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Slavery in Ancient Greece

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  • 0:05 The Greek Paradox:…
  • 0:47 Varieties of Greek Slavery
  • 2:39 Duties of Athenian Slaves
  • 4:12 Rights of Athenian Slaves
  • 6:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson explores slavery in ancient Greece. We examine the various forms slavery took in Greece, comparing Spartan serfdom to Athenian chattel slavery. Finally, we enumerate the duties and rights of Athenian slaves.

The Greek Paradox: Freedom and Slavery

History remembers the Greeks as fiercely independent freedom fighters, the fathers of philosophy and the inventors of democracy. All too often, we overlook the fact that the Greeks, like pretty much everyone else at the time, had slaves.

Though the Greeks heroically fought against Persian enslavement, though each Greek city ruled itself, though Greek philosophers explored the implications of freedom as an ideal, though the Athenians invented a system of government based on the intrinsic equality of all men, these champions of freedom also regularly enslaved their fellow man.

Varieties of Greek Slavery

Slavery in Greece was ubiquitous. Everyone had slaves; they were so easy to acquire! You could always take the classical approach: go to war and take slaves as booty, like Achilles in The Iliad. Or, you could buy a slave at any of a number of slave markets.

If you couldn't afford a slave, you could always kidnap one. Coastal cities engaged in piracy and human trafficking, just like any other trade, and bandits haunted the mountain passes of Greece. And, if someone owed you a lot of money, you could demand them or their family members to act as your slaves until the debt was paid off. (However, this practice was forbidden in Athens by Solon in the 6th century BCE.) Yet, like all other aspects of Greek culture, Greek slavery also varied from city to city.

The agrarian Spartans practiced a sort of serfdom, in which their serfs, or helots, as they were called, were bound to the land in which they worked. The more urban Athenians practiced good old-fashioned chattel slavery, in which slaves were bought, sold and leased like livestock.

It is hard to determine which of the two groups had it worse, the slaves or the helots. On the one hand, a helot lived relatively independently, only paying tribute to his master; while an Athenian slave's entire livelihood lay in the hands of his master. On the other hand, to the Spartans, the helots were just a group of people to be harried and beaten into submission, and they regularly murdered the helots to keep their population (and their rebellion) under control - whereas, to the Athenians, each slave was an investment; they must be fed, clothed and cared for in order to make their master a profit.

Duties of Athenian Slaves

The chattel slavery approach used by the Athenians seems to have been the more popular option across Greece. In fact, there is evidence that even the Spartans supplemented their helot workforce of serfs with chattel slaves. Given its prevalence, and the many records provided by the Athenians, let us take a look at the duties and rights of Athenian slaves, so that we might get a hint of what slavery looked like in Greece as a whole.

Athenian slaves engaged in a wide variety of trades. Some of these trades were quite harsh. Slaves working in mines, quarries and mills had a startlingly short life expectancy. However, many slaves worked in less dangerous trades. Slaves worked in their master's businesses: making pottery, manufacturing weapons, building ships, spinning wool, working looms, baking bread. Slaves also worked the fields, orchards and vineyards of Greece, though never on the level of the plantations of the Roman Republic or Antebellum America.

Some Athenian slaves made pottery in the businesses of their masters.
Athenian Slave Pottery

A few privileged slaves found their way into their master's household, becoming household servants, and generally enjoying a far softer life than their counterparts outdoors. Yet, perhaps most shocking are the slaves who engaged in fields normally reserved for free men. Athenian slaves sculpted marble for the Parthenon, and Athenian slaves rowed triremes in wartime. This last is truly remarkable, since participation in warfare has historically been a path to political power.

Rights of Athenian Slaves

The dizzying array of trades followed by Athenian slaves becomes easier to understand when we recognize the unique rights and privileges they enjoyed. Slaves were permitted to engage in many aspects of civil and religious life, including festivals and rituals. Domestic slaves were often treated as members of the family and dined with their masters.

Though Athenian slaves belonged to their master, they still had the right to accumulate their own private property. The only difference was that a large portion of their wages went to their masters.

Athenian household servants had a gentler life compared to other slaves.
Athenian Household Servants

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