Slavery in the Byzantine Empire

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Slavery was common in Classical Greece and in the earlier Roman Empire. It was legal in the Byzantine Empire but became rare after the first half of 7th century.[1] From 11th century, semi-feudal relations largely replaced slavery.[2] Under the influence of Christianity, a shift in the view of slavery is noticed, which by the 10th century transformed the slave from property or chattel (i.e. the slave as an object) into a potential citizen (the slave as a subject).[3] Slavery was also seen as "an evil contrary to nature, created by man's selfishness", although it remained permitted by law.[2]

Sources of slaves[edit]

A main source of slaves were prisoners of war, of which there was a great profit to be made.[4] The Synopsis of Histories mentions that after the Battle of Adrassos many prisoners of war were sent to Constantinople. They were so numerous that they filled all the mansions and rural regions.[5] Most of the domestic servants in large Byzantine homes were slaves and were very numerous. Danielis of Patras, a wealthy widow in the 9th century, gave a gift of 3,000 slaves to Emperor Basil I.[6] The eunuch Basil, chancellor during the reign of Basil II, was said to have owned 3,000 slaves and retainers.[7] Some slaves worked the landed estates of their masters, which declined in later ages.

A medieval Arab historian estimates that 200,000 women and children were taken as slaves after the Byzantine reconquest of Crete from the Muslims.[7] Yet parents, living in the Byzantine empire, were forced to sell their children to pay their debts, which Byzantine laws unsuccessfully tried to prevent.[4] After the 10th century the major source of slaves were often Slavs and Bulgars,[8] which resulted from campaigns in the Balkans and lands north of the Black Sea.[9] At the eastern shore of the Adriatic many Slav slaves were exported to other parts of Europe.[9] Slaves were one of the main articles that Russian (often Vikings) traders dealt in their yearly visit to Constantinople. After the 12th century, the old Greek word "δοῦλος" (doulos) obtained a synonym in "σκλάβος" (sklavos),[10] perhaps derived from the same root as "Slav".

Social life[edit]

Slavery was mostly an urban phenomenon with most of the slaves working in households.[11] The "Farmers Law" of the 7th/8th centuries and the 10th century "Book of the Prefect" deals with slavery.[12] Slaves were not allowed to marry until it was legalized by emperor Alexios I Komnenos in 1095. However; they did not gain freedom if they did. The children of slaves remained slaves even if the father was their master. Many of the slaves became drafted in the army.

The socio-economic status of slaves did not necessarily coincide with their legal status. Slaves of the rich had a higher standard of living than free persons who were poor. Also, the legal system made it advantageous for masters to place them in certain economic positions, such as foremen of shops. For example, a goldsmith accused for illicit trade of gold, if he was a slave, could be confiscated. If he was free, he would be whipped and pay a heavy penalty exceeding the value of a slave. Thus, masters were appointing slaves as shop foremen, where they could have authority over free laborers (misthioi, μίσθιοι).[13]


Eunuchs were a special group among the slaves. Young boys were castrated before or after puberty and used as eunuchs. Castration was outlawed but the law was poorly enforced. They were imported and exported to the empire by traders. Eunuchs became very popular at some times, could rise to high posts and fetch high prices.[12] In rich Byzantine families they were accepted as part of the household. Eunuchs played an important role in the Byzantine palace and court.


Slave markets were present in many Byzantine cities and towns.The slave market of Constantinople was found in the valley of the Lamentations. At certain times a 10-year-old child's price was 10 nomismata, a castrated one of the same age was worth 30. An adult male 20 and an adult eunuch 50 nomismata.[9]

Transition from slave labour to free[edit]

Yet it is probable that ordinary labour in towns was conducted on a system like that introduced by Diocletian, whereby the labourer was bound to pursue an hereditary calling, but received wages and provided his own keep. This is the system indicated in the tenth-century "Book of the Prefect". The "Farmer's Law" of the seventh and eighth centuries shows the free "colonus" working in his village, and the slave working on the large landed proprietor's estate, but both classes tended to fall into the condition of serfs tied to the soil. Thus the Byzantine Empire marks an important transitional period from slavery to free labour.[7]

Famous slaves[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Aleksandr Petrovich Kazhdan et al., "Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries", University of California Press, 1985, p. 10
  2. ^ a b Clarence-Smith, "Islam and the Abolition of Slavery", 228.
  3. ^ Youval Rotman, "Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World", transl. by Jane Marie Todd, Cambridge, Massachusetts – London, Harvard University Press 2009. Book presentation in a) Nikolaos Linardos (University of Athens), , Mediterranean Chronicle 1 (2011) pp. 281, 282, b) Alice Rio, American Historical Review, Vol. 115, Issue 5, 2010, pp. 1513–1514
  4. ^ a b D. Phillips, William (1985). Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade. Manchester University Press. p. 37. ISBN 9780719018251.
  5. ^ Stephenson, Paul (2010). The Byzantine World. Routledge. p. 99. ISBN 9781136727870.
  6. ^ Marcus Louis Rautman, Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire, (Greenwood Publishing, 2006), 22.
  7. ^ a b c Trade and Industry, F.H. Marshall, Illustrated Encyclopedia of World History, Vol. 4, ed. JA Hammerton, (Mittal Publications), p. 2629.
  8. ^ M. Bennett, Judith (2013). The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe. Oxford University Press. p. 286. ISBN 9780199582174.
  9. ^ a b c James, Liz (2010). A Companion to Byzantium. John Wiley & Sons. p. 90. ISBN 9781444320022.
  10. ^ Rotman, Youval (2009). Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World. Harvard University Press. p. 66. ISBN 9780674036116.
  11. ^ Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire, Marcus Louis Rautman, page 22
  12. ^ a b Cameron, Averil (2009). The Byzantines. John Wiley & Sons. p. 126. ISBN 9781405178242.
  13. ^ Youval Rotman, Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World, Harvard University Press, 2009, pp 101, 102