Slaveholding System

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Slaveholding System


the first class socioeconomic formation, based on the oppression of man by man. The two main antagonistic classes of the slaveholding system were slaveholders and slaves, and the division into slaveholders and slaves constituted the first separation of society into classes (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. Soch., 5th ed., vol. 39, p. 68). The unceasing class struggle between slaveholders and slaves was the main motive force in the history of the slaveholding system. In the final analysis, this struggle determined all aspects of the society—its economy, legal norms, standard of living, mores, technology, scientific knowledge, ethics, religion, and philosophy, in short, its entire ideology. Arising after the disintegration of the primitive communal system, the slaveholding system was as much a stage in human history as the preclass society that preceded it and the feudal system that succeeded it.

The first slaveholding states appeared at the end of the fourth and the beginning of the third millennia B.C. in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and the slaveholding system existed in Asian, European, and African countries that were progressive for their time down to the fifth century A.D. It reached its culmination in ancient Greece and Rome. In ancient times, the period lasting from the dissolution of the primitive communal formation to the rise of feudalism, the slaveholding system was the sole form of class relations, although slaveholding societies coexisted with societies that had not yet emerged from the primitive communal system and strongly influenced them by contributing to their transformation into class slaveholding societies. This process, characteristic of the entire ancient period, culminated in the formation of the vast Roman Empire, the largest slaveholding state. Such nations as the Germans and Slavs, which appeared on the historical scene after the downfall of the slave-holding system (after the fifth century A. D.), bypassed this formation, proceeding directly from the primitive communal system to feudalism.

Slavery appeared late in the development of preclass societies, at a time when inequality of wealth and the ownership of private property became a strong stimulus for the formation of classes. “Up to that time one had not known what to do with prisoners of war, and therefore simply killed them; at an even earlier period, eaten them. But at the ‘economic’ stage which had now been attained the prisoners acquired a value; one therefore let them live and made use of their labor. Slavery had been invented. It soon became the dominant form of production among all peoples who were developing beyond the old community,… (but in the end was also one of the chief causes of their decay)” (F. Engels, Anti-Dühring).

One of the main factors that determined the appearance of classes was animal husbandry, which was less strenuous than agriculture and consistently gave a surplus product. At first the surplus product was accumulated by the tribe as a whole and later by certain families within the tribe (livestock served as the universal medium of exchange in antiquity). Coinciding with increasing contradictions between the propertied tribal elite and the mass of commune members, the development of slavery led to the emergence of a slaveholding state divided into classes.

History presents us with an almost infinite spectrum of forms of slavery and types of servile dependence, outwardly highly diverse, that existed in various societies and eras. Despite this, it is possible to discern among these various traits the main characteristics of slavery. (1) The slave was the property of one master or of a collective owner, either commune, temple, or the state. He was the master’s living implement of labor, and the product of his labor, as well as he himself, was the property of his master. (2) The slave did not possess any means of production. (3) The slave was exploited by means of noneconomic constraints. Thus a slave who had been settled on a peculium (a plot of land allotted to a slave) and who may even have worked the land by exploiting other slaves still remained enslaved because the peculium, all the means of production, and the slaves belonging to the slave were the property of the slaveholder, who could make the final and indisputable disposition both of the slave himself and of everything he owned.

In addition to these main features of slavery, there are also secondary traits characteristic of a given period or society. These traits disappear and reappear and at times are very pronounced. They include the legal status of a slave in society, or more precisely, the extent to which he was deprived of rights by statutes or customary law; the slave’s domestic status (presence or absence of a family and its rights, if any); and the slave’s occupation, for example, a slave working in an ergasterium (workshop) or on a peculium. Sometimes one of these secondary traits is taken to be the most significant and the concept of slave is essentially modified, resulting in many different and even conflicting definitions of slavery. The main, or basic, traits of slavery, which are constant, combine with the secondary traits, which change depending on time and place, to form a scale of the attributes of slavery.

The many forms of slave dependence may be divided into two basic types of slavery: (1) early, or patriarchal slavery, related to a natural economy and (2) classical slavery, characteristic of societies with well-developed commodity-money relations. Patriarchal slavery includes household slavery, which is often regarded as services rendered in the state of slavery and to which no economic significance is attached. However, as the Soviet historian G. F. Il’in correctly pointed out, this false conclusion is based on the modern conception of household work. In antiquity, domestic work included a large number of production activities (excluding field work), such as milling grain, animal husbandry, preparing milk and flour products, supplying water and fuel, and making pottery. Thus the use of slave labor in domestic work does not indicate a restricted use of slave labor in primitive economies; on the contrary, it shows that slave labor was extensively used. One of the characteristics of patriarchal slavery was the joint participation of the slaveholder and his slaves in the labor process.

Classical slavery differs from the patriarchal type in that it legally defined to a greater extent the expropriation of the slave as an individual, as is evident in comparing Roman jurisprudence to such ancient Eastern law codes as the Code of Hammurabi, the Hittite Laws, and Deuteronomy. Neither patriarchal nor classical slavery was homogeneous. Slavery developed in the West and the East according to the same laws, and most diverse forms of slavery can be found in both the West and East. Furthermore, various forms of slave exploitation existed side by side within a country. The basic traits of slavery remained the same in both the first and the second stage of the development of the institution; only its external manifestations differed.

There is an inherent duality in slave dependence and exploitation. “This duality is determined … by the existence of two economic sectors in society” (I. M. D’iakonov, “Raby, iloty i krepostnye v rannei drevnosti,” in Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1973, no. 4, p. 9). These sectors are the private sector and the state sector (palace, temple). The private sector functioned within the framework of various communal systems, ranging from a tribal commune to a city-state (polis) or even a larger state, such as Egypt. Whereas the state sector predominated in patriarchal slavery, the private sector was more important in classical slavery. In both sectors slaves were used in all types of production, including agriculture, crafts, and construction. This mass of slaves may be divided into two types. The labor of the first type of slave was strictly regulated and controlled by an administration, so that the slave could take no initiative. Such a slave had no economic interest in his labor since his products were entirely appropriated by his master. The second type of slave was mainly used in agriculture. He was allowed some degree of autonomy and even had an economic stake in his labor, which constituted an economic stimulus. To the second category belonged the slaves on peculium (sometimes with workers), the helots of Sparta, the penestae of Thessaly, the koryneforos of Sicyon, the gymnesioi of Argos, and the leleges of Caria. (Opinions differ as to the status of the helots; some scholars believe that they were not slaves.) The way in which slaves of the second type were exploited anticipated the feudal exploitation of peasants.

Slaves were drawn from among prisoners of war, freemen enslaved for debts, or individuals born into slavery. Prisoners of war were one of the main sources of slavery during the late Roman Republic and during part of the Roman Empire.

The nations of the ancient East were the first to reach the slaveholding stage. In that part of the world, the slaveholding formation began with the early, or patriarchal, form of slavery, which emerged long before the appearance of a commodity economy. A number of countries of the ancient East, notably Egypt during the New Kingdom and Mesopotamia at the time of the third dynasty of Ur and the Old Kingdom of Babylon, developed forms of slavery closely resembling those of classical antiquity. In India the slaveholding system reached its apogee between the fifth and first centuries B.C., and in China between the fifth century B.C. and first century A.D. In both cases patriarchal forms of slavery coexisted with classical forms. In Greece and Rome, too, slavery assumed at first a patriarchal form, but the rapid development of a number of states in classical antiquity, notably Athens, contributed to the transformation of slavery from its patriarchal to its classical form. In several city-states, including Sparta, however, slavery remained patriarchal for a long time. Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. and Rome between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D. are classic examples of well-developed slaveholding systems.

Diverging opinions exist as to the geographical extent of the slaveholding system. Some scholars hold that it existed solely in ancient Greece and Rome; others believe that the slaveholding formation in the West existed concurrently with the Asiatic mode of production in the Orient. Some affirm that the Asiatic mode of production was a universal development. Yet other scholars have revived the concept of a “perpetual feudalism” in the Orient, a concept that was first proposed in the 1920’s and 1930’s. But these various points of view, elaborated in the course of debates during the 1960’s, have not been sufficiently substantiated with historical evidence.

Under the slaveholding system, the productive forces largely developed not through improvements in the tools of production, but through the growth of the skills of the free or enslaved persons involved in production; the labor of both free and enslaved workers in agriculture and crafts became more specialized and skilled. The low level of technology that prevailed during the slaveholding system may be attributed to the fact that the energy source—the strength of animals and, chiefly, slaves—cost the slaveholder nothing and that the slaves had no interest in the development and growth of production. This is why the production relations based on slavery, which initially actively contributed to the development of productive forces, became relatively quickly an obstacle to their development. The instruments of labor that the slaveholders gave their slaves were usually fairly primitive and of poor quality because the slaves would destroy, damage, or lose them out of hatred for the master. The proportion of free labor in the economy steadily diminished, squeezed out by costless slave labor. The mode of production based on slavery became economically disadvantageous and therefore had to give way to another mode of production.

Neither the slaveholder nor the slave class was homogeneous. The households of slaveholders differed by the amount of immovable property and the number of slaves. The great majority of slaves were used as a source of muscle power, necessary for agriculture, animal husbandry, construction, transport, and other branches of the economy. The number of slaves cannot be exactly determined in view of the lack of statistical data. It is known that there were many slaves in Greece and even more in Rome. For example, the Greek author Athenaeus (second century A.D), citingCtesicles, who lived in the third century B.C., states that according to the census of 309 B.C., Athens had 400,000 slaves, 21,000 citizens, and 100,000 metics (resident foreigners). According to most scholars, this is a considerably inflated number; it is believed that rich Athenians probably owned no more than 50 household slaves and that poorer citizens only had a few slaves each. The existence of a large number of slaves seems to be confirmed by Thucydides, who wrote that the flight of 20,000 slaves from Athens to Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (fifth century B.C.) almost completely paralyzed Athenian artisan production. After the conquest of Epirus by Rome in 168 B.C., 150,000 persons were sold into slavery. Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in the first century B.C. resulted in the sale of some 1 million Gauls into slavery. Pliny the Elder reports that the freed slave Cecilius, who lived in the reign of Augustus (late first century B.C. to early first century A. D.), owned 4,116 slaves, as stated in his will. In addition to the slaves who were employed in the various economic branches, there was also a group of slaves, mainly in Rome, who performed intellectual work, a kind of slave intelligentsia of painters, writers, artists, and teachers. These were Greeks who had been enslaved by the Romans during their wars of conquest. This group contributed to a certain extent to the transmission of Hellenistic culture into Roman society.

Large slave markets existed in Aquileia in Italy, in Tanais at the mouth of the Don River, and on the island of Delos. On Delos, more than 10,000 slaves were sold daily. Tens of thousands of slaves took part in revolts, such as the slave uprisings in Sicily in the second century B.C. and the Spartacus rebellion in the first century B.C. In addition to slave uprisings, class struggle among freemen also played an important role in classical antiquity. These conflicts between rich and poor included, for example, the struggle of the Roman plebeians against the patricians for civic rights and the Gracchi movement, growing out of a conflict between small and large landowners. However, slave rebellions and class struggle among freemen rarely reinforced each other.

In the case of freemen, various intermediate classes and social strata that were part of the social structure of the slaveholding system struggled against the rich. Among them were the numerous free peasants who were full-fledged members of the commune and artisans. These individuals joined either the class of slaveholders or the class of slaves, depending on whether they acquired wealth or became impoverished. In most Greek and Italian city-states, the peasants were free, and in many cases their enserfment was prohibited by law. The crisis of the polis and the concentration of immovable property and large numbers of slaves in the hands of a small group of slaveholders caused the position of the free small producers to deteriorate and made them dependent in varying degrees on the slaveholders. The slaveholders strove to subject these small producers and exploit them by both economic and noneconomic means. The actual position of “free peasants” in India and Ptolemaic Egypt, for example, differed little from that of the slaves in the second category mentioned earlier. As the colonatus system spread, the differences between impoverished freemen and the slaves began to disappear and at the later stages of the slave-holding system, during the transition to feudalism, the popular masses joined the slaves more consistently in the struggle against the slaveholders.

The apparatus of state power, the legal institutions, religion, and other forms of ideology served to assure the exploitation of slaves. There were various types and forms of slaveholding states. “There was already a difference between monarchy and republic, between aristocracy and democracy. A monarchy is the power of a single person, a republic is the absence of any nonelected authority; an aristocracy is the power of a relatively small minority, a democracy is the power of the people…. Despite these differences, the state of the slave-owning epoch was a slave-owning state, irrespective of whether it was a monarchy or a republic, aristocratic or democratic” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 39, p. 74). Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. is considered the classic example of a democratic slaveholding republic; republican Rome exemplifies an aristocratic slaveholding republic; and imperial Rome, as well as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, represents the slaveholding monarchy. Ancient authors such as Polybius and Ssu-ma Ch’ien described the basic forms of state power. Despite the differences in the external forms of state power, however, all the states of antiquity were an apparatus of class domination by slaveholders, not only over slaves but also over impoverished free producers.

The legal codes that developed under the slaveholding system were aimed at transforming the slaves into the property of the slaveholder (the slave was the object and not the subject of law), at protecting private property by the most extreme measures, and at ensuring the political power of the slaveholders. In advanced slaveholding societies, the upper strata considered physical labor to be incompatible with the performance of civic duties. Confucius, Aristotle, and Cicero regarded slavery as a socially indispensable institution because they believed that there existed a category of individuals incapable of intellectual activity and thus preordained by nature to be slaves. Citizens, on the other hand, were to be freed from worrying about the basic necessities of life. Aristotle wrote that “if shuttles could weave on their own and plectra could play the zither, then architects would not need workers to build a house and masters would not need slaves” (Politics, I, II, V; Russian translation, St. Petersburg, 1911, p. 11). Some thinkers, however, expressed a different view. Dio Chrysostomos, who lived in the second half of the first and early second centuries A.D., considered that all people, including slaves, have an equal right to freedom.

The most typical form of religious belief in slaveholding societies was polytheism, but this did not preclude the appearance of monotheism under certain historical conditions (for example, the state cult of Aton brought about by the reform of Ikhnaton in Egypt in the 14th century B.C., the worship of Jehovah in Judea in the first millennium B.C., and Christianity in the first century A.D. in the Roman Empire). The religious world view predominated in slaveholding societies, although a secular outlook also emerged in a series of idealist and materialist philosophical trends in China, India, Greece, and Rome; nature philosophy, Stoicism, Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the materialist teachings of Democritus and Epicurus.

This period in the history of humanity witnessed the appearance of various literary genres (tragedy, comedy, and lyric and epic poetry), historical writing, and drama. The beginning of the natural sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, dates from this period. Remarkable works of art and architecture were created: the Athenian Acropolis (Greece), the pyramids of Gizeh (Egypt), the Pantheon of Rome, the Palace of Sargon II in Dur-Sharrukin (Babylonia), the stupa in Sanchi (India), the Great Wall of China, the temples in Karnak and Luxor (Egypt), the Altar of Zeus at Pergamum, the Venus de Milo, and Apollo Belvedere (Greece).

The replacement of the slaveholding system by the feudal formation was a long, complex, and difficult process that gave rise to many bloody conflicts. It was neither a peaceful evolution nor a smooth transition. Although it was a revolutionary process, it can by no means be regarded as a “revolution of slaves.” The class struggle within the slaveholding system became acute, as shown by mass escapes of slaves and slave rebellions (Spartacus). In the end, the slaveholding mode of production collapsed because of its lack of economic promise, inasmuch as the direct producers—the slaves—had no stake in expanding production. “The slavery of antiquity became obsolete. Neither in large-scale agriculture in the country, nor in the manufactories of the town, did it bring a worthwhile return any longer. Slavery no longer paid, so it died out” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, pp. 148, 149). The transformation of the slaveholding form of exploitation into the colonatus, a process that was economically motivated and lasted for a relatively long time, led to the transformation of slaveholders into feudal lords and of some of the slaves into serfs. “The change in the form of exploitation transformed the slave-owning state into the feudal state” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. Soch., 5th ed., vol. 39, p. 75). This worldwide change occurred approximately between the fourth and sixth centuries A. D.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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