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Slavery is a relation of production and mode of production, characterized by the ownership of humans.

The master is the owner of slave.

Mode of production

Since ancient times, the slave was legally defined as a commodity that the owner could sell, buy, give away or exchange for a debt, without the slave being able to exercise any personal or legal rights or objections. Most of the time there are ethnic differences between the slave trader and the slave, since slavery is usually based on a strong racial prejudice, according to which the ethnic group to which the trader belongs is considered superior to that of the slaves.

The practice of slavery dates from prehistoric times, although its institutionalization probably occurred when agricultural advances made possible more organized societies that required slaves for certain functions. To obtain them other towns were conquered; however, some individuals sold themselves or their family members to pay outstanding debts; slavery was also the punishment for those who committed a crime.

Slavery was an accepted and often essential part of the economy and society of ancient civilizations. In ancient Mesopotamia, India and China slaves were used in households, in commerce, in large-scale construction, and in agriculture. The ancient Egyptians used them to build royal palaces and monuments. The ancient Hebrews also used slaves, but their religion required them to free their own people on certain dates. In pre-Columbian civilizations (Aztec, Inca and Mayan) they were used in agriculture and the army. Among the Aztecs, practitioners of different trades bought slaves to offer them in sacrifice to their patron god.

European domestic slavery

In Homer's epic poems, slavery is the logical fate of prisoners of war. The Greek philosophers did not regard the condition of slave as morally reprehensible, even though Aristotle proposed freeing faithful slaves. In ancient Greece, slaves, with rare exceptions, were treated with consideration. However, the Helots of Sparta (descendants of a conquered people and forced to work hard in the fields and fight in the Spartan armies) were treated with great severity, mainly because their population was larger than that of their rulers.

Generally, slaves were used as domestic workers, in urban trades, and in the countryside, in the marine and transportation. Domestic slavery, in general, was less harsh, since the treatment they received was usually very familiar. Roman slavery differed from Greek in several respects. The Romans had more rights over their slaves, including life and death. Slavery was in Rome much more necessary to the economy and the social system than in ancient Greece, especially during the Empire. The wealthy Romans, who owned large mansions in the city and in the countryside, depended on large numbers of slaves to maintain their homes and agricultural estates.

The imperial conquests decimated the Roman armies, so that it became necessary to import large numbers of foreign slaves to carry out the work in the fields. The main source of slaves was war: tens of thousands of prisoners were brought to Rome as slaves; However, all those convicted of serious crimes and the debtors, who sold themselves or their family members to pay their debts, became slaves.

Modern slavery

Since the rise of feudalism, the practice of slavery has still continued albeit not as the dominant mode of production.

During the fall of the Roman Empire between the 5th and 10th centuries, the institution of slavery in Europe was slowly replaced by feudalism.

The exploration of the coasts of Africa and European contact with the Americas in the 15th century greatly boosted the modern trade in slaves.


  • Ali, Miriam. Sin compasión: la lucha de una mujer contra la esclavitud actual. Barcelona: Editorial Seix Barral, 2ª ed., 1996. Importante análisis de la situación de la mujer ante la esclavitud.
  • Sandoval, Alonso de. Un tratado sobre la esclavitud. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1987. Un tratado clásico sobre la esclavitud y la condición de los esclavos.
  • Ecured.