Slavery in ancient Greece: what was life like for enslaved people?

Treating other humans as property was part and parcel of Greek life, with enslaved people ‘used’ across virtually all areas of society. Nige Tassell explains more about the lives of those enslaved, and the part they played in ancient Greece…

A modern illustration shows prisoners of war being sold into slavery

Enslaved people were an integral part of society in ancient Greece. Or, rather, the work they were involuntarily charged to undertake was an integral part of society – tasks, duties and jobs that the Greek citizens were broadly loath to carry out themselves.

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Servitude was widespread in Greek antiquity. Athens alone was home to an estimated 60,000–80,000 slaves during the fifth and fourth centuries BC, with each household having an average of three or four enslaved people attached to it. Athenian slaves tended to enjoy more freedom than those elsewhere. A typical Athenian slave formed part of his master’s household and was initially welcomed with ceremony, offered nuts and fruits, just as a new bride might be. While denied many of the judicial rights possessed by Athens’ citizens, Athenian slaves enjoyed a few personal liberties: they could follow their own religious customs and they couldn’t be struck by their master.

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Ancient Greece Square

Varied fortunes

But, as the property of their master, Athenian slaves could still be sold off in the blink of an eye. Even Aristotle, arguably one of Athens’ more progressive thinkers, referred to enslaved people as ktêma empsuchon – a phrase that roughly translates as ‘animate property’, or ‘property that breathes’.

If they fell on hard times, Athenians could become a slave themselves through a practice called debt enslavement. For instance, if they leased land from a landowner but fell behind on the rent payments, they would become ‘enslaved’ to that landowner until the debt had been fully paid off. Many enslaved people were foreigners who had been captured during wars; the sons of defeated enemies might also be forced into slavehood, sometimes ending up serving the clients of male brothels. Or enslaved people were simply born into servitude, resigned to a life of comparative captivity as they inherited the family ‘trade’.

So-called chattel slaves were those owned by a master who viewed them as his possession, while dêmosioi were public slaves owned by the state and who worked for the civic good, whether in non-manual roles, such as clerks, or undertaking more physical work, such as road construction. All, though, were united in being denied civic rights and disqualified from participating in politics.

An ancient funerary relief depicts a young man with his slave
An ancient funerary relief, dated c430 BC, depicts a young man with his slave. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The most common type of work for enslaved people was within the agricultural sector, although many were otherwise set to task in quarries and mines. Domestic slaves arguably had less physically demanding existences; some would accompany their masters on their travels, perhaps even being becoming informal confidantes. Enslaved people might also work in professional trades, perhaps as artisans or shopkeepers or bankers. These – known as chôris oikountes – didn’t actually live under their masters’ roofs, but did work on their behalf, and paid them a commission. Their lives would, unsurprisingly, not be as harsh as those forced into heavy manual labour every day.

So, just as there was great variety in the nature of the work undertaken, when it came to status, being an enslaved person in ancient Greece was by no means a uniform experience either; there was no neat slave/non-slave binary distinction. Several shades of grey existed. For instance, enslaved people in Sparta were known as helots, a group that, at least in the eyes of the scholar Pollux, occupied a status “between free men and slaves”. In the region of Thessaly, the closest equivalent to helots were penestae who, like their Spartan counterparts, were tied to the land they inhabited. While their status was similar to serfs in later medieval times, the land of Thessaly was notably fertile and uncrowded, ensuring the penestae could comfortably pay the proportion of their produce due to their masters. The third-century BC writer Archemachus even claimed that “many of them are richer than their masters”.

An ancient Greek vase depicts animal sacrifice of a cow by two women

Finding a way out

Enslaved people who lived and largely worked independently of their masters were those least likely to feel the iron rod of discipline. Athenian slaves, too, could be physically punished and even tortured, and enslaved people elsewhere were also subject to beatings. As the statesman and intellectual Demosthenes argued, “the body of a slave is made responsible for all his misdeeds, whereas corporal punishment is the last penalty to inflict on a free man”.

While most enslaved people remained in servitude until death, it was possible to be freed by a master – the process of manumission, or enfranchisement. In all but the most benevolent of cases, an enslaved person effectively had to buy their way to freedom for this to happen, paying their master a sum that at least equated to their value were they to be sold off to a new master. If the slave had sufficient savings to be able to do this, their emancipation was likely to be total, meaning they couldn’t be enslaved again at any point in the future.

But if, as was distinctly likely, the enslaved person didn’t have access to sufficient funds, they might request a so-called ‘friendly’ loan from their master. In these circumstances, it was probable that they would still have to fulfil particular obligations to their former master until the loan had been repaid. That is, emancipation would only be partial. Completely escaping the control of a master was an ambition seldom realised.

Helots in ancient Sparta

Life could be brutal for one particular group of people in ancient Sparta

The helots were an enslaved group living in the Spartan regions of Laconia and Messenia. Being collectively owned by the state rather than the possessions of individual masters, to what extent helots were subjugated rather than enslaved is disputed. While the Athenian author and statesman Critias determined that helots were “slaves to the utmost”, helots led a relatively stable domestic life, much less likely to see their family members sold off, unlike enslaved people elsewhere in ancient Greece. And they could prosper, too. Thanks to the region’s agriculturally rich lands, financially comfortable lives were possible, once their tribute to the state had been paid in the form of a portion of their harvests. In 223 BC, around 6,000 helots coughed up the not-inconsiderable sum of 500 drachmas apiece to buy their freedom.

Helots were widespread and large in number. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus wrote of the helot population being seven times that of the Spartans. Outnumbered to such an extent, it was incumbent of the Spartans, for their own self-preservation, to keep the helots under control and to quell the merest sniff of rebellion. Plutarch wrote that the Spartans treated them “harshly and cruelly”, while Thucydides observed that “most Spartan institutions have always been designed with a view to security against the helots”. Also, as Myron of Priene noted, the helots were subject to “a stipulated number of beatings every year, regardless of any wrongdoing, so that they never forgot they were slaves”. Every autumn, the Spartans declared war on the helots, meaning that a proportion of them could be slaughtered without any censure from religious institutions.

This wasn’t to say that helot rebellions didn’t occur – after all, Aristotle called them “an enemy constantly sitting in wait” – but the Spartan preoccupation with security largely prevailed, thanks to the ways of the Krypteia, their secret police. And, of course, the Spartans took full advantage of the helot population when filling the ranks of their troops for wars against other states.

Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specialising in history

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