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In both fantasy and science fiction, from books, movies, games and tv shows, slave armies are a concept that is used pretty often. A well known example of this is the Unsullied from Game of Thrones. Some works use slave armies in Roman settings. However I wonder, was this ever used in history?
The concept seems really weird to me. By creating a slave army you have just given the slaves all they need to kill their masters and break free. They have all the weapons they need, and they've gathered up a large number of slaves in the same place.

I don't see how anyone that owns slaves could ever allow slaves to hold weapons unless you have a much bigger force to keep them in check. So were slave armies ever used in history? And if so by who and when?

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    Well, conscription among slaves was not such a rare thing; even the CSA tried it (the trick was offering freedom as part of the reward). Even without that, there were occasion were prisoner/slaves were made to fight only by vague promises and self-interest; for example, in Lepanto the Christian galleys had Christian prisoners as rowers, and those knew that an Ottoman victory would mean that they would sink with the ship or become Ottoman slaves. – SJuan76 Jul 3 '16 at 21:20
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    And of course, the Janissaires (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janissaries) were technically slaves, but had a better standard of living than many of the free population of the time. – SJuan76 Jul 3 '16 at 21:36
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    Mammalukes I think are the most famous example. – Doctor Zhivago Jul 3 '16 at 21:40
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    While they do have the weapons to kill their masters, the government or even local government will have more man power to set these slaves straight and put them in inprisonment or if earlier in history to his or her death. – Ventusx3 Jul 3 '16 at 23:09
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    This question would be improved by preliminary research. – Mark C. Wallace Feb 26 at 11:40
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Yes they did happen. These armies mostly occurred in the Middle East in Ancient History with rulers and sultans. It started in the 7th Century but really came to affect in the 9th century during the second Muslim Dynasty, The Abbasids. These Muslim Rulers in the Middle East relied on slaves to join their army because they decided that these slaves would be completely loyal and dependent of their rulers.

The most famous of these slave armies were Central Asian Turks, also referred to as The Mamluks. They were non-Muslim males from the steppe who were well known for their archery and horse riding skills due to being pastoral. They were captured and converted to Islam. Due to laws there was always a constant demand of Mamluk. These Mamluks were well trained soldiers and capable of being in the army.

Summary: Slave armies have been used in history such as the Mamluks or Central Asian Turks.

Sources: African Military Slaves in the Muslim Middle East and Wikipedia

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    Not to forget Janissaries. – taninamdar Jul 4 '16 at 12:49
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    Mamluks were taken from everywhere. Why do you call them "Central Asian Turks"? Many of them were not Turks by their origin. – Alex Jul 4 '16 at 15:39
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    What do you mean by "Due to laws..."? Can you edit to clarify? – AllInOne Jul 5 '16 at 13:18
  • Similar to grandfather law in the United States but different depending your parents race, religion, ect. Would prevent a Mamluk from being taken as a slave – Ventusx3 Jul 6 '16 at 7:28
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    Ghilman or Mamluks were well paid. I'm not sure why exactly they are called slaves. – John Dee Apr 20 '18 at 19:19
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Mamluks are the big example of historical slave soldiers, but a very big and often overlooked characteristic of mamluks is that they were bought as slaves but were freed before becoming full soldiers. You have slave recruits but manumitted full soldiers. As such it's more of a freedman army than a slave army.

Part of the idea was likely that the mamluks would feel obligated to the sultan because he manumitted them. Another part, I think, was probably the idea that if you import foreigners from far-off lands then they won't have any connections with the locals. It's harder to plot a grand conspiracy against the sultan when you're a foreigner and you don't know anybody.

The game of thrones version in which they're ultradisciplined supersoldiers doesn't always match history. In Egypt and Turkey these soldiers managed to achieve some mixed successes, but they acquired a poor reputation in most of the Islamic world as having poor morale and bad battlefield performance, and often were soldiers of last resort for a ruler who, for one reason or another, wasn't able to get enough free soldiers. Which is pretty much what you'd expect.

Last difference is that mamluks weren't bought and sold after they became soldiers, unlike in GOT. They were bought to recruit them, but after starting to train them as soldiers they weren't for sale. Nobody went around putting trained armies - supersoldiers or otherwise - on the auction block where a rival (or some random schmuck) could buy them.

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With a slightly broader definition of "slave" to include conquered peoples who were used as slave labor, we have the Osttruppen of the Wehrmacht (German Army in WWII) made up of soldiers from areas of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union overrun by the Germans. Some were volunteers either pro-Nazi or anti-Stalin or just looking for a decent meal. Others were POWs conscripted or coerced into serving. By late 1943 there were almost half a million Osttruppen fighting for the German Army shoring up their ever increasing manpower shortages.

The most famous example in the West is the 439th Ost Battalion defending Omaha Beach on D-Day. Many surrendered as soon as their defensive position was compromised, while others were held at their posts by their German sergeants. Many Allied soldiers were surprised by "Germans" speaking Russian or Polish.

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    This is a big gap in the historiography of World War 2 actually. Whenever I read what passes for History of Barbarossa no one explains how Army Group Center started out at 800,000 men, suffered enormous casualties all the way to the gateway to Moscow...and then when Operation Typhoon got underway had 1.2 million men ready for the taking of Moscow. The answer is obvious but "none dare speak of it." You, sir are an excellent exception. Hope folks are reading this site because here real History resides. – Doctor Zhivago Jul 4 '16 at 11:58
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    Technically these people were not slaves, you "broaden the definition" too much. Technically they were volunteers. The conditions that made some of them "volunteer" is another matter. – Alex Jul 4 '16 at 15:37
  • @Alex Is there a technical definition of a slave? I bring it up because its an example of how you can successfully arm a conquered people and have them fight for you, something the OP was musing about. – Schwern Jul 4 '16 at 17:08
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    @user14394 Ost battalions are no secret. Whether they're popularly known is another matter, but the Eastern Front is often forgotten in the West. As for Army Group Center, while I'm sure they were reinforced by Ost battalions, be very careful when comparing large German units. The Germans were masters at shuffling units around. For example, 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies were moved from Army Group North to Army Group Center for Typhoon. Army Group Center started Barbarossa with 5 Panzer and 10 Army Corps (48 divisions). By Typhoon it had 5 Panzer, 3 Mechanized, and 14 Army Corps (70 divisions). – Schwern Jul 4 '16 at 17:30
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    @user14394 between June and December 1941 there was no practical time to setup the Ost batallions, and (as Germany counted on winning) no need to call for the help of slavs (which were in Nazi views inferiors). Apart from switching forces (specially from the Leningrad forces), many German allies provided significant forces during summer-autumn 1941 (Italy, Hungary, Spain...) – SJuan76 Jul 5 '16 at 18:04
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Slaves in the military were common in West Africa from at least the seventeenth century:

The most important privileged slaves in West Africa were the warriors....The number of slave warriors in western Africa grew during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They served the state by fighting, but also by running messages, administering the court and holding important posts.

Samori Toure, founder of the Wassoulou Empire (1878-98), had an army which included around 30,000 infantry, most of whom were slaves. These male slaves were armed with

imported breech-loading rifles and muzzle-loaders manufactured by local blacksmiths.

In the Senegambia region of West Africa,

ordinary slaves were divided into two categories : slaves who had been captured during the countless raiding expeditions, and slaves bought at the slave markets. The former were kept in special villages both in time of peace and war. After several years in such villages the bravest of them were selected to become warriors, and were henceforth royal slaves. They would fight under the command of the chief, and he alone had the right to punish them.

Source: Mbaye Guerre, The slave trade within the African continent in UNESCO, The African slave trade from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century

The French also used slaves as soldiers in the French Sudan (now Mali) in the late 19th century. According to the French soldier Joseph Gallieni:

The enlistment bonus is 250 francs. If he is a free man, we give him the 250 francs and he serves you loyally. If he is a slave, we act as follows so as to not annoy the master: the master is told when the slave will receive his bonus and often he takes it and the slave has nothing.

Cited in Martin Klein, Slavery and colonial rule in French West Africa


Slaves were also used as soldiers in the Dutch colony of New Netherland around the mid 17th century:

The WIC [Dutch West India Company] enlisted its male slaves in military campaigns against the natives during the Indian war. These slaves did not bear firearms but instead wielded small axes and half-pikes.

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A famous example is the Spartan army whose large portion consisted of helots.

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During the American Civil War, some, prominently Judah P. Benjamin, suggested that slaves be used in combat. But for both the obvious reason that arming slaves seems like a very dangerous thing to do and for the ideological reason that if slaves could make good soldiers then the natural superiority of Whites which justified slavery in the first place would be called into question.

Only when the South was in desperate straits was the use of slaves in combat explored -- I do not know if any were actually given weapons and you can bet that officers commanding slave battalions would be White; in any event, slaves never fought for the South in large numbers; slaves were used as labor to supplement White soldiers, digging ditches and also working in armament industry (Tredegar factory).

Source: Evans' bio of Judah P. Benjamin, The Jewish Confederate, is a good source about JPB's stance on usage of slaves by the South.

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