Ancient Egypt Population Estimates: Slaves and Citizens
There is no clear method with which to determine population of Egypt, let alone an accurate figure for the number of slaves in Egypt at any given point. The absence of anything approaching a census or list of slaves in ancient Egypt (as opposed to ancient Rome) makes it difficult to arrive at a reasonable population estimate of slaves. This problem has long vexed scholars, who have offered wildly differing estimates of the population at different times:
- Guillemette Andreu has suggested that the population more than doubled from 850,000 at the start of the third millennium to over 2 million by 1800 B.C.E.
- Karl Butzer estimates a generally steady growth from just under 1 million inhabitants in the Predynastic era ( 6000-3100 BCE) to over 5 million in Roman/Byzantine times (c.30 BCE -640 CE). During the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 B.C.E.), this leads to a population total of approximately 2.5 – 3 million.
- David O’Connor puts the population during the New Kingdom at 2.9 – 4.5 million and as high as 7.5 million in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt.
How Many Slaves Were in Egypt
Considering the complications in estimating the population growth over time, and uncertainty about the number of foreigners who arrived in Egypt at different times and the extent to which they were integrated into the population, it is very difficult to determine the number of slaves living in Egypt at a given time precisely. Any attempt to do so is unfortunately largely speculative.
John Madden estimates that during the Roman Empire the slave population never rose above ten percent. This is considerably less than his estimate that 1 out of 3 persons were slaves in the rest of the Roman Empire.
Since the Egyptians did not take censuses, unlike the Romans, attempting to determine one cannot say with any certainty how many slaves lived in Egypt during the New Kingdom. That said, it is certain that the strain of supporting a nearly permanent army of 40,000 troops, many drawn from the agricultural sector, led to an increase in dependence on slave labor.
Many foreigners were brought into Egypt, either as booty from campaigns or as purchased slaves. For example:
- Among the many spoils of war mentioned in The Annals of Thutmose III (1457 B.C.E.) were 340 prisoners, 1796 male and female servants (Hm.w/Hm.w.t) and their children, etc. They were incorporated into the Egyptian workforce as part of temple estates where they worked as weavers and farmers, among other tasks.
- Another 80 “men in captivity,” 606 male and female slaves were captured during Thutmose III’s Year 33 campaign (1447 B.C.E.), while 513 male and female slaves are listed as part of the tribute sent from Syria shortly after.
- Amenhotep III (c. 1386-1351 B.C.E.) records his building activities at Karnak, Luxor, and Soleb and mentions that the workshop of the monument Millions of Years is filled with male and females slaves (Hm/Hmt) and the children of foreign rulers.
- Ramesses II ( 1279-1213 B.C.E.) says of prisoners from the Battle of Kadesh: “Their dependents are brought as prisoners, to fill the workshops of his father, Amun.”
- His father, Seti I (c. 1294-1279), made a comparable claim after his first campaign.
Such figures and statements were, of course, not intended to be comprehensive, nor is the above an exhaustive list, so one cannot simply add up the totals.
A Comparable Estimate
A better, though far from perfect approach, is comparing Egypt’s great empire period, the New Kingdom, to the Roman Empire. Given the New Kingdom’s pharaohs propensity to carry off large numbers of captives during their numerous campaigns in the Levant and Nubia, and due to the simple fact that the status of slavery was inherited barring manumission, if one tentatively adopts Madden’s “no more than ten percent figure” for the New Kingdom and sets it at slightly less (perhaps eight percent), combined with the population total estimated by Betzer (the most scientific estimate), a very rough estimate of approximately 200,000-250,000 slaves in Egypt during the New Kingdom can be made. Unfortunately, Egyptian sources simply do not allow a more precise total to be determined at this time.
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April 16, 2016
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Dr. Mark Janzen is assistant professor of history and archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theologocial Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. in history/Egyptology from the University of Memphis, and an M.A. in Biblical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His dissertation is titled, “The Iconography of Humiliation: The Depiction and Treatment of Foreign Captives in New Kingdom Egypt.”
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