What was it like to be a slave in ancient Greece?

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Slave woman playing a kithara. You can tell she is a slave because she has short hair.

Slave woman playing a kithara. You can tell she is a slave because she has short hair.

In ancient Greece, most people who worked at jobs – teachers, doctors, nurses, construction workers, policemen, hair-dressers, mail carriers, cooks, nannies, bakers, miners, farmhands, dancers, musicians, craftspeople, and accountants – were slaves instead of free people. This was partly because free Greek people had no money to pay workers with (until the Archaic period). Also, they had no clocks (to measure how long somebody had worked). But it was also because it is cheaper to force people to work for you than it is to pay them. And, if people are slaves, they do not vote in your democracy – only free men could vote. So rich people didn’t have to worry about what working people thought about their government.

A man cooking (Athens, 400s BC)

An enslaved man cooking (Athens, 400s BC)

Most people who were slaves in Greece had been born free. They were sold into slavery by their parents when they were children, because their parents were too poor to take care of them. Or they were captured by kidnappers or as prisoners of war and sold as slaves. A few slaves were the children of other slaves. Most slaves were Greek people from other cities, and some were Persians or Egyptians or Scythians.

There were a lot of jobs, and so about a third of the people living in ancient Greece were slaves. Slaves were owned by other people, and had to work for their owners. They could not decide to go work for somebody else. If they refused to work, their owner hit them or starved them. People who were slaves could not marry or raise children without their owner’s permission. And their owner could sell them or their children at any time.

A free man beating an enslaved man.

A free man beating an enslaved man.

Most people in ancient Greece who were enslaved worked in the fields, plowing and planting seeds and harvesting wheat and barley and olives. Some enslaved people worked for small farms, maybe just one or two slaves working alongside their boss. Others worked on huge farms with hundreds of other slaves, and never saw their owner. These people who worked in the fields as slaves were almost all men. Many other enslaved people – also mostly men – worked on fishing boats, or were pearl-divers – a dangerous and difficult job.

Silver mining slaves at Laurion, near Athens

Silver mining slaves at Laurion, near Athens

Both men and women worked as slaves in factories or small shops, making shoes or shields or pottery or leather. As in other countries, a lot of enslaved women worked in huge spinning and weaving workshops, making high quality linen and wool cloth for their owners to sell. Some people cut hair in barbershops, and others worked in the public baths. Both boys and girls were forced to work as prostitutes. People who could read and write were often teachers or accountants. Or people who had skills might be musicians or dancers. Skilled slaves were often freed when they got too old to work, though we’re not sure whether this was good or bad for them.

A slave nanny taking the baby (see the loom behind her?) Greek red-figure vase from Athens, about 450 BC

A slave nanny taking the baby (see the loom behind her?) Greek red-figure vase from Athens, about 450 BC

A smaller number of people worked as enslaved servants in the houses of their owners. Women worked as wet-nurses, or as nannies, or as cleaning women or cooks. They emptied chamber pots and went to get water from the public fountains. Men worked taking care of the horses, or walking free boys to school, or as handymen or gardeners. Enslaved men went to the market to do the shopping every day. These people, too, were often freed when they got old and couldn’t work anymore.

Some unlucky men worked as slaves rowing trading ships. They were kept down in the bottom of the ship and never saw the sun, and they were given only bread and water to eat, and were often beaten to make them pull the oars harder. Most men who worked as rowers didn’t live very long.

But the men that were the worst off were the men who worked as slaves in the silver mines. The silver in the mines was mixed with lead. So the men who worked in these mines gradually died of lead poisoning. Nobody lived more than two or three years. Their owners knew that the slaves were being poisoned, but they didn’t care. Some of these slaves were criminals, murderers or thieves who were being punished by working as slaves. Others were slaves who had tried to run away from other jobs, or had refused to work. But many slaves went to the mines for no reason at all, just because people were needed to work in the mines, and free people didn’t want that kind of work.

Learn by doing: spend a morning u-picking strawberries or tomatoes
More about slavery

Bibliography and further reading about Greek slavery:

Eyewitness: Ancient Greece , by Anne Pearson. Easy reading.

You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Slave in Ancient Greece!, by Fiona Macdonald and others (2000). – funny illustrations, but real facts.

Slavery in Ancient Greece, by Yvon Garlan (revised 1988). A standard account, meant for adults but not too hard going.

Greek and Roman Slavery, by Thomas Wiedemann (1989). A collection of more than 200 things ancient writers had to say about slaves and slavery. Draw your own conclusions.

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By | 2018-05-03T13:55:19+00:00 July 12th, 2017|Greeks, People|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What was it like to be a slave in ancient Greece?. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 12, 2017. Web. May 22, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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