Slavery in the Byzantine Empire

Like many civilizations of the ancient era, slavery was quite prominent within the Byzantine empire.  Being popular among ancient Greece and the Roman empire to follow it, it would only come naturally that the Byzantine empire – initially developed as the eastern reaches of the Roman empire expanding into the borders of modern Turkey – would adopt this social agenda as well.

The Byzantine empire thrived from its slave trade as a result of using prisoners of war, predominantly Slavs and Bulgars dating as far back as the 10th century, and selling them to high-ranking Byzantine citizens. These prisoners of war derived mostly from military campaigns in the Balkans as well as other lands north of the Black Sea. Many of these bought-and-sold slaves ended up working in mansions and more rural regions throughout the empire, either becoming household servants or working on landed estates for their masters. There is even speculation among historians that the root word for “slaves” originates from the label for the Slavic people that were often captured and sold into slavery.

Parts of history also document the buying and selling of women and children subjected to the slave trade after the Byzantines reconquered the island of Crete from the Muslims. It is even said that parents who were heavily indebted would often resort to selling their own children to pay off these debts, despite efforts of the Byzantine empire to prevent this using a system of laws.

Once anyone became a slave in the Byzantine empire, they tended toward being a slave for life, even having the status affect their legacy. Children of slaves were by default slaves at birth, and this was not necessarily a regular phenomenon until well into the 11th century when it was decreed that slaves were allowed to marry and bear children to have proper families. However, there many cases when slaves were castrated and became eunuchs. Eunuchs, even those entering into slavery, had great potential to elevate themselves through society. They were prized by traders and masters alike, often directly associated with whatever house to which they were sold. Historically speaking, eunuchs also often held seats of high positions within the Byzantine courts, even as high as being recognized as court officials under direct orders of the Emperor himself. Because of this historical significance, eunuchs often fetched higher prices than most typical slaves. Depending on the condition of the eunuch, prices could go as high as five times normal amount compared to an adult male who had not been castrated.

As is typically expected, however, slaves as a whole tended to reside toward the lower end of the social hierarchy. They were often mistreated by those of higher classes and even looked upon as sub-human with no rights whatsoever, worse than those born naturally into the lower classes as uneducated laborers. They generally had no opportunity for personal growth as they almost always lacked the resources to afford anything that wasn’t freely given to them by their masters. Because of this, the only skills that they often ever acquired were those they could learn as a result of working for the upper classes and almost never anything more than that. As would be expected, the life of a slave was not at all pleasant. If a slave was at all lucky, he might be drafted into the Imperial army and have the opportunity toward some personal glory.