Slavery in ancient Greece


Slavery was a common practice in ancient Greece, as in other societies of the time. Some classical Greek writers, including Aristotle, considered slavery natural or even necessary. This paradigm was particularly challenged in the Socratic dialogue. The Stoics recorded the first recorded condemnation of slavery.

Most activities were free to slaves, except for politics, which was reserved for nationals. Slaves were mainly exploited in agriculture, but hundreds of slaves were also employed in quarries and mines, and probably two were employed in domestic work. It is certain that Athens had the largest slave population, with 80,000 slaves in the 5th and 6th centuries BC, with an average of three or four slaves per household, excluding poorer families.

Modern historiography distinguishes between slavery and land-linked groups. Slaves were personal property, where the slave was considered a piece of property, as opposed to a participant in society who could move freely. The other group consisted of subjects bound to their land, such as the penestes of Thessaly or the Helots, who were enslaved by the Spartans. These groups were more like medieval serfs, an addition to property. A heloot is someone deprived of his freedom and forced to submit to an owner who can buy, sell or rent him, just like any other moveable property.

The academic study of slavery in ancient Greece faces significant methodological problems. The documentation is disjointed and fragmented and focuses primarily on the city-state of Athens. No special treatises are devoted to the subject and jurisprudence was interested in slavery only insofar as it constituted a source of income. The Greek comedies and tragedies set stereotypes, while the iconography made no essential distinction between slaves and artisans.

The Athenian philosopher Plato, in his dialogue Meno, stages a slave being questioned by Socrates, in that case about a mathematical problem, in order to show that one can be brought to insights by patiently asking and answering pointed questions, in Plato”s depiction an uncovering of dormant knowledge already present in everyone -i.e., even in slaves who did not enjoy prestige.

The ancient Greeks had different words for slaves, which becomes unclear when the context is not given. In the works of Homer, Hesiodos and Theognis of Megara, the slave was called δμώς, dmōs. This designation has a general meaning, but specifically refers to prisoners of war taken as booty. During the classical period, the Greeks regularly used the word ἀνδράποδον, andrapodon, literally: one with the feet of a human being, as opposed to τετράποδον, tetrapodon, quadruped, or cattle. The most common word for slaves is δοῦλος, doulos, as opposed to “free man. It was before that ἐλεύθερος, eleútheros, and has been found in inscriptions in Greek Mycenaean, as do-e-ro, male slave, servant or serf, linear B: or do-it-ra, female slave, maidservant or slave girl. The verb δουλεὐω, preserved in Ancient Greek and meaning “work,” could be used as a metaphor for other forms of rule, one city over another or parents over their children. Finally, there was οἰκέτης, oiketēs, for “one who lives in the house,” meaning domestic servants.

Other designations for slaves were less precise and required context:

During the classical period, it meant servant.

A number of excavated tablets from Pylos mention the presence of slaves during the Mycenaean civilization. Two legal categories can be distinguished: εοιο, slaves and θεοιο, slaves of the god, probably of Poseidon. The god”s slaves are always mentioned by name and own their own piece of land. Their legal status is similar to that of free citizens. The nature and origin of their commitment to the gods is not clear. The names of common slaves show that some of them came from Kythira, Chios, Limnos or Halicarnassus and were probably enslaved as a result of piracy. The tablets show that union between slaves and free citizens was common and that slaves could work and own their own land. It seems that the main dichotomy in Mycenaean civilization was not that between a free person and a slave, but rather on whether a person lived in a palace or in simpler accommodation.

There is no continuity between the Mycenaean era and the time of Homer, where the social structures reflected the Greek dark ages. The terminology is anomalous: the slave is no longer called do-e-ro (doulos), but dmōs. In the Iliad, slaves consist mainly of women taken as spoils of war, while men were either released on the battlefield or killed. It seems that slaves here are mainly women. These slaves were servants and sometimes concubines. There were a few male slaves, particularly in the Odyssey, of which swineherd Eumaeus is an example.

A characteristic of the slave was that he was part of the core of the oikos, core family or household. Laërtes eats and drinks with his servants and in winter he sleeps in their company. Dmōs was not meant disparagingly, and Emaeus, the “divine,” swineherd bears the same Homeric nickname as the Greek heroes. Slavery, however, remained a disgrace. Eumaeus himself declares:

Zeus, with the voice that sounds far away, takes away half of a man”s virtue when the day of bondage comes upon him.

It is difficult to determine when the slave trade began in the Archaic period. In the poem Works and Days, 8th century BC, Hesiodos is the owner of a large number of dmōes, although their status is not entirely clear. The presence of douloi, of “slaves,” is confirmed by lyric poets such as Archilochus or Theognis of Megara. According to epigraphic research, slaves were also mentioned in the murder law of Draco, c. 620 B.C. According to Plutarchus, Solon, c. 594-593 B.C., forbade slaves to participate in gymnastics and pedophilia. Toward the end of this period, references become more common. Slavery becomes prevalent at the time Solon lays the foundation for democracy in Athens. The classicist Moses Finley also notes that Chios, according to Theopompus the first city to organize slave trade, also had early democratic process, in the 6th century B.C. He concludes that one aspect of Greek history is that progress is accompanied by freedom and slavery.

All activities were open to slaves, except politics. For the Greeks, politics was the only activity that belonged only to a citizen, the rest was left to non-citizens whenever possible. It was status that mattered, not activity.

Slavery was mainly practiced in agriculture, the basis of the Greek economy. Some small landowners may have owned one to two slaves. A wealth of manuals for landowners, such as Xenophon”s Oeconomicus or those of writers, who posed as Aristotle, attest to the presence of dozens of slaves on larger estates. They may have been both common laborers and foremen. There is no agreement on the extent to which slaves were used as labor in the agricultural sector. What is certain is that slavery was very common in rural Athens, but ancient Greece knew nothing of the immense slave populations on Roman latifundia.

Slave labor was widespread in mines and quarries, which consisted of large slave populations. They were often outsourced by wealthy private individuals. The army commander Nicias hired out 1,000 slaves to the silver mines of Laurion in Attica, Hipponicos 600 and Philomides 300. Xenophon indicates that they received one obool per slave per day, which amounts to 60 drachmas per year. This was one of the most valued investments of the Athenians. The number of slaves who worked in the mines of Laurion or in the ore mines is estimated at 30,000. Xenophon suggested that the city buy a large number of slaves, which amounted to three state slaves per inhabitant, so that their outsourcing could guarantee the livelihood of all citizens in the city.

Slaves were also used as artisans and craftsmen, for example in agriculture. They had to perform labor there, which the landowners or their families were unable to do themselves. But most slaves worked in workshops, the shield factory of Lysios employed 120 slaves and the father of Demosthenes owned 32 knife makers and 20 bed makers.

Slaves were also employed in the home. The servant”s main job was to act as a substitute for his master during business transactions or accompany him on his travels. Slaves also had to participate in wars. They were lightly armed, were armed with light throwing spears, slings or bow and arrow and did not wear armor. They often accompanied a hoplite. Slave women performed household chores, the most important of which were baking bread and making textiles. Only the poorest citizens had no house slaves.


It is difficult to estimate the number of slaves in ancient Greece, in the absence of an exact census, and different definitions were used during that period. It is certain that Athens had the largest slave population, with as many as 80,000 slaves in the 5th and 6th centuries BC, about three or four slaves per household. Thucydides stated in the 5th century BC that 20,890 slaves had deserted during the Dekelean War. The population of Athens in the fourth century BC was estimated to be one-third slaves. The lowest estimate, that of 20,000 slaves during the period of Demosthenes, corresponds to one slave per family. Between 317 and 307 BC, the tyrant Demetrius of Phalerum ordered a general census in Attica, which produced the following figures: 21,000 citizens, 10,000 metoiks and 400,000 slaves. The orator Hyperides said in his Against Areistogiton that the effort to recruit 15,000 male slaves of conscript age led to the defeat of the southern Greek army at the Battle of Chaeronea. This is consistent with Ctesicles” figures.

Literature shows that the majority of free Athenians owned at least one slave. The poet Aristophanes, in the comedy Plutus, depicts poor peasants who owned more slaves. Aristotle defines a household as one with free persons and slaves. Conversely, not owning even one slave was a clear sign of poverty. Lysias, in his argument For the Disabled, has a disabled person plead for benefits, explaining that his income is very low, he is obliged to do things himself and he does not even have the means to buy a slave to do these things for him. The ancient Greeks were not aware that there was a huge number of slaves in the Roman Empire. When Athenaeus cites the case of Mnason, a friend of Aristotle and owner of 1,000 slaves, this turns out to be exceptional. Plato, who owned five slaves at the time of his death, describes how the extremely wealthy owned fifty slaves. Thucydides estimates that the island of Chios had proportionally the largest number of slaves.


It could happen in a variety of ways, people being enslaved. Usually this came through war, where those who were defeated became slaves to their victors, but piracy, land raids and international trade also played a role.

It was common in ancient Athens for a citizen unable to pay his debts to become a “slave” to his creditor.

Under the law of war of the time, the victor had absolute rights over the defeated, regardless of whether they were soldiers or not. Although not officially according to the system, enslaving someone was a common practice. Thucydides mentions that 7,000 inhabitants of Hyccara in Sicily were captured by Nicias and sold for 120 talents in the neighboring village of Catana. Similarly, the people of Olynthos were sentenced to slavery in the year 348 BCE, as were those of Thebes by Alexander the Great, in the year 335 BCE, and those of Mantinea by the Achaean League.

The existence of Greek slaves was a constant source of unease for free Greeks. The enslavement of entire cities was also a controversial practice. Some generals refused it, such as the Spartan Agesilaüs II and Callicratidas. Some cities agreed to prohibit this practice: in the mid-third century BCE, Miletus agreed not to enslave any free inhabitants of Knossos and vice versa. Conversely, freeing a city whose entire population had been enslaved by paying a ransom brought great prestige. Kassander, the king of Macedonia, restored and repopulated Thebes in 316 BC. Before him, Philippus II of Macedonia had captured the city of Stageira and then repopulated it with its first enslaved inhabitants as well.

Piracy and raiding provided an important and constant supply of slaves, but the significance of this source of slaves varied according to era and region. Pirates and brigands demanded ransom when the status of their catch could guarantee it. When no ransom or deposit was paid, captives would be sold to a trader. Piracy was almost a “national specialty” in certain areas, described by Thucydides as the old-fashioned way of life. It occurred in Acarnania, Crete and Aetolia. Outside Greece, it was the Illyrians, Phoenicians and Etruscans. During the Hellenistic period, Cilicians and the mountain peoples of the Anatolian coast could also be added to this list. Strabo explains the popularity of this practice among the Cilicians because it was so profitable.

The slave market at the important trading port on Delos, an island in the Aegean Sea, allowed the movement of “countless slaves daily.” At times about a thousand slaves a day were said to have been sold. With the growing influence of the Roman Republic, which was a major consumer of slaves, this market developed and piracy increased. By the first century B.C., however, the Romans had largely eradicated piracy to protect their trade routes in the Mediterranean.

Slave trade between the kingdoms and states of the wider region took place. In the fragmentary list of slaves confiscated from the assets of the mutilators of the Herme (idol), there are 32 slaves whose ancestry has been established: 13 came from Thrace, 7 from Karia and the others were from Cappadocia, Scythia, Phrygia, Lydia, Syria, Illyria, Macedonia and the Peloponnese. Local professionals sold their own people to Greek slave traders. It seems that the main centers for slave trade were Ephesus, Byzantion and even Tanais, which was further away, at the mouth of the Don. Some “barbarian” slaves became victims as a result of war, or piracy locally, but others were sold by their parents. There is no direct evidence of slave trade, but material seems to support it.

First, certain nationalities are invariably and significantly represented in the slave population, such as the corps of Scytian archers, who were employed as a police force by the city of Athens. These were originally 300, but eventually numbered nearly 1,000. Second, the names of slaves in comedies often had a geographical reference. For example, Thratta, used by Aristophanes in Wasps, meant Acharnians and “Peace,” woman from Thrace. Finally, a slave”s nationality was an important criterion.

The classic advice not to concentrate too many slaves of the same nationality in the same place was to minimize the risk of rebellion. It is also likely that, as with the Romans, certain nationalities were considered more productive than others. The price of slaves varied according to their ability. Xenophon valued a miner from Laurion at 180 drachmas, while a worker at a large workshop was paid one drachma per day. The cutlers of Demosthenes” father were valued at 500 to 600 drachmas per person. By comparison, one drachma was the average daily wage for an Athenian worker.

Price was also an indicator of the number of slaves available: by the 4th century B.C., there were ample slaves available and a buyer”s market. Taxes were levied by the market towns on the sales proceeds. For example, a large slave market was organized during celebrations at the temple of Apollo on the Actium peninsula. The Acarnanian Union, which was responsible for the logistics, received half of the tax proceeds; the other half went to the city of Anactorion, which included Actium. Buyers had warranty for hidden defects; a purchase could be undone if it turned out that the slave purchased was paralyzed and the buyer was not informed of this.

Natural growth

It appears that the Greeks did not encourage their slaves to have children. At least that was the case during the classical period. The number of house-born slaves seems to have been quite high in Ptolemaic Egypt, as evidenced by inscriptions at Delphi of slaves being set free. Sometimes the reason was a natural one; mines, for example, were the exclusive domain of men. On the other hand, house slaves were relatively numerous. In contrast, the example of African slaves in the southern part of the United States shows the ability of a community of slaves to expand. There is no obvious explanation for this difference, between the slaves in Greece and the United States.

Xenophon advised that male and female slaves should be housed separately, “that … nor children be born to our servants without our knowledge and approval ̶ no trivial matter if the act of raising children make loyal servants less loyal, then cohabitation strengthens ingenuity for mischief.” The explanation may be economic: even a competent slave was cheap, so it may have been cheaper to buy a slave than to raise one. Moreover, childbirth endangered the life of the slave mother, and there were no guarantees that the baby would reach adulthood.

Home-born slaves, Οἰκογενεις, oikogeneis, were often part of a privileged class. For example, they were assigned to take children to school and even helped raise them. Some of them were descendants of the lord of the house, but in most cities, especially in Athens, a child inherited the status of his mother.

The Greeks knew different ranks of slaves. There were a large number of categories ranging from free citizen to slave, as property, including the penestes or Helots, citizens whose rights had been taken away, freed slaves, and resident aliens. Their common ground was that they had been deprived of their civil rights. Moses Finley proposed a set of criteria to define the different ranks of slavery.

Slaves from Athens

Slaves in Athens were the property of the state or of their master, who could sell them at his convenience. He could give them away, sell them or leave them to someone after his death. A slave could have a wife and children, but the slave family was not recognized by the state and the master could break up the family at any time. Slaves had fewer legal rights than state citizens and were represented by their master in all court cases. An offense that would earn the free man a fine, the slave had to pay with a beating. Probably the ratio stood for one whipping per drachma.

With some minor exceptions, a slave”s testimony was not accepted except when he was martyred. Slaves were tortured during trial because they often remained loyal to their master. A renowned example of a loyal slave was Sicinnus, the Persian slave of Themistocles, who despite his Persian ancestry deceived Xerxes and helped the Athenians in the Battle of Salamis.

Although Athenian slaves were tortured during trials, they were still indirectly protected. A master of an abused slave could sue for damages and interest, δίκη βλάβης. Conversely, a slave owner who mistreated his slave excessively could be sued by any citizen, γραφὴ ὕβρεως. This law was not created for the slave”s sake, but to prevent excessive violence, ὕβρις, hubris.

Isocrates held that “even the most worthless slave should not be sentenced to death without trial”: the master had no absolute power over his slave. According to Draco”s law, the death penalty followed the murder of a slave. The underlying principle was: was the crime such that if it spread further, society would be seriously harmed? The legal action that could be brought against the murderer of a slave was not to obtain compensation, as would have been the case for the killing of livestock, but a δίκη φονική, dikē phonikē, demanding punishment for the religious desecration that had resulted from bloodshed. In the 4th century BC, the accused was tried by the Palladion, a court that had jurisdiction, jurisdiction over unintentional manslaughter. The punishment imposed seems to have been more than a fine, but less than the death penalty> It may have been exile, as was the case with the murder of a metoik, resident alien.

Slaves did belong to their master”s household. A newly purchased slave was welcomed with nuts and fruit, just as a newly married woman was welcomed. Slaves participated in most civic and family rituals. They were expressly invited to participate in the banquet of the Choës, the second day of Anthesteria, and were allowed to be initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis. A slave, like a free citizen, could seek asylum in a temple or on an altar.

Slaves shared their master”s gods and could practice their own religious practices if necessary. Slaves could not own property, but their owner often let them save so they could buy their freedom. There are records of slaves doing business independently, paying only a fixed tax rate to their master. Athens also had a law forbidding the beating of slaves: if someone in Athens beat someone who at first glance appeared to be a slave, he might well beat a fellow citizen, since many citizens do not dress better. It surprised other Greeks that Athenians tolerated dissent from slaves. Athenian slaves fought shoulder to shoulder with Athenian free citizens in the battle of Marathon, and they were commemorated on victory monuments. Before the battle of Salamis, it was decreed by decree that the citizens should “save themselves, their wives, children, and slaves.”

Slaves had special sexual restrictions and obligations. For example, a slave could not enter into a pedophilic relationship with a free boy: “a slave shall not be the lover of a free boy, nor follow him, or else he shall receive fifty strokes in public” and they were denied access to a palaestrae, wrestling school. “A slave shall not train or anoint himself at the wrestling school.” Both of these laws were attributed to Solon. Fathers who wanted to protect their son from sexual harassment had him guarded by a slave, a paidagogos, who could accompany the boy on his travels. The sons of vanquished enemies would be enslaved and were often forced to work in gay brothels, as was the case with Phaedo of Elis, who was ransomed and freed from such an enterprise at Socrates” request by wealthy friends of the philosopher. On the other hand, sources indicate that the rape of slaves was at least occasionally prosecuted.

Slaves in Gortys

According to a code carved in stone from the 6th century BC, slaves, doulos or orkeus, were in a state of great dependence in the city of Gortys in Crete. Their children belonged to the master. He was responsible for all their transgressions, and conversely, he was compensated for crimes committed by others against his slaves.

According to the code at Gortys, where all punishment was monetary, fines were doubled if slaves committed a misdemeanor or felony. Conversely, a crime against a slave was much cheaper than a crime against a free person. For example, the rape of a free woman was fined 200 staters, or 400 drachmas, while the rape of a nonvirgin slave by another slave was fined only 1 obool, 1

A special case: debt bondage

Before Solon abolished debt slavery, it was practiced by the Athenians: a citizen unable to pay his debts became a “slave” to his creditor. Was this really a form of slavery or a form of servitude? This question relates primarily to peasants known as hektemoroi They worked leased land from wealthy landowners if they were unable to pay their rents. In theory, those thus enslaved would be freed when their original debt was repaid.

The system had originated in the Near East and is cited in the Bible. Solon put an end to it here and there with the σεισάχθεια, Seisachtheia, release from debt, which averted any claim from the plaintiff and forbade the sale of free Athenians, including themselves. Aristotle, in his Constitution of the Athenians, quotes one of Solon”s poems.

“To the countless sold by deceit or according to law” Far from his God-made land, an outcast slave, Brought back to Athens: yes, and some, Banished from home by the heavy burden of debt, Who no longer spoke the beloved Athenian language, But went far and wide, I brought back, And those here in the most vile slavery, douleia Crawling under the merciless gaze of their master, despōtes, those I released.

Although much of Solon”s vocabulary is similar to that of “traditional” slavery, enslavement by debt was at least different in that the enslaved Athenian remained an Athenian in his birthplace, dependent on another Athenian.

It is this aspect that explains the wave of dissatisfaction with slavery of the 6th century B.C. It was not intended to free all slaves, but only those enslaved through fault. The reforms by 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 “find” an unwanted newborn baby.


The use of manumissio in Chios appears to have existed as early as the sixth century BC. It probably dates from an earlier period since it was an oral procedure. Informal acquittals are also reported in the Classical Period. It sufficed to accompany the citizen together with witnesses to a public ceremony in the theater or to go before a public court to declare his slave free. In the mid-6th century BC, this practice was banned in Athens to prevent disturbances of public order. In the 4th century B.C. its use became increasingly common, as evidenced by the inscriptions found in stones at temples such as those at Delphi and Dodona. They date mainly from the first and second centuries BC and from the first century AD.

Joint manumission was also possible, an example of which is known from the second century BC on the island of Thasos. It probably took place after a period of war, as a reward for the demonstrated loyalty of slaves, but in most cases the documentation deals with a voluntary act of the master, mainly male, but in the Hellenistic period also female.

Often the slave had to pay for himself an amount at least equal to his street value. To this end, they could use their savings or take out a so-called “friendly” loan ἔρανος, eranos from his master, a friend or client, as the hetaere, a courtesan Nearia did.

The release was often religious in nature, with the slave supposedly “sold” to a deity, in this case often the Delphic Apollo, or initiated after his release. The temple received a portion of the money transaction and would guarantee the contract. The manumission could also be entirely civil in nature. In that case, the official played the role of deity.

The slave could be totally or partially free, depending on the whim of his master. In the former case, the freed slave was legally protected against any attempt to bring him back into slavery , for example on behalf of the heirs of his former master. In the latter case, the freed slave could be required to abide by a number of obligations to his former master. The most restrictive contract was that of the paramone, a form of enslavement of limited duration in which the master retained virtually absolute rights.

As far as his city rights were concerned, the freed slave was far from being equal to one who was a citizen by birth. It can be inferred from the dialogue the Laws of Plato that the freed slave had to abide by all sorts of regulations: the obligation to appear at the house of his former master three times a month, the prohibition of becoming richer than him and more. In fact, the status of a freed slave was similar to that of the metoik, the stranger who stayed in the country, free but without civil rights.

The Spartan slave

Spartans deployed helots as slaves, a subordinate group that was collectively owned by the state. It is not entirely clear whether they had slaves of their own. There are references to slaves released by the Spartans, something seemingly forbidden to helots, or sold outside Laconia: the poet Alcman; a certain Philoxenos from Cythera, who is said to have been brought under slavery along with all his fellow townsmen after the taking of his city, was later sold to an Athenian; a Spartan cook, sold to Dionysius I or to the king of Pontus, both versions are mentioned by Plutarchus ; and the renowned Spartan nurses, who were so valued by Athenian parents.

Some texts mention both slaves and Helots, implying that there was a difference between them. Plato in his dialogue Alcibiades I quotes “the ownership of slaves, and Helots in particular” under the Spartan power and Plutarchus writes about “slaves and Helots.” Finally, the agreement that ended the rebellion of the Helots in 464 B.C. stipulated that any rebel from Messinia who would hereafter be found on the Peloponnese peninsula would be “slave to his captor,” implying that at that time it was not forbidden to own slaves, which could be treated as a commodity.

Most historians agree that personal slaves were indeed used in the Greek city-state of Sparta, at least after the Spartan victory over the Athenians in 404 B.C. during the Peloponnesian War, but not in large numbers and only in the upper echelons. As was the case in the other Greek cities, personal slaves could be sold in the market or made prisoners of war.

It is difficult to assess the conditions of the Greek slave according to proper value. According to Aristotle, the daily routine of slaves could be expressed in three terms: “work, discipline and food.” Xenophon advised treating slaves as pets, that is, punish disobedience and reward good behavior. As for Aristotle, he prefers to treat slaves like children and give them not only commands but also advice, because the slave is able to understand motivations if they are explained.

Greek literature has several scenes in which slaves are flogged. It was a means of forcing them into work, just as it could be done by distributing rations, clothing and rest. Violence against slaves occurred, administered by the master or an overseer, who may have been a slave himself. For example, at the beginning of Aristophanes” play The Knights (4-5), two slaves complain that they were “bruised and flogged without interruption” by their new overseer. However, Aristophanes quotes a typical old saying from Classical Greek comedy. He also dismissed or flogged slaves who kept running away or kept cheating someone. They always made a crying exit so that one of his fellow slaves could mock the bruises and then ask, “Oh, you poor fellow, what happened to your skin?”

The conditions of slaves varied greatly depending on their status. Slaves in the mines of Lauarion and drill slaves, pornai, in particular, led a cruel existence, while state slaves, artisans, petty traders and bankers were relatively independent. In exchange for a fee, ἀποφορά, apophora, to their master, they could live and work independently. In addition, they could earn some money, which was sometimes enough to buy their freedom. The possibility of freedom was a strong motivator, although it is difficult to estimate how it could be used in reality.

Classical writers thought that the slaves from Athens had “a particularly happy fate. Pseudo-Xenophon lamented the liberties afforded to the Athenian slaves: “As for the slaves and metoik from Athens, they avail themselves of greatest liberties. You cannot just beat them and they do not step aside to let you through”. This so-called treatment did not prevent 20,000 Athenian slaves from running away at the end of the Peloponnesian War at the instigation of the Spartan garrison in Attica. These were mostly skilled artisans, kheiroteknai, and they were probably among the slaves who were treated better. The title of a 4th-century comedy by Antiphanes, The Catcher of the Runaway, Δραπεταγωγός, suggests that it was more common for slaves to flee.

Conversely, nowhere has a large-scale Greek revolt similar to that of the Roman slave Spartacus been recorded. This can probably be explained by the fact that Greek slaves were relatively widespread, which may have prevented large-scale preparation. A slave revolt was rare, even in Rome. Individual acts in which slaves rebelled against their master did occur, though in limited numbers. A court plea reports an attempted manslaughter of his master by a slave who was not yet 12 years old.

Historical views

Few writers of classical antiquity question that there were slaves. For Homer and the preclassical writers, slavery was an inevitable consequence of war. Heraclitus stated that “war is the father of all, the king of all, he turns some into slaves and gives freedom to others.” Aristotle also held this view, stating, “the law by which everything captured in war belongs to the victor.” However, he also says that there may be some issues at play here, “for what now, if the reason for making war is unjust?” If the war is due to an unfair or wrong reason, should the victors of that war be allowed to take the losers as slaves?

During the Classical Period, the main justification of slavery was economic. From a philosophical point of view, the idea of “natural” slavery occurred at the same time. For example, Aeschylus says in his tragedy Persians, “the Greeks are nowhere called slaves or subordinates of anyone,” while the Persians, as Euripidus writes in Helen “are all slaves except one: the Great King.” Hippocrates theorizes about this latent idea in the fifth century B.C. According to him, the temperate climate of Anatolia produced a peaceful and submissive people. This statement is echoed by Plato and then by Aristotle in his Politika, in which he elaborates on the concept of “natural” slavery. “For he who can look forward with his mind is by nature a ruler and master, and he who can do these things with his body is subordinate and by nature a slave.” Unlike an animal, a slave is able to understand reason but “…has no ability to deliberate.”

Alcidamas, a contemporary of Aristotle, took the opposite view and held that by nature no one was a slave. Parallel to this, the sophists developed the concept that every man, whether Greek or barbarian, belonged to the same race and thus certain men were slaves although they had the soul of a free man or vice versa. Aristotle himself, in accordance with his theory of “natural” slavery, recognized this possibility and argued that slavery could not be imposed unless the master was better than the slave. The Sophists concluded that true servitude was not a matter of status but of character. Meander said of this, “Be free in spirit, though you are slave, and then you will no longer be slave.” This thought, which recurred among the Stoics and Epicureans, was not so much a rejection of slavery as a downplaying of it.

The Greeks could not imagine the absence of slaves. Slaves even appear in the “Cloud Country” of Aristophanes” play The Birds, as well as in the ideal cities of Plato”s dialogue the Laws or Republic. The utopian cities of the architects Phaleas of Chalcedon and Hippodamus of Miletus are based on equal distribution of property, yet government slaves are employed as artisans or agricultural laborers.

The “reverse cities” brought women to power and even saw the end of private property, as in the comedy Lysistrata or Women”s Parliament, but one could not imagine slaves in charge of their masters. The only society without slaves was that of the Golden Age, in which all needs were met without anyone having to work. As Plato explained, in this type of society one reaps abundantly without sowing.

In Amphictyons, a comedy by Telekleides, barley loaves compete with wheat loaves for the honor of being “eaten by humans. Moreover, the objects themselves get moving: dough kneads itself and the jug pours itself. Similarly, Aristotle said that slavery would not be necessary if “each instrument could do its own work… the shuttle would weave and the pick would hit the lyre without a hand to guide it,” like the legendary concepts of Daedalus and Hephaestus. A society without slaves is thus relegated to another time and space. In a “normal” society, one needs slaves. Aristotle argues that slaves are nevertheless a necessity, saying,” property is a part of the household… for no one can live well or even live unless he is provided with the necessary needs.” He also states that slaves are the most important part of property because they have “priority over all instruments.” This could mean that at least some slaves would be treated well, for the same reason that one takes good care of one”s most important tools. By seeing slaves as tools of a household, this creates another reason to accept slavery. Aristotle says, “Indeed the use of slaves or domestic animals is not much different,” showing that some slaves are of no higher order than the common domestic animals of the time.

Antiphon saw slaves as just more than ordinary animals or instruments. On the issue of a man killing his own slave, he says that the man should “purify himself and stay away from those places which the law prescribes, with the hope that he will thereby best avert disaster.” This suggests that there is still some sense of impropriety when one kills a slave, even if owned by the one who kills him.

The punishment of slaves would have been cruel and immediate. Demosthenes accepted it, that slaves were punished by bodily injury for anything they might have done wrong, stating, “the body of a slave is held responsible for all his misdeeds, since corporal punishment is the last punishment you can inflict on a free person.” This was discussed in court proceedings, suggesting that it was a widely accepted way to treat slaves.

Modern thinking

Slavery in ancient Greece has long been the subject of apologetic dialogue among Christians, but the end of slavery is usually attributed to them. The dialogue became moralizing in nature beginning in the 16th century. The existence of colonial slavery had a major impact on the debate, with some writers finding it creditable to civilization, and others denouncing its misdeeds. In 1847, for example, Henri-Alexandre Wallon published his History of Slavery as part of his works advocating the abolition of slavery in the French colonies.

A political-economic treatise appeared in the nineteenth century. It committed itself to distinguishing different phases in the organization of human societies and correctly identifying slavery in Greek society. The influence of Karl Marx was decisive. For him, ancient society was characterized by the development of private property and slaves were a very important means of production, thus not of minor importance as in other pre-capitalist societies. The positivists were represented by the historian Eduard Meyer, with his Slavery in the Antiquity, 1898, and soon cantered against Marxist theory. According to Meyer, slavery was the foundation of Greek democracy. It was thus a legal and social phenomenon, not an economic one.

Current historiography developed in the twentieth century. Led by writers such as Joseph Vogt, the idea prevailed that keeping slaves was one of the conditions for the elite to develop. Conversely, according to the theory, it was also possible for slaves to join that elite. Finally, Vogt judges that modern society, based on humanistic values, has surpassed this level of development. Slaves in ancient Greece remain the subject of historical debate, focusing on two questions: can it be argued that slaves played a central role in the culture of ancient Greece, and did these slaves constitute a social class?


  1. Slavernij in het oude Griekenland
  2. Slavery in ancient Greece
  3. a b Carla Boos. De slavernij. mensenhandel van de koloniale tijd tot nu. blz 11
  4. Vertaling van een Engelse vertaling van Grondwet van de Atheners 12:4.
  5. Une mention chez Homère dans Iliade [détail des éditions] [lire en ligne] (VII, 475), qui se rapporte à des prisonniers de guerre ; le vers est athétisé par Aristarque de Samothrace qui suit Zénodote et Aristophane de Byzance. Kirk, p. 291.
  6. Aux époques classique et hellénistique, c”est le maître qui nomme son esclave. Celui-ci peut donc porter celui de son maître ; un ethnique, comme mentionné ; un nom de lieu (Asia, Carion, Lydos, entre autres) ; un nom issu de sa patrie d”origine (Manès pour un Lydien, Midas pour un Phrygien, etc.) ; un nom de personnage historique (Alexandre, Cléopâtre, etc.). Un esclave peut porter pratiquement n”importe quel nom ; seuls ceux forgés sur des noms de pays barbares sont spécifiquement réservés aux esclaves. Cf. O. Masson, « Les noms des esclaves dans la Grèce antique », Actes du colloque 1971 sur l”esclavage, p. 9-21.
  7. Par exemple à Thasos au cours du IIe siècle, sans doute en période de guerre, pour remercier les esclaves de leur fidélité. Choix d”inscriptions grecques, Belles Lettres, Paris, 2003, no 39.
  8. δμώς in: Pierre Chantraine: Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque. Klincksieck, Paris 2009.
  9. Z. B. in der Odyssee 1, 398 (Memento vom 27. September 2011 im Internet Archive), wo Telemachos „die Sklaven, die Odysseus erbeutete“ so bezeichnet.
  10. Der Begriff wird einmal bei Homer (Ilias 7, 475) für Kriegsgefangene verwendet. Diese Stelle wurde später durch Aristarchos von Samothrake, der Zenodot und Aristophanes von Byzanz folgte, als nicht authentisch verworfen, siehe Geoffrey Stephen Kirk (Hrsg.): The Iliad: a Commentary. Band 2: Gesänge V-VIII. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1990, S. 291.
  11. δοῦλος in: Pierre Chantraine: Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque. Klincksieck, Paris 2009; siehe auch Marie-Madeleine Mactoux: L’esclavage comme métaphore: douleo chez les orateurs attiques. In: Actes du colloque du GIREA de 1980, Kazimierz, 3.–8. November 1980, Index, 10, 1981, S. 20–42.
  12. ^ For instance Chryseis (Iliad 1:12–13, 29–30, 111–115), Briseis (2:688–689), Diomede (6:654–655), Iphis (6:666–668) and Hecamede (11:624–627).
  13. ^ See in the Iliad the pleas of Adrastus the Trojan (Iliad 1:46–50), the sons of Antimachus (11:131–135) and Lycaon (21:74–96), all begging for mercy in exchange of a ransom.
  14. ^ There are 50 female slaves serving Penelope in Odysseus” house (Odyssey 22:421) and in Alcinous” house (7:103).
  15. ^ Before his fight with Achilles, Hector predicts for his wife Andromache a life of bondage and mentions weaving and water-fetching (Iliad 6:454–458). In the Odyssey, servants tend the fire (Odyssey 20:123), prepare the suitors” feast (1:147), grind wheat (7:104, 20:108–109), make the bed (7:340–342) and take care of the guests.
  16. ^ In the Iliad, Chryseis sleeps with Agamemnon, Briseis and Diomede with Achilles, Iphis with Patroclus. In the Odyssey, twelve female servants sleep with the suitors (Odyssey 20:6–8) against Euryclea”s direct orders (22:423–425).
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