In human society, everyone who has a master or a lord is the servant or slave of that master or that lord. Few are without a lord (human or divine), so everybody is basically someone's servant or slave. Typically, in ancient Egypt, a priest was a god's slave (ḥm-nṯr); a subordinate in a nobleman's domain was the servant or slave in the lord's private estate (bʒk n pr-ḏt); or the slave/servant of the lord's ka (ḥm-kʒ); and so on. Correspondingly, a social inferior when addressing a superior often used the polite circumlocution “the servant/slave here” (bʒk im), designating the speaker. Conspicuously, one important title of pharaoh is ḥm (“body”), which etymologically might mean the slave/servant par excellence (of the gods). Anyone might be called the slave/servant of a god.
The consequence of such usage was that native terminology may be misleading to scholars. In reading Egyptian texts, therefore, context is the only criterion for determinating connotation. While interpreting documents the different forms of servitude must be considered, according to the various rights and services of the human involved. Unfree people might include not only slaves but also, in fact, others with various degrees of encumbered liberty. Therefore, a slave was the person owned by a master, as was any other chattel—used as the master pleased—to the extent of being disposed of by inheritance, gift, sale and so forth.
In documents, groups have been recognizable by the collective noun mr.(y)t (written with the hoe-sign). Those groups belonged to individuals and institutions (e.g., temples). Since the Old Kingdom, they were frequently mentioned along with land and cattle. In the Middle Kingdom, they could be acquired by bequest or another arrangement. In the New Kingdom, they could be recruited from captives or given in an endowment. Their apparently permanent relationship to the land and their master suggests that they were a type of slave. A similar term, mr.t (written with the canal-sign), denoted other groups who were seemingly not in connection with land and cattle but who were assigned to individuals and institutions. Individuals from such groups have not been identified, unless they were identical with the king's slaves (ḥm.w nswit) who, during the Middle Kingdom, were often transferred to estates of priests, nobles, and officials. The king's slaves had to work for their master and were considered his property. Their occupations were not confined to agriculture, as they were also employed in households. With the passage of time, their children undoubtedly inherited their status of servitude.
The principal and oldest cause of slavery was capture in war. In ancient Egypt, the general rule was that all captives—not only those from fighting forces—become a royal resource. The king could then resettle them in colonies for labor; he had equally the right to grant some of them to temples and to meritorious individuals; also they might be booty for his soldiers who had showed bravery in the field. The captives thus assigned to an individual could be as many as nineteen slaves, both male and female. Temples might receive unlimited numbers—inscriptions abound in references to many thousands. (Although the evidence dates to the New Kingdom, this state might have prevailed earlier).
In the Brooklyn Papyrus of the Middle Kingdom, Near Easterners (ʿʒm)—men and women—were interspersed with Egyptian servants, outnumbering them. They seem to have been more highly regarded than the Egyptians— a distinction stemming, perhaps, from the fact that as prisoners of war or descendants thereof they belonged to a social stratum superior to that of Egyptians servants, most of whom were probably people who had committed unlawful acts or their descendants. A trade in (possibly captured) people from foreign countries was also possible. The Bologna Papyrus of the New Kingdom reports that Near Eastern slaves (hm w) were brought to Egypt on a ship.
Another type of enslavement was that of the birth child of a slave mother, whether or not the father was free. Such slaves could have been the offspring of a union between master and slave. Fatal exposure of undesired newborn children was not infrequently practiced in Egypt and the Near East; it has also been attested in Greco-Roman Egypt. Foundlings were ownerless property who might be picked up to become slaves. Yet the extant documents afford no evidence of such a practice during pharaonic times.
Some slaves were originally free persons who, having committed illicit acts, were forced to forfeit their liberty, perhaps with spouse and children. The status of slavery could, moreover, be created through self-sale into servitude, as several Demotic papyri of the sixth century BCE illustrate. Some were drawn into contractual terms of sale, whereby the persons involved (man or woman) undertook to become (along with their children) the slave of a master. As this procedure was familiar in common law, such contracts are best explained as self-enslavements in satisfaction of debt. If the debtor was unable to pay off the debt, the creditor discharged the debt by acquiring the debtor as a slave. In fact, such contracts revealed the person giving up, in addition, all that he owned.
Information about slave-dealing in ancient Egypt is scanty, though sale of slaves was not an uncommon business. There was no public market but instead dealers appear to be itinerant, approaching their customers personally. The transaction itself, with a document containing clauses usually used in sales of valuable commodities, had to be performed before officials or a local council (qnbt). From an inscription narrating the acquisition of some fields with thirty-five slaves (men and women), the inference is that the administration held special registers for slaves. Furthermore, a special tax was probably paid on the occasion; one known transaction was negotiated before the treasury scribe (in the Leiden Papyrus; 727 BCE). The price of slaves varied. In the Leiden inscription, thirty-two slaves (privately handled) were valued at 1 deben and 1/3 kite in silver. During the twenty-fifth dynasty and the twenty-sixth, the average price was about 2.9 debens. In Ramessid times, a dealer received goods at 4 debens and 1 kite for a young Syrian girl (according to the Cairo Papyrus).
Although the slave is a personal chattel, forming part of the master's property and although the master enjoys a number of rights, she or he was under some obligations. So, upon acquiring a girl, her mistress gave her a name. The mistress nourished the slave children and brought them up. On a statue of a man with his wife was depicted, as a token of affection, their young slave (Theban tomb 216). From the contents of an eighteenth dynasty letter: child slaves were not allowed to be set to hard work. The master might exploit, at discretion, the abilities of the slave, employing the slave in domestic service (as guardian of children, cook, brewer, washer, etc.), as gardener or fieldhand, in a stable, as a craftsman or otherwise industrially (as weaver, sandalmaker, etc.). The master might also make the slave learn a trade so as to better benefit from any skill. One of the items in an inheritance consisted of some trade agents (šwt.yw), who presumably were trained slaves. When a master caused a servant/slave to learn to write, a slave could be promoted to a manager in the master's estate. As to the groups called mr (y)t, those were organized in fieldwork under the supervision of overseers. Captive slaves, however, were mostly assigned to the king and the temples, and their status entailed manual labor.
The master was also entitled to dispose of a slave by a legal act. It is significant that slave services were often transferred in favor of religious endowments. King Apries of the twenty-sixth dynasty, for example, decreed that a district near Memphis be dedicated to the god Ptah, together with its slaves (mr t), cattle, and their produce. An individual might also create an endowment and furnish it with resources, as did the eighteenth dynasty overseer of Amun's domain, Sen-mut, with respect to certain offerings. He ceded fields and at least two slaves (male and female ḥm) for baking bread and brewing beer. On an eleventh dynasty stela, Intef recorded two deeds that were made with two men for the celebration of certain ceremonies in his favor after his death: he gave twenty packages (?) of cloth to one man and ten to the other, besides a man and a maid (slaves) for each, along with other privileges. On his statue Amun-mes, the steward of Amun's temple, narrated the donation of all his property to the god Amun, consisting of male and female slaves (ḥm), houses, gardens, cattle, and all that he had obtained. In one Demotic contract of 516 BCE, concerning the transfer of a slave along with his children to a new master, a lady, that slave gave consent to the negotiation; furthermore, he declared himself, with children and belongings, slave vis-à-vis the new mistress.
The number of slaves owned by an individual varied considerably. An official of the thirteenth dynasty had well over forty Near Eastern servants in his personal possession. On one stela, its owner reports, “I have acquired three male slaves and seven females in addition to what my father granted me.” On an eleventh dynasty stela, its owner recounted boastfully, “[Whereas] my father's people were house-born—as property [ht] of his father and his mother—my people are likewise [from] the property of my father and my mother [but also from] my own property, which I have acquired through my activity.” In Demotic marriage settlements, the husband may promise his wife saying, “To the children you shall bear for me shall belong everything I own, [be it] a house, land, slaves, animals, chattels.” As to the slaves, such an engagement was put into effect when a husband came (for example in the Turin Papyrus) to divide his estate, including thirteen slaves, men and women, among his presumptive heirs. In an inheritance, where slaves form part of the estate, there might be various ways to dispose of them: the co-ownership of the beneficiaries might be either maintained or distributed separately, eventually even by fractions in one and the same slave. In such a case, the slave got several masters, each entitled to a share in that slave's work; such a share was determined by a monthly number of the “slave's days” (hrw n bʒk). Subsequently, a master might sell or buy or otherwise transact merely a share in that slave's work. Differences arose when persons other than the master lay claim to the slave's services. In one case, the problem about a slave girl was looked into by the local authorities; it was settled, however, in the vizier's office, according to the Berlin and the Bologna Papyrus. In another text, the conflict about a woman slave was eventually decided by the municipal council (qnbt). Also, in claims to a woman slave with her son, some people opposed each other in yet another conflict; that woman was reported to have been abducted later.
The flight of slaves was a social phenomenon that affected the lower economic strata. When a slave escaped, the master's actual power ended; however, the master could pursue the fugitive and ask the authorities for assistance in the recapture of the runaway. If, during the New Kingdom, the slave was retrieved, the fugitive was to be given back to the master; if not, the person(s) suspected of having harbored the fugitive could be challenged to swear in the temple (according to the Strasburg Papyrus). The fugitive's best chance was to escape Egypt altogether. Yet, there might be conventions, with neighboring states or reciprocal clauses that provided for extradition. By the treaty of alliance between Ramses II and the Hittite king ḫattušili, fugitives, even of humble birth, were bound to be restored to their native land.
As in many ancient legal systems, the Egyptian slave was capable not only of negotiating transactions but also of owning personal property. In the Wilbour Papyrus of the New Kingdom, not less than eleven slaves (ḥm) appear—on the same footing as others, as individual holders of agricultural land—though their status regarding the land property is not clear. An illuminating stela deals with, among other things, two slave women (ḥm), who each gave her own plot of land to the master/mistress in exchange for various commodities. They acted independently, as owners of property. If engaged in commerce on behalf of their mistress, slaves had to be competent to negotiate business with a third party. For example, a freeman was recorded in the Leopold Papyrus to be working under the supervision of a Nubian slave, who belonged to the high priest of Amun.
Regarding judicial procedure, the papyri that report the investigations of the New Kingdom tomb robberies shed particular light on slaves. In fact, they reveal, among other persons, several male slaves implicated in those crimes. During the hearings, slaves were not maltreated any more than other culprits—occasionally they had to undergo torture and swear not to speak falsely. Sometimes a slave denounced another. In most cases, however, the testimony was outright against the master, who was accused of robbery. Though many slaves acted as witnesses, only some were incriminated of complicity. While one was placed under arrest, another was found innocent and was set at liberty.
To date, no evidence exists relating to the marriage of slaves; seemingly a union of male and female was contubernium (cohabitation sanctioned by the master). Yet in the New Kingdom, a king's barber gave his own niece as wife to his own slave and a lady accepted as husband for her slave, her own younger brother. In either case, however, the slave (male or female) had first to be manumitted in public. In the latter case, the mistress extended freedom to all her child slaves, with the view of adopting them and thus bequeathing to them her estate. Furthermore, in a sixth-century BCE Demotic contract, one Hor engages himself—along with offspring and earnings—to become the son of another, who would then exercise authority over him. Presumably, Hor was the slave who was emancipated in return for continuing to look after his master, as a son caring for his father; Hor's children were then equally bound to that effect. In ancient Egypt, no case is yet known of a slave purchasing freedom or a master releasing the slave by ransom.
Finally, there was the small community of Deir el-Medineh, discussed in the Brooklyn Papyrus, in which some fifteen women slaves were attached to either of two departments of the workmen's gang. Possibly the women had to grind the supplied grain into flour for the workmen's families. They remained state property, since the administration provided them with sustenance (mainly grain and water). Besides, there were privately owned slaves, both men and women. The chief workman, Neferhotep, for example, possessed some “house-born” slaves; his father was said to have had at least five. Another inhabitant ascertained, “One took our twelve slaves in replacement for [some tools].” Several records also indicate that shares in a private slave's work could be transacted for bequests and other legal acts.
- Allam, S. “Ventes et cession de quotes-parts en esclaves.” Actes du Colloque “Le Commerce en Egypte ancienne.” Cairo, 1996.
- Bakir, Abd-el-Mohsen. Slavery in Pharaonic Egypt. Cairo, 1952.
- Helck, Wolfgang. Materialien zur Wirtschaftsgeschichte des Neuen Reiches. Vol. 3, p. 512 ff. Mainz, 1963.
- Helck, Wolfgang. “Sklaven.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 5: 982–987. Wiesbaden, 1984.