Slavery has been around since ancient times. It is a system where people are the property of another person and can be bought, sold, or traded. The ownership of a person is also called chattel slavery. Chattel refers to property that can be bought or sold. Slavery is looked down upon in modern society because it is a system in which humans are treated like objects. In ancient Egypt, however, enslaved people were considered useful members of society. Their work helped the economic development of the region. Some enslaved people even had certain rights and freedoms. Slavery in ancient Egypt helped develop the civilization, although it came with the heavy cost of sacrificing human lives and treating humans as disposable.
Enslaved people were the lowest social class in ancient Egypt, lower even than peasants. Enslaved people were fed and clothed by their owners. In this sense, they traded work for food, clothing, and shelter. They were relieved of the extra burden of taxes, but they were forced to live a life of hard work, often in brutal conditions. Most enslaved people in Egypt were foreigners, but some Egyptian peasants entered into slavery to pay debts. Entering into slavery allowed peasants to stay out of poverty and ensured that they had the basic necessities for survival. In fact, slavery helped keep poverty levels low in Egypt. This fact must be considered from all angles, however. Poverty may have been low, but it is hard to measure the impact that living without basic freedoms had on the enslaved people of ancient Egypt. A life in slavery was one full of hardships.
People from other regions entered into slavery as gifts from their rulers to the Egyptian pharaoh, or they were sold for gold or silver. Slavery was not widespread in Egypt until the rise of the New Kingdom (1539–1075 BCE). During this time Egypt’s military advanced into Syria and Palestine. Any person captured was enslaved and added to the kingdom’s resources. Enslaved people in the military were prisoners of war chosen to serve in the pharaoh’s army because of their physical strength and courage. The New Kingdom relied on large armies to expand into other territories. Enslaved people in the army were treated like other Egyptian soldiers. Using captured people as soldiers may have given Egypt an edge in conquering surrounding regions.
Other enslaved people were taken from their homeland and forced to work without pay. For some prisoners, this meant simply an exchange of owners, because many regions contained slave-owning societies. Some slaves in ancient Egypt may have even seen an improvement in their standard of living, especially if they were sent to a royal house.
In ancient Egypt, one slave could live a very different life from another slave. That is because there were different types of slavery, and enslaved people performed different tasks. Enslaved people given to temple priests helped take care of the temples and please the gods. There were also enslaved people who were owned by royal families. They usually were not subject to harsh working conditions. Rather, they were seen as part of the staff. They sometimes married into the family or were given their freedom. Enslaved people in royal families could even enjoy a better life than some free peasants who toiled long hours in the fields as farmers.
The lives of enslaved people who worked within households differed greatly from those who worked in mines. Those who worked in mines often were not given enough food and water to survive the harsh desert conditions. Enslaved people in the Egyptian mines provided labor for an essential part of the economy. The gold and copper mines in ancient Egypt were a big part of the region’s wealth. It was because of the large number of enslaved people that the mining industry thrived. Although they were important, these people were treated poorly because there were so many of them; they became nearly disposable. Without enslaved people working the mines, it is quite likely that the economy of ancient Egypt would have been much different.
Though life was rarely easy for an enslaved person, ancient Egyptian society did offer enslaved people some chances to better their lives. Free people were subjects of the kingdom and bound by their place in society. A free peasant would stay a peasant for his or her entire life. Slavery could offer an opportunity to live above one’s birth status, especially if placed into a royal household. An enslaved person could one day earn his or her freedom. In ancient Egypt, slaves were the only class of people with any social mobility. Additionally, slaves could sometimes buy property or educate their children.
Think about what you know about social class in ancient Egypt. In your opinion, was life more difficult in ancient Egypt for an enslaved person or for a free peasant? Clearly explain your answer using details from the passage.