Skip to main content

Serfs and Slaves

Serfs and Slaves

Sources

Restricted Freedom. Many words were used in ancient Egyptian for groups of people whose freedom was restricted. None of these words corresponds directly to either the Greek and Roman or the American legal concepts of slavery. More accurate translations of Egyptian would include “dependent” (meryet); “personnel” (djet); “forced laborer” (heseb); “worker” (bak); “servant” (hem); “royal servant” (hem-nesu); “prisoner of war” (seker-ankh); and “Asiatic” (a-amu). In the Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.) and Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.), all people who lived within these classifications were restricted somewhat in their movements. Yet, there is no general term meaning “slave.” Furthermore, there was no real consciousness during the Old Kingdom or Middle Kingdom of a class of people classified as slaves. The Satire on the Trades, the catalogue of occupations composed in the Middle Kingdom, does not mention slaves. Yet, by the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) the term servant approached something like the legal status of slave. In the Late Period (circa 664-332 b.c.e.), the word worker was the word used to indicate a person who was a type of chattel.

Property. The difference between a slave and others was that a slave could be bought and sold. A slave was property but not exactly the same as other property. In the New Kingdom, slaves were generally foreigners captured in war. However, even foreigners were permitted to practice a variety of professions and could own property. Slaves could function as herdsmen, barbers, builders, sandal makers, and even administrators of cloth.

Legal Parameters. A slave was the opposite of a nemhu, a person who paid dues directly to the state. A nemhu also lived independently of state support, outside of the system of government rations. A slave, on the other hand, had the right of support from the master. By the Late Period, many individuals were willing to sell themselves into slavery in order to obtain regular support. Slaves could be sold to another master, but that master had to guarantee support. In return, the slave’s labor benefited the master. Even so, slaves

retained rights over property. A slave could also testify in court, marry a free person, and be responsible for restitution. In this sense a slave was a legal person and could establish contracts with third parties. Perhaps most important of such contracts were marriages. Some slave contracts were limited in time. Both parties would have to agree to extend the contract. Children of slaves, however, belonged to the master unless separately freed.

Assessment. In sum, a slave occupied a legally recognized status where the individual was subject to control over his services but still retained legal rights. A slave could have a profession and was entitled to compensation. A slave could be a native Egyptian or a foreigner and could marry a free person. Slaves were usually bound for life but could be freed and acquire complete control over the legal disposition of their property. While slaves the children were part of the master’s household and received support.

Sources

William O. Blake, The History of Slavery and the Slave Trade, Ancient and Modern (Miami: Mnemosyne, 1969).

Eugene Cruz-Urine, “Slavery in Egypt during the Saite and Persian Periods,” Revue International des Droits de l’Antiquite, 29 (1982): 47-71.

Alan B. Lloyd, “The Late Period, c. 664-323 BC,” in Ancient Egypt: A Social History, edited by Bruce Trigger and others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 279–348.

Robin W. Winks, ed., Slavery: A Comparative Perspective. Readings on Slavery from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: New York University Press, 1972).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Serfs and Slaves." World Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. 13 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Serfs and Slaves." World Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/serfs-and-slaves

"Serfs and Slaves." World Eras. . Retrieved November 13, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/serfs-and-slaves

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.