Slavery in Ancient Greece

Slavery was common practice and an integral component of ancient Greece throughout its history, as it was in other societies of the time including ancient Israel and early Christian societies.[2][3][4] It is estimated that in Athens, the majority of citizens owned at least one slave. Most ancient writers considered slavery not only natural but necessary, but some isolated debate began to appear, notably inSocratic dialogues while the Stoics produced the first condemnation of slavery recorded in history.[4]

In conformity with modern historiographical practice, this article will discuss only chattel (personal possession) slavery, as opposed to dependent groups such as the penestae of Thessaly or the Spartanhelots, who were more like medieval serfs (an enhancement to real estate). The chattel slave is an individual deprived of liberty and forced to submit to an owner who may buy, sell, or lease him or her like any other chattel.

The study of slavery in ancient Greece poses a number of significant methodological problems. Documentation is disjointed and very fragmented, focusing on the city of Athens. No treatise is specifically devoted to the subject. Judicial pleadings of the 4th century BC were interested in slavery only as a source of revenue. Comedy and tragedyrepresented stereotypes. Iconography made no substantial differentiation between slave and craftsman.


The ancient Greeks had many words to describe slaves, which need to be placed in context to avoid ambiguity. In HomerHesiodand Theognis of Megara, the slave was called δμώς / dmôs.[5] The term has a general meaning but refers particularly to war prisoners taken as booty,[6] in other words, property. During the classical period, the Greeks frequently used ἀνδράποδον / andrápodon,[7]literally, “one with the feet of a man”, as opposed to τετράποδον / tetrapodon, “quadruped”, or livestock.[8] The most common word is δοῦλος / doûlos,[9] an earlier form of which appears inMycenaean inscriptions as do-e-ro,[10] used in opposition to “free man” (ἐλεύθερος / eleútheros). Theverbδουλεὐω (which survives in modern Greek, meaning work) can be used metaphorically for other forms of dominion, as of one city over another or parents over their children.[11] Finally, the termοἰκέτης / oikétês was used, meaning “one who lives in the house”, referring to household servants.[12]

Other terms used were less precise and required context:

  • θεράπων / therápôn – At the time of Homer, the word meant “squire” (Patroclus was referred to as the therapônof Achilles[13] and Meriones that of Idomeneus[14]); during the classical age, it meant “servant”.[15]
  • ἀκόλουθος / akólouthos – literally, “the follower” or “the one who accompanies”. Also, thediminutive ἀκολουθίσκος, used for page boys.[16]
  • παῖς / pais – literally “child”, used in the same way as “houseboy“,[17] also used in a derogatory way to call adult slaves.[18]
  • σῶμα / sôma – literally “body”, used in the context of emancipation.[19]
Origins of slavery
Slaves were present in the Mycenaean civilization. In the tablets from Pylos 140 do-e-rocan be identified with certainty. Two legal categories can be distinguished: “common” slaves and “slaves of the god” (te-o-jo do-e-ro / θεοιο), the God in this case probably beingPoseidon. Slaves of the god are always mentioned by name and own their own land; their legal status is close to that of freemen. The nature and origin of their bond to the divinity is unclear.[20] The names of common slaves show that some of them came from Kythera,Chios, Lemnos or Halicarnassus, and were probably enslaved as a result of piracy. The tablets indicate that unions between slaves and non-slaves were not uncommon and that slaves could be independent artisans and retain plots of land. It appears that the major division in Mycenaean civilization was not between slave and free, but between those attached to the palace and those not.[21]

There is no continuity between the Mycenaean era and the time of Homer, where social structures reflected those of the Greek dark ages. The terminology differs: the slave is no longer do-e-ro(doulos) but dmôs.[22] In the Iliad, slaves are mainly women taken as booty of war,[23] while men were either ransomed[24]or killed on the battlefield. In the Odyssey, the slaves also seem to be mostly women.[25] These slaves were servants[26] and sometimes concubines.[27] There were some male slaves, especially in the Odyssey, a prime example being the swineherd Eumaeus. The slave was distinctive in being a member of the core part of the oikos (“family unit”, “household”): Laertes eats and drinks with his servants;[28] in the winter, he sleeps in their company.[29] The term dmôs is not considered pejorative, andEumaeus, the “divine” swineherd,[30] benefits from the sameHomeric epithet as the Greek heroes. In spite of this, slavery remained a disgrace. Eumaeus himself declares that “Zeus, of the far-borne voice, takes away the half of a man’s virtue, when the day of slavery comes upon him.”[31]

It is difficult to determine when slave trading began in the archaic period. In Works and Days (8th century BC), Hesiod owns numerousdmôes,[32] although their status is unclear. The presence of douloi is confirmed by lyric poets such as Archilochusor Theognis of Megara.[33]According to epigraphic evidence, the homicide law of Draco (c. 620 BC) mentioned slaves.[34]According to Plutarch,[35] Solon (c. 594-593 BC) forbade slaves from practising gymnastics and pederasty. By the end of the period, references become more common. Slavery becomes prevalent at the very moment when Solon establishes the basis for Athenian democracy. Classical scholar Moses Finley likewise remarks that Chios, which, according to Theopompus,[36] was the first city to organize a slave trade, also enjoyed an early democratic process (in the 6th century BC). He concludes that “one aspect of Greek history, in short, is the advance hand in hand, of freedom and slavery.”[37]

Economic role

All activities were open to slaves with the exception of politics.[38] For the Greeks, politics was the only activity worthy of a citizen, the rest being relegated wherever possible to non-citizens.[39] It was status that was of importance, not activity.

The principal use of slaves was in agriculture, the foundation of the Greek economy. Some small landowners might own one slave, or even two.[40] An abundant literature of manuals for landowners (such as the Economy of Xenophon or that of Pseudo-Aristotle) confirms the presence of dozens of slaves on the larger estates; they could be common labourers or foremen. The extent to which slaves were used as a labour force in farming is disputed.[41] It is certain that rural slavery was very common in Athens, and that ancient Greece did not know of the immense slave populations found on the Roman latifundia.[42]

In mines and quarries slave labour was prevalent, with found large slave populations often leased out by rich private citizens. The strategos Nicias leased a thousand slaves to the silver mines of Laurium in Attica; Hipponicos, 600; and Philomidès, 300. Xenophon[43] indicates that they received one obolus per slave per day, amounting to 60 drachmas per year. This was one of the most prized investments for Athenians. The number of slaves working in the Laurium mines or in the mills processing ore has been estimated at 30,000.[44] Xenophon suggested that the city buy a large number of slaves, up to three state slaves per citizen, so that their leasing would assure the upkeep of all the citizens.[43]

Slaves were also used as craftsmen and tradespersons. As in agriculture, they were used for labour that was beyond the capability of the family. The slave population was greatest in workshops: the shield factory of Lysias employed 120 slaves,[45] and the father ofDemosthenes owned 32 cutlers and 20 bedmakers.[46]

Slaves were also employed in the home. The domestic’s main role was to stand in for his master at his trade and to accompany him on trips. In time of war he was batman to thehoplite; it has been argued that their actual role was far greater.[47] The female slave carried out domestic tasks, in particular bread baking and textile making. Only the poorest citizens did not possess a domestic slave.[48]

Status of slaves

The Greeks had many degrees of enslavement. There was a multitude of categories, ranging from free citizen to chattel slave, and includingPenestae or helots, disenfranchised citizens, freedmen, bastards, and metics.[86] The common ground was the deprivation of civic rights.

Moses Finley proposed a set of criteria for different degrees of enslavement:[87]

  • right to own property
  • authority over the work of another
  • power of punishment over another
  • legal rights and duties (liability to arrest and/or arbitrary punishment, or to litigate)
  • familial rights and privileges (marriage, inheritance, etc.)
  • possibility of social mobility (manumission or emancipation, access to citizen rights)
  • religious rights and obligations
  • military rights and obligations (military service as servant, heavy or light soldier, or sailor)
Athenian slaves
Athenian slaves were the property of their master (or of the state), who could dispose of them as he saw fit. He could give, sell, rent, or bequeath them. A slave could have a spouse and children, but the slave family was not recognized by the state, and the master could scatter the family members at any time.[88] Slaves had fewer judicial rights than citizens and were represented by their master in all judicial proceedings.[89]A misdemeanour that would result in a fine for the free man would result in a flogging for the slave; the ratio seems to have been one lash for one drachma.[85] With several minor exceptions, the testimony of a slave was not admissible except under torture.[90]Slaves were tortured in trials because they often remained loyal to their master. A famous example of trusty slave was Themistocles’s Persian slave Sicinnus(the counterpart of Ephialtes of Trachis), who, despite his Persian origin, betrayed Xerxesand helped Athenians in the Battle of Salamis. Despite torture in trials, the Athenian slave was protected in an indirect way: if he was mistreated, the master could initiate litigation for damages and interest (δίκη βλάβης / dikê blabês).[85] Conversely, a master who excessively mistreated a slave could be prosecuted by any citizen (γραφὴ ὕβρεως / graphê hybreôs); this was not enacted for the sake of the slave, but to avoid violent excess (ὕβρις / hubris).[91]

Isocrates claimed that “not even the most worthless slave can be put to death without trial”;[92] the master’s power over his slave was not absolute, as it was under Roman law.[93] Draco’s law apparently punished with death the murder of a slave; the underlying principle was: “was the crime such that, if it became more widespread, it would do serious harm to society?”[94] The suit that could be brought against a slave’s killer was not a suit for damages, as would be the case for the killing of cattle, but a δίκη φονική (dikê phonikê), demanding punishment for the religious pollution brought by the shedding of blood.[95] In the 4th century BC, the suspect was judged by the Palladion, a court which had jurisdiction overunintentional homicide;[96] the imposed penalty seems to have been more than a fine but less than death—maybe exile, as was the case in the murder of a Metic.[95]

However, slaves did belong to their master’s household. A newly-bought slave was welcomed with nuts and fruits, just like a newly-wed wife.[88]Slaves took part in most of the civic and family cults; they were expressly invited to join the banquet of the Choes, second day of theAnthesteria,[97] and were allowed initiation into theEleusinian Mysteries.[88] A slave could claim asylum in a temple or at an altar, just like a free man. The slaves shared the gods of their masters and could keep their own religious customs if any.[97]

Slaves could not own property, but their masters often let them save up to purchase their freedom,[98] and records survive of slaves operating businesses by themselves, making only a fixed tax-payment to their masters. Athens also had a law forbidding the striking of slaves: if a person struck what appeared to be a slave in Athens, that person might find himself hitting a fellow-citizen, because many citizens dressed no better. It astonished other Greeks that Athenians tolerated back-chat from slaves.[99]Athenian slaves fought together with Athenian freemen at the battle of Marathon, and the monuments memorialize them.[100] It was formally decreed before the battle of Salamis that the citizens should “save themselves, their women, children, and slaves”.[101]

Slaves had special sexual restrictions and obligations. For example, a slave could not engage free boys in pederasticrelationships (“A slave shall not be the lover of a free boy nor follow after him, or else he shall receive fifty blows of the public lash.“), and they were forbidden from thepalaestrae(“A slave shall not take exercise or anoint himself in the wrestling-schools.“). Both laws are attributed to Solon.[102] Fathers wanting to protect their sons from unwanted advances provided them with a slave guard, called a pedagogos, to escort the boy in his travels.

The sons of vanquished foes would be enslaved and often forced to work in male brothels, as in the case of Phaedo of Elis, who at the request of Socrates was bought and freed from such an enterprise by the philosopher’s rich friends.[103] The rape of slaves was against the law, just as with citizens.[104]

Spartan slaves

Spartan citizens used helots, a dependent group collectively owned by the state. It is uncertain whether they had chattel slaves as well. There are mentions of people manumitted by Spartans, which was supposedly forbidden for helots, or sold outside of Lakonia: the poetAlcman;[127] a Philoxenos from Cytherea, reputedly enslaved with all his fellow citizens when his city was conquered, later sold to an Athenian;[128] a Spartan cook bought by Dionysius the Elder or by a king of Pontus, both versions being mentioned by Plutarch;[129] and the famous Spartan nurses, much appreciated by Athenian parents.[130]

Some texts mention both slaves and helots, which seems to indicate that they were not the same thing. Pseudo-Plato in Alcibiades I cites “the ownership of slaves, and notably helots” amongst the Spartan riches,[131] and Plutarch writes about “slaves and helots”.[132] Finally, according to Thucydides, the agreement that ended the 464 BC revolt of helots stated that any Messenian rebel who might hereafter be found within thePeloponnese was “to be the slave of his captor”, which means that the ownership of chattel slaves was not illegal at that time.

Most historians thus concur that chattel slaves were indeed used in Sparta, at least after the Lacedemonian victory of 404 BC against Athens, but not in great numbers and only amongst the upper classes.[133] As was in the other Greek cities, chattel slaves could be purchased at the market or taken in war.

Slavery conditions

It is difficult to appreciate the condition of Greek slaves. According to pseudo-Aristotle, the daily routine of slaves could be summed up in three words: “work, discipline, and feeding”.[134] Xenophon’s advice is to treat slaves as domestic animals, that is to say punish disobedience and reward good behaviour.[135] For his part, Aristotle prefers to see slaves treated as children and to use not only orders but also recommendations, as the slave is capable of understanding reasons when they are explained.[136]

Greek literature abounds with scenes of slaves being flogged; it was a means of forcing them to work, as were control of rations, clothing, and rest. This violence could be meted out by the master or the supervisor, who was possibly also a slave. Thus, at the beginning ofAristophanesThe Knights (4–5), two slaves complain of being “bruised and thrashed without respite” by their new supervisor. However, Aristophanes himself cites what is a typical old saw in ancient Greek comedy:

“He also dismissed those slaves who kept on running off, or deceiving someone, or getting whipped. They were always led out crying, so one of their fellow slaves could mock the bruises and ask then: ‘Oh you poor miserable fellow, what’s happened to your skin? Surely a huge army of lashes from a whip has fallen down on you and laid waste your back?’”[137]

The condition of slaves varied very much according to their status; the mine slaves of Laureion and thepornai (brothel prostitutes) lived a particularly brutal existence, while public slaves, craftsmen, tradesmen and bankers enjoyed relative independence.[138] In return for a fee (ἀποφορά /apophora) paid to their master, they could live and work alone.[139] They could thus earn some money on the side, sometimes enough to purchase their freedom. Potential emancipation was indeed a powerful motivator, though the real scale of this is difficult to estimate.[140]

Ancient writers considered that Attic slaves enjoyed a “peculiarly happy lot”:[141] Pseudo-Xenophon deplores the liberties taken by Athenian slaves: “as for the slaves and Metics of Athens, they take the greatest licence; you cannot just strike them, and they do not step aside to give you free passage”.[142] This alleged good treatment did not prevent 20,000 Athenian slaves from running away at the end of the Peloponnesian War at the incitement of the Spartan garrison at Attica inDecelea.[143] These were principally skilled artisans (kheirotekhnai), probably amongst the better-treated slaves. The title of a 4th-century comedy by Antiphanes,The Runaway-catcher (Δραπεταγωγός),[144] suggests that slave flight was not uncommon.[145]

Conversely, the absence of a large-scale Greek slave revolt comparable to that of Spartacus in Rome, for instance, can probably[citation needed]be explained by the relative dispersion of Greek slaves, which would have prevented any large-scale planning. Slave revolts were rare, even in Rome or the American South. Individual acts of rebellion of slaves against their master, even if scarce, are not unheard of; a judicial speech mentions the attempted murder of his master by a boy slave, not 12 years old.[146]

Views of Greek slavery

Very few authors of antiquity call slavery into question. ToHomer and the pre-classical authors, slavery was an inevitable consequence of war. Heraclitus states that “War is the father of all, the king of all … he turns some into slaves and sets others free”.[147]

During the classical period, the main justification for slavery was economic.[148] From a moral point of view, the idea of “natural” slavery emerged at the same time; thus, as Aeschylus states in The Persians, the Greeks “[o]f no man are they called the slaves or vassals”,[149] while the Persians, asEuripides states in Helen, “are all slaves, except one” — the Great King.[150] Hippocrates theorizes about this latent idea at the end of the 5th century BC. According to him, the temperate climate ofAnatoliaproduced a placid and submissive people.[151] This explanation is reprised by Plato,[152]then Aristotle inPolitics,[153] where he develops the concept of “natural slavery”: “for he that can foresee with his mind is naturally ruler and naturally master, and he that can do these things with his body is subject and naturally a slave.”[154] As opposed to an animal, a slave can comprehend reason but “…has not got the deliberative part at all.”[155]

In parallel, the concept that all men, whether Greek or barbarian, belonged to the same race was being developed by the Sophists[156] and thus that certain men were slaves although they had the soul of a freeman and vice versa.[157] Aristotle himself recognized this possibility and argued that slavery could not be imposed unless the master was better than the slave, in keeping with his theory of “natural” slavery.[158] The Sophists concluded that true servitude was not a matter of status but a matter of spirit; thus, as Menander stated, “be free in the mind, although you are slave: and thus you will no longer be a slave”.[159] This idea, repeated by the Stoics and theEpicurians, was not so much an opposition to slavery as a trivialisation of it.[160]

The Greeks could not comprehend an absence of slaves. Slaves exist even in the “Cloudcuckooland” of Aristophanes’ The Birds as well as in the ideal cities of Plato’s Laws or Republic.[161] The utopian cities of Phaleas of Chalcedon and Hippodamus of Miletus are based on the equal distribution of property, but public slaves are used respectively as craftsmen[162] and land workers.[163] The “reversed cities” placed women in power or even saw the end of private property, as in Lysistrata orAssemblywomen, but could not picture slaves in charge of masters. The only societies without slaves were those of the Golden Age, where all needs were met. In this type of society, as explained by Plato,[164] one reaped generously without sowing. In Telekleides’Amphictyons[165] barley loaves fight with wheat loaves for the honour of being eaten by men. Moreover, objects move themselves—dough kneads itself, and the jug pours itself. Society without slaves is thus relegated to a different time and space. In a “normal” society, one needs slaves.

Depiction of a slave seated on an altar, looking at the purse he is about to steal, c. 400–375 BC, Louvre

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