First-person perspectives on the world of work
Photo: Federico Taverni, Museo Egizio
Forced Labour

Labour, freedom and happiness: The great driving forces of antiquity

History, it is said, does not repeat itself but it often rhymes.

I interpret this to mean that while we never see exactly the same events more than once, there are patterns which recur, and from which we can learn.  My day job is concerned with contemporary labour standards. My hobby is the study of ancient history, and the more I look at the great empires of the past, the more I see relevance to the issues I deal with at work.

The lessons of antiquity for combating contemporary forced labour

For example, slavery or forced labour was not a generalized practice in antiquity. The so-called "strike papyrus" (now in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy), created in 1166 BC, contains evidence that the builders, artisans and scribes who lived in the ancient Egyptian village of Deir el-Medina and worked on the tombs during the reign of Ramses III (thought to be from 1186 to 1155 BC), were free people. The scroll shows that these workers, along with their bosses, stopped work in an organized and collective way to demand the payment of wage arrears and to protest at corrupt State administrators.

We could also attribute to Egyptian culture the values of inclusion and tolerance for workers with disabilities. For example, blind people were placed in charge of music and people with dwarfism worked metals, specifically gold.

A close-up of the the text chiseled into the stone of the Hammurabi codex

The Hammurabi codex.


However, we cannot deny that ancient civilizations also defined differences between (free) servants and slaves. A clear example of this can be seen in the Hammurabi codex,  one of the world’s first legal texts which was created in Babylon in 1692 BC. The sale of human beings is recorded, alongside that of goods and services (which also relied on the slave labour that underpinned the economies of the kingdoms between which they were traded).

In the following centuries other societies such as the Assyrians and Spartans followed the same path, with economies that depended on slavery. The model reached its peak with the Romans, when there were as many as ten slaves per free person.

Rodrigo Mogrovejo

Despite these well-documented cases of slave-based systems, there were periods where free labour predominated – for example, during the period in the XIIth century BC when the "strike papyrus" was written. Influential voices emerged in subsequent centuries, raising questions about the role of slavery as a business and its place in the development of a nation.

Two of the great figureheads of the Hellenic world, Hesiod and Solon, promoted societies where markets were confined only to goods and services; no one should have absolute authority over any other person, any contract needed to be temporary and subject to agreement between citizens.

A bust of Hesiod, carved in marble, currently kept in the British Museum in London.

Hesiod, the ancient Greek poet.

© British Museum

Hesiod (750 - 600 BC), in his poem “Works and Days”, said that labour is the only way in which a man who despises violence can be heroic, independent and achieve unconditional respect among his peers.

A marble bust of Solon, copy from a Greek original (c. 110 BC) from the Farnese Collection, now at the National Archaeological Museum, Naples.

Solon was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker and poet who is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy.

© Sailko

Solon (638 - 558 BC), as portrayed in the literary work of Diogenes Laercio, emphasized that wherever the labour of a free man is not dignified, this implies the impoverishment of society and an inability to maintain an adequate style of life.

A photograph of the Cylinder of Cyrus, a marble cylinder from the 6th century BC, carved in Akkadian cuneiform script in the name of Persia's Achaemenid king, Cyrus the Great.

The Cylinder of Cyrus.

© British Museum

This opposition to slavery was also promoted by no less than Cyrus the Great, the man at the head of the largest empire of his time (559 - 530 BC). Thanks to the cylinder of Cyrus, a text printed on a clay cylinder that is regarded by many as the oldest declaration of human rights, researchers have concluded  that the Cyrus forbade the purchase and sale of humans within his Persian Empire.

A bust of Pericles wearing a helmet, the most famous and influential Athenian statesman of ancient Greece.

Pericles was the most famous and influential Athenian statesman of ancient Greece.

© Marinos Karafyllidis

A century later the Greek statesman Pericles, (495 – 429 BC), to whom people attribute the Greek golden age, realized that slavery endangers and promotes unfair competition against free people. Consequently he determined that the Acropolis in Athens, one of the greatest monuments of antiquity, would be built only by free men. For Pericles, the combination of initiative, trade and democracy made people not only free but dignified and prosperous.

A study of ancient history shows that many great thinkers and leaders were against slavery and forced labour, and concluded that if work was not dignified then States would, sooner or later fall into economic poverty. In other words, they established a direct relationship between a worker’s dignity and the prosperity of the political and social systems to which they belonged.

The ILO Director-General and the Chairman on the 2019 ILC on a stage, signing the ILO Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work at the International Labour Conference in Geneva on June 2019.

Signing of the ILO Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work, at the International Labour Conference in June 2019


Nowadays, it is widely held that labour must be centred around people – women and men – and their dignity and personal growth, and the ILO’s Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work encapsulates this view.

But, looking back at some of history’s great milestones and the writings of some of the great thinkers of antiquity, one can see that this is part of a continuum of thought, running through human history: if someone does not work with joy, productivity will suffer, and to work with joy and dignity it is essential to be able to enjoy the fruits of such work.

What impressed me was that they already understood ideas that seem so necessary to us now, and so important, but which to them were very clear: that people needed to work in dignity, and that they needed to enjoy their work. That really touched me.

Rodrigo Mogrovejo


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