Notes on the History of Slavery: Ancient Greece

From “Slavery and economy in the Greek world,” found at “The Cambridge World History of Slavery”:

Most societies in the past have had slaves, and almost all peoples have at some time in their pasts been both slaves and owners of slaves… The slaves of Sparta, commonly called Helots, were prone to rebel; the slaves of Athens were not – the most we hear about Athenian slaves being that, when Athens was under extreme pressure from the Spartans, large numbers of them ran away (Thucydides 7.27), but fell prey ultimately to other masters (Oxyrhynchus Historian 12.4). Such observations led Greek thinkers to investigate further, though not too much further. Helotage, they declared, was a controversial institution in a way that slavery of the Athenian type was not (Plato, Laws 776c–778a). According to tradition, the Helots were a Greek population subjected to bondage through conquest of their land by other Greeks (Theopompus in Athenaeus 6.265c; but cf. Antiochus in Strabo 6.3.2). The same was said about the Penestae of Thessaly (Ath. 6.264a), the a(m)phamiotai and mnoitai of Crete,4 as well as of some other Greeks or non-Greeks in various areas. Conquest was seen to lead to a particular type of servitude in which slaves had significant common characteristics, above all enjoying family lives through which they regularly reproduced themselves.  Also, although they were often liable to harsh treatment, they were recognised as a community with their own traditions and religious affiliations. Thus, alate Greek lexicographer felt it best to refer to them as occupying a position ‘between free men and slaves’ (Pollux, Onomasticon 3.78–83). From a modern point of view, these conquered or subjected people resembled the serfs of the Middle Ages… In Athens and, probably, most other classical Greek cities, the situation was quite different. Individual masters were able to buy their own slaves in whatever quantities they felt desirable or appropriate… Before the sixth or, possibly, the seventh century, almost all slaves in the Greek world were either natives or captives. As is well illustrated in the Odyssey, bought slaves were an extreme rarity at that time. In the early archaic age, free people were being enslaved either through conquest, as in large parts of the Peloponnese and in Thessaly, or through debt, as in pre-Solonian Athens. Following the lead of the Chians, it was said (Theopompus in Ath. 6.265b), many Greeks turned at some point to trade as the major source for their slaves… The proportion of slaves bought from abroad was so large that in the fifth and fourth centuries, outside Sparta, Thessaly, Crete and perhaps a few other areas, being a slave became synonymous with being a ‘barbarian’ from almost all neighbouring countries of the Greek mainland, including Illyria, Thrace, Phrygia, Caria and Syria. The trade that provided many Greeks with their servile workforce was predominantly an international one… In the Homeric poems that depict an early archaic age practice, the defeated warriors are generally massacred. Only certain women and children are enslaved, and even these do not become articles of trade but are offered as prizes to the leading victors, Eurycleia and Eumaeus being the most notable exceptions. There was only one kind of war that led directly and inevitably to the commodification of human beings, and that was slave hunts. Slave hunts are not often mentioned in the sources but seem to be implied by Aristotle (Pol. 1256b23–6) and can be considered as regular.

The invention of currency in Lydia was a huge boost to the slave trade:

only societies that had reached a certain degree of commercialisation were interested in the commodification of slaves. It is difficult to envisage a large-scale slave trade in a world that did not yet use money, that had not yet established international trade routes and that had no easy access to appropriate markets. The second observation is that societies that turned to international trade as the major source for their working forces were those that lacked sufficient or suitable (i.e. sufficiently cheap and/or submissive) workforces of their own.

Also, slaves came to be imported for money when able local men, even poor ones, were needed to man the city’s defenses:

The cancellation of debts and the abolition of debt-bondage are recorded exclusively for Athens. But the conditions that led to Solon’s reforms were not confined to Athens alone. The strength of the poor Athenians lay in their ability to bear arms. Much more than offering a cheap workforce, poor Athenians were needed to defend their city. The Greek world was increasingly finding itself in constant warfare: city against neighbouring city, alliance against alliance. One after the other, many Greek communities started to bestow citizenship rights on all those who could provide themselves with arms. The Athenians were probably alone in taking such radical measures as those ascribed to Solon, but other cities prohibited loans secured on weapons and ploughs (Diodorus 1.79). The idea was more or less the same. Free peasants and self-equipped warriors were more important to their cities than serf-like slaves were to the large landowners. At the time of Solon, Athens was already involved in long-distance trade, as was Chios, which it was said paved the way for the acquisition of bought slaves, for which the Greeks had a vocabulary – either arguronetoi (‘bought with silver’), chrusonetoi (‘bought with gold’), or onetoi (simply ‘bought’), as distinct from those won over by the sword, doryalotoi. There was no exact Greek equivalent to what is called in English chattel slavery or in French esclavage merchandise, but Greek masters called their slaves living tools or articles of property (Arist. Pol. 1253b31–3) or simply somata, bodies.

By Plato’s time, chattel slavery was seen as absolutely indispensable in Greece:

In an ideal city, it was thought (Pl. Leg. 778a), a citizen should be ‘provided, as far as possible, with a sufficient number of suitable slaves who can help him in what he has to do’… Given the indifference of historians to matters pertaining to cultivation, it is perhaps best to take Aristophanes as our guide. In a utopian society, farming should be best left to slaves (Women of the Assembly 651; cf. Plut. 26; 1105).

Incidentally, this is a lovely detail about Greece’s economy:

To most wealthy Greeks, whose perspective is represented in the extant literature, the important issue addressed was not so much the acquisition of wealth as its consumption. Thus, in a detailed treatment of household management, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, astonishingly little is said about production and too much about an orderly way of living. High status, it is made clear, did not depend on profit maximisation but rather on honour maximisation.

Slave revolts were very uncommon, although slave escapes were not. Most slaves who escaped just dreamed of being free — to buy slaves so that they wouldn’t have to work themselves:

Slave miners normally worked under very harsh conditions. Although not all of them spent their working time in the dark and badly ventilated galleries (many were needed to perform skilled and unskilled tasks outside the pits), it was generally acknowledged that their lives were miserable in the extreme. In the Athenian silver mines of Laurium, many slaves, at times tens of thousands, were constantly overworked.Many (perhaps most) were stigmatised by their owners and kept in chains by contractors. Regarding them as very profitable, Xenophon thought that it would greatly benefit the city to invest its funds in such slaves. During the Peloponnesian War, many of the more than 20,000 slaves who managed to escape were probably miners. In the second century, the first great slave rebellion in Sicily sparked a revolt in Laurium.More than a thousand slaves were said to be involved (Diod. 34.2.19). Later in the century the slave miners revolted again. They ‘murdered the superintendents of the mines, seized the hill of Sunium, and for a long time plundered Attica’ (Posidonius in Ath. 6.272e–f ). These were among the few serious uprisings of chattel slaves in the Greek mainland throughout antiquity. The only other case of a slave rebellion was in third-century Chios (Nymphodorus in Ath. 6.265d–266e), where the concentration of slaves was notorious.

Foreigners in Greece were among the most notable slave-owners, and there’s a good reason for that:

Since non-citizens were not permitted to acquire arable land, those who could accumulate a large capital invested it in all other kinds of enterprises –mostly operated by slaves.

I had never suspected that at least a significant number of slaves in Greece were actually allowed to live by themselves, as a sort of mortgaged employees:

Wherever chattel slavery predominated in the classical Greek world slaves were commonly divided into two very broad categories. In one fell those who lived in the households of their masters and were supervised by them or their bailiffs. In the other were slaves who lived apart from their masters. These slaves could be profitable in two different ways. They were either hired out to contractors who paid their wages (misthos) directly to the owners, in which case they were often known as andrapodamisthophorounta (wage-earning slaves), or allowed to live on their own, paying themselves regularly to their owners an agreed sum (apophora), in which case they were mostly known as choris oikountes (living apart). In mining,most slaves were apparently hired out to contractors (cf. Andocides, On the Mysteries 38). Skilled slaves and slaves trained in a craft often lived on their own, as did shepherds who, understandably, were allowed to move freely with their flocks.

Slave bankers!

Slaves living on their own were often more profitable. To be able to perform their duties properly, they were given great freedom in organising their work and in promoting their businesses. Although evidently not numerous, slave bankers such as the Athenian Pasion could sometimes be very successful.

And prostitutes:

Most prostitutes were slaves or ex-slaves. Masters made considerable profits by prostituting their slaves, both female and male, although this was hardly an honourable means of profit-making. The lives of slave prostitutes could not have been easy, but they occasionally had the opportunity to earn extra money and make appropriate connections. Coercion was certainly the easiest and most common method applied, but not necessarily the most efficient. Given a certain degree of freedom, slave prostitutes could attract more clients. When able to free themselves, either by using their savings or with the help of friends and appropriate loans (below), they normally carried on their former profession… In Athens there may have also been state-owned brothels (Ath. 13).

In the military:

Slaves were also extensively employed in warfare. Almost all hoplites needed their assistance to carry their arms and provisions. In a few exceptional cases when cities were in grievous situations, slaves were promised their freedom if they were willing to fight for the safety of their masters. The contribution of some during the battle of Arginusae (406 bc) was even remembered with pride (Ar., Frogs 190–1).38 Although not publicised by Greek historians, slave involvement in military affairs was probably considerable. In Athens many slaves rowed the ships that secured not only the strong position of the city in international affairs but also its democracy.

It’s no wonder that Greeks tended to see all labor as slave labor:

The only issue worth consideration was that a human being was dominated by another human being, not that a labourer was given or not given his due. Consequently, topics that we would tend to examine as pertaining to the economy, the Greeks examined as pertaining to politics or ethics – hence, Aristotle’s observations on slavery were included in his Politics and Ethics. Indeed, Greek intellectuals tended to assimilate almost all kinds of labour to slave labour.

The creeping suspicion here is that, were a Classical Greek to travel in time to the 21st century, he would probably perceive Western societies as centralized states that own almost all supposed “citizens” as wage slaves with some freedom of mobility, a sort of mega-Sparta with oligarchic leanings and democratic trappings (although any citizen of a Greek polis would understand that a voter in a body politic numbering tens or hundreds of millions has no real power to decide anything).

Here’s an important comment about manumission, which explains why slavery (“helotry”) was so different in Sparta:

Chattel slaves were also profitable to their masters in one further important respect. Masters were entitled by custom and law to manumit their slaves at their discretion, and did so, occasionally, out of generosity at their deathbeds or through their wills. They could not do this with their serf-like slaves, at least not the Helots. Manumissions, however, were often commercial transactions. According to such arrangements, slaves were given their freedom by paying their masters an agreed sum.

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
This entry was posted in Notes about the History of Slavery and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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