Alexander the Great’s conquests, and later the Roman Empire’s expansion, transformed the cultural landscape by merging different peoples into a syncretic Greco-Roman culture. Religion too became universal through the Hellenization of non-Greek deities and ultimately the emergence of a single universal faith. Within this same context, local markets dissolved into a larger market that brought supply and demand together throughout the Mediterranean, and even beyond.
These broadening horizons affected slave markets as well. Slaves were initially taken in war or carried off by pirates. With the suppression of piracy after the battle of Actium (31 BC) and the stabilization of the empire’s borders under the emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), people turned to other sources: condemned criminals, children sold by indebted parents, foreigners purchased from outside the Empire (Westermann, 1955, pp. 84-85). The last source supplied nearly one eighth of all slaves, including some from sub-Saharan Africa by way of Egypt (Westermann, 1955, pp. 96, 135).
How many? Although it is known that some black Africans were present in the ancient Mediterranean world, the magnitude of their presence is hard to quantify. It is widely believed, notably by the historian Bernard Lewis, that they were relatively few in number until the creation of the Muslim world in the 7th century, when the black slave trade presumably took off (Lewis, 1990, p. 41). But there are reasons for believing that their numbers had grown considerably even before Islam, having increased slowly but steadily throughout the early Christian era. During that era, 4% of people buried in Corinth seem to have been black African (Angel, 1972). In the Egyptian scenes of the Ashburnham Pentateuch (6th century AD), almost a quarter of the faces are black. Finally, early Christian literature often mentions Ethiopians, as black Africans were called in Greek and Latin. Many of these mentions indicate personal familiarity.
Meanwhile, pagan, Christian, and Jewish writings increasingly associated dark skin with slavery. In the 1st century, the Roman author, Petronius, represents very light skin by Gauls and very dark skin by Ethiopian slaves (Satyricon 102). In the 2nd century, the Greek satirist, Lucian, wrote: “In the first place, is he not generous in his proportions and pleasing in his complexion, neither dark nor fair of skin; for the one befits a woman, and the other a slave (De parasito 41).
This mental association intensified during the early Christian era. It is especially attested by the tendency from the 3rd to 5th centuries to reinterpret the ‘Curse of Ham’ in the book of Genesis. This is the original version: when Ham saw his father Noah naked and drunk, Noah angrily condemned to slavery all of Ham’s descendents through Ham’s son, Canaan (Genesis 9: 22-27). Initially, the curse served to justify enslavement of the former inhabitants of the land of Israel, the Canaanites. Then, during the first centuries of the Christian era, it tended to target the brown- and black-skinned peoples of Africa—Ham’s supposed descendents. Finally, it came to hang solely over the black Africans, who were said to be descended from another of Ham’s sons, Chusi, but also more generally from Ham or even from Canaan.
Thus, in the 3rd century, St. Origen invoked the Curse of Ham to explain the servility of the “discolored” Egyptians:
Pharaoh easily reduced the Egyptian people to servitude, nor is it written that he did so by force. For the Egyptians are prone to a degenerate life and quickly sink to every slavery of the vices. Look at their origin: you will discover that their father Ham, who had laughed at his father’s nakedness, deserved a judgment of this kind, that his son Canaan should be a servant to his brothers, so that his condition of servitude would testify to the wickedness of his conduct. Not without reason, therefore, does the discolored posterity imitate the ignobility of the race. (Hom. in Genesim 16.1)
Dark skin is explicitly attributed to this curse in a 3rd or 4th century Samaritan exegesis: “When Kush saw the nakedness of his father, he was cursed and he wore darkness—he and all his descendents forever” (Goldenberg, 2003, p. 100). Similarly, according to a 4th century Christian account, attributed to St. Ephrem of Nisibis (Syria), Noah said: “Accursed be Canaan, and may God make his face black” (Lewis, 1990, p. 124). Another work attributed to St. Ephrem, The Cave of Treasures, also seems to link this curse to dark-skinned peoples:
For by means of singing, and lewd play, and the mad lasciviousness of the children of Cain, Satan had cast down the mighty men, the "sons of God," into fornication. And through the music of reed pipes and harps sin had multiplied among the former generations until, at length, God became wroth and made the Flood. And Canaan was cursed because he had dared to do this, and his seed became a servant of servants, that is to say, to the Egyptians, and the Cushites, and the Mûsâyê (Mysians), [and the Indians, and all the Ethiopians, whose skins are black]. And because Ham had dared to make a mock of his father he was called "vile" (or "lascivious") all the days of his life. (Ephrem, 1927, fol. 19a, 19b)
Two late versions (8th century) add: “and other blacks” or “and all those whose skin color is black” (Goldenberg, 2003, p. 173). These peoples are thus seen as having especially dark skin, i.e., darker than that of early Christians in the Greco-Roman world.
The Egyptians hold first place in this list, probably because they were the best known “people of color” at that time. Thus, the Greco-Roman world tended to see them as encompassing Ethiopians, i.e., black Africans, viewing the latter as Egyptians with even darker skin. This tendency to lump the two peoples together also appears in ancient rabbinic literature, which states that Egypt and Kush (Nubia and more generally sub-Saharan Africa) are the lands of “dark men” and that Egypt is “a place of ugly and dark people” (Goldenberg, 2003, p. 107-109, 117-118). According to the historian David Goldenberg (2003, p. 109): “Both the Jewish and the Greek etiologies show that in regard to skin color, the Kushites/Ethiopians were not considered in a separate category but were seen as part of a larger class of dark-skinned peoples.” It is in this broader sense that the word Egyptian seems to be used further on in The Cave of Treasures:
Now the seed of Canaan, as I have already said, are the Egyptians, and behold, they are scattered over the whole earth, and have been made servants of servants. And of what kind is this slavery of slavery? Behold, the Egyptians go round about all over the earth carrying loads on their backs (literally, necks). Now, men who are not fettered under the yoke of slavery, when despatched by their masters on journeys, do not march on their feet and carry loads, but they ride upon beasts in an honourable manner, like their masters. The seed of Ham are the Egyptians who carry loads, and they march on the roads with their backs and necks breaking under their loads, and they wander round to the doors of the children of their brethren. The seed of Ham was reduced, through the folly of Canaan, to suffer this penalty, that is, to become servants even to servants. (Ephrem, 1927, fol. 19b, 20a)
These “Egyptians” were probably black Africans. If so, this passage would testify, three centuries before Islam, to a sizeable diaspora of black slaves in the ancient world. In addition, these slaves were considered to be different from other slaves. This view is attested a century earlier when Origen wrote:
Thus, the divine laws provided that whoever has bought a Hebrew servant will not keep him indefinitely in servitude: he will serve six years and, the seventh, will go free. Nothing similar is decreed for the Egyptians: nowhere does the divine law have a provision for the freedom of the Egyptians, for they lost it willingly, and it abandons them to the eternal yoke of their fate and to perpetual servitude (Hom. in Genesim 16.1)
The Curse of Ham was similarly transformed in post-biblical Jewish literature. According to a 5th century text, Ham wished to keep his share of the inheritance intact and, to this end, tried to prevent his father from having another son. One day, seeing his father drunk and undressed, he seized the opportunity and castrated him. Noah awoke from his stupor and cursed Ham: “You have prevented me from doing something in the dark [i.e., sex], therefore your seed will be ugly and dark-skinned.” (Genesis Rabba 36:7). According to two Talmudic accounts from the 4th and 6th centuries, Ham violated a rule prohibiting sexual intercourse in Noah’s ark. Persuaded that the first child born after the flood would inherit the world, Ham defied the prohibition and copulated with his wife, whereupon his skin turned black (Tractate Sanhedrin 108b, Tractate Ta’an 1.6, 64d).
In the 6th century, a Christian philosopher from Alexandria, John Philoponus, named solely the black Africans as a people destined for slavery: “The Scythians and Ethiopians are distinguished from each other by black and white color, or by long and snubbed nose, or by slave and master, by ruler and ruled”; “The Ethiopian and Scythian … one is black, the other white; similarly slave and master” (Goldenberg, 2003, p. 135).
If at that time the Greco-Roman world already associated black skin with slavery, it is not because the slaves were almost all blacks but because the blacks were almost all slaves; this was the status of most foreigners. Indeed, it is precisely because black Africans formed a small visible minority that their servile status was easy to recognize (Goldenberg, 2003, pp. 135-136, 138). Furthermore, as Origen noted, they tended to retain this status longer, if not for life, thereby strengthening the mental association between dark skin and slavery.
It remains to be explained why this slave population became so numerically important even before the Islamic era. What was stimulating its growth? Perhaps supply and demand were reciprocally stimulating each other: since black Africans were less likely to lose their slave status, people increasingly came to see their tasks as “slave work” —unworthy of free people and treated accordingly. The supply thus favored its own demand by degrading the working conditions.
Angel, J.L. (1972). Review of Blacks in Antiquity, American Anthropologist, 74, 159-160.
Ephrem (1927). The Book of the Cave of Treasures, translated from the Syriac by E. A. Wallis Budge. London: The Religious Tract Society]
Goldenberg, D.M. (2003). The Curse of Ham. Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lewis, B. (1990). Race and Slavery in the Middle East. An Historical Enquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Westermann, W.L. (1955). The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity. Philadelphia: Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society.