Slavery was widespread throughout the ancient world. However, some of the most common examples seem to differ qualitatively from slavery as it's commonly conceived today. For instance, Greek slavery was often the result of war or more similar to later Medieval serfdom, whereas African and Middle Eastern slavery seems to have allowed the children of slaves to essentially become family members, albeit possibly of a lower social status. In many of these cases, slavery was not hereditary, and the children of enslaved people could become free.

Neither of these was quite the same as later chattel slavery in the Americas, where enslavement was hereditary with a growing enslaved population, and enslaved individuals could legally be bought and sold.

Obviously, the prevalence and importance of chattel slavery exploded with European colonization of the Americas, primarily through the enslavement of Africans. However, how common was chattel1 slavery worldwide before the trans-Atlantic slave trade?

1: While the term can be a little vague, by chattel slavery I mean slavery in which individuals are legally considered property to be disposed of as the putative owner wishes, and in which slavery is both heritable and frequently inherited. For instance: serfdom probably wouldn't count, because even though the lord controls the labor of their serfs, and serfdom is inherited, the lord couldn't do whatever they wanted with their serfs, or directly sell or buy them.

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    That's a total misrepresentation of Greek slavery. Spartan helots were akin to serfs yes, but Greek slavery was something else entirely. Ancient Greece absolutely practised hereditary chattel slavery, and slaves were very much legally sold and bought in massive markets, often to/from abroad. Graeco-Roman masters did free their slaves relatively often, but the children of slaves inherited the slave status unless explicitly freed by the master. In general, chattel slavery is hereditary. Reducing a human being to property inherently implies they could be sold.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 9:13
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    War was a major source of slaves in antiquity, but the Greeks in particular had moral qualms about enslaving fellow Greeks; hence much of their own slaves were thus imported from abroad. This doesn't really make any difference - the offspring of captured slaves continued to be slaves. Either way this is not a real defining difference between Greek slavery and later Trans Atlantic slavery - much of the slaves in the latter were sourced from African tribal wars, too.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 10:05
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    Just to add to @Semaphore 's excellent comments, AFAIK, slave status in the Graeco-Roman world was inherited through the mother, regardless of who the father was, if known. So, if your mother was a slave, tough, so were you - even if your father was your owner or his son!
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 12:29
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    @jameswf but that's a universal problem, upt and including inheriting a throne! Technically, I believe, slaves did not have "parents".
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 18:59
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1 Answer 1


how common was chattel slavery worldwide before the trans-Atlantic slave trade?

Trans-Atlantic slave trade never amounted to more than a third of African slave trade. Most of the African slaves were bought by the Muslims in the Middle East, who immediately castrated all males (which is why there are few Africans there these days).

Slavery is an ancient universal institution, which appeared independently in all cultures and societies which reached a certain level of productivity per capita: in subsistence societies (e.g., Yanomami) male POW are worthless because they cannot produce more than they eat and have to be guarded (females, whose capture is the purpose of warfare, do not have to be guarded after they are raped and impregnated). However, after agriculture is invented, POW can be enslaved because now they produce more than they consume, and this is what we do observe, historically. For more details, see Das Kapital.


  • FYI , 10% of the Saudi population is of African descent, the United States population of African descent is about 12%, so it's pretty comparable.
    – user27618
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 22:58
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    @JMS: I think the US percentage is much higher than that - depending of course on how one defines "descent". If it's all or most of one's ancestry, perhaps, but there are a lot of mixed-race people out there, especially when the mixing happened several generations ago.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 4:45
  • "Slavery is an ancient universal institution, which appeared independently in all cultures and societies which reached a certain level of productivity per capita." Can you elaborate on this? I'm interested in more than just the African slave trade.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 10:10
  • @Obie2.0: I elaborated, but you really need to do your own research.
    – sds
    Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 13:14
  • @jamesqf yes you are correct but for the purposes of this question self identified African Americans are a direct comparison to Saudi Arabians who demonstrate the characteristics. Descendants who don’t demonstrate the characteristics would be mostly absent from both samples.
    – user27618
    Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 16:16

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