Slave and Master in Ancient Near Eastern Law

Selections from “Slave and Master in Ancient Near Eastern Law” by Raymond Westbrook … ticle=3004

Area of the ANE under study:

The geographic area bounded by this study is the Fertile Crescent of the ancient Near East, from Mesopotamia in the East, through Anatolia in the North, to Syria-Palestine in the West, but, for the most part, excluding Egypt. The time period covered extends from approximately the twenty-fifth century B.C., when the earliest legal documents concerning slavery were found, to the fourth century B.C., when, with its conquest by Alexander, the area became part of the larger Hellenistic world.

Who are considered slaves?

In the strongly hierarchical societies of the region, the term ‘slave’ was used to refer not only to a person owned in law by another but to any subordinate in the social ladder. Thus, the subjects of a king were called his ‘slaves’ even though they were free citizens. The king himself, if a vassal, was the ‘slave’ of his emperor, and kings, emperors, and commoners alike were ‘slaves’ of the gods. A social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as ‘your slave.’

Family relationship:

The authority of a head of household over other members of the family gave him powers that were, in some cases, analogous to those of a property owner. He could sell his children into slavery or hire out their labor, or he could hand over his wife or children by way of pledge to secure a debt.

Any children given as pledge could presumably then be sold.


Debtors could give themselves or persons under their authority to creditors by way of pledge. The resulting conditions were analogous to those of slavery: the pledge lost his personal freedom and was required to serve the pledgee, who exploited the pledge’s labor. Nonetheless, the relationship between debtor and creditor remained one of contract, not property. Since the pledgee did not own the pledge, he could not alienate him, nor did the pledge’s property automatically vest in the pledgee. It was in the nature of a pledge that it could be redeemed by payment of the debt, at which point the pledge would go free.

The result could be a form of service that lasted for many years, even for life.

Categories of slavery:

The status of slavery itself was not monothilic. The legal regime applied might differ in some aspects as between categories of slaves and even as between individual slaves. Three principal factors were responsible:
– social justice
– contract
– citizenship/ethnicity


Foreigners in the ancient Near East were in a precarious situation. They had no legal rights outside of their own country or ethnic group unless they fell under the local rulers’ protection. Even their lives were not safe.

Involuntary enslavement was therefore a distinct possibility.

As a Babylonian proverb remarks: “A resident alien in another city is a

Inevitably, foreign slaves were heavily represented in the category of chattel-slaves.


Foreigners captured in war were booty, which could be dealt with as the captor saw fit. They could be held for ransom, exploited as labor, or resettled.

They were not automatically slaves, but they were without rights and therefore potential slaves. Indeed, they were without the legal complications of domestically created slaves, since their enslavement was in the nature of acquisition of ownerless property.


In Old Babylonian slave-sales it was occasionally noted that a slave is “house-born” (wilid bitim). In one such document, the slave-girl was said to have been ‘born on the roof.’ Such slaves could have been the offspring of a union of master and slave, as attested in the law codes (CL 25, CH 171) or of slaves.


The seller was, under certain conditions, allowed to buy back, to ‘redeem’, that property at the original price, as if it had merely been pledged. This equitable principle applied only to certain types of property, in particular family land, but also to members of one’s family sold as slaves.

Thus, a slave who reverted to the authority of the head of household, for example a son redeemed by his father, would thereby be freed but once more be subordinate to his father.


Since wearing earrings through pierced ears was widespread in the ancient Near East, piercing a slave’s ear was presumably for the purpose of inserting an ownership tag of some sort. The purpose of the exercise, as we learn from the only other source where piercing is mentioned, was to mark him as a chattel-slave.


Like the Assyrian law, it implies that a master did not have a general right to disfigure his slave.

For the same offense, however, some of the contracts in the Tehip-tilla archive from Nuzi applied a remarkably severe penalty:
If A. breaks the contract and leaves B.’s house and declares thus: “I am not a slave-woman and my sons are not slaves,” B. shall put out the eyes of A. and her children and sell them.
The purpose of blinding was so that they could be sold as chattel- slaves, not famine-slaves who would be subject to redemption.


A slave who fled in the other direction, to a foreign county, could not be sure of the welcome he would receive. His hope for free status rested on being granted the status of resident alien, a privilege entirely at the discretion of the local ruler.


The legal systems of the ancient Near East recognized persons as a category of property that might be owned by private individuals. It was pursuant to the normal rights of ownership that a master could exploit the slave’s labor, restrict his freedom, and alienate him. Nonetheless, the relationship between master and slave was subject to legal restrictions based on the humanity of the slave and concerns of social justice. In spite of the impression given by certain law codes, those restrictions were not imposed in a systematic manner, but derived mainly from the equitable discretion of the courts, in particular the king (or his officials), who, as the font of justice, had the power (and the divine mandate) to intervene in order to alleviate injustice, even where it arose from arrangements that were within the letter of the law. As a result, the “rights” of slaves were uneven in quality, varying from system to system and from period to period, and even as be- tween individual cases within the same society. The basic principles, however, were the same in all the societies in question.

In determining who should benefit from measures of social justice, the legal systems drew two main distinctions: between debt-slave and chattel-slaves, and between native and foreign slaves. The authorities intervened first and foremost to protect citizens who had fallen on hard times and had been forced into slavery by debt. The tendency was to assimilate them for these purposes into the class of pledges, persons whose labor might be exploited under a contractual arrangement but who remained personally free in terms of status. At the other end of the scale, foreigners who had been acquired by capture or by purchase abroad received very little succor from the local legal system.