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Slavery in Classical Athens: The Dark Side of Democracy

Introduction

Slavery and democracy may seem to be conflicting systems. However, slavery has existed within democratic societies throughout history, including in ancient Athens, the Greek city-state that is considered the birthplace of democracy. In fact, slavery was an essential component of Athenian society. 

Explanation

For male Athenian citizens, owning slaves was essentially a prerequisite for fully experiencing the freedoms that citizenship offered. Owning slaves allowed citizens to take time away from work to participate directly in the city’s government by attending meetings of the assembly and holding public office. Additionally, according to normative Athenian values, it was beneath the dignity of a man to work for someone else, even in managerial positions. Because of this, Athenians used slaves for many different forms of labor. 

Chattel Slavery

Chattel slavery, the type of slavery that was prominent in classical Athens, as well as the United States, is the type of slavery in which the slave is regarded as the owner’s personal property. Thus, slaves can be bought, sold, and beaten by their owners.

The History

Chattel slavery was ubiquitous in classical Athens, but there was one type of slavery that was expressly forbidden. When Athens was starting to develop into a democracy, a man named Solon was called upon to develop laws to help quell social unrest. One of the laws he created banned debt slavery, meaning that an Athenian citizen could no longer sell himself or his family members into temporary slavery to pay off a debt. This law was a significant step in the history of Athens because it reaffirmed the inherent equality possessed by Athenians, and, conversely, the inherent inequality of everyone else. 

Slaves in Athens were acquired in three primary ways: war, piracy, and trade. Enslaving war captives was a common practice in ancient Greece. Most slaves acquired from war were probably non-Greek, although it is probable that Athens also enslaved some Greeks as a result of wars. Often, Greek slaves acquired via war and piracy would be ransomed back to relatives or friends to make a profit. Probably the most common source of slaves for Athens was trade with foreign countries, through which people that other countries had enslaved through war and piracy would be sold. 

Slaves in Athens took on a wide variety of roles, including menial labor, domestic jobs, technical crafts, and more. The least desirable job a slave could have was as a worker in the silver mines around Athens. Mining was almost exclusively done by slaves because the work was extraordinarily hazardous and often led to premature death. Perhaps the role most commonly held by slaves, especially women, was that of domestic servant. Other sectors that frequently utilized slave labor were agriculture, manufacturing, and various crafts. There were also public slaves with roles ranging from repairing temples to acting as a sort of police force. 

One peculiarity about slavery in Athens was the surprising degree of autonomy that some owners afforded their slaves. Some slaves had the freedom to live and work in the city unsupervised or transport goods on ships to foreign destinations. Additionally, some slaves could earn manumission, or release from slavery. Some were allowed to earn and save money which they could use to buy their freedom, while others could be manumitted as a reward for service to their owner. Usually, freed slaves would still have legal obligations to their former owners, so they were not truly free. Manumission was certainly not the reality for most slaves, but one spectacular example was a man named Pasion. Pasion was owned by two bankers and worked in the bank, eventually rising to a prominent position within it. Pasion proved to be such a valuable and trusted member of the bank that his owners rewarded him with manumission. After his owners retired, the bank was passed on to Pasion. Pasion went on to become one of Athens’ most successful bankers and passed on the bank to one of his slaves after he died. However, it is important to remember that Pasion was a rare exception and that most slaves suffered a much harsher, more inhumane experience. 

Most Athenian families probably owned at least one slave who would help with farming, shopping, the family business, and whatever else was needed depending on the circumstances. Slaves were also hired out for a fee to people who needed some extra help. Wealthier families likely owned many specialized slaves with specific jobs, such as vinedressers, who cultivated grapevines, craftspeople, and merchants. Exactly how many slaves lived in Athens, which scholars estimate to have been anywhere from fifteen to thirty-five percent of the population, and how many Athenians owned slaves, is impossible to know due to the scarcity of evidence. Still, it is probable that most middle-class families had at least a few slaves, and practically all wealthier families had many slaves. 

Why Care?

Athens was the city with arguably the most freedom for its citizens of any ancient civilization, yet relied heavily on slave labor. This fact raises a question that is pertinent to any society claiming to be democratic: to whom are the privileges of democracy available? Furthermore, there is the question as to how democracy and slavery could coexist in the same society. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle might reconcile the two with his theory of natural slavery. Aristotle wrote that some people are “slaves by nature,” meaning they are designed to be ruled by someone else, and that “slavery is both expedient and right” for this type of people. While this theory is no longer compelling, Aristotle’s rationalization of slavery shows how deeply ingrained slavery was in Athenian society and should prompt us to consider if there are any deeply rooted systems in modern societies that are oppressive and should be challenged rather than accepted.

Think Further

  1. Are slavery and democracy fundamentally conflicting systems? If so, why have societies claiming to be democratic throughout history (i.e. Athens, the United States) permitted slavey? 
  2. What are some major similarities and differences between slavery in Athens and slavery in the United States?
  3. Can you think of any people or groups of people who live in democratic societies today but to whom the privileges of democracy are not available?

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  1. Aristotle. Politics, Books 1-2. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive, classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html.
  2. Fisher, N. R. E. Slavery in Classical Greece. Bristol Classical Press, 1998, pp. 34-57.
  3. Harris, Edward M. “When Did Ancient Greece Become a Slave Society?” Iris Online, The Iris Project, 2012, irisonline.org.uk/index.php/features/27-when-did-ancient-greece-become-a-slave-society.
  4. “Pasion.” PeoplePill, PeoplePill, peoplepill.com/people/pasion/.
  5. “Women, Children, and Slaves.” Ancient Greece, The British Museum, www.ancientgreece.co.uk/staff/resources/background/bg18/home.html.