Slavery was common practice and an integral component of ancient Greece throughout its history, as it was in other societies of the time. 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 in Socratic dialogues.
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 Spartan helots, 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 tragedy represented stereotypes. Iconography made no substantial differentiation between slave and craftsman. Even the terminology is often vague.
The ancient Greeks had many words to describe slaves, which need to be placed in context to avoid ambiguity. In Homer, Hesiod and Theognis of Megara, the slave was called δμώς / dmôs. The term has a general meaning but refers particularly to war prisoners taken as booty, in other words, property. During the classical period, the Greeks frequently used ἀνδράποδον / andrápodon, literally, "one with the feet of a man", as opposed to τετράποδον / tetrapodon, "quadruped", or livestock. The most common word is δοῦλος / doûlos, an earlier form of which appears in Mycenaean inscriptions as do-e-ro, used in opposition to "free man" (ἐλεύθερος / eleútheros). The verb δουλεὐω can be used metaphorically for other forms of dominion, as of one city over another or parents over their children. Finally, the term οἰκέτης / oikétês was used, meaning "one who lives in the house", referring to household servants. Other terms used were less precise and required context:
Slaves were present in the Mycenaean civilization. In the tablets from Pylos 140 do-e-ro can 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 being Poseidon. 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. 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. 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. In the Iliad, slaves are mainly women taken as booty of war, while men were either ransomed or killed on the battlefield. In the Odyssey, the slaves also seem to be mostly women. These slaves were servants and sometimes concubines. 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; in the winter, he sleeps in their company. The term dmôs is not considered pejorative, and Eumaeus, the "divine" swineherd, benefits from the same Homeric 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.” It is difficult to determine when slave trading began in the archaic period. In Works and Days (8th century BC), Hesiod owns numerous dmôes, although their status is unclear. The presence of douloi is confirmed by lyric poets such as Archilochus or Theognis of Megara. According to epigraphic evidence, the homicide law of Draco (c. 620 BC) mentioned slaves. According to Plutarch, 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, 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.”
All activities were open to slaves with the exception of politics. For the Greeks, politics was the only activity worthy of a citizen, the rest being relegated wherever possible to non-citizens. 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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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. 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, and the father of Demosthenes owned 32 cutlers and 20 bedmakers. 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 the hoplite; it has been argued that their actual role was far greater. The female slave carried out domestic tasks, in particular bread baking and textile making. Only the poorest citizens did not possess a domestic slave.
According to the literature, it appears that the majority of free Athenians owned at least one slave. Aristophanes, in Plutus, portrays poor peasants who have several slaves; Aristotle defines a house as containing freemen and slaves. Conversely, not owning even one slave was a clear sign of poverty. In the celebrated discourse of Lysias For the Invalid, a cripple pleading for a pension explains "my income is very small and now I'm required to do these things myself and do not even have the means to purchase a slave who can do these things for me. However, the huge slave populations of the Romans were unknown in ancient Greece. When Athenaeus cites the case of Mnason, friend of Aristotle and owner of a thousand slaves, this appears to be exceptional. Plato, owner of five slaves at the time of his death, describes the very rich as owning 50 slaves. Thucydides estimates that the isle of Chios had proportionally the largest number of slaves.
Curiously, it appears that the Greeks did not "breed" their slaves, at least during the Classical Era, though the proportion of houseborn slaves appears to have been rather large in Ptolemaic Egypt and in manumission inscriptions at Delphi. Sometimes the cause of this was natural; mines, for instance, were exclusively a male domain. On the other hand, there were many female domestic slaves. The example of black people in the American South on the other hand demonstrates that slave populations can multiply. This incongruity remains relatively unexplained.
Xenophon advised that male and female slaves should be lodged separately, that "…nor children born and bred by our domestics without our knowledge and consent—no unimportant matter, since, if the act of rearing children tends to make good servants still more loyally disposed, cohabiting but sharpens ingenuity for mischief in the bad. The explanation is perhaps economic; even a skilled slave was cheap, so it may have been cheaper to purchase a slave than to raise one. Additionally, childbirth placed the slave-mother's life at risk, and the baby was not guaranteed to survive to adulthood. Houseborn slaves (oikogeneis) often constituted a privileged class. They were, for example, entrusted to take the children to school; they were "pedagogues" in the first sense of the term. Some of them were the offspring of the master of the house, but in most cities, notably Athens, a child inherited the status of its mother.
Isocrates claimed that “not even the most worthless slave can be put to death without trial”; the master's power over his slave was not absolute, as it was under Roman law. 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?” 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. In the 4th century BC, the suspect was judged by the Palladion, a court which had jurisdiction over unintentional homicide; 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.
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. 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 the Anthesteria, and were allowed initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries. 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.
Slaves could not own property, but their masters often let them save up to purchase their freedom, 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. Athenian slaves fought together with Athenian freemen at the battle of Marathon, and the monuments memorialize them. It was formally decreed before the battle of Salamis that the citizens should "save themselves, their women, children, and slaves".
Slaves had special sexual restrictions and obligations. For example, a slave could not engage free boys in pederastic relationships ("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 the palaestrae ("A slave shall not take exercise or anoint himself in the wrestling-schools."). Both laws are attributed to Solon. 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. The rape of slaves was against the law, just as with citizens, though the fine was only half as much.
In Gortyn, in Crete, according to a code engraved in stone dating to the 6th century BC, slaves (doulos or oikeus) found themselves in a state of great dependence. Their children belonged to the master. The master was responsible for all their offences, and, inversely, he received amends for crimes committed against his slaves by others. In the Gortyn code, where all punishment was monetary, fines were doubled for slaves committing a misdemeanour or felony. Conversely, an offence committed against a slave was much less expensive than an offence committed against a free person. As an example, the rape of a free woman by a slave was punishable by a fine of 200 staters (400 drachms), while the rape of a non-virgin slave by another slave brought a fine of only one obolus (a sixth of a drachm). Slaves did have the right to possess a house and livestock, which could be transmitted to descendants, as could clothing and household furnishings. Their family was recognized by law: they could marry, divorce, write a testament and inherit just like free men.
And many a man whom fraud or law had soldThough much of Solon's vocabulary is that of "traditional" slavery, servitude for debt was at least different in that the enslaved Athenian remained an Athenian, dependent on another Athenian, in his place of birth. It is this aspect which explains the great wave of discontent with slavery of the 6th century BC, which was not intended to free all slaves but only those enslaved by debt. The reforms of Solon left two exceptions: the guardian of an unmarried woman who had lost her virginity had the right to sell her as a slave, and a citizen could “expose” (abandon) unwanted newborn children.
Far from his god-built land, an outcast slave,
I brought again to Athens; yea, and some,
Exiles from home through debt’s oppressive load,
Speaking no more the dear Athenian tongue,
But wandering far and wide, I brought again;
And those that here in vilest slavery (douleia)
Crouched ‘neath a master’s (despōtes) frown, I set them free.
The practice became more common in the 4th century BC and gave rise to inscriptions in stone which have been recovered from shrines such as Delphi and Dodona. They primarily date to the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, and the 1st century AD. Collective manumission was possible; an example is known from the 2nd century BC in the island of Thasos. It probably took place during a period of war as a reward for the slaves' loyalty, but in most cases the documentation deals with a voluntary act on the part of the master (predominantly male, but in the Hellenistic period also female). The slave was often required to pay for himself an amount at least equivalent to his street value. To do this he could use his savings or take a loan (ἔρανος / eranos) from his master, a friend, or a client, which last was often the case for a courtesan, one of the most famous examples of which involved the hetaera Neaira. The emancipation was often of a religious nature, where the slave was considered to be "sold" to a deity, often Delphian Apollo, or was consecrated after his emancipation. The temple would receive a portion of the monetary transaction and would guarantee the contract. The manumission could also be entirely civil, in which case the magistrate played the role of the deity.
The slave's freedom could be either total or partial, at the master's whim. In the former, the emancipated slave was legally protected against all attempts at re-enslavement—for instance, on the part of the former master's inheritors. In the latter case, the emancipated slave could be liable to a number of obligations to the former master. The most restrictive contract was the paramone, a type of enslavement of limited duration during which time the master retained practically absolute rights. In regard to the city, the emancipated slave was far from equal to a citizen by birth. He was liable to all types of obligations, as one can see from the proposals of Plato in The Laws: presentation three times monthly at the home of the former master, forbidden to become richer than him, etc. In fact, the status of emancipated slaves was similar to that of metics, the residing foreigners, who were free but did not enjoy a citizen's rights.
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, and Plutarch writes about "slaves and helots". 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 the Peloponnese 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. As was in the other Greek cities, chattel slaves could be purchased at the market or taken in war.
"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?'The condition of slaves varied very much according to their status; the mine slaves of Laureion and the pornai (brothel prostitutes) lived a particularly brutal existence, while public slaves, craftsmen, tradesmen and bankers enjoyed relative independence. In return for a fee (ἀποφορά / apophora) paid to their master, they could live and work alone. 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.
Ancient writers considered that Attic slaves enjoyed a “peculiarly happy lot”: 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". 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 in Decelea. 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), suggests that slave flight was not uncommon. Conversely, the absence of a large-scale Greek slave revolt comparable to that of Spartacus in Rome, for instance, can undoubtedly 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.
In parallel, the concept that all men, whether Greek or barbarian, belonged to the same race was being developed by the Sophists and thus that certain men were slaves although they had the soul of a freeman and vice versa. 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. 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”. This idea, repeated by the Stoics and the Epicurians, was not so much an opposition to slavery as a trivialisation of it. 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. 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 and land workers. The "reversed cities" placed women in power or even saw the end of private property, as in Lysistrata or Assemblywomen, 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, one reaped generously without sowing. In Telekleides' Amphictyons 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.
Slavery in Greek antiquity has long been an object of apologetic discourse among Christians, who awarded themselves the merit of its collapse. From the 16th century the discourse became moralizing in nature. The existence of colonial slavery had significant impact on the debate, with some authors lending it civilizing merits and others denouncing its misdeeds. Thus Henri-Alexandre Wallon in 1847 published a History of Slavery in Antiquity amongst his works for the abolition of slavery in the French colonies.
In the 19th century a politico-economic discourse emerged. It concerned itself with distinguishing the phases in the organisation of human societies and correctly identifying the place of Greek slavery. The influence of Marx is decisive; for him the ancient society was characterized by development of private ownership and the dominant (and not secondary as in other pre-capitalist societies) character of slavery as a mode of production. The Positivists represented by the historian Eduard Meyer (Slavery in Antiquity, 1898) were soon to oppose the Marxist theory. According to him slavery was the foundation of Greek democracy. It was thus a legal and social phenomenon, and not economic.
Current historiography developed in the 20th century; led by authors such as Joseph Vogt, it saw in slavery the conditions for the development of elites. Conversely, the theory also demonstrates an opportunity for slaves to join the elite. Finally, Vogt estimates that modern society, founded on humanist values, has surpassed this level of development. In 2007, Greek slavery remains the subject of historiographical debate, on two questions in particular: can it be said that ancient Greece was a "slave society", and did Greek slaves comprise a social class?