vast majority of Greeks from Homer to Aristotle regarded slavery as an
indisputable fact of life. Its existence at the heart of the Classical
world is thus a source of considerable disquiet to those who admire Greek
culture for its supposedly enlightened humanism. It is important to appreciate,
however, that slavery was not an absolute condition but one that admitted
many different statuses. It included at one end of the scale chattel slaves,
those who in Aristotle's telling phrase had the same (6,000
drachmas) for a slave to manage his silver mines. A slave
in good health probably cost the equivalent of half a year's salary. The
inscription relating to the sale of confiscated property that belonged
to the Mutilators of, Herms in 414
prices a Syrian male at 240 drachmas, a Thracian female at 220 drachmas,
and "a little Carian boy" at 72 drachmas. Though most Athenian slaves
were purchased from abroad, some were bred in captivity, as indicated
by the following remark made by Ischomachos in Xenophon's, Household
Management: "As a general rule, if good slaves are permitted to breed,
their loyalty increases, whereas when bad slaves live together
as husband and wife they are more liable to cause trouble" (9.5).
Domestic slaves served in practically every capacity,
that of washerwoman, cook, porter, cleaner, tutor, Domestic
escort, messenger, nurse, and companion. No doubt in the Slaves
households there was some division of labor, as for
instance among the female slaves in the palace of the Homeric king Alkinoös,
"some of whom grind the yellow grain on the millstone, while
others weave the web and turn the spindle" (Odyssey 7.104f.). Whether
slaves were also employed in large numbers as agricultural laborers is
On becoming a member of an Athenian household, a slave underwent an initiation
ceremony similar to that which a bride underwent on first entering her
new home. This was intended to place the slave under the protection of
Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. The poems of Homer suggest that close
ties arose between master and slave. When, for instance, Odysseus reveals
himself to his faithful slaves Eumaios and Philoitios on his return to
Ithaca after twenty years, they throw their arms around him and kiss him
(Odyssey 21.222-25). Scenes of mistress and maid figure prominently
on Athenian grave monuments, testimony to the fact that the two spent
much time together in the gynaikeion, or women's quarters. In Classical
Athens slaves were occasionally buried in family plots beside their masters
Overall the treatment of slaves varied greatly from one household to the
next. Though Athenian slaves were protected by the law against violent
abuse, in practice it was virtually impossible for them to lodge a complaint
against their masters, since they-could not represent themselves in court.
Starvation and flogging were regular punishments for bad behavior. A runaway
slave was branded with a hot iron upon capture. If a slave was required
to be a witness in a lawsuit, his or her testimony could be accepted only
Though we lack any account written by a slave telling us what he or she
felt about his or -her condition, Aristophanes in Frogs provides
us with an insight into the kind of gossip that slave owners imagined
as "an animate or ensouled piece of property" (Politics 1253b 33), and
at the other end those who lived independently and remitted a part of
their income to their masters.
Origins of Slavery
The origins of slavery
are not precisely understood, but The Origins the institution was certainly
in existence by the end of the of Slavery eighth century B.C. In the world
evoked by the Homeric poems most slaves were obtained by piracy, kidnapping,
or warfare. Odysseus' swineherd Eumaios, for instance, was captured and
sold into slavery as a child. Enslavement is the fate that awaits the
female members of the royal household when Troy is taken. It would also
have been the fate of women and children in historical times when a besieged
city fell. In seventh century B.C. Greece, slavery appears to have been
widespread even among the poorest section of society. Hesiod, in Works
and Days (line 405f.), is of the opinion that an ox and a bought woman
are an essential part of a small farmer's holding.
Size of Athens' Slave Population
Slaves were particularly numerous in Athens and may The Size of well have
outnumbered those in any other Greek com Athens' Slave communities. Thukydides
(7.27.5) claims that "more than Population 20,000," most of them manual
workers, absconded to De keleia in northern Attica when it was occupied
by the Spartans in 413 B.C. All other evidence is anecdotal. In Classical
times the possession of at least one slave was regarded as a necessity.
In a lawsuit written by Lysias the speaker states, "I have a trade but
I don't earn much. I find it difficult making ends meet and I can't save
enough money to buy a slave to do the work for me" (24.6). It is a mark
of his meanness that Theophrastos' Tight-Fisted Man refuses to buy his
wife a slave girl and instead hires one from the women's market (Characters
22.10). The majority of well-to-do Athenians probably owned two or three
slaves, whereas the wealthy possessed between ten and twenty. A few, however,
owned a great many more. Nikias, one of the richest men in Athens in the
late fifth century B.C., owned 1,000 slaves, whom he leased out to fellow
citizens at the rate of one obol per slave per day (Xenophon, Revenues
4.14). The only surviving slave census relates to Athens in the late fourth
century B.C. The total, which is put at 400,000, exceeds all bounds of
Racial Diversity of Athen's Slaves
slaves were imported from a wide variety of regions including Thrace,
Scythia, Illyria, Colchis, Syria, Caria, and Lydia. Such diversity was
probably fairly typical. The purchase price of a slave varied according
to his or her skills and looks. Obviously an educated slave who could
read and write fetched considerably more than one who was only good for
menial duties. Likewise a pretty young girl cost much more than an ugly
old hag. Slaves with management skills were extremely expensive. Nikias,
whom we mentioned above, paid a talent
Slave A: I'm absolutely
thrilled when I can curse my master behind his back.
What about grumbling as you're going outside after being beaten? Slave
A: That's great!
Slave B: What about not minding your own business?
Slave A: That's terrific!
Slave B: You're a man after my own heart. What about eavesdropping when
he's having a private conversation?
Slave A: That's enough to drive me wild with delight!
Slave B: What about gossiping to your friends about what you discover?
Do you like that?
Slave A: Do I like it? By Zeus, that's enough to make me wet my knickers!
privileged Athenian slaves were owned by the state. They included the
notaries, jury clerks, coin testers, and exe cutioner. In addition, a
large number of publicly owned slaves toiled as road menders. As building
accounts make clear, slaves sometimes worked on building projects alongside
Athe nian citizens. Athens' force of Skythian archers, who kept the peace,
was also the property of the state.
Athenian citizens refused to satisfy the demand for Living wage labor
in the second half of the fifth century B.C., conditions and opportunities
for a limited number of slaves improved dramatically. Such slaves, who
paid a commission to their owners, were described as "living separately"
(ch6ris oikountes). They included the managers of shops and factories;
bankers, captains of trading vessels, bailiffs, and artisans. One was
a certain Pasion, who rose to be one of the wealthiest men in Athens.
Pasion, who worked as a banker, was eventually granted Athenian citizenship
because he gave generously to the state at a time of crisis. Overall,
however, the Athenians were niggardly in freeing their slaves, even when
they had served them dutifully all their life.
The most dangerous and exhausting work performed by Industrial Athenian
slaves was in the silver mines of Lavrion in south-east Attica. Inscriptions
reveal that the vast majority of in dustrial slaves were barbarians. Xenophon
(Memorabilia 2.5.2) informs us that the price of slaves who served in
this capacity could be as low as 50 drachmas. Work in the mines continued
uninterruptedly for twenty-four hours a day. From the discovery of miners'
lamps containing oil, it has been estimated that shifts were ten hours
it had its critics, the institution of slavery was never seriously challenged
in the ancient world. Even philosophers such as the Cynics and Stoics,
who professed to believe in the brotherhood of mankind, were muted in
their opposition. In the Politics, Aristotle goes so far as to justify
slavery as part of the order of existence, though he makes a distinction
between what he calls slaves by nature, those born in captivity, and slaves
by law, those captured in war. Aristotle proposed this distinction in
response to those who regarded the very existence of slavery as "contrary
to nature" (1253b1255b).
understanding of slavery in the Greek world is bedevilled by both modern
Christianity and Marxism. Each imposes value judgements upon the institution,
and these value judgements tend to distort our investigation of its place
in ancient society. Christianity deplores slavery as barbaric and inhumane.
Marxist historians identify slaves with the subjected European proletariat
of the nineteenth century. Friedrich Engels even went so far as to allege
that the moral and political collapse of the ancient world was chiefly
caused by slavery. Neither the Christian nor the Marxist viewpoint does
full justice to the realities of life in the ancient world, however. Abhorrent
though the institution of slavery was in many respects, it nonetheless
provided some measure of economic security. Thus when Achilles wishes
to convey the worst social condition imaginable, he instances that of
a man who works as a day laborer, rather than that of a slave (Odyssey
11.489f.). With the exception of Spartan agriculture and Athenian silver
mining, there is little evidence to suggest that the Greeks depended on
slavery for what Marxists call their means of production. Overall, therefore,
it remains questionable whether the achievements of Greek civilization
were made possible by slavery.
from Daily Life od the Ancient Greeks