Classification of Slaves in Ancient Greece

From the Lecture Series: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Slavery was an ideal condition for some people in ancient Greece. Poverty and diseases were so prevalent in those days that people preferred to be slaves to wealthy people so that they could survive those hardships. This gave them a level of economic security in that poverty-stricken world. Were all the slaves treated in the same manner?

Picture showing caryatids in Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
The rich people of Athens depended heavily on slaves, so much so that Aristotle called them ktêma empsuchon, a piece of property that breathes. (Image: Haris vythoulkas/Shutterstock)

Domestic Slaves in Ancient Greece

Domestic slaves in ancient Greece would do everything around the house, including cooking, gardening, cleaning, washing, reading, writing, taking care of babies, and the sick. They also escorted their masters, carried and delivered messages, acted as travel companions, and did pretty much anything that has to be done at home. Since the slaves were regarded as a breathing piece of property, the quality of their lives just depended on their luck. If they were lucky enough to be acquired by a kind and humane master or mistress, they would perhaps be treated as a family member, of course, with strict limits. The slave would be incorporated into the family through a special ceremony. It was similar to the ceremony for a newborn baby to be incorporated into the family. These domestic slaves were likely to strengthen their ties with their masters or mistresses. If the slave took care of the children as a female nurse or a male paidagôgos, they were more likely to develop such ties. Interestingly, the words pedagogue and pedagogy come from the Greek word paidagôgos, which means a slave working as a tutor.

A painting showing slaves in ancient Greece.
The slaves in ancient Greece were always at the mercy of their masters. If they were lucky, they would get a kind master. (Image: Huesca/Public domain)

One such close relationship is portrayed in the Odyssey. We see this in the relationship between Odysseus and his nurse, Eurycleia. They were so close that when Odysseus returned from Ithaca disguised as a beggar, she notices the scar on his thigh. She is particularly trusted by Odysseus and his family because she was a freeborn, and was captured and sold by pirates.

Although there were many cases in which the masters were not totally satisfied with the services of their slaves, they were likely to win the hearts of their masters or mistresses. This was especially true if they had been with them from childhood as their nurses or tutors. Another sign that indicated the slaves were parts of the family was that they were buried in the family plots.

Despite all these close relationships, the owner was free to abuse his slave physically or sexually. Also, if the slave was too old or weak to fulfill their duties, the owner was at liberty to throw them out. At the time of economic crisis or famine, slaves would lose their rations, but otherwise, domestic servants were mostly paid well and their livelihood was secured.

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Agricultural Slaves in Ancient Greece

The size of this slave workforce is much disputed. In Athens, the number depended on the number of peasant proprietors and large landowners. Peasant farmers were more likely to hire seasonal workers than having slaves for the job because the former were considerably cheaper.

The status, comfort, and security of the agricultural slaves were not the same as that of the domestic slaves. That’s because the agricultural slaves had limited contact with their master and couldn’t develop personal relationships with them. If they fell sick, they could be killed because they were not worthy anymore. Although there are no clear clues, it is speculated that the agricultural slaves were restrained in leg irons at night, like those who worked for the Romans.

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Other Types of Slaves in Ancient Greece

In addition to domestic and agricultural slaves, there was a class of slaves called chôris oikountes, or those living separately. They did not live with their masters and worked as managers of shops and factories, bankers, captains of trading ships, bailiffs, artisans, and so on. This class of slaves existed because the Greeks did not like to work for other people. These slaves were considerably free and independent and worked on behalf of their masters on commission.

A bearded slave (right) carrying his master's shield and helm as depicted on a piece of pottery.
In ancient Greece, the domestic slaves had stronger ties with their masters than the agricultural slaves. (Image: No machine-readable author provided. Marsyas assumed (based on copyright claims). (CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The dêmosioi, or the public ones, was another class of slaves in ancient Greece. These slaves were owned by the state. Notaries, coin testers, jury clerks, and public executioners belonged to this class of slaves. Their jobs were generally considered demeaning. Road menders or masons also belonged to this group.

The industrial workers in ancient Greek were also slaves. Their condition was the worst of the lot. They worked in mines or quarries, like Egyptian slaves. The working conditions were so adverse that some of them died because they had to work 24/7 non-stop.

This is how the slaves were treated in ancient Greece, some were lucky, and some were not.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Common Questions about Classification of Slaves in Ancient Greece

Q: How were slaves in Athens treated?

Slaves in ancient Greece were treated based on the kind of job they did, and also on the personality of their owners. If the owner was kind, he treated them decently. They also had different levels of independence based on the class they belonged to.

Q: What types of slaves were there in ancient Greece?

There were different types of slaves in ancient Greece, depending on what they did and where they worked. There were domestic slaves who were like home servants, agricultural slaves, industrial slaves, and public slaves.

Q: Who became slaves in Greece?

People would become slaves in different ways. Some of them were born into slave families. Others were captured in wars or by pirates and then sold as slaves.

Q: What roles did slaves play in Athens?

Slaves in ancient Greece played various roles. They performed all the tasks that were degrading to the Greeks. They did all the domestic chores, acted as travel companions, and even delivered messages. Agricultural slaves worked on farms, and industrial slaves worked in mines and quarries.

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