Why Would Anyone Pay To Be a Slave?

It seems unfathomable. In the ancient world, some people not only voluntarily became slaves but paid to do so. From reading a papyrus containing a slave contract, Egyptologist Kim Ryholt of the University of Copenhagen discovered that some slaves paid a monthly fee to work in temples, says a recent report in Nature:

I am your servant from this day onwards, and I shall pay 2½ copper-pieces every month as my slave-fee before Soknebtunis, the great god.

The scrap of papyrus this was written on was found (as have many ancient papyri) in a rubbish dump in the ancient Egyptian temple city of Tebtunis. In his article A Self-Dedication Addressed to Anubis – Divine Protection against Malevolent Forces or Forced Labour?, Ryholt also discusses some of 100 other slave contracts. One reveals that voluntary slaves sometimes signed up their descendants also to be slaves: “I am your servant with my children and the children of my children.”

Slaves in antiquity and modern times, says Ryholt, “were generally allowed to earn some money on their own,” by doing manual labor, and so would have used this to pay fees.

But why people chose to become slaves is not spelled out in the contracts. As Ryholt says in  Nature, ”these individuals were not driven by some inexplicable masochist streak – as one may be tempted to assume – but were poor individuals at the bottom of the social hierarchy seeking asylum from a worse fate: forced labor,” such as digging canals. Temple slaves were more likely to work in agriculture, thereby avoiding harsh labor.

Another example of people choosing slavery occurred in the Roman Empire when Roman citizens (such as discharged soldiers) and freed slaves chose to become gladiators and, therefore, slaves. Considering that a professional gladiator had perhaps a one in ten chance of surviving a fight, it can seem baffling as to why anyone should choose such a fate. As in the case of the ancient Egyptian temple slaves, economic realities were the reason: Gladiators were housed, clothed, fed and had access to medical treatment that was simply unavailable to most.

Slavery on the Silver Screen: Lincoln and Django Unchained

The ancient slave contracts and accounts of gladiators underscore the realities of slavery, a topic that remains very much in the public mind, with two major films about slavery in contention for best movie. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln shows the U.S.’s 16th president politicking and negotiating with lawmakers to get the 13th Amendment passed. As Gene Demby observes on NPR, Lincoln is a Hollywood movie about slavery though “there aren’t actually all that many slaves depicted in it”; Spielberg’s film is a reverential depiction of a great man that avoids some of the messiness and ugliness of slavery.

Quentin Tarentino’s Django Unchained has come under fire for seeking to show precisely that. A number of its characters are slaves or (in the case of the main character) former slaves. The film (like all of Tarentino’s films) has been criticized for its violence, which includes slaves being whipped and worse.  But then, Django Unchained “never shies away from the quotidian, petty terror that undergirded American slavery; it gives every interaction between blacks and whites a frisson of mortal risk,” says Demby.

Like the ancient slave contracts that Ryholt has translated, Django Unchained seeks to present the uncomfortable realities of slavery without any romanticizing or white-washing. The film demands that we take a hard look at the U.S.’s racial past and how this history still informs the present.

Yes, it is thrilling that the U.S. will soon be inaugurating President Barack Obama for his second term; that, for four more years, this country’s leader will be African-American. But as anti-Obama criticism (more than a little of it racially charged) reveals, racism remains very much an issue in the U.S. Racism and slavery are topics that make us squirm but this very response is a reminder of why we need to acknowledge ugly truths. We have come a long way from the times of the ancient Egyptians and Romans but we still have very far to go.


Related Care2 Coverage

Genealogists: Obama Descendant of First American Slave

It’s Time to Make Slavery History, Once And For All

How Many Slaves Work For You?


Photo from Thinkstock


Alina Kanaski
Alina Kanaski4 years ago

Help put an end to slavery; sign my petition to tell Nestlé that we want slavery-free chocolate:


Christian R.
Land Lost5 years ago

Django Unchained sucked. It wasn't the realistic portrayal of slave persecution that put the film under criticism but rather the joke of an ending where Django single-handedly takes out half of the white, slave-driving south with his gun.. replete with all the thrills, chills and realism of Quentin's zombie bomb before it "From Dusk Till Dawn". The problem with Django is it didn't know if it wanted to be a realistic presentation of slave times, or a Blaxploitation film, like the low-budget 'soul cinema' of the early 70s. By the end of the movie it had a lot more in common with the latter and was therefore hard to take seriously (for intelligent people anyway). People act as if the subject has never been dealt with before on film. I guess no one saw Roots.

Christine Jones
Christine J5 years ago

Very thought-provoking. Slavery is unfortunately alive and well today, although underground, and it has nothing to do with racism; people of all colours and races are slaves.

Tony B.
Tony B5 years ago

Slavery and oppression still exists today. Children soldiers kidnapped in Africa, forced laborers in Asia, sex slaves in Europe and the Americas. The human race has ceased to officially sanction slavery as it has in the past, though North Korea may lead a short list of exceptions, but there is too often a blind eye turned to modern slavery.

Harish S.
Harish S5 years ago

Good read

paul m.
paul m5 years ago


Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra5 years ago

Thank you Kristina, for Sharing this!

Elizabeth L.
Elizabeth L5 years ago

The Bible condones slavery. The very book that the rabid fundies use to condemn homosexuality, specifies the taking of slaves. So ergo all those preaching against homosexuality should also be condoning slavery. Remember they keep telling us we need to obey the Bible.
"However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)"

Talya Honor
Talya H5 years ago


Frances Bell
Frances Bell5 years ago

I'm currently doing an internship with a wildlife rehab facility - the hours are long, the work sometimes difficult both physically and emotionally - and I've heard several international volunteers complain about being slaves who paid lots of good money to be there. Me, I consider it a privilege to be able to work with endangered species and give them a chance at recovery.