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Slaves in Ancient Greece: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

Ancient Greece depended on large numbers of slaves for work ranging from household duties to major building projects. Learn how Greeks used slaves and what the day-to-day life of a slave might have been like in this lesson.

A Slave's Life

Some days, it seems like nothing goes right. Maybe you missed the bus, didn't study enough for a test, or ran out of ice cream. Even on bad days, you know that tomorrow can be better. But imagine if each day you had to do what someone else told you -- even if it was difficult or dangerous, you couldn't say 'no.'

For much of history, societies have relied on slaves, meaning unpaid workers, to get tasks done. In ancient Greece, slaves had to obey the commands of their masters and had no rights of their own, even though slaves made up about a third of the total population in cities like Athens.

Engraving of a Greek family. The boy on the left is a slave holding a jug.
Image of Greek family with slave

Life as a Slave

The slaves in ancient Greece generally didn't become slaves at birth. Instead, Greeks took slaves by conquest, meaning they took over another place and forced the inhabitants into slavery. Slaves were also kidnapped by pirates and kidnappers and then purchased by the Greeks. Sometimes, parents even sold their own children into slavery!

While this might seem awful, the parents often did it to save their children. You see, if parents couldn't afford to feed their child, slavery would provide the child with food as well as clothes and shelter. Some slave owners even gave their slaves spending money, though there was no guarantee of this. Slaves who were owned by the government, rather than being owned by an individual citizen, might also have a slightly better social standing, although they would still have to do slave work, like construction and repair.

Drawing of the Greek Parthenon building. Government-owned slaves would have worked to build this, as well as most other major buildings.
The Parthenon, a building constructed by slaves

Some slaves, on the other hand, had particularly bad luck. Some were sent to row on Greek ships and spent the rest of their lives inside without any sunlight or fresh air, eating nothing but bread and drinking nothing but water. Likewise, slaves were also sent to work in mines, and they might live only two or three years before the lead, a poisonous material, killed them.

Some slaves were sent to row on Greek ships, like this trireme
Trireme drawing

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