Slavery was integral to the societies and economies of the ancient Mediterranean, so much so that discussing almost any topic in ancient history will end up touching on it at some point, and as historians we do not always take the time to address slavery as an institution in itself. The practice of slavery in Greece and Rome also differed from the modern American version in significant ways, which we often have to explain. The combination of these facts can sometimes leave the impression ancient slavery was in some way less wrong than modern slavery.
So this is me as an ancient historian taking the time to say: it was not. Slavery is, was, and has always been wrong.
The practice of slavery—that is, treating some people as possessions who have no rights to autonomy or claims to humanity and who can be exploited for labor without their consent and without compensation—is common across many cultures in history. Almost every pre-modern society (and many societies in the modern period) complex enough to have a division of labor had some mechanism for forcing a particular class of people to labor against their will. In many cases, this class of people came from outside that society or were the descendants of people who had, but local people could be among the exploited as well. Cultures that did not practice slavery have existed in history, but they are rarities. Just as different cultures in history varied widely in their ways of life, they also varied in how they practiced slavery, but inherent in all slave systems is the violence—whether actual or implicit—that comes of treating people as things.
In all slave societies, those who benefited from the exploitation of others generally found ways of justifying the practice. The voices of the rich and powerful dominate the historical record, especially as we look farther back in time. The voices of enslaved people themselves are often missing from the sources (at least until more recent centuries), and we should not suppose that they shared the opinions of the people who were exploiting them. If our image of ancient slavery is not one of violence and horror, that tells us more about whose stories we are hearing than about the actual experience of slavery. We are never on solid ground making judgments based on what the rich and powerful think is okay for them to do to other people in order to stay rich and powerful.
Slavery played an important role in the economies of both ancient Greece and Rome, more so than in some of the other cultures they lived alongside. Greeks were major players in Mediterranean trade for centuries, and trafficking in enslaved people was a significant part of that trade. The islands of Delos and Rhodes were major centers of the trade in enslaved people, as documented by numerous inscriptions found in both places left by the traders. Slavery was particularly important in the Roman economy because Rome was an expansive empire. Enslaving war captives was one of the most direct ways of profiting off the near constant warfare that marked the growth of the empire.
There are important ways in which the practice of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean was different from that in modern-period America. For example, enslaved people were not distinguished by race from those who exploited them. Greeks and Romans did not have a concept of race as we understand it, but even so, enslaved and free were not distinguishable by physical appearance (a point made clear by numerous legal and literary sources about enslaved people passing themselves off as free). In Rome, there was a custom of granting freedom to some enslaved individuals after a period of time. These freed people gained some legal status in Roman society (either citizenship or a lesser status as “Latins,” depending on the time period) and they and their descendants could integrate themselves into Roman society.
Still, the fact the Greek and Roman slavery was different does not make it less wrong. The exploitation, violence, and dehumanization inherent in slavery are always wrong. The experiences of individuals may vary between times and cultures—and even within the same time and culture—but those variations are not a defense of slavery, neither as a general practice nor in any particular case.
There has never been a time when slavery was morally defensible. It has always been wrong.
History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.