Slavery In Ancient Greece

That golden age when, according to writers of later comedy, no slaves yet existed, must be sought in a very early age. As far back as tradition reaches, slaves have always existed in the countries around the Aegean Sea, where capture of and traffic in slaves were so easy and where the Phoenicians had been the teachers and precursors.

Homer attired slavery in a peculiar greatness in two figures: Eumaeus, who resists robbers and outlaws despite his own status as a piece of property, and the glorious Eurycleia. Homer, it is true, is concerned only with royal courts and great leaders. It is hard to determine to what extent Hesiod in Works and Days regarded farm hands as slaves; without a doubt, however, the poet viewed honest farm work not as banausic but as beneficent. Apart from the subjected people just considered, it is likely that farming was almost exclusively in the hands of free people as late as the ninth century.

At the other end of the scale, the possessing classes came to despise work and workers, acquiring that anti-banausic attitude which regarded the noble athletic games as the only worthy purpose of life. This aristocracy somehow got possession of the best land, now and then of all the land within the city-state territory, and got the landless free men to farm it for them. But these menial farm hands may have preserved the memory of better days their fathers once enjoyed while still living in hamlets, before the merciless polis was founded.

Once colonizing was in full swing, many doubtless went along to escape serfdom and bondage. And the readier the colonies were to supply slaves, the easier the gaps in the ranks of farm labor were to fill, for these colonies lay mostly on coasts where captured slaves from the interior were traded off. In wars of Hellenes against Hellenes, the victors killed the grown men and sold the wives and children, apparently abroad. When they spared the men, they did not keep them as domestic slaves but to work the mines, or held them for high ransom.

Since many regions were fully dependent on slave labor, war was too irregular and uncertain a source for supplying the need; only trade assured regularity. To keep an adult Greek captive as a slave in one’s home was surely hard and dangerous. In most instances we find that the slaves kept in the homes or in the fields were of barbarian origin.

In rural areas where people lived predominantly in hamlets, laborers remained free for quite a while; among the Locrians and Phocians the younger members of the family customarily served the older or the first-born one. They did not keep slaves until shortly before the holy war of the fourth century. When a polis fully developed its potential, it did so by means of slave labor. And whoever, as a free man, worked on farms or in the city for wages found the idea of citizenship out of his reach. Indeed, the free man could hardly find any market for his services because the slaves and metics [resident aliens] filled the need. Such a fellow preferred looking for work from day to day to being under a pledge, which to him would have been a kind of servitude, in that it made him feel dependent.

Where and in what states did slaves first come to be the servants in households and the workers on farms and in handicrafts? When and where were galleys first manned by slaves? Large enterprises exploiting masses of workers, like mines for instance, presumably were always operated by slave labor.

Slaves came from a variety of sources. Scythians, Getaeans, Lydians, Phrygians, Paphlagonians, Carians, Syrians filled Greek homes and farms. Cautious buyers tried to get each slave from a different nationality, which was easy to do where only three or four were used. It is not certain whether the barbarian slave dealers drew more upon their own people or upon war captives or on slave-hunting to supply the market.

During the heyday of Greece, even a highly cultivated Hellene could become the slave of another Greek falling into the clutches of a powerful enemy or a pirate. Once one had become a slave, citizenship or high birth availed naught. Phaedo and Plato both suffered this fate, the former in his youth, the latter when already a famous philosopher. Both were redeemed. Now and then a second owner might speculate on the chance of redemption. Diogenes remained with his buyer Ceniades of Corinth, later obviously voluntarily.

In the fifth century, the average price for an ordinary slave was two minas, the mina being worth a hundred drachmas. In the fourth century one and one half minas was regarded as reasonable, showing that the supply was steady and plentiful. Else more slaves would have been raised at home to supplement the purchases abroad. But breeding slaves was not considered profitable; indeed, wedlock among slaves (little more than concubinage and barely tolerated by the masters) was not considered expedient, unless it was desired to attach the better slaves by means of their children to the service of the house and to its welfare.

One did not expect much of slave children. The yearly attrition was reckoned at ten per cent, and one naturally wished to keep one’s slaves as useful animals. One saw one’s friend suffer hardships or perish without being much concerned; but one took one’s slave to the doctor and nursed him, if he died, one lamented and regarded it as a loss.

We may ask what happened when a region became so impoverished that it could no longer afford to buy slaves, and especially when the number of free-born laborers dropped as they became more loath to work. Most likely the country soon turned into a waste.

Later on, Cappadocians, Phrygians, and Lydians usually did the baking because of their skill in it. On large estates a slave was made an overseer of the others, and from among the female slaves one became the stewardess who was carefully instructed and treated gently and discreetly. Aristotle supposed that one should respect and deal fairly with slaves entrusted with the more responsible jobs, while giving the ordinary ones plenty of good wholesome food. Larger households needed doorkeepers to check on things carried in and out. A slave no longer useful for other work might well have handled this.

The slaves of Sophocles’ father were all builders and braziers, those of Isocrates’ father were all flute makers. Some workshops might employ hundreds of slaves, depending on the business and the condition of the times. In mines, there were many thousands of slaves, being the property either of the state or of a private owner. The citizens grew concerned about the wretched existence of these slaves only when they threatened to become dangerous. A document one wishes Xenophon had not written glowingly portrays to the Athenian citizens how profitable it would be to employ more slaves in the silver mines, for with ten thousand they would take in one hundred talents a year, and by sufficiently increasing that number they could all live without working.

As if the number of slaves in the homes and on the fields of Attics were not enough, Xenophon thinks the state should have at least three slaves in the silver mines for every citizen, a good sixty thousand at that time; then Athens would be even more orderly and more efficient in war. These proposals are just as foolish as the encouragement given to resident aliens or metics, who were to be lured to Athens in great numbers. How costly it would have been for Athens to live on this kind of income! A single unlucky battle taking the lives of many citizens would have enabled the metics to become masters of the state already undermined in the literal sense.

These metics were Lydian, Phrygian, and Syrian in origin, as were many of the slaves; in part they may have been the offspring of slaves who had been freed, and a number of household and silver-mine slaves who presumably also were freed. Xenophon finally wonders whether approval of his proposals should not be sought in Dodona and Delphi, and if approved, under the protection of which gods they should be carried out.

It is hard for us to think of Greece as harboring amid four to five million free men twelve million slaves, nearly all of foreign extraction (Hellwald); of Attics as having four times as many slaves as free men (Curtis), to say nothing of individual industrial cities like Corinth where the free men comprised about one tenth of the population; the state of Corinth is supposed to have had 460.000 slaves and Aegina fully 40,000.

Nobody has ever been blind to the great dangers all this slavery involved. To be sure, the mobs which at times took over whole cities were not slaves as the word used to describe them suggests, but suppressed natives. The big slave wars in Sicily really took place under Roman rule when the system of latifundia had enormously increased the number of slaves. Concurrent with the second uprising in Sicily, the slaves in the mines of Attics, now grown into many myriads, revolted (about 100 B.C.), and having killed their guards and seized the Acropolis at Sunium they proceeded to lay waste the land.

The greater the number of slaves in a state, the more severe was the discipline and the more urgent the desire for escape and vengeance. In every war, people feared that large masses of slaves would burst their shackles. More than twenty thousand slaves, mostly skilled craftsmen, hence the more valuable ones, ran away from their Athenian masters, hard pressed by their defeat in Sicily and the occupation of Deceleum by King Agis and his Spartan troops. Strategy in war included provoking the enemy’s slaves to revolt; hence everyone who could somehow manage it would remove his slaves along with the rest of his family over the border for safety when an enemy threatened to invade. The victor at a naval engagement freed the galley slaves and fettered their masters.

Even in time of peace, the nation had to bear the consequences of the fact that all free men in the more highly developed cities and country districts spurned work with all their might. As will be seen, there existed in some places better and more comfortable conditions, but in Attica one knew that as a rule the slaves were malevolent toward their masters. Basically, a slaveholder was protected by the nearness of his neighbor who also owned slaves.

Says Plato: The citizens serve each other as voluntary bodyguards. Rich townspeople who have many slaves live without fear because the whole city is ready to come to the aid of every single individual. But if some god should transfer an owner of fifty slaves along with his family and all his property out of the city into a wilderness where no stranger would come to his help, what fear he would have that his slaves would dispatch him. He would have to be nice to some, making them promises and freeing them without any cause; he would be the flatterer of his thralls or their sacrificial victim.

A slaveholder whose slaves knew of a wrong he had committed could look upon himself as the most unhappy of all men, being their lifelong hostage and in no position to punish them, no matter what they did; on occasion they might have been liberated for informing on him. It follows that an intelligent slave was even regarded as dangerous, and especially so when tainted with the mentality of free citizens.

The fact that the slaves were barbarians or semi-barbarians a priori qualified the treatment they received. This fact also induced Plato and Aristotle to class them in a low theoretical rank even though their motive is not expressly phrased. That Aristotle was gentle and kindly disposed toward them, as is evident from his last will and testament, redounds all the more to his honor. The slaveholders steeled themselves against pity for the hordes they surrounded themselves with, whose life admittedly was worse than death. Laws prevented the master from deliberately killing and raping his slaves, perhaps less for their protection than to keep him from brutalizing himself; otherwise he could discipline and mistreat them any way he wished.

A misfortune for all slaves was the very presence of that most wretched class, the mine slaves, who for centuries were ill treated in any way human beings could be. They were provided only with the things needed to keep them alive and in some strength; when not at work, they must have been permanently shackled. Even ordinary slaves were often shackled, not for reasons of discipline but to prevent their escape.

That a slave preferred to be a drudge on a farm to being a menial in a city household was no doubt due to his generally rural origin, and under a sensible master his lot was as bearable as any he could expect if he were to return home. The shepherd slave was probably treated just as well as a hired hand today, because the care of animals depended so much on his good will.
The shepherds of Sicily and lower Italy mentioned by Theocritus were slaves without doubt, but still they, like the farm slaves of Xenophon, had their own property, including sheep and goats, and were able to make pretty gifts. Arcadians gave lavish entertainments to which they invited both masters and their slaves, serving them the same dishes and mixing their wine in the same bowl [krater]. Now and then the masters served the slaves at feasts and played dice with them. When the Greeks learned about the Roman Saturnalia, where such was the custom, they found it was a thoroughly Hellenic feast.

The common way of dealing with slaves, according to Xenophon, was to check exuberance through hunger, banish indolence by whiplashes, forestall flight by fetters, and stealing by locking up everything that could be.

Following the Peloponnesian War, the slaves of Athens were bold and free in their demeanor. Their frocks were like those of the metics and poorer citizens, so that one could hardly tell them apart because they all had pretty much the same shabby appearance. Often they were better off, thanks to their property, which, to judge by the later comedies, must often have been quite considerable. After the defeat at Chaeronea, the populace at Athens was intent on freeing the slaves, enfranchising the metics, and restoring their honors to the dishonored.

At the time of Demosthenes, the slaves were more boldly vocal than the citizens in many cities; it appears that they also attended the theater, now and then took part in the Attic mystery rites, and when partisan spirit ran high, they even pushed their way into the popular assembly.

In highly cultivated Athens, however, the slave could at any moment be most bitterly reminded of his true status. Some, says Plato, do not trust their slaves at all and so goad and whip them much and often, whereby they really enslave their souls. Moreover, there was also the judicatory torture of slaves, to which one must suppose the Athenians resorted rather often. In lawsuits, even in civil suits, a litigant could submit his own slaves to testify in his behalf under torture or demand that his opponent bring his slaves into court to testify against him under torture.

In connection with his demand that the slaves of his victim Leocrates be tortured, the orator Lycurgus, whose coarse emotional appeals tell us so much about court procedure in the fourth century, calls the torture of slaves by far the most just and appropriate means for getting at the bottom of a case in court. Leocrates refused and thereby supposedly betrayed his bad conscience, as if a humane disposition and kindly feelings for his slaves could have played no part. Perjury and bearing false witness were rife in Athens at that time. To be sure, once torture of slaves became legitimate in court proceedings, it was merely a matter of time before torture could be applied to non-slaves.

The slave remained a commodity, and occasional favors tossed him were only apparent; as for example, putting him as a pedagogue in charge of the children, until they were well along in adolescence. We must also remember that the duty of the pedagogue was essentially negative, that is, to guard and defend the child, while the teachers proper were free men, and especially that, while it was possible to hire a free man as a teacher for a while, particularly if he was a fellow citizen, it was very hard to keep him long, because he was not accustomed to, and hence not fit to live in, this kind of dependence. To pick from a few or many slaves the one best suited for the task should have been fairly easy over a course of years; no doubt mutual trust and attachment obtained between some masters and slaves, as attested by various epitaphs to outstanding slaves, as also to faithful nurses who were likewise bondwomen.

On the whole, slaves who had been freed were not in good odor. It is self-evident that when bad and ungrateful slaves were freed, they hated their master above all people because he had known them in their servitude. In the newer Attic comedy, the freed slave appeared rather frequently as an accuser in court (without doubt against his master), as though the enjoyment of free speech consisted in lodging accusations, and what was typical in comedy must have been commonplace in life. The slave so vexatiously freed in Lucian’s Timon must no doubt be relegated to the days of Imperial Rome, as well as Trimalchio in Petronius.

Of course there were instances when a slave was given free rein for having mastered a particular skill in a handicraft, skills appearing occasionally but not necessarily as hereditary in a free Greek family.

And finally, it is self-evident that slaves performed all special routine work which the state, particularly the highly organized Athenian state, had to have done. They were the secretaries, lower officials, policemen, etc. The ambitious free man wanted nothing to do with a little office; he was either going to be a demagogue or starve. A man of the demos snatched only at such offices as promised to line his pockets.