Due to low numbers of humans, the death penalty is forbidden and impractical as it would bring mankind to the brink of extinction.

All prison sentences are now changed to various forms of thralldom or outright slavery that a person has to bear for various years or an entire lifetime.

Technology became obsolete for various reasons, you have to develop new ways to keep these thralls and slaves from running away from harsh service. Would normally ball and chain be enough or should these thralls be neutered by severing unimportant tendons etc. Severing Achilles tendons was a punishment for slaves who tried to flee.

Edit: "world" view on slavery is that it is "barely tolerated aberation" as @AlexP said but you cannot really run away from it as this group that has labelled these persons are only human group around. There are only about 5k humans around so there is need to keep all survivors alive even if they are killers or hostile to the main group in various ways.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Not enough information. In your world, is slavery integrated into the society, as, for example, it was in the Classical world, so that there is no place to flee to and little incentive to try? Or is it a barely tolerated aberation, as, for example, in 19th century USA, so that the slave just needs to travel some distance northwards and they become free? And remember that the use of balls and chains etc. greatly reduces the usefulness of the slave. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 26, 2016 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your reply. Barely tolerated aberration is rather good description how this group would view thralldom. But these thralls are somewhat similar position with brazilian slaves that moved deeper to forest and lived among native tribes but there are not native tribes as mankind is on brink of extinction (only 5k survivors), These thralls would have to work with same group that sentenced them to thralldom eventually if they want to speak or help from another humans $\endgroup$
    – Reshogu
    Dec 26, 2016 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ "should these thralls be neutered" if the death penalty decimates the population when sparsely used then neutering all criminal offenders is out of the question.... $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Dec 27, 2016 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Zxyrra I think the OP meant neutralised, because neutering doesn't involve cutting tendons. $\endgroup$ Oct 25, 2017 at 10:40

6 Answers 6


Ancient Sparta was an interesting example of a society based on large scale slavery. Unlike the rest of Classical Greece, where slavery was an individual thing (i.e. you could choose to own a slave if you could afford one), and slavery itself was considered an unfortunate condition (being enslaved because your side lost the war, or sold to pay off debts and so on), Spartan Helots were enslaved as a conquered people, and property not of any particular Spartan, but of the Spartan State as a whole.

While this also had some pretty severe consequences for the evolution of the Spartan Polity (especially the rise of a permanent warrior class developed primarily to deal with slave revolts), the Spartans also had an extensive system of informants, fake incentives and even a ferocious secret police (the Krypteia)

So your society is likely to evolve in similar directions.

All able bodied freemen will be impressed into military service in order to provide the manpower to put down slave revolts. Slaves will be subverted so some will become willing stooges capable of informing on their fellow slaves to provide information. Sometimes, slaves might be "invited" to become soldiers or receive manumission; the ones which step forward are violenty punished or killed to ensure others don't get ideas above their station.

Finally, the Krypteia was essentially a cross between "Force Recon" and the Stasi, creeping around to observe the slaves when they didn't think they were being observed, taking notes and then swooping down to seize potential troublemakers and remove them from the rest of the population.

Of course the Spartites discovered that this was a policy of diminishing returns. As the Helot population grew and the farm income of the Spartan State increased, the Spartans were forced to redouble their efforts to keep the Helots down. Sparta evolved into a hyper militarized state, ritually declaring war on the Helots every year and with virtually no male citizens exempt from military duty and full time training. We know a lot about the Spartan military, but there is virtually no Spartan literature, arts, temple complexes or even Spartan colonies around the Aegean Sea. And of course, the Helots nurtured a simmering resentment, to the point Xenophon wrote "helots would gladly eat their masters raw", and several unsuccessful Helot revolts were recorded in history.

The Spartan advantage of extreme militarization kept them in power until after the Peloponnesian War, when Thebes, another land power, finally invaded Laconia under Epaminondas. He defeated the Spartans militarily, and then not only freed the Helots, but kept his army in Messenia long enough for the Helots to throw up fortified cities and gain enough training , weapons and equipment to successfully battle the Spartites on equal terms.

If there is no outside "power" to liberate the Helots, they may choose to revolt against their masters, but unless there is an overwhelming manpower advantage or they are led by some sort of military genius who can overcome deficits in training and equipment, success is not guaranteed at all.


What does a slave do when he runs away?

Running away as a slave really isn't as easy as all that. By the time of the Civil War in the US, slaves running away via the Underground railroad had something to do when they ran away: they could work at the budding industrial enterprises of the north which needed labor. But for most most of history that was not an option.

Lets set the scenario. You are a slave on a Roman latifundia in southern Italy in the time of Augustus. You tend vines for wine-making all day. Your master whips you and steals your children and life sucks. You want to run away. Where do you go?

You were born on this farm, or one like it. There is no 'wilderness' to escape to in south Italy...or even in north Italy. You know how to tend vines for grapes, but you don't really have the knowledge of equipment to farm for grain for survival. Even if you did, there is nowhere to farm. All the land is owned by local peasants or settled veterans who would drive you off with pitchforks; or it is owned by senators from the city, who would just slap you in irons and make you a slave a gain. Your only hope of not starving to death is to join a band of brigands like Spartacus. Of course then you will die crucified...like Spartacus. Maybe its better just to stay here?

For most parts of history, there wasn't really an option to run away. If you were a slave imported to Baghdad from Zanj (East Africa) in the 800s, where would you go? The land is desert all around the river basin, so nowhere to survive if you escaped. Your skin color pretty much marks you as a slave if you go to a big city. You probably don't speak Arabic, and you probably don't have any craft skills worth a darn. Unless you can hire on as a sailor, there is a pretty good chance you will starve to death if you run away. Not great.

Most slaves in history probably didn't even need to be in chains. To be honest, for many free people in history, they may have been better off being enslaved. Freedom isn't much to give up if you are buying (limited) protection from war or famine.


Some people claim that native Americans were never made slaves because they just walked off into the woods. Supposedly, they were so accustomed to living in the wild that they had to be locked up. Africans were made slave because:

  1. They were instantly recognizable because of their skin color.
  2. They wouldn't run off into the wilds.

BUT some authors report that slaves regularly ran away for vacations, and returned without any severe consequences because slave owners didn't want to discourage voluntarily returned slaves by punishing them when the came back.

Anyway, slavery is a practical solution to the fact that the only motor on a farm is muscles. In other words, to pick cotton, you need a lot of human hands if you don't have electric or gas powered motors. Your technology has to need muscle power or you don't have any profit in using slaves.

After all, slave revolts used to be the nightmare of the plantation system. Abuse of slaves, such as rape or torture could trigger a population of people that outnumbered you and your family to do things like put poison in the food they cooked for you, or throw your children down the well, or cut your throat in your sleep with your own razor.

Your may want to read some factual studies of slavery that are not trying to prove a political stance. Slavery was a complicated issue with some surprising outcomes. Did you know that a survey of freed slaves showed that 30% of them wanted to return to slavery? It seems that having the owner provide shelter, food, health care was attractive to some former slaves.


The only way I can see this society working is if being a slave is preferable to not being a slave. What that means depends on your technology level, but there are some common threads you can pull at:

Slaves are Fed and Cared For

Being a slave means having no freedom and being owned by another person, but it also means that person has an interest in keeping you alive (and to an extent happy or afraid enough to keep the status quo). Sure, they have to work hard for their food, but so do many independent farmers. The only difference is the fruits of their labors that don't go to food or shelter for themselves goes to the owner.

Slaves are pitied, but are seen as men

These people are not enslaved because they are inferior, or because they are subhuman, they are enslaved because they broke the law, and are serving a penance to society. It is very important that people still see them as human beings. This will help those in charge of them be kinder and make it a more humane situation.

The Alternative to Slavery is Bad

This is the "evil forest" idea. Make the slaves believe that the wilds will kill them, or some fate worse than death (slow starvation is an option). If they are being fed and cared for, the labor isn't terrible, and the overseers aren't cruel, there's little motivation or reason to revolt. Punishment for slave uprising should be extreme, perhaps being one of the few instances a death penalty is allowed to underline the severity of the crime. You could also welcome back runaways with forgiveness, and no increase in their sentence, but I think this sets a bad precedent for running away.

There Should Be an End

There's a large difference in attitude between a slave whose whole life is going to be in chains, and one who knows they will eventually be freed. Even those sentenced to "life" should only be slaves for a period of time. If a group of slaves is going to revolt, someone who has a year left on their sentence is a lot less likely to help and more likely to inform on the uprising than those that have 10+ years remaining. You could also allow owners to reduce sentences for good behavior and the like, further encouraging cooperation.


Depends on the details of your fictional world. However, these considerations should apply:

  • If the society cannot afford to do without the labor of the convicts, it probably cannot afford to deliberately cripple them or to waste manpower on guarding them.
  • This applies even more if modern technology is lacking. The majority of the population has to work in agriculture. Can prison farms raise enough food surplus to feed their guards? As a ballpark figure, it takes 10 farmers to feed 1 castle or town inhabitant.

In a cruel setting, the convicts could be branded to mark them and be sent to do hard labor. Perhaps a chain gang, not individual ball and chains, but even then it is questionable if the legal system can afford enough skilled metalworking for that.


Simply tell the slaves that they will be tortured if they try to flee, and leave it at that.

To break them such that they stop trying to escape, set-up scenarios where they think it is safe to flee. Let them try, capture them, and then torture them. Further, use social engineering to get slaves to trust someone. Said person can convincingly explain an escape method and subtly encourage a slave to attempt it. Of course, upon an actual escape attempt have the person the slave trusted do the actual torturing.

Slaves will never be sure when it is safe to escape. The slave will never know who to trust. Pretty quickly, the slave will stop thinking about escaping.


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