(Later Edit: Clarifying my question to could Rome, its empire, its complex urban civilization, grandeur, and vast public works be built without slavery in its era or the middle ages?)

Could a civilization at the scale of the Roman Empire in its period exist without slavery? I am looking for technology including medieval period technology that could have allowed it. I am trying to create a realistic Roman Empire style civilization without slavery in a world that mixes classical era and middle ages technology.

The Roman Empire's 'greatness' was essentially built on slavery and surplus wealth created by slavery from agriculture, mining, and the spoils of war. It was also built to a lesser extent on trade, uniformity, unified monetary policy as the primary minter of coinage, and monopolies on trade. There was the Pax Romana it created to create a wealthy complex civilization with widespread trade networks, but this was built in Rome which was built on slavery. The later Eastern Roman Empire aka Byzantine Empire would build its wealth on trade but be significantly less powerful as well as less wealthy than Rome.

Of course, technology played a part in Rome's glory, but the material wealth from slavery allowed a complex society to emerge with relative luxury in urban areas. This then allowed such technology and skilled craftsmanship to be developed in a complex society. The patrician class often owned large plantations and mining operations where slaves toiled away. Julius Caesar once sold 53,000 Gauls to slave dealers on the spot as historically recorded. Slaves were divided into several categories such as prison labor and prisoners of war.

Slaves were needed to build the massive public works of Rome, engage in large-scale mining operations, and engage in 'factory farming' with large-scale monoculture plantations.

The excess wealth of the patrician class necessarily built on slavery allowed taxation which expanded the public purse and later private purse of the emperors. This wealth was then used to pay the legions of the Empire and construct the massive public works, baths, monuments, palaces, villas, etc. Often the wealthy patricians and emperors would build the great works that are the hallmark of Rome with their funds. The patronage of the patrician class funded skilled craftsmen, artisans, architects, thinkers, and others in creating the advanced 'culture' Rome possessed. Such great urban civilization was not truly seen again for centuries.

Could there be such an Empire in that era absent slavery? One could say it could be serfdom instead of slavery, but serfdom is a somewhat different institution. What technology or social structure could make it possible? Trade monopoly alone would not make for a very realistic world, and the Eastern Roman Empire aka Byzantine Empire, as well as the greatest mercantile republics in the Middle Ages, did not possess the glory, wealth, or power of Rome. Nor were they able to create the 'Pax Romana' that allowed the Empire to have massive cities with complex trade networks existing in relative peace.

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    $\begingroup$ Are you asking: "Is this even possible?" or are you asking "What changes can I make to the Roman Empire to make it function without serfdom?" $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Oct 23 '17 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ I suppose what changes can I make to the Roman Empire to make it function without slavery AND could a civilization with comparable 'glory', 'power', and urban civilization emerge in a classical to middle ages era without slavery. Fair middle ages serfdom would be acceptable but slaves were also used in mines and to build public works in Rome so some form of payment I suppose and more freedom would be needed for those kinds of laborers to be equivalent to somewhat more fairly treated serfs. Some people consider serfs slaves in all but name, but it is considered a separate institution by most. $\endgroup$ – Seanchaí Oct 23 '17 at 8:54
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    $\begingroup$ Slavery was an essential part of ancient Roman society. There were practically no free salaried workers in Rome. The whole economy consisted of just patricians and slaves. When you try to build a Roman culture without slaves, there wouldn't be much Roman about it. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Oct 23 '17 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ The argument exists that [some] modern societies haven't really eliminated slavery either, especially as it concerns the working poor and law-enforcement-as-a-revenue-source, so perhaps a precise definition of slavery is in order. As is a more precise definition of "necessary". That the rich and powerful used slaves is not an indication that they were necessary, so much as it shows that it was economical to use slaves than paid laborers. (And one could raise the question of how different slavery is from subsistence wages anyway, so there's that too... anyway, some clarifications would help.) $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Oct 23 '17 at 17:38
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    $\begingroup$ Note that there were empires in the same time period and development stage where slavery was much less common. Consider China. Confucianism - the state religion/ideology - disapproved of slavery. In ca. 10AD, emperor Wang Mang attempted to abolish it altogether. For details, see Homer Dubs, 1940, "Wang Mang and His Economic Reforms", in T'oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 35, Livr. 4, pp 219-265, at JSTOR or wikipedia $\endgroup$ – 0range Oct 24 '17 at 17:33

15 Answers 15


I actually think it could, but it would need some very good reason to not have slavery. As others have noted forced labor has been a major factor in civilization. And this is kind of inevitable as the ability to arrange labor for public works such as irrigation, walls, roads, and harbors has been the big selling point of governments in ancient times. So using your own people for forced labor would occur in most civilizations and using captured people as slaves would follow quite naturally. In fact, it might be possible that slavery is older as it happens naturally even in chiefdoms and tribes that do not really have forced labor otherwise.

Also, while I am dubious about the economy of the empire requiring or even benefiting from slavery, slavery was a large factor in motivating and paying for invasions. So if you want a large empire, you'd also need some strong mechanic driving expansion to compensate for not making large profits from selling slaves.

I probably should explain why I do not think slavery is an economic necessity as such as most seem to think it is. Basically while slave based economy is hugely profitable, the benefits only accessible for people who already have sufficient property. So it basically makes the rich richer.

This isn't a bad thing as it allows people to accumulate the large fortunes needed to make large investments. However that requires that there are large investments that expand the economy available. Otherwise the capital is expended on luxury and vanity projects. This is of limited benefit to the economy as whole.

And it isn't free either, the land used for slave plantations is not available for other uses, which has consequences to free farmers. The enrichment of the very rich also leads to social imbalances that impact the political and legal systems. This leads to corruption and inefficiency.

So I am not at all convinced that a civilization with slave based economy would as a whole be better off than a non-slave based one just because the rich elites hugely benefit from slave economy.

But as said in the beginning you'd need good reasons to not have slaves and to be expansionist enough to build an empire. Religion maybe? Some religions have restrictions on slavery and promote violent expansion to non-believers.

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    $\begingroup$ In addition there are other social factors to consider. Ancient Rome had primitive steam and atmospheric engines, waterwheels and cranks and produced what we would recognize as clockwork. What they did not have was a society which saw these innovations as anything else but toys and diversions for rich people, rather than the possible foundation for economic production. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Oct 23 '17 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ Wikipedia says one economic explanation is that slavery is more profitable than paid labor when labor is scarce. Higher population density makes slavery less profitable. $\endgroup$ – JollyJoker Oct 24 '17 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ @JollyJoker It isn't quite that simple. Even with high population density and unemployment you can have a shortage of a specific type of labor. The work might be outright too abusive in some way for people free to say no to do it in sufficient volume. Plantations and mining are examples where business has before modern machinery been more profitable if employees are abused. Currently grey economy where work is criminalized for some reason creates working conditions similar to slavery. In some cases a business is engaged in a race to bottom that forces bad conditions. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Oct 24 '17 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ Also, it seems there's not much need for actual slavery when you can have effective slavery. See feudalism, indentured servitude, wage slave. If your workers are "free" but will otherwise starve without the food you're giving them for their work, you can get essentially the same effect. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Oct 24 '17 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ This isn't a bad thing as it allows people to accumulate the large fortunes needed to make large investments. Well, this ended by the eviction of the Roman peasants from their farms; the peasants ended in the Army, loyal only to their general (who was the one who could get them a piece of land in a colony after service) because they had no farm to return to; and internal fighting between the haves and have-nots lead to an Empire with no clear succession/legitimacy rules -with the inherent constant risk of military rebellion-. But, apart from that, it was not a bad thing. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Oct 26 '17 at 9:01

The necessary labor could be drawn from multiple sources:

  • The incarcerated - hard labor as part of a sentence for a convicted criminal is not a new concept, and it's one that operated for centuries. Even in "first world" countries today there is the watered down version in the form of community service.

  • Indentured servitude - making someone work off a debt was another common practice at many points in history.

  • Social mobility - for the low-born but ambitious they could agree to work for X years in order to gain citizenship or a similar societal perk

  • "National Service" - similar to the concept in many countries (even today) where the young are required to complete a certain amount of time performing the labor, it's just that it's a non-military form.

  • The army - armies don't spend all their time fighting. Having them perform labor during their non-war time not only helps keep them occupied (less time to cause trouble) but also would keep them fit. Yes you are still paying them but you'd be paying them if they were sitting around the barracks practicing marching every now and again.

None of these would provide enough manpower to replace slavery on its own but a combination quite possibly would.

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    $\begingroup$ GREAT points! I do want to point out that hard labor does exist even today. The United States has widespread prison labor, and even outside labor is still carried out at Angola. $\endgroup$ – Seanchaí Oct 23 '17 at 12:54
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    $\begingroup$ if you offered reduced sentences or other perks to prisoners who worked satisfactorily you could probably even get a far more motivated and better workforce as an upside. Slaves as a group aren't known for their enthusiasm and willingness to work, slave-based operations just compensate for the poor productivity by throwing more people at the job until it's done. $\endgroup$ – motosubatsu Oct 23 '17 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ TheRoman army was indeed involved in a great deal of civil engineering, and service for 20 years was rewarded by citizenship and a grant of land for the Milites $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Oct 23 '17 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides thanks, I didn't know that! A similar scheme for non-military personnel wouldn't be a stretch then $\endgroup$ – motosubatsu Oct 23 '17 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ The armies of the time did spend all of their time in the field when not in combat. They were also kept away from 'homeland' areas for political reasons. They also were not likely to stay loyal if they were forced to farm, they chose the army over farming after all. $\endgroup$ – Joe Oct 23 '17 at 16:22

I'm going for a definitive YES

Contrary to what one could think - and apparently, most users in SE think - slavery is bad for the economy. Slavery is the worst form of unequality, and it gives way to economical stagnation. As the rich landowners got vasts latifundia and made them produce with slave work, the small farmer couldn't compete in price, so they got broke, sold their lands (to the same landowners) and, in many cases, got themselves into serfdom by debts - another form of slavery.

This was a positive feedback loop, which ended with the roman economy first, and with the roman empire itself later. The taxes that can be collected from a handful of extremely rich people are always but a tiny fraction of those which can be collected for the whole of the middle class. By centrifuging roman society to the extremes of the welfare line (a tiny handful of filthy rich patrician houses, and millions of proletarians) Rome find itself ever less capable of doing things. Its military and territorial expansion nearly ends with the Republic, and its public works didn't last much longer.

With the beggining of the Empire, most of the wealth of the empire came through trade and taxes from its eastern provinces in middle East, as slavery made many labour positions in Italy and other heavily romanized european provinces unprofitable. Later emperors complained about old fertile italian lands being empty and abandoned to the forces of nature, and even tried to repopulate them and making them productive again, with no success. Simply, slavery is not economically viable, even it may look so at first glance.

Have you ever wondered why the USA raised to a global superpower while the spanish and portuguese colonies sank to third world ratings? The easy (and racist) explanation given talks about the superiority of british (and, less frequently, french and dutch) and protestant values over the dagoes catholicism, but then, why is Jamaica not as rich as Japan? The reality is, the countries that had economies based on slavery never grew really wealthy. That's true even for the USA, whose northern states were far, far richer than the southern ones - the ones based on slave work.

Simply put, had Rome abolished slavery, the roman empire would still be here TODAY. And probably ruling all over the world.

EDIT: Even expanding my argument. Several books have been written on why empires fall. One of the commonest views is that unequality makes them weaker until they break. Thirty years after the undisputable prime time of the roman society - the stiff-upper-lip times of the second punic war, with romans keeping calm and carrying on with Hannibal at the gates - four roman legions were unable to take the tiny town of Numantia, in northern Iberia. The town was tiny, and had no mighty fortifications - just a wooden pallisade. What happened?

What happened was that, after fighting so bravely against Hannibal, most of the veterans of that war found themselves broke - the lands they were given as retirement pay weren't profitable against the massive production the wealthy patrician could produce with the land grabs and slaves that the war have allowed them to get. As a result, what once was a proud army of free citizens fighting for their homeland turned into a heavily demoralized conscript corps, sent to a far away foreign land (the iberian peninsula) to fight against people they had nothing against for, with only death, maiming or complete financial losses as possible outcomes - think about the USA in Vietnam.

The roman legions, who had defeated so many enemies before, turned into an army of cowards led by corrupt officials, as the Jugurthine wars were going to prove. This decadence was only stopped when Marius decided to profesionalize the legion, making it a standing army - the same solution that was taken in the USA.

Because of slavery, conquering Germania or Britain was not profitable (Britain conquest started out of a personal decision of emperor Claudius, but was never completed) and Rome lost the power to expand its frontiers. Without it, more lands would mean more (free) people to tax, and after a time of (re)construction the new territories would become a healthy source of income - and by healthy I mean stable and reliable, no matter how much rich.

The main problem with old civilizations is taxation. They had no efficient way to tax its citizens, but no matter how taxes were applied, a slave-free economy would generate more revenue, thus increasing Rome's power. The latter emperors raised taxation on the slave trade, or extended Rome's citizenship to more and more (finally all) of the inhabitants of the empire trying to expand its taxing base, but to no avail. With a failing economy and an expensive army mostly formed by foreign mercenaries of germanic origin, the last times of the roman empire were a neverending series of uprisings and revolts, with the roman legions naming and removing emperors at will. And you can trace all these malladies to the unequality and economical stagnation due to slavery.

Incidentally, the eastern roman empire managed to survive for nearly a thousand years more, and christianity (and the end of slavery, even if replaced by some sort of forced serfdom in many cases) played a key role in its success - and later demise, due to religion schisms, but that's another story to be told in another time. ;)

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    $\begingroup$ Small farmers would not have been a replacement for the big latifundia, though. The degree of efficiency of Roman large-scale, industrial agriculture around 200 CE would only be reached again in the 1850s. $\endgroup$ – yeoman Oct 23 '17 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ You put a good argument why slavery is a vicious circle, but too little explanation on how an ancient empire could work without slavery. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 23 '17 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ @yeoman I didn't said anything about replacing latifundia with small farms. I said that the former, when worked by slaves, got the latter broke. Latifundia can be worked with free men instead of slaves, and for all that History has taught as, with increased productivity. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Oct 24 '17 at 7:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander Most current societies work without slavery. I think the "can't work" claim is the one one that needs an explanation. $\endgroup$ – JollyJoker Oct 24 '17 at 8:10
  • $\begingroup$ @JollyJoker Roman Empire is definitely not a current society. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 24 '17 at 8:26

Slave labour is not necessarily required, but some form of forced labour is
I think it depends on what you mean by slavery. Although some will say this is hairy splitting, I say given the nature of the question, this is a hair that very much needs to be split. Slave labour is merely the extreme end of a more general classification of indentured servitude.

I doubt any ancient civilization could have arisen to greatness without a large measure of indentured servitude or forced labour. And I accept that traditional slavery was endemic throughout the ancient world, but slavery is not the only source of labour available and it is not inconceivable that a society might have arisen based wholly or in large part on other forms of indentured servitude.

There is much evidence that the pyramids were not built by slaves, but by forced labour. How is this different from slavery? The slave simply has to do what he or she is told until they die or are released by their owner. The forced labourer is also forced to work but only for a relatively short period, after that they are free again and they may (or may not) be rewarded for their services.

Payment might also come in other forms. For instance forced labour for the king might be considered a civic duty that most people accepted or become accustomed to. Those who accepted it willingly and completed their task might be seen as better citizens. Building a structure like a pyramid for a god/king might even be thought of as an insurance policy. If the god/king is looked after, then he will ensure the rains come and protect the people etc.

Although slaves were no doubt used in the construction of the great pyramids to some extent there simply weren’t enough slaves available so they would have been greatly outnumbered by other types of forced labourers. Similar situations can be found in Mesoamerica where other great pyramids were constructed in part or in whole by various forms of forced labour.

So in summary slavery is not necessary, forced labour is. For those who say that forced labour is slavery then the definition of slavery is very wide and all forms of national service and military conscription are slavery.

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    $\begingroup$ Hard labor is not the same thing as forced labor. The second article you linked acknowledges that the work was very hard and hard on the workers' body, but that they worked out of loyalty for the Pharaoh rather than because of oppression or forced labor. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Oct 23 '17 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelRichardson For sure hard labor is not the same thing as forced labor. The point I was trying to make was that slavery is not the only option. Whether the work is hard or easy is not the point. There may have been scribes who were forced to work for the king to keep records of all manner of things for building projects. It may not have been hard work but would have been forced work. They might even have enjoyed it and been paid for it. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Oct 23 '17 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ Indentured servitude isn't some sort of spectrum with slavery on one end. The name itself derives from the explicit quid-pro-quo contract entered into by the servant and master, frequently for up-front moving expenses to be paid in service over a period of time. $\endgroup$ – chrylis -on strike- Oct 23 '17 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ @chrylis, your comment is strongly reminiscent of the argument from the main character at the start of Heinlein's novella Logic of Empire. I strongly recommend you read it. (Spoiler: the character making the same argument as you learned the hard way just how wrong he was.) $\endgroup$ – Wildcard Oct 24 '17 at 3:45


Have you ever watched 300? Do you remember the bad guys in that movie, with the scary huge army and spooky masks? Well, it turns out they weren't so bad, after all.

The largest empire in our planet's history by share of the world's population (forty-four percent!) did not have mass slavery: The Achaemenid empire. In fact, mass slavery has never been practiced in Persia/Iran.

The Achaemenid empire had a centralized bureaucracy, road systems, a postal system, an official language, civil services, and a large professional army. The empire featured large cities, incredible wealth, temples, palaces, mausoleums and at its peak contained 6 of the 7 wonders of the world (Great Pyramids, Hanging Gardens, Mausoleum at Harlicarnassus, Lighthouse of Alexandria, and the Temple of Artemis.)

Perseoplis, the capital, was built by paid workers. Although the Achaemenid empire was not as big as the Roman empire, I think it is fair to say that it is of a similar scale--it even contained a larger percentage of the world population.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for pointing that out once again. I did comment on that in the comments earlier on, but did want to point out that the Achaemenid Empire did not have quiet the urban culture Rome did or massive public works. They were indeed a highly developed empire socially, and culturally. They did not have the same 'scale $\endgroup$ – Seanchaí Oct 23 '17 at 22:06
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't feel like writing a full answer, so I'll add a comment to yours. The "common knowledge" that ancient Egyptian pyramids were built with slave labor has been partly called into question. I don't feel like digging up a source, but I learned this in a lecture recorded by an Egyptologist. If you need labor, you don't have to enslave people. You need only motivate them, typically through perception of gain, which can include spiritual benefit (going to Heaven, not being cursed, etc.) and other stuff, such as the collective motivation to be stronger than adversaries and community pride. $\endgroup$ – Epanoui Oct 23 '17 at 23:38

I would like to point out that Rome wasn't always totally dependent on slaves and that the dependence on slaves was highly regional. The dependence on slaves was greatest in the early empire, but the earlier Roman Republic successfully expanded by allying with neighbors or getting conquered people to work within the Roman system. There were also plenty of small farmers to work the land and independent craftsman who go things done.

Once slaves started becoming plentiful, Rome did become dependent on them, or at least the wealthy class did, as they bought up all the land and bought cheap slaves to replace the small landholders that had previously done the job.

As expansion stopped later on in the empire period, slaves were no longer as cheap and plentiful as they had been beforehand. I don't have a lot of information on this, but from what I understand, the importance of slavery slowly decreased over time with slaves gradually gaining more rights. By the late empire, particularly with Christianity becoming the main religion, the importance of slavery had drastically decreased. They were still around, but were no longer the main driver of the economy that they had been back in the days of the early empire. At some point they disappeared also entirely. There were a few slaves in Italy in the medieval period, but they tended to be owned by rich households acting as domestic servants. At any rate, most of the slaves had disappeared by the time the western part of the empire came to an end. I'm still looking for information about exactly when that happened and why.

There were huge social costs to all those cheap slaves. Small farmers and craftsmen were often made destitute and unemployed by the huge farms and cheap slave labor, who could produce crops and goods a lot cheaper. Those unemployed flocked to the cities and became part of a massive poor (and rather unhappy) urban population. The wealthy of Rome had to give away free food and free entertainment (bread and circuses) to keep the unemployed from rioting and rebelling.

The eastern empire was far less dependent on slavery. It was mostly the western empire that had a huge slave population, mostly occupied with mining (a very dangerous occupation back then) and farming. It was the eastern empire that had the most prosperous economy and the highest amount of wealth. Egypt was probably the wealthiest province, and Egypt did not use large numbers of slaves.

So I could imagine an empire that was more like the eastern provinces, where the economy could function without slavery. Slavery was a huge driver in rapid economic expansion in the west and the rise of large urban populations, but I think that it would have been possible to have maintained the empire without slavery.

Smaller farmers would have paid more taxes and provided a bigger tax base. The wealthy slaveholders tended to be very good at avoiding taxation, leaving the burden of taxation to follow mainly on the poor and middle class. I think that not only would the empire have been maintained but it would have been economically healthier. Consumer goods would not have been as cheap but the wealth would have been better distributed and more available to tax collectors and the economy as a whole.

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    $\begingroup$ Speaking from an economists point of view - it would make little difference to the economy if the lowest class are slaves, plebs, or just "the poor". One way or another the economy adapts. For example you can see this with the poor in industrial revolution Europe, or modern day SE asia where people work literally for just the food to survive. That said it makes a huge difference in freedom/moral/social justice. Upward mobility, freedom to leave and decide your life for yourself have enormous qualitative value. $\endgroup$ – theinvisibleduck Oct 23 '17 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer. Part of my question was if the Roman Empire could 'arise' without slavery too. Could it have arisen with the same scale of public works, palaces, villas, etc. The Roman patricians derived much of their great wealth from plantations. The patricians and emperor funded many of the great public works that defined Rome as filled with grandeur. I suppose Imperial funds funded by taxation from a larger middle class could have paid for them.The palaces, baths, colosseums, temples, arches, monuments, etc. $\endgroup$ – Seanchaí Oct 23 '17 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Seanchaí I see your point. Slavery did allow the small wealthy class to become really rich and build public works, but the state could also have built them through tax collection. I'd like to take the opportunity to note that the Roman Emperor personally controlled the province of Egypt, whose economy was not slavery-based. Tax revenue paid in Egypt filled the emperor's personal treasury. It's entirely possible that there could be a world in which other wealthy aristocracy also had a monopoly on tax revenues for certain regions. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Peter Oct 23 '17 at 23:09

Cynical answer: No chance

Civilisation is built on slavery.

While we look at our current civilisation and lifestyle and think we don't have slaves, the system for outsourcing manufacturing allows us an even lower labour cost. The daily wages for many of the people making our "affordable" consumer goods are below what it would cost to feed and house them as slaves in the west.

Whether called slaves, serfs, bonded labour, or given any other of a string of names, civilisations, and empires especially, are built on unwaged labour, slaves.

If we consider the Roman empire specifically, we think of arts, temples, decadence. All of this is supported by a vast army of slaves. Without those slaves what we consider to be the Roman empire would not be. It could still be a military empire, but it would be a very different beast.

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    $\begingroup$ I would agree that sweatshop factories are indeed similar to serfdom and even slavery in many ways. Yet I wonder if the Roman Empire could have been built on serfdom. The Late Roman Empire did use more freeman tenant farmers akin to serfs because the supply of slavery declined in the era of Pax Romana as there were few lands to realistically conquer yet that does not exactly prove the Roman Empire could have been built without slavery as a cheap labour source. Could "Rome" still be built with serfs and with less wealth inequality perhaps as slavery enriched primarily the patrician class? $\endgroup$ – Seanchaí Oct 23 '17 at 8:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Seanchaí, I see where you're going with that thought, but serfdom was primarily for farming and food production, these were rural powers. Roman civilisation, as its name implies was driven by civitas, the city. Roman slaves were used throughout society, even as skilled labour who had the ability to buy freedom. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Oct 23 '17 at 9:03
  • $\begingroup$ I need to note that I consider serfdom and slavery two different institutions as do most historians. Serfs generally had relatively more 'freedom', less labor, could not be sold, and paid their taxes in labor to the manor lord yet could also labor on their own behalf. Of course they were bound to the land like a slave would be, and could not necessarily run away though many did in the latter middle ages to towns and cities then could be marked freemen. I would argue they were not as low of status or bound so much as a Roman slave. Of course many Roman household slaves were treated very well. $\endgroup$ – Seanchaí Oct 23 '17 at 9:05
  • $\begingroup$ My last comment came through before seeing your response. I agree. I think the Roman Empire as an urban civilization relied on slaves extensively to build that civilization. Yet I wonder if similar glory and civilization could be attained with just a bit less wealth inequality with low paid peasant labor rather than outright slavery? I suppose a Roman household could never be as grand without slaves though. Perhaps though the Roman Empire could exist with just a little less wealth inequality? This then cuts into their taxation revenue though, and excess wealth to build projects. $\endgroup$ – Seanchaí Oct 23 '17 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ @JackAidley, I've promised not to get into arguments in comments defending my answers. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Oct 26 '17 at 7:53

Yes it's possible that roman civilization could have substituted indentured servants for slaves in fact many historians will argue that slavery in Rome was more like indentured servants then slavery. Make a few changes could make even more like indentured servitude.

  1. have a set time limit on how long some one can be a slave. Slavery in Rome was usually temporary, but this would be more official.

  2. Grant citizenship to any freedman that completed his contract as a indentured servant. A similar system was set up for the roman military. See have how successful this offer was, you see none Romans actually volunteering to become indentured servants.

These are small changes and would not have made Rome unstable or threaten their lifestyle.


Short answer: NO

Slavery has been for a long time the only way to have available cheap work force. As a reference, slavery abolition in the US started from the Northern states, where industrialization was already emerging and there were no more human labor intensive situations.

At the time of the Roman Empire the tech level was still far from industrial revolution, and renouncing to slavery would have simply chopped away the legs of the empire. For another historical reference, look what happened to Sparta (a reality way smaller than Rome) when they lost their mass of disposable slaves: they had to bid farewell to their renowned agoghe and the power of Sparta was gone.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer. My question was essentially what could make up for the cheap surplus labour, and I cannot think of anything. What about some very hardy excellent crop that existed in the world that was better than wheat? Of course that only takes care of the agricultural issue, and not the slavery to mine or build massive public works. $\endgroup$ – Seanchaí Oct 23 '17 at 8:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Seanchaí Theres a set of questions on a hypothetical ‘grasstato’ which may be of use to you. Doesn’t address slavery, but the original question has some very good answers about sociological impact. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Oct 23 '17 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder whether mechanisation would start much earlier if there is no cheap forced labour. That could solve a shortage of hands. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 23 '17 at 15:22

Yes. If you consider the teaching of Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers, see the chapter about cultural heritage. One thing is that your civ's staple food started with something like rice. To maximize your harvest, it takes motivated, back-breaking, attention to detail, hard work. To make a Sweeping Generalization, slaves don't like being slaves, and will not work as hard or do a good job at taking care of rice like independent owners. His observation of eastern history is that where rice is the crop, family farms / owner operated farms out-compete farms using forced labour. (Higher yield wins over cheap labour).

One of the other things to remember is that slavery depresses the wages of unskilled labour, but high labour costs drive innovation in favour of productivity gains. (Higher general labour costs also means that the masses are paid enough to buy things.) Some authors attribute the labour shortage caused by plague in Europe as a key factor in technical advancement that eventually ended the middle ages.

The wind mill, the water mill, threshing machines, and basic mechanical combine harvesters pulled by ox or horse can be far more productive than using humans to crush, grind, cut, etc. That is within the technical ability of a civilization that made printing presses for coins, aqueducts, various types of concrete, and indoor plumbing. Same goes for the spinning wheel, that is just wood and metal in the right shape.

Can great works be done by an ancient civilizations without slaves? Well, Egypt built the pyramids. https://www.seeker.com/slaves-didnt-build-pyramids-egypt-1764995593.html


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    $\begingroup$ Family owned farms: I can report from experience that a family farm is just about slave labour - children and other near family members are working for no wage or well under the minimum wage. The same is true of many small businesses; they are minding the shop, doing paperwork. delivering stuff... $\endgroup$ – RedSonja Oct 24 '17 at 12:44

Basically, no.

The economic basis of a society determines its form. The Roman Empire was built around slavery. A society that is not built around slavery, is a radically different society.

This question is tagged "medieval", and the argument I'm familiar with is that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was fundamentally due to the limitations of its economic model, of urban centers supported by slavery. Roman cities consumed more than they produced. The economy was more efficient, and material conditions for most people were significantly better in the less centralized, more distributed economy of medieval Europe.

You may as well say that what a Roman Empire without slavery would be like, is medieval Italy.


IMHO there are two different problems:

  1. make great empire
  2. make empire roman style

to achive 1. you need a lot of human and lot of work done, but it can be build by free people and with (mainly) good equlity along them. But it would need be else driven by some "big case" (religion or so) or it would end with something totally different than roman empire

to make 2. you need some kind of organisation, where is few insanly rich people, who have insane income and not enought place to expand even more so if they want to spend their income and make some impression on other rich, they are force to build extravagantly big and complex projects, like villas, scuptures, aquaducts and such, to present their power.

And that also need to have really many other people to work for them, because such big projects just needs too many work hours to be done (if you do not have powerfull engines to do it), one person (or small couple) envision it and many do it in relatively short time (couple of years, not couple of generations), so the one with the vision and power see the result and can it personally use (no point to build villas for your grand grand childs, while living three generations in tent). And you need a lot of work hours just to keep them running (cleaning, repairs, ....)

And to have collect such many work hours you need some power over a lot of people to contribute. In slavery it is easy - you own them. In religion you make them beleive, that it is somehow required by the God(s) (the best building in middle age village was usually church). In capitalism you need pay them and so on ...

If there is not much inequality (or power, or "big case"), than you get lot of smaller buildings as anyone can have aproximatively the same and so it ends in roughly similar buildings, which is probabelly overall better but there are no so insane big artefacts.

So for Roman style culture you need a lot of people and few of them insane rich. With limited resources that leaves not much for the majority. You can divide the majority to some middle class ("citizens"), but then the rest must be even more poor (limited sources again).

Depending on your environment (there can be lot of easy obtainable food and metals and stones and quality wood) you can have even the poor to have realitively good live (compared to other countries at this technology level), but still it needs them to be "poor enought" to work for those insane rich building their wonderfull villas and such (as oppsition to buiding something for themself and just enjoy the life, if there would be enought resources for them to do so.).


Additional to the L.Dutch.

Vast empires need slavery to maintain it's supremacy over large regions. There is simply not enough "imperials" to do all the work. The mundane work need to be done by someone. But as nobility on the conquered territories wouldn't like to change their status (automatically being sub par to their Roman counterparts) someone need to fetch the water or work in the mines.

The slaves were automatically acquired with every won battle. So you needed to give them some kind of job where you would/could control the angry, able, strong people, while at the same time the job would fatigue them.

Slavery is a solution to a problem not a thing on it's own.

  • $\begingroup$ I understand your thoughts on slavery as a method of social control, but I disagree that it is necessary to use slavery to maintain social control for an empire so I am seeking a solution to what I consider an economic problem rather than lack of slavery making empires unrealistic. There were numerous nations of peoples within the Roman Empire who had client state status with very few enslaved populations, and other empires like the Achaemenid Empire as well as the Chinese Empire that did not have slaves yet also had less wealth as well as power. $\endgroup$ – Seanchaí Oct 23 '17 at 8:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Seanchaí Chinese Empire had slavery but very fast moved to feudal system. Yet they still used slaves (for example to build Terracotta army). Also slavery existed in Persia even when it was abolished books.google.pl/… $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Oct 23 '17 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ They had slaves, but I am not sure one can say their empire was built on slaves. Yet they also did not have the massive urban civilization and public works that Rome did though the Chinese Empire came close. $\endgroup$ – Seanchaí Oct 23 '17 at 8:59

It could be possible, but you'd need to rewrite all the political and social systems Rome had. I think the only way for this to exist would be a very socialist or even communist society, where everyone works and resources get distributed evenly among all working people, and the remainder is given to the ones without a job. In modern countries, people are forced to work for up to 30 years to pay off that house that they bought. If they don't, they get their property taken away and can get punished. This is, in a sense, slavery. People have the illusion of choice, but you need to buy a house unless you rent a small room for the rest of your life, which no one wants. If you don't work, you don't get a house, don't get good food, don't get a television and don't get a phone. Society is, and always has been, built upon forced labor, and the only way to fix it would be to create a system like the ones in early tribes, where everyone works, except for those who are very young or old, and those who can but don't want to get kicked out.

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    $\begingroup$ That answer misses something, however - slavery is not about working, is about rights. Even without society you end up starving to death if you don't work - if you are alone, by yourself, on the woods, you still need to "work" to warm yourself up, build your house, find your food. Being alive means working in one form or another. Being a slave means that you don't have any choice about how you will work. There is a big difference there. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Oct 23 '17 at 13:10

You need to define your terms very carefully.

In Roman times, and in fact in all times up to Roman and well into the second millennium, there was no term for employer or employee. There was no concept of working for another for wages, under an employment contract as we know it. The closest thing was a King who amassed an army, but even they were not paid, except for room and board. Knights were rewarded, not paid.

You either made money, or you made or sold goods.

If you made money, you did not need employees. You did so on your own initiative (lending out money to others, renting land or lodgings).

If you made or sold goods, you did so yourself. If you had a helper, he was an apprentice. Your obligation was room and board. If you needed more assistance, you called the person a 'slave', not an 'employee'. You were a 'slave owner', not an 'employer'.

You either worked for yourself, you were a member of the court, or you were a slave. If you couldn't be a slave, then you begged for whatever living you could make. There was no 'working class'.

So what you are asking is, 'Could Roman Civilization have developed without some form of employer relationship?' Or 'Could Roman Civilization have developed based purely on individual enterprise?' and the answer is probably a negative.


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