In Mesopotamia, slaves were mainly used in a domestic context and not in large-scale public projects as in the Roman empire. The cuneiform sign for slave denotes a person “from the mountains,” which means a foreigner. Slaves could be prisoners of war, captured on campaigns against the peoples on the periphery of Mesopotamia, where skirmishes between the nomadic tribal populations and the sedentary people were often used as a pretext by Mesopotamian rulers to conduct military expeditions that were little more than slave raids. The men and womenthus captured could be sold or distributed as personal gifts to individual retainers. There was also commercial slavery, with slave markets in the major cities, although it is not clear how these slaves were procured in the first place.
   Once acquired, slaves were marked with a special tonsure and skin mark, and they became the property of their owner, to be passed on to his heirs, hired out, or sold as chattel (see INHERITANCE). Any children of slaves were also slaves.
   Only wealthy households could afford to have slaves, and only very affluent families had more than one or two. Male slaves worked in all kinds of capacities, in the fields or workshops; they could also be trained as scribes and work as secretaries and clerks. Any profit they managed to make was theirs to invest, and there is evidence that some wealthy businessmen had started out as slaves. The position of female slaves was slightly different; they worked in the house, fields, or textile workshops, but they were also used as concubines—proverbs warn against the disruptive influence of a pretty slave girl in the house. In the Old Babylonian period, a barren woman could select a slave girl to bear her husband children, who were then treated as her own offspring. Slaves could be officially freed or adopted into a family.
   Not all slaves were foreigners or the descendants of captured persons. It was possible for Mesopotamian citizens to sell their children into slavery and to enslave themselves or their wives to their debtors. The duration of their bondage was in proportion to their debt and ended when the amount originally owed had been earned in labor. When the pressures of usurious loans were too high and debt slavery became too widespread (as in the late Old Babylonian period), kings could decree amnesties to release people from debt slavery.
   See also SOCIETY.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.


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