Thursday, March 17, 2011

The institution of slavery in ancient Greece

"We will have a real democracy when there will be no slaves and poor people"Theramenes(in Xenophon's Hellenica)

The ancient civilizations in antiquity, all had slave based economies. When a state subdued an another state automatically the deafeated people would become slaves and wither they would be freed by ransom from their families or they would be sold at the slave markets which were the heavy industry of the ancient world.

Many scholars and authors focus generally on the institution of slavery in ancient Greece. Why does this happen?
Ancient Greece was supposed to have an advanced civilization and many democratic city-states. Therefore the modern-age scholars argue that the Greeks should be negative about this institution.

It is a common mistake for people to believe that slavery had the same characteristics during  the whole human history. There are different types of slavery that we can find in  history. Yes i will agree , slavery is slavery but there is a difference in the type of restriction on slaves and the  treatment by their masters . For example the word slavery has been closely linked with the African slaves and the age of the colonization of the world. Thus when somebody hears about slavery in ancient Greece or Rome automatically connects it with the type of slavery in the age of exploration.

Slavery in ancient Greece

First of all we must define a huge difference in meanings here. Slave is a word that doesn't appear earlier than the 7th century A.D. Actually the word slave derives from the word Slav. Slavs were a group of tribes that invaded the eastern Europe during the great migrations.
In ancient Greece we find the word δούλος(doulos) which means servant/serf. The great Greek philosophers didn't criticize the institution itself maybe because for the time they found it fundamental for the survival of an "advanced" civilization. However we see that Plato in his book νόμοι(nomee) which means laws urged the Greeks to treat their slaves as equal human beings.Indeed generally the servants in ancient Greece were in a much better position(if we could say that at all) than slaves of other eras or their contemporaries in other regions of the world.
The paradox is that if we move in older times where ancient greek history merges with mythology we see that servants are almost free men. Homer in his epics describe many cases of close master-slave relationship.
The highlighted example is in the Odyssey where the sheppard Eumaeus remains loyal to his master despite his absence for so many years.Telemachus the son of Odysseus was calling him grandpa which obviously shows his strong bonds with his servant.
Continuing with the Homer's epics we see that Penelope was doing the housework along with the her female servants and Odysseus was doing works that would fit for slaves like his bed.

Back to the historical times of clasical Greece we see in the historian  Xenophon we read about a daily life setting where Ischomachus a friend of philosopher Socrates brought his wife for a first time in their home to show her how to manage it. Among his sayings he also utters the following: "Among your duties there will be one that maybe frustrating for you.You shall have to treat an ill servant and take care of him until he recovers." And she responded :"This is going to be a pleasant duty for me. If those that i helped to recover owe a favour to me are more devoted than to me than before".(Xenophon Economicos VII)

To have a better understanding of the institution in Ancient Greece we should see how it was implemented in the Athenian society. Slaves in Athenian society were as we could say today the working class. They were cookers ,teachers ,farmers,  policemen(city militia) and road cleaners etc. Many of them according to their duty in the society had also their own house and salary.There were also slaves who were literaly working as slaves at the mills and the mines of Athens. These were usually enslaved criminals and slaves who were unable to fit in the athenian society either because of their character or their behaviour.
The laws in Athens were severe concerning the slaves.For a slave to be executed there should be a special reason imposed to the court.  A slave who was maltreated by his master could seek asylum in a temple and request a new master. The murder of a slave was equally was an equal crime as a murder of a free person.
A slave could buy his freedom for a certain amount of money and the state itself sometimes freed its slaves mainly for war purposes.A typical example is Miltiades the general of Athens who freed all the slaves who fought against the Persians.
The most important fact that shows the treatment of slaves in Ancient Greece is that there were no slave uprisings recorded. The only uprisings that were recorded were heilot(Spartan slaves) uprisings because there indeed slavery was harsh. Even for free people the Spartan way of life was harsh.In 309 BC it was estimated that the slaves in Athens were 400.000 while the free population were 31.000. These numbers show a big disproportion of slaves and free people.It is sure that if they wanted they could have easily revolted.

Nevertheless slavery was not the same in all parts of Greece. In different regimes other than Democracies of course the conditions for slaves were worse. There were no laws protecting them and running away was punished  with execution.There are also sources that imply sex-slavery  in ancient Greece which was considered to be a Roman institution.

source: the article is partially based on the article η δουλεία στην αρχαία Ελλάδα by

1 comment:

Raimo said...

A school building was fenced off with barbed wire in Espoo, Finland in 1908 (see the picture in the link). Swedes fenced off school buildings with barbed wire, in order to ban children the access to a school.

The Swedish government was responsible for the most iron ore the Nazis received. Kiruna-Gallivare ore fields in Northern Sweden were all important to Nazi Germany.

These massive deliveries of iron ore and military facilities from Sweden to Nazi Germany lengthened World War II. Casualties of the war have been estimated at 20 million killed in Europe. How many of them died due to Sweden's material support to Nazi Germany, is not known.

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