Did anyone in ancient times (let's say, up to 500 AD) want to abolish slavery, or even acknowledge the possibility that society could somehow work without it?

I remember hearing once that Aristotle imagined a future in which there was no slavery because all their work was done by machines. Anyone?

I'm asking about people who were not slaves themselves wanting to abolish slavery. There were at least three major slave revolts in ancient Rome, so it's not like people didn't know that slaves didn't like being slaves.

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    I think the Essenes and maybe Cyrus the Great (He at least freed many). Then some instances in China: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolition_of_slavery_timeline
    – user45891
    Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 20:15
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    I'm interested in any part of the world before 500 AD. That doesn't mean every answer has to cover the entire world, but I will be interested in an answer that covers any part of the world. I appreciate that this is broad as you say, but it doesn't look like there's any danger of too many answers so far...
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 10:33
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    Regarding the Chinese examples, AFAIK they freed (some classes of?) current slaves without actually abolishing slavery in and of itself (e.g., government slaves), so it almost always grew right back. In general though Chinese slavery was probably closer to serfdom.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 13:44
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    how about Spartacus? Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 13:52
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    @ClintEastwood, I said anyone who wasn't a slave himself, which Spartacus was.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 17:09

10 Answers 10


I don't see Gregory of Nyssa mentioned here. Fourth century Christian bishop, has a couple homilies in which he upbraids slave owners for the presumption that they could own human beings.

Excerpt (quoting Eccl 2:7 where the author says "I got me slaves and slave girls"):

“I got me slaves and slave-girls,” he says. For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness (Gen 1:26). If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power: or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable (Rom 11:29). God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?

It's definitely a question whether Gregory lived this out -- I believe his brother seems to have owned slaves, for instance -- but the abolitionist sentiment is definitely there.

(Translation is from Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes, Stuart Hill, ed. [Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012], 74)

  • Good example, +1 from me. Welcome to the site by the way. Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 4:08
  • I still like the other answer, but +1 and accepted for a very clear example. IMHO, it does not negate this statement if he owned slaves. People can believe in something sincerely and fail to live up to it. I don't believe in sweatshops, but I still buy clothes instead of making my own.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 11:05
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    "“I got me slaves and slave-girls,” he says." That's a weirdly informal translation. Commented Oct 28, 2021 at 6:58

The more I read about the ancient world, the more I come to the conclusion that there was no unified notion of slavery at all. There were multiple things (which the people of the time could distinguish) which we call with the same word, slavery. This is similar to how we call nearly any head of state (and sometimes even not head of state) in ancient world a king, even though many of them had different titles and powers.

In fact there were at least

  • Captured POWs used for labor

  • Criminals punished with forced labor

  • Low-rank clan (family) members who were obliged to serve their clan leaders

  • Debtors who had to work for their creditors for a time period as a substitute for repaying the debt if they could not repay with money.

  • Dependent peasants of various sorts

  • Hostages of various sorts

etc etc.

Romans even had no distinguished word for a slave: they called them "servus" which simply meant "servant".

If we acknowledge that we currently use a single word for totally distinct legal notions it will become clear why no ancient author ever proposed a world without slavery: there was simply no such united term. In fact, in Latin language "world without slavery" would sound as "world without servants" or "world without workers". That said up to this time we still had not eliminate most legal states which we call slavery when we speak about Ancient Rome. We still have POWs, we have penal labor, we have correctional labor, we have conscripted workers and of course we have servants.

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    I appreciate the attempts to be thorough. Ok, then I'm talking about the kind of slavery 1) that you didn't get paid for 2) that you couldn't leave 3) that would last until you died or until your master wanted to free you. So, until you died, basically. The Romans would have been able to distinguish a servus like Spartacus from others, particularly after the servile war.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 20:05
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    @Ne Mo Spartacus was a convicted criminal. He initially served as a soldier but then has been punished and sentenced to be a gladiator. Note that legally in Rome only criminals and rebels could be sold to become gladiators, household slaves could not (unless they comitted a crime). Regarding being slave until one dies, a rule for household slaves was that they would be freed upon reaching old age.
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 20:32
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    @NeMo: your points 1-3 apply to some of the modern "slaves" that Anixx pointed to. In many countries, including USA, numerous prisoners convicted for minor offenses have to work practically for free (your point 1), cannot leave (your point 2), and that lasts until your master (represented by parole board) decides to conditionally free you.
    – Michael
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 21:36
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    @Michael and in the USA their work can be even used by private firms!
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 21:37
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    People often argue that the imposition of debt (at least in the U.S.) for basic necessities like health care and higher education creates a form of economic slavery. It may just be that if we achieve a post-scarcity Star Trek-style future, historians then might look back at our present day and conclude that as long as one need work for their basic needs to be met (even for housing and food and water), that constitutes slavery to an economic machine. Perhaps those who would be slaveowners in a distant time would find that "liberated" debt slaves are more profitable than "chained" slaves. Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 18:34

Alcidamas of Asia Minor. He said that God had made no man a slave in the 4th century BC. He was talking about the Spartan enslavement of the Messenians, but it was a universal statement.

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    Great find, well done! I wonder if he was the only one we know or if any others are known that agreed with him.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 17:42

As a matter of proselytization (not just in my country but in every country) or actual policy, it doesn't appear that anyone particularly prominent in ancient times did that, no.

It has become fashionable to put that belief on ancient Persia's King Cyrus the Great. There's little doubt that his behavior toward conquered peoples was far better than that of the Babylonians and Assyrians before him. Both the Torah and the Babylonian Cyrus Cylinder testify to this. He certainly did free his Jewish slaves he inherited when he conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire. However, claims that the same cylinder is some kind of early declaration of human rights are at best a bit of modern mythologizing*.

The earliest I could find as a state-wide political movement was 14th Century France (late Middle Ages). King Louis X in 1315 declared that "France signifies freedom", and ordered all slaves and serfs setting foot on French soil to be freed. It seems to be assumed that this was in a large part a financial move (the serfs were supposed to pay the crown for their freedom), but the principle was applied to foreign slaves imported into France thereafter, to no financial benefit to the crown.

* - Of course if that's what you want, sort of an ancient history "spirit animal" for abolition, King Cyrus is probably your guy.


Probably not. Here's a statement by a modern historian:

There were no crusaders for universal abolition at this time; while an ancient Christian (or a Stoic) might esteem a slave as a brother, revolutionary efforts to end slavery were never on the table.

Source: Christopher J. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire, p. 27.

Other historians might have a different take on this.

Keith Hopkins in his book Conquerors and Slaves expands Fuhrmann's short brief remark (actually Hopkins' book is much earlier and though Fuhrmann does not cite it on that particular point, he does refer to it a lot, so I suppose Fuhrmann might have condensed Hopkins' argument):

Stoic philosophers stressed the common humanity of slaves and free men: the master buys and sells only the slave's body; 'only their body is at the mercy and disposition of the master; the mind is its own master, and is free...' (Seneca, On Benefits 3.20); the slave can be free in spirit, just as the free men [sic] can be a slave to ambition, fear, grief or gluttony. Man is by nature free, not a slave. But for all their enlightened views on slavery, Stoic philosophers were not social reformers. They objected to cruelty, but they never aimed at abolishing slavery. Christians similarly, by their emphasis on rewards in heaven partly in compensation for sufferings on earth, accepted slavery.

(Conquerors and Slaves, p. 121-122)

From the book Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man by Joseph Vogt, which I opened to a random on page (37) and found an important passage:

It is a characteristic of slave wars wherever and whenever they occurred - from Asia Minor in the East to Italy in the West, and from Eunus' revolt to that of Spartacus - that while the rebels repeatedly tried to make their masters slaves, they never proclaimed, or held out hopes for, the complete abolition of slavery. After the Romans had put down all of theses uprisings and crucified the last of the rebels, the inequality of the social order was firmly entrenched for many centuries to come.

So it seems that even the slaves were not abolitionists.

  • I'll be very interested to hear it!
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 12:54
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    Yes, I read somewhere (can't remember the source unfortunately that in Ancient Rome former slaves seemed to have no moral problem becoming slave traders. Individuals e.g. enslaved by the Romans after losing a war may have felt bitterly unhappy to be slaves, but it would be "If only we'd won, then the Romans would have been our slaves", not "slavery is morally wrong."
    – Timothy
    Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 12:18
  • A much more recent example is William Ellison - Wikipedia, a feed slave who became one of the wealthiest land owners in South Carolina, and who owned many slaves until the Civil War. Commented Oct 27, 2021 at 14:11

Not all Roman "workers" were slaves, and in fact my (very small) Latin dictionary has three words for "workman" - none of them being "servus". To say that in Latin " a world without slaves " would mean "a world without workers" is simply wrong. There were butchers, fishmongers, fullers, dyers, schoolmasters, doctors, tavern-keepers - all workers, but not slaves. Otherwise, there would have been no need for "bread and circuses" - the free dole of grain and entertainments used to keep poor Roman citizens happy. Domestic servants would normally have been slaves, although the Romans were surprisingly generous in manumitting their slaves - the Greeks were astonished by this. Some slaves were what we would now call "white collar workers" - secretaries, administrators, tutors (paedagogi), family physicians in the richest homes. These were often freed, like Cicero's amanuensis, Tiro, who continued to serve Cicero as his freedman and later collected some of his former master's writings. Of course slavery was evil, but to see the Roman world as divided between a rich elite and enchained slaves is unnuanced and incorrect. There could be genuine affection and care between master and slave - Cicero wrote letters to Tiro, concerned for his health when the latter was sick, and Cicero's household slaves protected their master when his killers came looking for him! It is entirely possible that slaves with a decent master had a better life than the poor free citizens, living in cramped tenements that regularly caught fire, and wondering where the next meal was coming from. In short, while all slaves were workers, not all workers were slaves.

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    The world was much more nuanced then, +1 for pointing it out
    – user
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 23:16

According to William Ebenstein (1969):

Zeno and the early Stoics insisted that slavery was contrary to natural law, that it was no more than an arbitrary convention based on force and expediency, and that there were no nations or ethnic groups naturally inferior, fit only to serve those who claimed to be superior.

(Note though that Zeno's writings have not survived, so we have no explicit record of him opposing slavery.)


As far as I know: no, that was not an issue at all. At best people said 'Don't be a slave. Own one!' Spartacus never mentioned he wanted to abolish slavery. In fact, he set Roman senators up as pairs against each other in gladiatorial games himself.

Slavery is of all times and all cultures. As long as people are hunter/gatherers they don't have the necessary surplus to support slaves. Slaves have to be guarded, fed, cared for. Hunter/gatherers live on the edge, they can't afford it.

Almost every agricultural society kept slaves. Conditions varied enormously, of course. Roman house slaves could be pretty well off. Some could buy they freedom or obtained positions of power (in the imperial household). Mine slaves, not so much. They lasted about or less than a year.

Slavery was less common in China, where the government had other ways to make people productive. Why make people slaves if you can tax them? Works just as well.

In Mediterranean societies slavery never was an issue. Of course they knew that nobody wanted to be one. Of course there were revolts and rebellions. But all of them were crushed. Not wanting to be a slave means not automatically working towards abolishment. The ex slaves of the two revolts on Sicily simply changed places with their ex masters who were now their slaves.

  • 3
    sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 8:21

Well, very quickly three ideas came to my mind:

  1. The Spartacus rebellion: it was just one of the three servant wars in Rome. Although it is pretty obvious, the slaves themselves wanted to abolish slavery (at least some of them)
  2. The myth of Atlantis talks about the automatons, some kind of robots designed by the Atlanteans so that there will be no need for slaves (yes, I know, a myth, but the idea of a slave-free society was defined, at least as an utopia).
  3. Seneca (the tutor of Nero) mentions in some of his writings the brutalization of slaves in Rome, in particular gladiators.

Finally keep in mind that the concept of slavery was different at that time, some of the slaves did actually have a reasonably good life at that time, some of them even were educated, think of Aesop for example.

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    I don't know about your final paragraph... the same could be said about slaves in the Americas as well. "Some were educated and all were living in better conditions then back home in Africa..." ... um, no.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 13:01
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    Their testimony could not be accepted without torture; they were subject to retribution killing (if the master is killed a slave, all slaves on all estates, including those who had never met the murderer were killed). They could be bought and sold. They could not enter into contracts. Fundamentally they didn't have civil rights. It doesn't matter how well appointed the cage is, a cage is still a cage, and civil rights are still civil rights.
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 18:51
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    @JuanAntonioGomezMoriano - Yes, the High Status Greek Tutor almost crosses the line to "Long Term Contract" rather than what we think of as Slavery. You tutor the Senator's kids for 10-15 years, get freed and are a Roman Citizen to boot.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 0:56
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    On the original point of did people in ancient societies want to abolish slavery, it seems even ex-slaves did not. I've been looking at epigraphic evidence of the lives of Roman freedwoman (and freedmen) collated by an Edinburgh University academic, and liberti seem to be as likely to have had slaves as the freeborn. So it seems even (ex) slaves saw nothing wrong with slavery per se. And the ancient world differed from the antebellum US Southern States in that, AFAIK, there were no non-slave societies as a reference point.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 4:07
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    Your point 1 in your answer: "Spartacus rebelion ...it is pretty obvious, the slaves theirselves wanted to abolish slavery" I would be careful here. A slave who rebels may not be opposed to slavery as an institution, they may just not like being a slave themselves. Poor people who riot and loot shops today do not always have any vision of creating a society without distinctions of wealth. They may just not like being poor and take an opportunity to take out their frustrations and grab some wealth for themselves if they can.
    – Timothy
    Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 12:38

Musonius Rufus was a Roman philosopher. He was against slavery and lived about the same time as Jesus Christ. Back then if you were against slavery it was dangerous to come out and say it plainly. It could get you killed. There were people against it we know.

To be honest a lot of ideas we consider modern like being against slavery, against forced prostitution, pro womens rights, no prison for debtors who could not pay their debts, no physical abuse (truly beating) of children and people as punishment, etc you will find throughout history. There are times where the less morally developed have more influence over society and there are times the more developed have more influence. But the morally correct have always been there.

  • Most of this answer is an irrelevant opinion piece. Please expand on Musonius' view of slavery and what he did about it. Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 21:40

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