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Slavery and the Ancient Greeks

At least as early as the 600s BCE, societies around the Black Sea sold slaves to Greek traders in exchange for luxury goods such as wine and clothing. Many of theses slaves came from Asia Minor, Colchis (today Georgia) and Thrace (today Bulgaria and northeastern Greece). Frequent warring in these areas had created an abundant slave supply, and children sold by desperate parents were part of the supply.

Nell Irvin Painter writes that "No shame attended this brutal business." She mentions a Macedonian slave trader whose gravestone had a carved image of eight slaves chained together by their necks. (The History of White People, p 13.)

Elites across Greece were inclined to judge poor common folk as innately servile, which mitigated disdain they might have for parents selling their children into slavery. But Herodotus, according to Nell Painter, scolded the Thracians for selling their children for export. (p. 14)

It is reported that in Greece profit seekers would scoop up and sell infants that parents had left exposed to die. There were kidnappings to acquire a slave for sale. And there were those who had been born into slavery – the children of slaves and considered the property of the slave master. Female slaves were prohibited from keeping their children, and infants born of master-servant liaison might be destroyed.

If there was a scarcity of slaves on the market their price increased. And the purchase cost of a slave depended on the slave's appearance, age and attitude. The healthy, young, attractive and submissive fetched more money.

Slaves were treated differently according to their purpose. The best treated were the household servants. Only the poorest Athenian family had no domestic slave.

Domestic slaves worked at baking bread, cooking, housekeeping, weaving or nursing, and an unofficial service might include sexuality. Slaves were supervised by the woman of the house and expected to keep the slaves busy. Some domestic slaves were treated almost as if they were a member of the family. Women might become close to their slaves to compensate for their segregation from public affairs and from social gatherings with male guests in their own home. The only public area in which women were allowed to participate was religion, and slave women were allowed to participate in some religious affairs.

Enslaved men were more likely to work in the fields, industrial workshops, as craftsmen or tradesmen or aboard ships at sea – especially as muscle in the city-state's navy. Slaves served as assistants to Greek hoplite (spear-carrying) warriors. A wealthy private citizen might lease slaves to work in a mine or quarry. Athens, according to Nell Irvin Painter, employed between 300 and 1,000 Scythian slaves as policemen. (p. 13)

Slaves were assigned names by their master and not allowed to use their own names.

Walking about town or going on a military campaign, an Athenian aristocrat usually was accompanied by a slave or two.

Sources

Life and Learning in Ancient Athens, by Richard W Hibler, 1988

The History of the Greek City States, 700-338 BC, by Raphael Sealy, 1976

Rise of the Greeks, by Michael Grant, 1990

History of Ancient Greece, by Jean Hatzfelt, 1968

Athens on Trial, by Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, 1997

Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: from Thales to Aristotle, edited by Marc Cohen, Patricia Curd and C D C Reeve, 1995

Ancient Greece: a Concise History, by Peter Green, 1979

The Greek Way, by Edith Hamilton, 1942

The History of White People, Chapter 1, by Nell Irvin Painter, 2011

Additional Reading

Topsoil and Civilization, Chapter 7, "Greece," by Tom Dale and Vernon G Carter, 1955

Copyright © 2010-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.