Serfs and Slaves

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Serfs and Slaves


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.


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).