Slavery in the Ancient World

A few days back, I wrote a bit about slavery. I’d like to carry on thinking about it, this time invoking a little bit of Idle Theory.

Imagine a world in which there are 3 men, who each spend two thirds of their time working simply to stay alive, and who spend the remainder idle. They might be farmers, or hunters, or fishermen. They could be depicted as follows:


Now let’s suppose that man 1 enslaves man 2 (don’t ask how!), and gets him to do some of his work. Man 2 is already working for two thirds of his time staying alive. It’s only in his idle time that he can work for man 1. So after man 2 becomes man 1’s slave, the situation becomes:


Now let’s suppose that man 1 enslaves man 3 as well as man 2. The same logic as before applies, and the new state can be depicted like this:


Now man 1 lives a perfectly idle life. He is free to do whatever he likes. In Athens, this meant, among other things, that he could spend his days in the Grove of Academe, listening to Socrates or Plato talking about virtue or justice. But man 2 and man 3 are kept busy all day. They never get a moment of relaxation. They are completely constrained.

I think that the above process describes the logic of slavery in the ancient world. If you wanted to be a free man (like man 1), you had to enslave other men. There was no other way to attain freedom. And if you weren’t prepared to enslave other men, then most likely other men would enslave you.

In the example above, one man needs 2 slaves to attain freedom. But that assumes that the underlying idleness (the fraction of their time anyone is idle) is 33.3%. But what if underlying idleness is lower, or higher? How many slaves are needed then?

If I represents underlying or mean idleness, then the number of slaves N anyone needs to achieve complete freedom is given by:

N = ( 1 – I ) / I

So if I  is 50%, N = 1. And if I is 25%, N = 3. And if I = 10%, N = 9. And if I is 1%, N = 99. The lower the mean idleness of human existence, the higher the number of slaves needed.

And this suggests that when average or mean idleness is very low, slavery becomes impossible. Prospective slave-owners can only capture slaves in their idle time, and when mean idleness is very low they are simply too busy to find the idle time in which to go capturing slaves. And when they do manage to catch any, these slaves are unable to do very much work for them anyway.

But once slaves have been captured, and the slave-owner has more idle time, he can catch slaves more easily. The first slave is the hardest to get, but after that it gets easier. And this suggests that in antiquity the appearance of slavery was very sudden, and communities of equals (equally idle) were replaced almost overnight by communities divided into free masters and toiling slaves.

So, what was the proportion of slaves to free men in antiquity? Here’s the philosopher David Hume:

ATHENÆUS says, that, by the enumeration of DEMETRIUS PHALEREUS, there were in ATHENS 21,000 citizens, 10,000 strangers, and 400,000 slaves.

That’s 13 slaves per free man, suggesting that the mean idleness of Athens circa 310 BC was 7%.

However, Hume simply doesn’t believe these figures, and says that the number of slaves must be ten times too many, because otherwise they would have revolted. And then he says that the 21,000 citizens and strangers would have had wives and children, and so their numbers must be multiplied by 4, so that there are now 124,000 citizens, and 40,000 slaves. One slave for every three citizens, and an implicit Athenian mean idleness of 75%.

Personally, I’m more inclined to believe Athenaeus than Hume. Why should Athenaeus multiply the numbers of slaves by 10? And since the status of women and children in Athens was far inferior to that of men, why should they have been provided with hard-to-obtain slaves as well? And would those ‘strangers’ have had wives and families and slaves? Surely most of the strangers would have been traders, briefly visiting Athens to conduct business. They would have left their wives and children at home, far from Athens.

Hume again:

Fourthly, No insurrection of the slaves, or suspicion of insurrection, is ever mentioned by historians; except one commotion of the miners.

Fifthly, The treatment of slaves by the ATHENIANS is said by XENOPHON, and DEMOSTHENES, and PLAUTUS, to have been extremely gentle and indulgent: Which could never have been the case, had the disproportion been twenty to one. The disproportion is not so great in any of our colonies; yet are we obliged to exercise a rigorous military government over the negroes.

If there were no slave revolts in Athens, it was probably precisely because slaves were treated ‘extremely gently and indulgently’. Which suggests that they weren’t kept busy working all the time, and weren’t very much busier than the toiling wives and children of the free citizens of Athens, and that the mean idleness of Athens was probably nearer 10% or 15% rather than 7%. Slaves are likely to revolt if their conditions are unendurable (as in the mines), and their is some prospect of freedom elsewhere. But clearly in Athens the slave existence was not intolerable, and should they have managed to escape, they would have found themselves working almost as hard, wherever they went.

Seventhly, During the DECELIAN war, as the GREEK historians call it, 20,000 slaves deserted, and brought the ATHENIANS to great distress, as we learn from THUCYDIDES. This could not have happened, had they been only the twentieth part. The best slaves would not desert.

In time of war, life gets harder (i.e. less idle). During the Decelian war, the pampered slaves of Athens were almost certainly required to work harder. And this may have become intolerable for many of them. And as slaves deserted, their burden of work would have fallen not on the remaining slaves in Athens (already fully occupied) but on the remaining free men and their wives and children. Of course it would have caused great distress.

I suggested in my last essay that the institution of slavery only came to an end once technological innovation (steam trains and factories and ships)  rendered it obsolete, just like cars and buses and trams rendered horses redundant in the early 20th century.  If the mean idleness of Britain is now, say, 75%,  a free man only needs one third of a slave. He needs a part-time slave.

And perhaps part-time employment, 7 hours a day, is just our current version of slavery.

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16 Responses to Slavery in the Ancient World

  1. junican says:

    I have often thought that the life of a slave cannot have been all that bad, although I dare say that some slave owners were cruel. As you know, I have read a lot about Pompeii and the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. There isn’t much to go on, but I recall reading that there was a notice at a public water pump/tank/fountain. There was a penalty for urinating near the water source. Citizens would be fined and slaves would be whipped. Another vague reference appeared at the Herculanium site. Some 300 people sheltered in the boat houses. They all perished when the pyroclastic flow hit them with several hundred degrees C of heated gasses and dust. Examination of the skeletons and their belongings which survived (jewellery and such), suggested that some of the people in family groups were slaves/servants.
    If you think of a society where money is not very important, for example, a hunter-gatherer tribe, it is quite possible that members of that tribe might readily swap their hard and risky life for that of a servant in a wealthy household ‘all found’. Work in return for food, shelter, clothing with some time off. My Aunt Maggie left home and took herself off the London where she entered service. That would have been around 1920. I know very, very little about her life, but I know that in later life, he became a companion to wealthy widows. She did all right for herself really, being comparatively ‘well off’ in her old age. Not slavery, but not a long way off it.
    We have to ask, “What would be the point of, say, a ship’s captain treating his cargo of slaves badly? What would be the point of arriving in the USA with a cargo of weak, ill, decrepit or dead Negroes?”
    There was a system in ancient Rome whereby a slave could gain his freedom. Many slaves did so and became wealthy men.

    • Frank Davis says:

      We have to ask, “What would be the point of, say, a ship’s captain treating his cargo of slaves badly? What would be the point of arriving in the USA with a cargo of weak, ill, decrepit or dead Negroes?”

      Well, exactly. But they did cram them in like sardines on those ships. The same goes for ordinary slaves. What’s the point of injuring a slave, when you are dependent on his labour? And what is the point of keeping them in chains, if that reduces their work capacity?

      There was a system in ancient Rome whereby a slave could gain his freedom. Many slaves did so and became wealthy men.

      Quite so. In fact I think one or two former slaves made it to the very top, and became emperors. There were also several famous cases of slaves who preferred slavery to freedom. There was a case where the very poor mother of a slave in the imperial library successfully petitioned for his release, but he refused the offer. Life as a slave in the imperial library was obviously much more appealing than life in a hovel in southern Italy.

  2. harleyrider1978 says:

    ne must remember as Frank points out Industrialization was making slavery a very unprofitable business. Think what it costs to keep slaves on a plantation just in food,clothing,shelter, mediciene etc etc. All the other costs for horses and just everything. Its not owning someone,slavery was the act of owning something you had to take care of not just work it.

    The civilwar out of necessity created a boon in industrialization and automation while john deere was making farming implements that made field hands obsolete. It was truly a war that wasn’t fought over slavery but over states rights.

    Slavery itself was a dying institution by the 1860s and likely by 1890 would have been basically gone in the south even if the south had won the war.

    The Yankees had they used their industrial might to advance modern machinery to replace slave power could have got what the anti-slavers wanted thru peaceful means and preserved the Union without a war. But it was much more than slaves it was Yankees wanting a big ass federal government like we have today with the power to control everything and that’s what southerners were fighting against a one big all powerful federal central government……….and they were right!

    • garyk30 says:

      “But it was much more than slaves it was Yankees wanting a big ass federal government like we have today with the power to control everything and that’s what southerners were fighting against a one big all powerful federal central government……….and they were right!”

      Indeed, when the South lost their majority in Congress in the election of 1860, they were no longer able to protect themselves from Northern predators and high tariffs and policies.

      That had a lot to do with Secession.

  3. harleyrider1978 says:

    Public Release: 8-Jul-2015
    Impact of smoking on California’s economy in decline at $18.1 billion per year

    Oxford University Press USA

    Today Nicotine & Tobacco Research publishes the third in a series of studies on the cost of smoking in California, one of the first US states to implement a comprehensive tobacco control program. Researchers estimated expenditures for smoking-attributable costs (healthcare, lost productivity from illness, and lost productivity from premature mortality) for the year 2009. The total cost came to $18.1 billion, amounting to $487 per California resident and $4,603 per smoker.

    In two previous studies, conducted in 1989 and 1999, the annual financial impact of smoking on California’s economy was tallied at $7.6 billion and $15.8 billion, respectively. Nominally, the figures show a 15% increase in the last decade, but inflation-adjusted totals show a very different picture: the total cost of smoking in 1999 expressed in 2009 constant dollars was $20.8 billion. Real costs have actually decreased by over 13%.

    Many recent changes in smoking behavior are thought to have contributed to this decline. Adult smoking prevalence in California has fallen from 21.6% of adults in 1989, to 18.7% in 1999, to 13.6% in 2009. In 2010, that number fell again with just 11.9% of the state’s adults smoking. Additionally, among those who continue to smoke, there has been a downward trend in smoking intensity – more smokers fell into the category of “nondaily” smokers, and both nondaily and daily smokers reported smoking fewer cigarettes per day, on average. Population shifts in the state, including a greater proportion of Hispanic and Asian Californians, are also worth noting, as these two population groups both have relatively low smoking prevalence.

    While an $18.1 billion cost of smoking is still quite an economic burden for California to bear, the results of this study show that, overall, the state’s tobacco control efforts have yielded positive results. “The California tobacco control program has been very effective,” says Dr. Wendy Max, the study’s lead author, “but there remains work to be done, especially in light of the changing landscape of tobacco products.”

    • harleyrider1978 says:


      By David W. Kuneman and Michael J. McFadden

      If California’s bar and restaurant margin-adjusted revenue growth had kept pace with its border states, its bar and restaurant revenue for 1998 would have been $36.5 billion, or $8.5 billion more than it actually took in. Over the time span of 1990 to 1998, California lost $34 billion based on (1/2 base X the height) calculations. This disagrees with our earlier estimate of $60 billion because these calculations take into account a slightly weaker overall economy in California than its border states. While directly comparable government tabulated figures do not exist for the years of 1999 to 2004, it would not be unreasonable to assume that these trends have continued and that California’s smoking ban has cost the state’s economy on the order of $75 to $100 billion since 1990.

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      Population shifts in the state, including a greater proportion of Hispanic and Asian Californians, are also worth noting, as these two population groups both have relatively low smoking prevalence.

      ROFLMAO those groups have the HIGHEST smoking rates not the lowest.

      • harleyrider1978 says:

        In fact California doesn’t have a clue what percentile smoke to begin with and even at what they claim that’s still over 4 million smokers. More than all the people in Kentucky combined that live here.

  4. roobeedoo2 says:

    It’s probably more than 7 hours a day when you take in commuting (which would taken out of the worker’s idle time’). But technology is changing that too: during the week I may work in London (3-4 hours commuting, there and back), my usual office (40 mins there and back) or from home (no commute at all and no restrictions on where and when I can smoke – I like these days ;) ).

    Actually, thinking about the technology available today, my job (PA) doesn’t even have to exist. That’s a sobering thought.

  5. garyk30 says:

    Would wives count as slaves, of a sort?

    In ancient times, most small farmers/herders would not have had slaves; because, the cost of keeping them would have been more than their work was worth.

    Due to their cost, house slaves were often viewed as status symbols.

    Slaves were not useful in factories, due to their output being of lousy quality.
    Slaves need a lot of direct watching.
    Germany found that to be true in WW2.

  6. Nate says:

    The easist way to create slaves is give them tobacco and get them hooked. They will work cheap for slave wages, just give them place to smoke and lots of smoke breaks all day long and they will not care less they have been made slaves. Addiction does that to people. Last generation of leaders knew all about it. That is why big tobacco got so big. Now that nobody important smokes anymore they have to figure a new way to turn people into slaves. People resisting big tobacco are fighting against modern slavery. Finally the truth is coming out.

    • magnetic01 says:

      Well, Nate, aren’t you a “superior” being having it all “figured out”. The world is an incredibly better place [giggle] since you and your megalomaniacal, moralizing buddies have come to the fore. Nate, I would venture that you have never… ever…. entertained the idea that you are a slave to shallowness and self-righteousness.

      “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
      C.S. Lewis

    • Some French bloke says:

      Now that nobody important smokes anymore

      Would you agree that those “important” people in today’s society are not a patch on their counterparts from a few decades ago? People making a significant contribution in any given field have hardly been in excess of a dozen per generation. Could it be that those people that should have mattered in this generation have simply shrunk in disgust at what was, and still is, happening, and that they’ve gradually been replaced with smokeless non-entities, whose bland personalities are made painfully obvious by their inept policies, or by their so-called artistic output?

      “big tobacco got so big” “People resisting big tobacco”

      Coffee is a bigger economic entity than tobacco is, and probably ever was, yet it hasn’t been demonised. Why’s that? After all, combustion of organic matter (roasting for about 20 minutes in the case of coffee), with the attendant production of many “suspected carcinogens”, is involved in both cases. Whenever I read reports of “fierce opposition from the tobacco industry” to some new tobacco control legislation, I am reminded that so-called Big Tobacco has been essentially unaffected by all the negative hype around their products; they never did a single day of jail time, even when suspected or even accused of planned genocide! Only smokers were left to foot the bill, and only growers and retailers suffered from the recession.

      As to being a slave to the “demon weed”, after smoking for 7-8 years in my youth, I got scared off it by all the propaganda and turned non-smoker for 25 years, Then I was enabled by the internet to research the claims, and found (and can demonstrate) that they are complete and unadulterated horse manure, so I took it up anew, freed from gloomy apprehensions. If new, serious evidence should show that only one tenth of the claims is in fact genuine I’d surely give it up again.

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