Slavery in Ancient Greece

By: Kaley

Nowadays, in our society, we think of slavery to be an awful practice that should never be repeated. However, in ancient Greek society, slavery was a crucial part of everyday life. Slaves played a huge role in ancient Greek living that is not always recognized. Without their assistance, Greece would have been at a great loss. Although Greece has changed and developed throughout the years, the legacy and importance of the slaves within Greek culture will remain.

In ancient Greece, a person could become a slave in various ways. It was extremely common to be born into slavery. Infants were often abandoned by their parents who were slaves. If this was the case, the slave child would be taken in by another family or left to die. In order to pay one’s debt, a free man would be sold into slavery regardless of the practice being illegal in Athens (Balkwill, pg. 331.) A child might also be sold into slavery if a free family was in need of money. It was more of a common occurrence for a female to be sold into slavery because men needed to be present in the family to work in the fields. When a great amount of money was needed, the father or the oldest son might be sold because they were worth the most. War victims also provided many slaves. The attack of the Roman Empire resulted in many slaves who were taken prisoner ( It was the victors’ decision as to how the defeated person would face slavery. These slaves who were held captive were often Greek or even non-Greek. An example of a case like this was the Peloponnesian war. The entire population of men was brutally killed by the Athenians. Women and children were left to be sold into slavery (Sacks, pg. 224.)

The Athenian slave population was notoriously large. The city of Athens supposedly had over 100,000 slaves. In essence, if there were 100,000 people living in Athens, 50,000 of those people were slaves. This makes the population of slaves to non-slaves a 1:1 ratio (Sacks, pg. 225.) There was always a sufficient amount of slaves for those living in ancient Greece. Most slave owners preferred to have a slave who was foreign as opposed to a Greek. Although slaves were not always abundant in ancient Greece, they always existed. Slaves who were products of war and piracy, Homeric slaves, were mostly women, however, some were not. For example, Eumaeus, from the Odyssey, was sold into slavery. Also, it was said that both Alcinous’s and Odysseus’s homes consisted of fifty slaves each. Even though the chances weret very rare of being a free man who was also impoverished, Zeus remarks Eumaeus, “takes away half a man’s worth when the day of slavery comes upon him” (Bancroft-Hunt, pg. 27.)

Free people seldom did any jobs, leaving most of the labor to the slaves. In ancient Greece, it was a lot easier to force slaves to work rather than regularly paying people to work. The majority of slaves did their work in the fields, occupied with plowing and planting seeds. Also, they
A slave working as a barber cutting hair in a barbershop
commonly harvested crops such as olives, barley, and wheat. Slaves who worked in the fields generally consisted of men. Either the slaves worked for small farms with very little workers, or they worked for huge farms with hundreds of other slaves. Another common job in ancient Greece was making pottery and leather or even weaving cloth. Slaves worked in a variety of places such as barbershops or public baths. If a slave was literate, he or she might work as an accountant. Those who were talented in the arts would perform as musicians or dancers. These skilled or talented slaves were sometimes privileged to be freed when they grew too old to work. Although it was less common, some slaves worked as servants for their owners. Women servants would work as wet-nurses, nannies, cleaning homes, or cooks. Men servants would tend to horses and work as handymen or gardeners. These slaves who worked in the home of their owners were often freed if they grew too old to work. Slaves with the hardest of jobs were those who worked mining silver. The silver consisted of lead. Often, men would die from lead poisoning. The life expectancy of a slave who worked in a mine was about two to three years. Being forced to work in the mine was sometimes a punishment for a slave who was a criminal. Another reason for being put in a mine was because a slave might have tried to escape from their previous job. Sometimes slaves were simply put in mines for no real reason and mainly because someone needed to do the job (Carr.)

The treatment of slaves differed greatly in comparison to free people of ancient Greece. Helots, slaves of Sparta, were said to be treated very harshly. Helots were required to give a fixed amount of their produce to the state, considering all slaves were owned by the state in the
A helot (Spartan slave) who was forced to drink and was exhibited to younger kids as a bad example
Spartan society. These slaves were forbidden from leaving the land they belonged to. Since a helot’s life was not significant to the Spartan society, it was expected their living conditions were not pleasant. As opposed to Spartan slaves, Athenian slaves supposedly were accepted into his/her master’s family. If the master of the household bought a slave, that slave was received into the household with a ceremony and attended any family ceremonies. This slave also joined the religion of the family they belonged to and were buried in the family graveyard. A slave and his/her master could have a strong relationship. There were very little cases of abuse and severe treatment of slaves in the Athenian society. Even though it was rare in the Athenian society, if a runaway was caught they were punished very harshly. Spartans saw helots as enemies. Helots were forced to wear clothing that was humiliating so it was obvious who was and was not a slave. They were beat annually in public. It was the helots that were made drunk and shown to the younger generations as a bad example. Clearly, the living conditions of an Athenian slave were preferred over a Spartan slave (Cliff.)

One of the most illustrious slave revolts was led by Spartacus against the Romans in 73 B.C. It was said that 30,000 skilled slaves escaped from Athens during the end of the Peloponnesian war (Sacks, pg. 225.)
Two slaves camping on Mt. Vesuvius during the end of the Peloponnesian war
These escaped slaves ventured to Mt. Vesuvius and set up a camp for them to stay. 3,000 Roman men were sent to destroy the slaves and end the revolt. Spartacus, with his intelligent battle tactics, was able to attack the Romans from the rear and ended up defeating the men. Although Spartacus may have seemed successful in the beginning, he was later killed by Marcus Crassus. Crassus, one of the richest Romans, had great intentions of wiping out the entire slave army. To Crassus’s advantage, his troops were able to defeat Spartacus and crucify 6,000 slaves who were traveling from Capua to Rome. Although 5,000 slaves were able to flee from Crassus, they were killed by Pompey (a Spaniard who was helping with the slave revolt.) The main reason Spartacus and the slaves had not succeeded in their revolt was because they lacked any goals. The only think motivating them was their desire to return to their homes. Even though the slave army was large, they did not have any allies or resources to help them with their revolt. In conclusion, the Romans were even more powerful (Streich.)

The importance of slaves in ancient Greek society is not always recognized. Without the assistance of slaves, Greece could easily have plummeted. In the future, we will look back on this event and appreciate the hardships that slaves were put through in order to help common people. Hopefully, the legacy of ancient Greek slaves and the duties they performed will never be forgotten.

Works Cited

Balkwill, Richard. Exploring Ancient Civilizations. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2004. Print.

Bancroft-Hunt, Norman. Living in Ancient Greece. New York: Facts on File, 2007. Print.

Carr, Karen. "Greek Slaves - Ancient Greece for Kids!" Kidipede - History for Kids - Homework Help for Middle School Social Studies. 1998. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <>.

Cliff, Ursula. "Slavery in Ancient Greece." Wikispaces, 2001. Web. 12 Dec. 2011.

"The Roman Empire: in the First Century. The Roman Empire | PBS." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 15 Dec. 2011.

Sacks, David, Oswyn Murray, and Margaret Bunson. Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World. New York: Facts on File, 1995. Print.

"Slaves." Oracle, 2001. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <>.

Streich, Michael. "The Spartacus Slave Revolt: Rome's Tardy Reaction Resulted in a Costly Effort |" Michael Streich | Suite101, 1996. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <>.