Ancient Slavery


The Slave Market (1866).  Jean-Leon Gerome.

The decay of the primitive communal system (mainly in Eurasia) led to the emergence of slave society. Thus there were two stages of development: Formation – specific form of social organisation = the City State. Emergence = powerful slave empires.

Necessary condition – City States = transformation of clan community. This isolation (individual families) led to self-contained economic units. Families + increased productivity meant they were without dependence on the clan/tribe. Land plots/implements began to function as private family property.

Communal land was divided into 2 parts: common use (forests, rivers, pastures). Plough-land (divided between families). Thus – clan community led to the neighbourhood community. The economic basis was private family property. Land ownership – contingent on membership of community. Eventually – social differentiation amongst community membership.

Tribal chiefs – concentration of surplus – turned into private property. Arising differentiations (in course of material production) led to different families owning different amounts of wealth.

Thence – some – wealthy, or impoverished. The wealthy group – dominated fellow tribesmen (appropriation of debtors property) + labour payment = the emergence of exploitation.

Social differentiation – accompanied by the emergence of slavery. Slaves were obtained in several ways: buying or barter; prisoners of war; debts of fellow tribesmen.  This strengthened the wealthy  and also increased wealth.

Gradual emergence – 3 social groups (= unequal economic positions), thus: free communal peasants (livelihood = own + family labour); elite (owned wealth + slaves); slaves (no property, dependent on masters). Slave labour – initially – not widespread. Small famers, craftsmen = economic backbone of small city states.

Next stage of slavery = formation – unions and federations of city states. Then – emergence – large slave empires.

Development of crafts = growth of population – formation, large armies, etc. Dominant states – procured additional sources of manpower, material wealth. Slaves, booty – went to the conquering state. Slave labour became the economic basis of society. Thus – larger tasks tackled.

Development – large trading/industrial cities + villas. Vast slave empires = inherent weakness. With the evolution of the slave state = fundamental contradiction – led to eventual collapse.

Slave labour – outlives itself – acts as a break on social development. This because: slave (chief element of productive forces) = a chattel. Denied all rights. A speaking tool.

[Thomson, G.  The First Philosophers.  Lawrence & Wishart, London].

Chalcolithic Period – (tools = copper, stone) Advances – Nile, Euprhates, Tigris, Indus. First time – dissolution of primitive communism = growth of slavery, class struggle, formation of the state. Thus = 2 stages – growth of slave society = early, mature.

Early Stage = patriarchal, directed – immediate needs (rather than commodity production). Trade – poorly developed. Widespread enslavement for debt. Peasants – still land. Property = Oriental type.

Mature Stage = slavery towards commodity production. Free labour replaced by slaves. Small producers impoverished. Further growth – trade, money relations + private property. Number – privately owned slaves – increases.

Slaves – predominate over other classes. At this period the “…characteristic form of the state is the polis, culminating in slave owning democracy…” [14]. Cultural development is rapid.

Distinguishing early and mature slavery – “…we must not treat them as though they were sharply separated from one another. On the contrary, mature slave society co-existed with primitive communism, which continued to prevail in many adjacent areas.” [14]. Nor – characteristics equally developed in all class societies.

[Review – history of slave society – Thomson (1977). Distinguished 6 periods].

(1). 30th to 16th century BC. Slave states – Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus – came into being. In China(prior to Yin or Shang Dynasty) = dissolution of primitive communism – but not yet slave state.

Later (1) period = rise of Middle Kingdom (Egypt = Amorite kingdoms (Mesopotamia). This coincided – flowering of Babylonian/Egyptian culture. Thus – contact with these centres – drew primitive tribes (north Mesopotamia, Syria, Cappadocia) into the orbit of slave society.

Forms of class society – developed – in Palestine, Phoenicia, Aegean. Meantime – metal use – primitive peoples of Eurasian steppes. In Eurasia – no development of slave societies. But – rapid consolidation of ethnic groups (nomadic pastoral tribes).

Early (1) period = Indo-European nomads appeared – Hither Asia (the Hittites), later penetration from India (Aryan speakers). Mid-2nd millennium – Near East slave states entered crisis. Crisis brought about by growth of debt slavery + intensified exploit of village communes.

This was – “…brought about, on the one hand, by the growth of debt slavery and the intensified exploitation of village communes, and, on the other, by the surrounding tribes, which, having had their primitive social relations dissolved through contact with these centres, were driven to invade them in quest of plunder.” [15].

(2) Period of slavery = (16th – 17th century BC). Marked – territorial expansion of early slave society. Rise of military states (Assyria, Mitanni, Hittites). Also – formation of new slave owning communities (east Mediterranean).

Early slave society = zenith – Crete (Late Minoan). Later – Mycenae. Later still – Dorians + other Hellenic tribes from north west – set in motion by dissolutions of primitive communism – overran Greece and Crete. This ended Mycenaean civilisation.

This is – “…the beginning of Greek history proper, marked by the decay of primitive communism, the growth of slavery and of inequalities of property, and the rise of the polis.” [15].

Far East – Shang Dynasty – overthrown (12th century) by Chou tribes. Succeeded by Chou Dynasty. After 8th century – Chou Empire broke up (weakened by slave owning nobility). Break-up led to independent states = Warring States.

(3) 7th to 4th century BC = Greece and emergence of mature slave society. Based – rapid development of productive forces – thence – growth of trade + invention of coinage. Thus – coinage = increased debt slavery. Debt slavery replaced – enslavement of barbarians. Barbarian enslavement – necessary – development of chattel slavery.

Slave society – established – several centres (Italy, North Africa, Spain) = mainly in early form. Later form = Greek colonies. Mesopotamia and Egypt = some features of mature slave society (by time of Persian Conquest). Under Persian rule – maintenance of early stage – slave owning relations.

Greece – further development – mature slave society. Small producers ruined = concentration of land ownership. Dispossessed landed became the lumpenproletariat [Criticisms of this slave theory – 16. Quotes – extensive: Thomson, Engels 17-18].

(4) Mesopotamia = Early times – ruling class – supplemented labour force by slave raids. Raids = into mountains. Slaves owned by temples, private citizens. Constitutes considerable section of community. [see Thomson, 80).

(5) Late Bronze Age Greece. What dependence on slave labour? Phoenicians and Ionians = notorious slave traders. Slave trade kept pace – other forms of trade.

Ugarit = slaves (likely Syria, Greece), thus “…in Babylonia, the typical form of the institution, employing the largest number, was temple-slavery, recruited not so much from slave-dealers as from defaulting debtors, kidnapped children, and above all prisoners of war.” [Thomson, 80].

In general – throughout Bronze Age – mass labour required (for public works) = conscription of free peasantry. Thus “…there was a well-established slave trade in the Aegean in the 6th century BC. Indeed, it seems likely that one the main incentives to colonisation, Phoenicians and Greek alike, was the quest for slaves…” [Thomson, 188].

(6) Greek Slavery, 5th century BC. In general – slave = no incentive to increase production. Whole surplus = taken from him. Cost of reproducing slaves – less than free labourers. Slave labour was: cheap, unskilled, profitable (at low level of production); overworked, short lived, deprived of family life; no position to acquire skill.

Main supply of slaves = conquest, kidnapping. Slavery – thus – prevented increase of wealth. Promoted its destruction by intensive wars. Arms trained males – killed. Females, children – kept for slaves. Some historians – deny Greece was a slave society. Proof = Herodotus + Thucydides.

Greek words for slaves – some loosely used, some definite. Andrapodon = chattel slave – man-footed creature. Andrapodistes = slave snatcher. Andropodokapelos = slave dealer. [Examples = Thomson, 197-200].


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