Democrats and slaves

Classical Athens is renowned for being the birthplace of democracy. Yet it also holds the dubious distinction of being the first society with large numbers of slaves. Coincidence? Probably not, as Paul Cartledge explains...

A Greek relief depicting a woman sitting with her jewels with a slave. (Photo by PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)

Is it a paradox that the society that created the world’s first citizen democracy – in its original sense of people-power – also created the world’s first society with large numbers of slaves – in the fullest sense of wholly owned human chattels? Or was there some essential causal connection between these two inventions by the ancient Greek city of Athens? It seems a problem worth constantly re-exploring, and not least today, when freedom and democracy – always coupled together – are two of the most powerful political slogans on offer, conspicuously so in this springtime of Arab-world democracy.

They managed these things differently once upon a time. One hundred and fifty years ago, almost to the day, the northern and southern States of the (dis)United States went to war in large part over these very issues. Not that that was entirely odd. Unfreedom, especially unfree labour, in a variety of forms has been quite common throughout recorded human history, and it is not at all surprising that a major civil war should have been fought over the material and ideological basis of radically opposed ways of life.

However, in all human history there have only been half-a-dozen or so chattel slave societies: societies, that is, in which the predominant form of forced labour was that pumped out of human beings reduced, legally, to the status of things, un-persons, almost no different from cattle. The Old South was one of those half-dozen. Old Southern slaveholders were thus practising a very rarely attested form of human bondage, and were prepared to go to war to defend their ‘right’ to continue to do so. The contemporary Britishdominated Caribbean was another such society: which helps account for the fact that it was in the UK that the abolitionist, anti-slavery movement spearheaded by Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce really took off.

Intellectual revolution

Yet if one were to have surveyed unfreedom globally from a perspective of, say, 1750, few would have predicted then that within a century or so chattel slavery would have been abolished throughout the world – except in Brazil. Not the least of the ideological supports available to neoclassical ‘Enlightenment’ slaveholders of the mid-18th century were the ancient Greeks such as the Athenians and – if in different ways – their Roman successors. Had not the Athenians owned thousands of slaves – and had they not created a mighty literature, a panoply of brilliant artworks and a civilisation of freedom which made them cultural ‘ancestors’?

It took a mighty intellectual revolution, predicated upon no less mighty technological and other economic advances, to persuade the majority of moving and shaking capitalists that their profits might be secured by other means than enslaved human labour power.

There were some 1,000 ancient Greek communities in what the ancients themselves called Hellas, and Athens was only one of those. It was a quite exceptional city in all sorts of ways, but not in basing its society and economy on slave labour. Its great peculiarity was that it invented democracy, so that Athens was home to the freest of all free people – the fully enfranchised adult male citizen body numbering between 25,000 and 50,000 during its ‘classical’ period between about 500 and 325 BC – and the least free of the unfree.

At the very bottom of the heap of oppressed chattels were the mine slaves, male and often still children so that they could wriggle their way into the pitifully low chambers from which the silver-bearing lead ore was dug. All these were by definition foreign-born, sold into slavery by both Greek and non-Greek traders who acquired them from the eastern fringes of the Aegean Greek world – running from what is today Bulgaria in the north, all through the hinterland of the western seaboard of Turkey. For them, early death might come as a blessed release, unless they managed to run away, as many thousands did during the last phase of the disastrous Peloponnesian war against the Spartans (431–404). In all, between 20,000 and 30,000 slaves might be working above and below ground while mining was at its height.

Formidable power

With the ore thus extracted, the Athenians coined some of the purest silver in all the eastern Mediterranean. And with that, they purchased essential supplies of food, especially wheat from the Ukraine and Crimea, together with luxury products from Egypt and other countries around and beyond that between-land sea. And with the silver they also built the ships that made Athens a formidable imperial naval power for many decades of the fifth century. Which in turn enabled them to introduce state pay for performing necessary democratic functions – office-holding and jury service. Aristotle’s definition of the citizen as he who has an active participatory share in holding office and acting as a judge-cum-juryman fitted the Athenian democratic citizen to a T.

But slavery at Athens was not all mining. Most Athenians were peasant farmers. If they were moderately well off, they would purchase at least one male and one female slave. The male would replace or accompany the master when he went on campaign (as he regularly did, on average two years in every three); the female would assist the mistress with her domestic chores of cleaning and cooking and with her chief productive function (apart from childbearing and childrearing): the weaving of clothes and blankets.

Some of these household slaves might live most of their adult lives under the roof of the same master or mistress until death or, more rarely, they were released from bondage. Some Athenians, such as the father of the famous politician Demosthenes, preferred to sink their wealth into owning slaves who were skilled craftsmen – in his case slaves who made couches and knives. Life for such slaves might be relatively comfortable and unstressful – and it’s worth recalling that many of the high-grade luxury items of tableware in the ‘red-figure’ style that grace our museums today were crafted by slaves such as these. So too the intricate stone masonry of a major temple such as that of the city’s patron, Athena (sited on the Akropolis), which we know for short as the Erechtheion.

Further up the social scale still were those slaves who were publicly, not privately, owned: the demosioi, as they were called, or ‘people’s slaves’. Some of those, the least educated, served as a sort of equivalent of policemen or jailers, giving Aristophanes the chance to have a laugh at their barbarous accents and mangled Greek. But others managed the intricate literate bureaucracy on which the Athenian democracy depended for its smooth functioning: the copying and archiving of decrees and laws, for example.

The commission charged with sorting out the tangle of laws and decrees that had proliferated during a century of democratic self-governance was placed under the charge of a public slave, or perhaps a slave who had been manumitted specially for the purpose and so granted the status of a free but unenfranchised resident alien.

At all events, slavery in classical Athens was no simple thing. Above all else, it enabled Athenian democracy in two crucial ways. It furnished citizens with leisure time, without which active participation in a direct democracy would have been impossible.

Second, it gave even the poorest Athenians who could not afford to own a single slave that enhanced sense of personal freedom that, together with equality, served as the ideological cornerstones of the world’s first example of genuine people-power. Slavery and Athenian democracy were joined at the hip.

Paul Cartledge is the AG Leventis professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University and co-editor with Keith Bradley of The Cambridge World History of Slavery vol I: The Ancient Mediterranean World (Cambridge, 2011).

How life differed for Greek and Roman slaves

Slavery is mentioned as early as the Twelve Tables, the foundational legal document of c500 BC underlying what the Romans called their “public thing”, their res publica or republic. The provision that slaves had to be sold “across the Tiber” underlined one key tenet of ancient slavery – as a rigid rule, you didn’t hold your own people as slaves within your own community. Slaves were, by definition, natally alienated outsiders.

It was in the third and second centuries BC, as Rome began to expand its empire right across the Mediterranean, that the supply of such slaves grew exponentially. Within a couple of hundred years the city of Rome, by the first century BC the largest city in the known western world, was awash with slaves performing every sort of household function.

Rich Romans were quite seriously rich and might maintain an urban ‘family’ (derived from the Latin for servant) of several score, even hundreds, of slave retainers. These were slaves for show rather than strictly for use. Only an Athenian slave owner on the scale of Nikias, who allegedly owned 1,000 slaves, could begin to compete, but he chose to lease most of his out to work in the state-owned silver mines.

There was one huge difference, and one major compensation, for the slaves of, say, Pompey the Great at Rome as compared to those of Nikias at Athens. Since the supply of new slaves was so much more plentiful, Roman slave owners could afford to manumit their slaves much more frequently and quickly – so long as the slaves wanting their freedom could afford the purchase price the masters demanded.

Cicero reckoned that if a slave were frugal and diligent he (this was probably a male-only privilege) might expect to be in and out of bondage in half-a-dozen years or so. Moreover, were the new freedman to have been legally liberated by a Roman citizen slave owner, he too automatically would become a Roman citizen, even if of only second-class status.

Freedom and citizenship – that would have astonished a fifth-century BC Athenian, deeply jealous as he was of his exclusive citizen privileges. But then being a citizen of Rome under the Republic was not equivalent to being a citizen of the classical Athenian democracy.

One way of measuring the difference is to recognise that some Roman citizens – the rich broadly speaking – were, quite literally, more equal than others. What the Romans called a republic, the Athenians would have labelled, dismissively, as an oligarchy. And a large proportion of those disempowered masses were ex-slave citizens.


Athens and Rome really were quite different from each other, and it is not fanciful to suggest that a key reason for the differences in our cultural inheritance from the two civilisations lies in the equally crucial but radically different contributions made to each of them by slavery.