Slavery in Egypt before and after the Persians: Continuity and Change (20 min)


Ella Karev, University of Chicago


This paper compares and contrasts the evidence for enslavement in Egypt before and after the Persian conquest in 525 B.C.E., proposing that the Achaemenid Empire brought with it novel practices of enslavement and its documentation. Evidence for chattel slavery in Egypt before the Achaemenid period is sparse and often vague. Documentary attestations from the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1069) amount to notations of prisoners of war and oblique references in judicial documents of adoption or lawsuits. The following Third Intermediate and Saite periods (c. 1069–525 B.C.E.) exhibit more varied evidence: a handful of self-sale documents by native Egyptians; Egyptian agricultural laborers treated as property on oracular pronouncements; and notes of possibly enslaved Egyptian prisoners of war “from the north.” After the Achaemenid invasion of Egypt, enslavement becomes more visible and standardized, particularly in the Aramaic textual record. Slaves appear as objects of sale and inheritance as we might expect, but also as brides, adoptees, and in court records speaking for themselves. In the dossier of the Egyptian-based Persian satrap Arsames, enslaved persons also appear in more specialized roles than in earlier periods, working as artisans and craftspeople rather than domestic servants or agricultural workers. It is instructive that a one-to-one comparison between pre- and post-Persian conquest slave documentation is not possible. The abnormal hieratic and demotic sales of the Saite period are self-sales, adoptions, and the sales of prisoners of war. In contrast, the demotic and Aramaic sale documents of the Persian period are comparable in formulas to sales of any other chattel, and the singular adoption in Aramaic of a previously enslaved individual is dissimilar to the pre-Persian adoption document. After the Persian conquest, the sources of enslaved persons appear to have changed. Although native Egyptians—or perhaps renamed foreigners—were still enslaved, in the Achaemenid period there is increased evidence of importation of slaves. These are notably not prisoners of war, but persons imported explicitly to provide labor, rather than as the result of a conflict. This is not only an innovation, but also ties into Lewis’s conceptualization of Persian Egypt as connected to a larger system of supply and demand for slave labor. It is clear that pre-Persian Egyptians were familiar with the practice of owning, buying, and selling persons for the purpose of exploiting their labor. However, a comparison of practices of enslavement in the Saite and Persian periods in Egypt demonstrates that the two cannot be viewed as a monolith of the Late period, as the two periods exhibit significant differences in both the practice of slavery and its documentation: from scarce attestations that are arguably not representative of slavery to a formalized and visible trade in human chattel. These differences attest to both Achaemenid attitudes toward enslavement as well as Egypt’s willingness to integrate these attitudes into their labor practices.