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Runaway Slaves in Alexandria:
Reward Offered!
(c. 100 B.C.E.)

Slavery has been one of the most persistent institutions of the human condition. In the Hellenistic era, slavery flourished, as the incessant warfare among the successor kingdoms of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 b.c.) provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of humans for the slave markets of the cities of the Hellenistic world. Indeed, the economy of the era was based on the extensive use of slave labor in agriculture, mining, households, and manufacturing; the slave trade itself was a very important sector of the economy. Most of the kingdoms of the Hellenistic world actively supported slavery; Ptolemaic Egypt was the only state which actively discouraged both slavery and the slave trade because it was believed that the use of slaves would only compete with free labor and possibly result in social upheaval. A slave's life in the Hellenistic world, regardless of the locale, was never easy. Manumission was very difficult, usually dependent upon either the good will of the slave owner or the ability of the slave to amass sufficient money to buy his or her own freedom. A cheaper, but much more dangerous, method was simply to run away. In this document from Ptolemaic Egypt, a slave owner gives an excellent description and offers a hefty reward for the return of his runaway slaves.

Questions to Consider
  • Why does the slave owner offer such a substantial reward for the return of his slaves? What does this tell us about the economic value of slaves?

  • What can we infer about the conditions and the status of slavery in Alexandria? What was the role of the state?

A slave of Aristogenes son of Chrysippus, of Alabanda, ambassador, has escaped in Alexandria, by name Hermon also called Nilus, by birth a Syrian from Bambyce, about 18 years old, of medium stature, beardless, with good legs, a dimple on the chin, a mole by the left side of the nose, a scar above the left corner of the mouth, tattooed on the right wrist with two barbaric letters. He has taken with him 3 octadrachms of coined gold, 10 pearls, an iron ring on which an oil-flask and strigils are represented, and is wearing a cloak and a loincloth. Whoever brings back this slave shall receive 3 talents of copper; if he points him out in a temple, 2 talents; if in the house of a substantial and actionable man, 5 talents. Whoever wishes to give information shall do so to the agents of the strategus.

There is also another who has escaped with him, Bion, a slave of Callicrates, one of the chief stewards at court, short of stature, broad at the shoulders, stout-legged, bright-eyed, who has gone off with an outer garment and a slave's wrap and a woman's dress (?) worth 6 talents 5000 drachmae of copper.

Whoever brings back this slave shall receive the same rewards as for the above-mentioned. Information about this one also is to be given to the agents of the strategus.


Source: A. S. Hunt and C. C. Edgar, trans., Selected Papyri, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1934), 2:135, 139.