What did Greek slaves work at?
Why did ancient Greece have so many enslaved people?
No money or clocks
There were a lot of enslaved people partly because free Greek people had no money to pay workers with (until the Archaic period). Nobody had invented money yet. Also, they had no clocks to measure how long somebody had worked. Nobody had invented clocks yet.
Cheaper than paying workers
But it was also because it is cheaper to force people to work for you than it is to pay them.
Slaves can’t vote
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.
How did people get enslaved?
Most people who were slaves in Greece had been born free. Their parents sold them into slavery when they were children. They didn’t 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
What was it like to be enslaved?
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.
Slave farming in Greece
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.
Greek slaves fishing and pearl-diving
Greek slaves in manufacturing
Slaves as servants or entertainers
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. People often freed skilled slaves when they got too old to work. We’re not sure whether this was good or bad for them.
A smaller number of Greek slaves worked as 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.
Slave rowers on ships
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. Ship captains kept them down in the bottom of the ship so they never saw the sun. The captains gave them only bread and water to eat. The ship’s crew beat the rowers with sticks to make them pull the oars harder. Most men who worked as rowers didn’t live very long.
Slaves in the silver mines
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.
Looking for more sources? Check out ancient writing about slavery in the Internet History Sourcebook.
Did you find out what you wanted to know about Greek slaves? Let us know in the comments!
Learn by doing: spend a morning u-picking strawberries or tomatoes
More about 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.