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N.S. Gill

Slaves in Ancient Persia

By March 15, 2007

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It is perfectly reasonable to think that a history of the ancient world penned mostly by Greeks or Romans would exaggerate their good points and their enemies' weak points. Since the Ancient Persian Empire
was one of the biggest and most enduring enemies, it may have received a disproportionate share of negative characterizations. For this reason, when modern Persians/Iranians write complaining of the Western portrayal, I read carefully, in part to figure out what the non-native writer of English is trying to say and in part to see whether there may not be something of importance. Two posters on the threads about 300 seemed to say that in the Battle of Thermopylae, the Greeks may have had slaves, but the Persian side (made up of various ethnic groups because it was an imperial army) definitely did not have slaves:

The producer protrayed the Persians as Barbarians and devil worshipers, ruthless warriors, they protrayed the women as prostitutes, and slaves.

Even MSNBC http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17599641/
Says the Persians of (300) are depicted as "decadent, sexually flamboyant and evil" but not uncivilized and not slaves.

Perhaps I don't understand the slave part of the complaint, but I read it as complaining that the 300 movie showed the Persian army with slaves. (Did I miss something?)

If that were true (that unlike the Greeks, the Persian side had no slaves), it would indeed be worth at least a note here.
So I did a search.

To avoid the obvious bias of western literature, I looked for monuments that could be attributed to the ancient Persians, specifically, Achaemenids. I found archaeological/epigraphical articles on cuneiform inscriptions which list many sales of slaves. One instance is a sale of slaves from March 24, 414 B.C. while Darius II ruled the Persian Empire.

"Fifth Century Nippur: Texts of the Murasus and from Their Surroundings," by
Matthew W. Stolper.
Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 53. (2001), pp. 83-132.

Another relevant article is

"The Neo-Babylonian Text from the Persepolis Fortification," by
Matthew W. Stolper.
Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 43, No. 4. (Oct., 1984), pp. 299-310.
Here is one of the relevant passages from Persepolis:
Bel-iddin has
received from Marduk-belSunu that silver, two minas and twenty-five shekels, the
price of his slave. ("1-5) Bel-iddin assumes guaranty against suits (brought by) improper
or proper claimants (to the slave) (and against suits claiming) the status of king's
servant, free citizen, temple oblate, (or).... (for the slave).

So, although I may have misunderstood what the modern writers were posting, the Persians (as in the families of the armies that fought for the Persian king) were not unlike the Greeks in owning slaves.


February 18, 2008 at 2:20 am
(1) badz says:

Slavery was abolished in the empire by Cyrus:

The first publication you cite is available for download here:

After reading through the article it seems that the cuneiform inscriptions as well as the slaves and masters are all from the Babylonian family of a man named Mursau who had made a private sale during the time of Darius II. The king was neither present nor were his representatives.

The Persian empire was a federalist multi-cultural entity (the first of such a culturally diverse empire). The rules and customs of the locals was preserved and executed by the local governments (Satraps).

The local government of Babylon was not particularly keen on enforcing the federal government’s rules on slavery. So a private sale like this (as opposed to a legal sanction by the state) was not something that they would have prosecuted actively.


February 21, 2008 at 2:34 pm
(2) ancienthistory says:

I see something else that might be a cultural difference. Any ownership of slaves was what I was referring to. You seem to be talking about state sponsorship of slaves. So it would seem we agree that people in the Persian Empire owned and traded slaves, but perhaps not the ruling families. Since I hadn’t considered that that could be where the bone of contention lay, it didn’t occur to me that saying “under Darius” did any more than date the period to after Cyrus. I have revised that phrase.

March 12, 2008 at 11:58 am
(3) Wexler says:

1.) The Persians practiced beliefs, as the defacto relgion of the state, in which the basic principles are: “free will” (active participation in life through good thoughts, good words and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep the chaos at bay). Zoroastrianism’s principles gave root, and have ties to, the 5 major religions that rule the Earth today.

2.) Cyrus Cylinder is real…weather you subscribe to the theory that the principles were stuck to and practiced can be debated…see points 3 & 4…but none the less, the artifact does, in fact, exist…it’s not just “the word of man”…or something that you and I have to “trust” enough to “believe” existed…so, really this issue comes down to interpretation of a very real thing, and if those principles were followed or not.

3.) Cyrus freed the Jews – as per the Bible, and as per “history” as written by man…which is not always a trusted, reliable, accurate source…but, none the less, based on historical accounts, Cyrus did practice two basic principles of the Cyrus Cylinder – slavery is bad, freedom of religion is good, and thus freed the most persecuted people in the history of man, who were slaves at the time, to go and practice whatever religion they chose in their temple (I have read though that Cyrus wasn’t too psyched about having the second temple rebuilt).

4.) The Achaemenid era was known as a relatively “peaceful” period in Middle Eastern history. So, with that in mind, it might be coincidence, it might be a “word of man” slant, or it might mean that someone was actually practicing what they were preaching.

My Persian-glass is half full…that I am thinking more and more each day that “what if” the Persians would have won the Battle of Salamis would have potentially resulted in:

A more peaceful environment in Ancient Times…thus, less war, less death and less slavery…and a great cultural diffussion from blending tribes and removing territorial boundaries.

If Xerxes is not defeated, Zoroastrianism and it’s principles spread…and Alexander the Great is just some rambunctious kid named Alexander who likes wild horses…and not one of the greatest conquerors of all time.

There would have been religious freedom…or a more open idea to religious freedom based on the “laws” of the Persian Empire…and it wouldn’t have been necessary for the Emancipation Proclomation to have taken place 2300 years later.

May 2, 2008 at 8:09 am
(4) John says:

I on the other hand, am thinking that if the Persian army had won these battles and succeeded in conquering Greece, the first casualty would be Democracy. At that time only Athens had developed an early form of Democracy as we know it today and that was taken later by other city states and the Roman Empire. Had the Persians won at that time, that basis of Democracy would have been lost, at least for the time being, but certainly postponed probably for a long time.

I don’t see how you can say that there would be a peaceful environment since the best we can guess is that Xerxes would use Greece as one more nation to help him conquer more lands. More wars with the rest of the European nations and tribes?

Territorial boundaries existed in the Persian empire. It wasn’t one unified and happy empire although it was working rather well. Most of these nations were dragged to this war. See for example the Egyptians’ reaction when Alexander took over Egypt. They saw him as a liberator.

And by insulting Alexander whom every known leader from Caesar, to Genghis Khan, to Napoleon, to Paton admired, is only insulting for your own Kings and leaders like Darius who liked to sit on his throne and watch his army fight and die, and only knew how to flee.
At least Alexander was a kid that was fighting next to his warriors.

I also don’t see how you can say that there would be religious freedom. Its not like there wasn’t one already.

I’m not saying any of these out of malice or disrespect. I want to emphasize that. But the entire world (even historians and documentaries) seems to agree on the importance of Xerxes’s loss at that time and the halt of Persia’s campaign.

May 16, 2008 at 3:43 pm
(5) Arash says:

I am afraid your article is condescending and disingenious. Are you suggesting that the Helots were more free under the spartans that say Judeans under Persians. The fortification texts from Persepolis clearly show that artisans were paid for their work, and that many of the high ranking administrators were women. Now in spite of the movie making a role for the spartan queen, there is no doubt that the ancient Persia of Cyrus and his successors had more in common with our modern values than did Sparta. You should not conflate your biases against the modern Islamic state with the ancient empire of Persia.

September 12, 2012 at 9:35 pm
(6) lefteris says:

With a quick glance at the comments of the specific topic, it is obvious that one who wants to export useful conclusion about the discussion have not any chance, because of the propagandistic and ethnocentric character of almost all comments.
First, the historian never mention the to their research. This is at least silly. The modern Europe stands in two basic axis of greek civilization( besides all other): the citizenship and equality of civilians and reason approach of the sciences. What of this would have evolved if the persian have coquered the greece, it is impossible to know. But a view that the world would have been a better place is out of logic and not serious.

If somebody believes that had been a civilization in antiquity that had not slaves, obviously don’t have the remotest idea of what antiquity was. Saying that the Persians had not slaves is absolutely unreal. The truth is that they use them less than Greeks and Romans, but there was slavery as everywhere in ancient world, and saying the opposite reach the limits of joke.
The Persians are also known about their tolerance to the subjects’s religions. As much was the Greeks. After the contacts with Egypt the worship of Isis became extremely popular to the greek population. After the conquests of Alexander, all the subject populations kept their own religions, and not only that,but in addition foreign religious elements got into greek worship, that had been one of the most flexible in history.
The truth is that Greeks loved to fight each other. The ancient greek history is full of bloody clashs between greek cities. But the persians also often show a rough person. I remind the destruction of Militos, Eretria and Athens. Τhe picture of the idealized peaceful persian monarch that some present here is far from real. Many Greek cities forced to participate against Greece during Persian Wars.

February 9, 2013 at 6:25 am
(7) Julian says:

We are also forgetting here that the Hellenistic period of human history
was one of the greatest periods in the world. With the unifying and anthropocentric ecumenical message of Greek civilization ,different nations excelled and participated in advancing sciences ,technology ,philosophy and government. Perhaps the first time in history different people used the well cultivated grounds of greek civilization to better understand their own. Should we mention Philon of Alexandria, Josepus
Flavius, until the Arab period of enlightment, all these have the same foundation. Such was the impact of that period that its echoes still resonate to many parts of the world and to many peoples.
Nobody doubts that the Persian Empire was a great one and a very endouring indeed, but to try to belittle the importance of Greek civilization raises very serious questions .
It is true that the ancient world could not had functioned without the hated institution of slavery, but to make this as the main focus of discussion to discredit greek civilization is not historical research ,only
trying to restore damaged egos. This is not a way to make history right.

Let’s not forget that it was only sixty years ago that Linear B was deciphered and the time span of Greek civilization went a few thousand years older. And just ten years ago the Antikythyra Mechanism was considered a much latter product, until modern science proved that Hellenistic Greeks had the technology and scientific knowledge to produce such complex machines.

Why don’t you all skeptics do yourselves and to human kind a favor and open your hearts and minds to understand the greatness of greek civilization without prejidice.

March 15, 2013 at 2:15 pm
(8) Adam says:

Hmmm, perhaps the “Terminator” movies can add a different perspective on the greatness of civilizations that build complex machines. Just a though, since we are talking about movies…

April 24, 2013 at 3:06 pm
(9) son of zeus ammon says:

it great to see all of the greek defenders here , because there is not enough greek defenders and nut huggers in this world. this is the truth about slavery in the persian empire. their was no slaves in the persian empire , their was only prisoners of war… men captured in battle , who could obliously not be set free back home or they will turn up arms against the empire again . so what do you do with these men? needless slaughter? kill them all? or let them live and pay them a wage for their work . thats right even these prissoners were paid a wage , because of cyrus principles of no slavery every man should be paid for his work. in contrast with ancient greece, the greek way of life CAN NOT function without slaves. the whole greek society is run on the crucible of slavery. the spartans were exceptional soldiers we all know because all they did was train all day every day , every other aspect of spartan life is run by slaves , it is a fact and you can look it up in any source you wil get your answer. i wonder how democracy could be created in a land where there is no freedom and every second man u see is a slave? kind of like america when they had all their black slaves picking cotton and whipping lashing and killing them? what a free beutiful democratic world it was. lets review egypt , oh yes they were bigtime slave lovers ,pyramids , tombs , temples , you name it , all built in slaves broken backs and not a cent payed . oh yes the greeks were very fond of the egyptians and there ways especially slavery. is it any wonder the egyptians hated the persians for conquering them, bringing law and freedom , abolishing slavery, letting them worhip their own gods , what cruel and tyrant rulers the persians were. now i will reply to the part of everyone is slaves to the king. in those times , their must be a king , an emperor , a president….. lo

May 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm
(10) gaz says:

what? are you called BADZ SCIENTEST?

June 14, 2013 at 7:53 pm
(11) aris says:

every last breathing flying or swiming item in persian empire was slave to the will of king of kings.Artemisia to Xerxes after salamis.

Majesty, it is hard to advise what is best. Nonetheless, under the present circumstances, I believe that you should take the army back with you and leave Mardonius behind here with the troops he wants, if he wishes to do so and has made you that promise. If he achieves what he says are his aims, and if his intentions go according to plan, the deed, master, is to your credit. For your slaves accomplished it. But if things turn out contrary to Mardonius’ plan, it will be no great loss, because you and the affairs of your house will survive. If you and your line remain safe, the Greeks will find themselves running many a race for their existence. Should Mardonius suffer some disaster, it will be of no account. The Greeks will win no real victory if they destroy only your slave. You, on the other hand, will be returning after burning Athens, the objective of your campaign.”

what xerxes ask mardonio to do with the people of eretria and athens? yes bring the entire population as slaves to hem. what are the comcuered cities must provide? yes ships and solgiers.

and what was the name of the general that save the kings ship from the strorm by sacrifasing the crew ? hmm what happent to the general after?

did xerxes loose hes power after the lost of hem army ?
did he answer to anyone?
what the 10 athinian generals that defeat a spartan navy took after they return home?
a trial ! wow what that ?:P why cause they left few men in see to avoid a storm.
and they excecuted.
stop talk about slavery percia was imperial power. greek people was just free to do what ever they can. like kill each other. like invent everything

July 23, 2013 at 8:49 pm
(12) ztech says:

I’m not sure how this information is sourced, but it is generally believed that Persians did not practice mass slavery. There is very little, if any evidence brought forth to date, which supports slavery in ancient persia.

July 31, 2013 at 9:36 am
(13) EidlePlea says:

The Persians formally outlawed slavery among conquered nations. The only thing close to servitude was the labor of prisoners of war (those who revolted against the empire), whom were forced to work, however were compensated and treated, relatively well. In fact, their lives were often better than that of the common man. This type of work was akin to penal labour (which exists even in the US today), and was a form of punishment rather than oppression, and it was certainly not fueled by racism.

November 25, 2013 at 4:21 pm
(14) matthew says:


summary and extent of slavery in ancient Persia.

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