofmann - A. Sturm (Hg.), Menschenbilder – Bildermenschen. Kunst und Kultur im Alten Ägypten, Festschrift für Erika Feucht, Norderstedt 2003, pp. 133-143
| Adoption papyrus|
| Letter from Wenenamen to the merchant Amenkhau of the temple of Amen-Re concerning the enslavement of a woman|
|Index of Topics|
|Main Index and Search Page|
|Offsite links||(opening in a new window)|
|These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these websites|
| Slavery in the Roman Empire, Numbers and Origins|
| The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society, Peter Piccione|
| Recent find of a warrior tomb with a servant burial in area a/ii at Tell el-Dab'a in the eastern Nile delta|
| Sklaven, article from the Lexikon der Ägyptologie (in German)|
| Dr.Akosua Perbi, Slavery and the slave trade in pre-colonial Africa|
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