The Principles of Slavery 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

Although there is no substantial evidence about the first time slavery was created as a form of human exploitation, we do know that it was widespread in the third and second millennia B.C. Greece was not the first nation to practice slavery, but because of its rich literary resources, we have extensive knowledge of how slaves were treated there.

Artistic view of Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens,Greece.
Slavery in ancient Greece was widespread. No one thought that slavery was inhuman and cruel, it was an accepted practice. (Image: Anastasios71/Shutterstock)

Slavery came in different forms and levels. The ideal slave was an inhuman creature with no civic or even biological personality and was treated like a piece of property. But this type of slave did not exist as no one would fit into these classifications. However, there were different levels of slavery, a kind of hierarchy, or spectrum, in which slaves were divided, which was based on their qualities and conditions. Slavery was not an either/or situation, in which you were either free or a slave; it was a continuum.

Learn more about Bronze Age Greece: Minoans and Myceneans.

How Slavery Was Viewed in Ancient Greece?

There are very limited accounts of slavery from the point of view of slaves to portray how they felt about being a slave. But we do know how they spent their days as a slave. Regardless, we have extensive knowledge of how the slave-owners felt and thought. Having slaves was a universally accepted phenomenon for Greeks, and they grew up with their slaves forming a kind of friendship with them. It was a very normal practice, and no one considered it a cruel act that had to be abolished. If someone unconsciously felt that slavery was inhumane, instead of questioning its rightness, they would try to treat the slaves humanely and kindly. Even if we read in some works of literature like that of Crates, a vision of a technologically advanced future that no one needs to work, it is not an argument for putting an end to slavery. Even the greatest thinkers could not imagine a world free of slavery since it was such an established phenomenon interwoven in the cultural heritage of the nation.

Picture showing funerary stele of Mnesarete, daughter of Socrates; a young servant (left) is facing her dead mistress.
Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher thought that slaves were a piece of property, a piece that could breathe. (Image: Glyptothek / CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

In Politics Aristotle classifies slaves into two groups: slaves by nature and slaves by law. As their names suggest, the members of the first group were born into captivity while the second was captured or acquired as a result of wars or piracy. They were otherwise free human beings enslaved as a result of coincidence.

Aristotle believed that the natural-born slaves belonged to an inferior human race due to their deformed bodies. What Aristotle missed was that the slaves were not enslaved because of their misshapen bodies; quite contrary, they had misshapen bodies because they were slaves and were forced to do grueling physical work.

He called them ktêma empsuchon, a piece of property that breathes. You would think that a bright mind like Aristotle is expected to have a more humane view on slavery, but it was the collective mindset in that era, and no one was able to think otherwise.

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.

The Number of Slaves in Greece

Clearly, there is not a formal register of the number of slaves in ancient Greece, but the historian, Paul Catledge, has estimated the number of slaves. Comparing data from modern slave societies like Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Antebellum South, he expects the number to be nearly 80,000 to 100,000. With the total population of 2,50,000 between 450 and 320 B.C.this means approximately one in four of the people in Athens were slaves.

Moses Finley was the first historian who investigated the history of slavery in ancient Greece. Embarrassed about the historical exploitations in their country, Greek historians did not study the subject. They just said that any person who was free and could afford to have slaves, would own a slave attendant to accompany him wherever he went, and a female slave for household chores. The number of slaves a person owned increased based on the wealth of that person. Basically, owning a car is the modern-day equivalent of owning a slave.

A master (right) and his slave (left) depicted on a piece of pottery.
Slaves in ancient Greece had no identity of their own. They were tortured and beaten, forced to live at the mercy of their masters. (Image: Louvre Museum/CC BY 3.0/Public domain)

Slaves in ancient Greece did not have any human or civil rights. They were tortured for different reasons; their owner could beat them whenever he wanted; when their testimony was needed for a lawsuit, they were tortured into confessing to their own guilt or incriminate someone else. They were even forced to have sexual relationships without consent. They were just properties like a table or a chair. The only difference was that they were living things.  

Learn more about The Birth of the Greek Nation-State.

Common Questions about the Principles of Slavery in Ancient Greece

Q: How were slaves in Athens treated?

Slaves in ancient Greece were treated like pieces of property. For Aristotle they were ‘a piece of property that breathes’. They enjoyed different degrees of freedom and were treated kindly or cruelly depending on the personality of the owner.

Q: Where did Athenian slaves come from?

The Athenian slaves belonged to two groups. They were either born into slave families or were enslaved after they were captured in wars.

Q: How did people become slaves in ancient Greece?

People became slaves in ancient Greece after they were captured in wars. They were then sold to their owners. Other slaves were, by nature, born into slave families.

Q: How many slaves were there in ancient Greece?

The number of slaves is estimated to be 80,000 to 100,000. With the total population of 2,50,000 between 450 and 320 B.C.this means approximately one in four of the people in Athens were slaves.

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