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Home > Research > Past Post Doctoral Scholars

Slaves and Households in the Near East

Symposium Organized by Laura Culbertson
The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
1155 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
March 5-6, 2010

Overview and Goals of the Symposium:

Slaves in the Near EastScholars have long recognized that slavery was a reality - even a "rule" (Starr 1958) - of ancient societies. Yet, since the ever-influential philosophical treatises on ancient economies (e.g., Marx, Weber), many studies of ancient Near Eastern slavery have tended to focus on the economic functions and legal terminology of slaves, and, even though such contributions are indispensable, there have been but few comparative studies of pre-modern slaveries that also investigate the socio-political and cultural contexts of slaves and their relationships to the non-slave populations around them. A common framework for studying slavery has been elusive in general in Near Eastern studies, no doubt owing to the differential nature of sources and societies across time and space as well as to the various research trajectories that have dominated inquiry. Thus, at present, the phenomenon of slavery is an ubiquitous yet elusive topic in Near Eastern scholarship.

The goal of this symposium is to seek new, more inclusive discourses on Near Eastern slaveries and move towards a more unified conceptual framework. In order to accomplish this, contributions employ the concept of "household," the most common context of slaves, as an analytical fulcrum. The household, whether a domestic unit or state institution, is a promising focal point for a comparative investigation since it is the site at which slavery is articulated and marked, where slaves status is created and transformed, and where boundaries between slaves and non-slaves are negotiated, revised, or transcended. Economic and legal factors are and cannot be excised from discussion in favor of other approaches, but, as economies and legal orders can vary as widely as slave systems, these are addressed as appropriate to the contexts in question.

Many calls for new approaches to slavery have been advanced, and studies now seek to include socio-political and cultural approaches to slavery in addition to economic and quantitative analyses (e.g., Dal Lago and Katsari 2008). These offer a launching point from which to develop inquiries about slave systems in the Near East specifically. At present, many Near Eastern subfields have reached optimal point for this venture, having been aided by several decades of theoretical revision on the issue of slavery and by a number of recently published monographs and case studies (cited throughout) that are developing illuminating new paradigms and methodologies. The papers in this symposium address new and old approaches to slavery, engaging a variety of sources in order to further these endeavors. Four major overlapping themes intersect in the papers and provide common bases for discussion: (1) slaves and the family, (2) slaves and the state household, (3) the phases of enslavement, and (4) marking slavery.

The Study Slavery in Mesopotamia and the Near East in Brief

Studies to emerge recently and over the course of the twentieth century have already provided a considerable and invaluable basis for undertaking new approaches. In ancient Near Eastern studies, scholars have long examined the economic function of slaves, with emphasis on value, sale, labor, and reinforcement of state structures (for example, see the venerable works of I.M. Diakonoff, I.J. Gelb, and successors). Criticism has been expressed, however, for models of slavery that fail to contextualize slaves in social, political, and cultural contexts. Even as early as the 1950's, some anthropologists renounced the economy-focused perspectives, declaring them materialist, functionalist, and positivistic, and it was argued that the extraction of slaves from social hierarchies impedes analysis (e.g., Siegel 1945, see also the overviews of Patterson [1970] and Kopytoff [1982]). Prolific legal studies on Mesopotamian and biblical slavery have produced an indispensable corpus on the legal nature of slaves and the terminology of function, status, sale, and legal rights, in ancient Israel and Mesopotamia, such as those undertaken by Mendelsohn (for example 1949) and Chirichigno (1993). A more inclusive comparison of slavery across ancient Mesopotamian states is still needed, but faces difficulty without a common focal point and without the benefits to be gained from comparison with other states that have yielded different types of data.

Recently, a number of important monographs have appeared on medieval and pre-modern Near Eastern slavery that introduce new case studies and approaches, including, to name but a few key examples Marmon (1999), Babaie et al. (2004), and Toledano (1993, 2007). Such contributions reflect a shift away from traditional issues in favor of dynamics and socio-political context. Because scholars of ancient and medieval Near Eastern states have different types of written sources at their disposal while dealing with similar complex states, fruitful analysis results from comparison.

For decades, scholars have been keenly aware of the enormous influence that the Greek, Roman, and New World systems of slavery (the salient monographs of which are too numerous to be listed here) have impressed upon studies of other ancient and pre-modern societies (e.g., Bakir 1951). While the Classical and New World systems shall no longer be considered paradigmatic, such external scholarship still aids in developing methodologies and conducting comparison. Some of the papers in this symposium build on the works of scholars who have explicitly adopted new approaches to slavery in these fields.


  1. Slaves and the Family: Revisiting Domestic Slavery

    One question addressed by papers in the symposium involves relationship between slaves and the domestic household, the most common and immediate context of slaves in many ancient societies. Numerous indispensable studies of domestic slavery, both historical and anthropological, are already available to assist new studies, but comparative consideration of slave-family dynamics in the Near East awaits further realization. The household itself is often understood as an economic, legal, or social unit to which slaves belong and to whom they contribute labor and economic, or even social, value (Pryor 1977). House-born slaves have often been defined in contrast to chattel or labor slaves, a distinction that is not universal and is predicated only on the type of labor carried out by the slave. In-depth case studies and legal discussions of slavery have shown that there can be more types of slaves in a society than a simple labor-based dichotomy can express, in fact, and there can be multiple types of household slaves involved with a single family (e.g., for Mesopotamia, see Siegel 1947 or Dandamayev 1984). Moreover, the line between family and slave may be less obvious and identifiable than legal language and economic function easily allow us to see, since, for example, slaves can intimately participate in the production of the family (concubines, midwives, second wives) or eventually become family members by way of apprenticeship, adoption, or marriage. Comparative discussions on these issues expose new aspects of the relationships between slaves and families in the context of domestic households.

  2. Slaves and the State

    "Household" can also be conceptualized as a political, administrative, or symbolic entity. A second theme specifically explores the relationship of slaves to state institutions, temples, or other kinds of units larger than domestic households. At one time, the relationship between slave and state was cast as one of oppression, labor exploitation, or management of foreign captives, but even as early as the 1950's at least a few Near Eastern scholars abandoned the notion that ancient states were built on the backs of slave labor and war prisoners (Starr 1945, Degler 1959). Since then, perspectives have shifted even further. Studies are now showing how slaves enjoyed mobility in royal households, transcending social boundaries to achieve higher statuses. Babaie et al. (2004), for example, have shown how slaves became members of the royal household in Safavid Iran and were capable of gaining access to spaces forbidden even to royal household members, thus creating new political dimensions in the royal center. Gordon (1999, 2000) has explored how Turkish slave soldiers in 9th-century Samarra ascended in rank to create their own institutional power structures, complicating networks of imperial elites. These and other case studies should be of particular interest to scholars of the ancient Near East, particularly Egyptologists and Mesopotamianists, who often deal with state-level forms of slaves (or "non-free" entities), including eunuchs, soldiers, and concubines in some contexts, as well as frontier vassals. Many of the same questions can be applied to temples in the appropriate contexts.

  3. Phases of Enslavement: Mobility, Entry, and Exit

    It is impossible to mention all the occasions upon which a scholar has noted the difficulty, or even impossibility, of defining "slave." Over the course of the twentieth century, ancient slavery has been characterized as an institution, a legal status, or an economic function, among other things. A third inquiry of the seminar is to better understand the elusive nature of slavery by investigating the paths taken by slaves through household and political hierarchies, specifically noting the moments at which a person or group is thought to have entered or exited enslavement. The advantages and limitations of such a "processual approach" have been outlined (see Kopytoff 1982), but only a few comparative studies on specific phases of enslavement have appeared in Near Eastern scholarship. The matter demands renewed and more explicit attention, as scholars are increasingly noting that slavery in ancient contexts was not necessarily a permanent and inflexible category, contradicting earlier assumptions, and that transitions both into and out of slavery could be complex, multi-leveled, upward or downward movements (e.g., see Baker 2001). New queries can be aided by the research of anthropologists and Classicists, a number of whom now focus on specific phases of enslavement, such as voluntary entry (self-sale) into slavery (e.g., Testart 2002), or (post)-emancipation studies (e.g., Zelnick-Abramovitz 2005; Engerman 1986, 2008). Comparative study of such matters in Near Eastern contexts elucidates the nature of slavery in specific contexts while advancing our definitions of slavery beyond functional and legal terminology.

  4. Markings of Slavery and Identity

    Another theme explored in the symposium involves how slavery and slave bodies are marked, even if "marks" are impermanent or transferable, and how the condition or experience of enslavement is meaningfully conferred and conveyed in contexts both in- and outside of the household. Related questions involve gender, age, ethnicity, and other aspects of identity. The particular forms of slavery of the antebellum American South, once considered paradigmatic for scholars of slavery in other cultures, long suggested that slave status corresponds to race. Scholars now recognize not only that the notion of race is far more complex than this perspective allows, but also that race is not a single, definitive signal of slavery in most pre-modern contexts (e.g., Lewis 1990). Recently, important works analyze physical marks of enslavement in specific cultural and political contexts (e.g., Glancy 2002).

Participants and Schedule:

In short, it is the goal of the symposium to generate a new strand of discourse on slavery in the Near East as well as the ancient and pre-modern world in general. Comparisons shed light both on cultural particulars and while highlighting common themes in Near Eastern forms of slavery. Of course, new light can also be shed on the nature of households and their precise dimensions and places in society. The participants represent a variety of scholarly approaches, ranging from anthropological to historical and beyond.

Program and Abstracts

Download Detailed "Program and Abstracts" Program in Adobe PDF format.

Friday, March 5, 2010

  • Opening Remarks, 9:00-9:30 AM
    • Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute
    • Laura Culbertson, Post-Doctoral Scholar
  • Session 1: The Early Mesopotamian States, 9:30-12:00 NOON
    • Robert Englund, University of California Los Angeles
    • Hans Neumann, Universität Münster
    • Laura Culbertson, Oriental Institute
    • Andrea Seri, Oriental Institute
  • Session 2: The Islamic Near East, 2:00-5:00 PM
    • Matthew Gordon, Miami University
    • Kathryn Babayan, University of Michigan
    • Ehud Toledano, Tel Aviv University

Saturday, March 6, 2010

  • Session 3: The Second and First Millennium Empires, 9:30-11:00 AM
    • Jonathan Tenney, Loyola University New Orleans
    • F. Rachel Magdalene, Universität Leipzig
    • Kristin Kleber, Freie Universität Berlin
  • Session 4: Respondents and Final Discussion 11:00-12:00 Noon
    • Indrani Chatterjee, Rutgers University
    • Martha Roth, the Oriental Institute


Babaie, S., Babayan, K., Baghdiantz-McCabe, I., and Farhad, M.
2004. Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran. New York: I.B. Taurus
Baker, H.D.
2001. Degrees of Freedom: Slavery in the Mid-First Millennium BC Babylonia. World Archaeology 33/1 (The Archaeology of Slavery). 18-26
Bakir, A.M.
1951. Review of Mendelsohn, Slavery in the Ancient Near East. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 10/2: 134-5
Chirichigno, G.C.
1993. Debt Slavery in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 141. Sheffield.
Dal Lago, E. and Katsari, C
2008. Slave Systems: Ancient and Modern. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dandamayev, M.A.
1984. Slavery in Babylonia: from Nabopolassar to Alexander the Great (626-331 B.C.). Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press
Degler, C.N.
1959. Starr on Slavery. Journal of Economic History. 19/2: 271-277
Engerman, S.
1986. Slavery and Emancipation in Comparative Perspective: A Look at Some Recent Debates. Journal of Economic History. 46/2: 317-339
2008. Emancipation Schemes: Different Ways of Ending Slavery. In Dal Lago and Katsari (eds.), Slave Systems: Ancient and Modern.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Gordon, M.
1999. Turkish Officers of Samarra: Revenue and the Exercise of Authority. Journal of Economic and Society History of the Orient. 42/4: 466-493
2000. The Commanders of the Samarran Turkish Military. The Shaping of a Third/Ninth-Century Imperial Elite. In Chase Robinson (ed.) A Medieval Islamic City Reconsidered; An Interdisciplinary Approach to Samarra. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 119-140
2001. The Breaking of a Thousand Swords.. Albany, NY: SUNY Press
Gross, A.
2001. Beyond Black and White: Cultural Approaches to Race and Slavery. Columbia Law Review 101/3: 640-690
Kopytoff, I.
1982. Slavery. Annual Review of Anthropology. 11: 207-230
Lewis, B.
1990. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press
Marmon, S.E.
(ed.). 1999. Slavery in the Islamic Middle East. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers
Mendelsohn, I.
1949. Slavery in the Ancient Near East. New York: Oxford University Press
Patterson, O.
1977. Slavery. Annual Review of Sociology 3: 407-449
Pryor, F.L.
1977. The Origins of the Economy: A Comparative Study of Distribution in Primitive and Peasant Economies.. New York: Academic Press
Redford, D.
2004. From Slave to Pharaoh: the Black Experience of Ancient Egypt. The Johns Hopkins University Press
Siegel, B.J.
1945. Some Methodological Considerations for a Comparative Study of Slavery. American Anthropology 47:357-392
Siegel, B.J.
1947. Slavery During the Thrid Dynasty of Ur. American Anthropologist new Series 49/1. New York
Starr, C.G.
1958. An Overdose of Slavery. Journal of Economic History 18/1: 17-32
Stol, M.
1977. Mesoopotamien: Altbabylonishce . Zeit. OBO 160/4: 910f
Toledano, E.
1993. Late Ottoman Concepts of Slavery.. Poetics Today. 14/3: 477-506
2007. As if Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East. Yale University Press
Testart, A.
2002. The Extent and Significance of Debt Slavery. Revue française de sociologie 43 (Supplement: Annual English Edition). 173-204
Zelnick-Abramovitz, R.
2005. Not Wholly-Free: the Concept of Manumission and the Status of Manumitted Slaves in the Ancient Greek World. Leiden: Brill

Revised: June 18, 2010

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