How were slaves treated in ancient Greece

Slavery in ancient times: causes, everyday life, activities


There were several reasons for becoming a slave. The Greeks and Romans abandoned unwanted children and left them to their fate. For many children it meant living the life of a slave. Young girls were forced into prostitution.

The inhabitants of conquered cities were rightfully part of the booty and were sold into slavery. Male prisoners were almost always killed prior to the 6th century. In ancient times, pirates engaged in a lively slave trade, raiding cities and islands and capturing the inhabitants.

Man as a commodity

One of the great slave markets of antiquity was Chios, which began its successful trade from the 7th century BC. Led. In addition, Athens, Corinth, Delos and Herakleon on Crete were the main hubs for human goods during the different epochs. At times, up to 1,000 people per day were sold into slavery on Delos.

The prices varied according to the task a slave had to perform. A slave could cost several times the price of a cow or sheep (200-300 drachmas). Valuable slaves were traded for the equivalent of a small estate. From here the other Mediterranean countries were supplied with slaves.

The slaves received a new name from their owners and thus lost not only their freedom but also their identity. As a rule, the new names of the slaves indicated their skills and origins. Greek slaves "enjoyed" the advantage of being able to keep their names because they were not barbarians.

Hans Klees writes about the Greeks' view of slavery: “The well-known definition of Aristotle, according to which the slave is for the master's fulfillment of life and, as it were, a member separated from his body, brought the master's claim to everything that the slave with him his work is clearly expressed. With regard to this function of the slave, Aristotle saw a close parallel to the tamed animal that man makes use of. " (Hans Klees: Slave Life in Classical Greece; p. 129.)

In classical Greece, society expected the slaves to be adequately provided with clothing, food, and medicine from their owners. Only in this way could it be guaranteed that the slave made a profit through his work. So they wanted to prevent a possible slave revolt.

But this social opinion was not regulated by law. So the slaves remained at the mercy of their owners. More economically pragmatic slave owners will have better cared for their slaves. In Greek plays of this time it is often shown how well the slaves lived with their master. Many poor citizens lived worse, so the tenor of these pieces. However, the reality may not always have been so rosy.

The situation of the mine slaves, on the other hand, was inhuman. The mine owners paid no attention to the lives of their slaves and countless people died after a short time. There was always a supply of new slaves for the mine owners.

Slave work ethic

The slave's work ethic always gave their owners cause for complaint. Since they had lost their freedom, they mostly had no ambition to work happily and willingly for their master. Incidentally, an attitude that Herodotus attested to the Athenians when they lived under the dictatorship of the Peisistratids. At that time, the Athenians offered passive resistance because they had lost their freedom.

The work of the slaves therefore had to be constantly monitored. In order to increase their performance, the masters promised their slaves perks by promising larger food rations and better clothing. The thought also emerged of offering the slaves the prospect of their release if they showed themselves to be hardworking.

Another problem in the slave economy was the theft committed by slaves. In documents there are always indications that important goods should always be kept in locked rooms. The escape of slaves also reduced productivity. The problem was so great in classical Greece that the authorities offered rewards for capturing escaped slaves.

To promote the motivation of the slaves also included their participation in religious festivals. The Attic Kronia, where masters and slaves first celebrated together, were known for this. After the classical period, these harvest festivals were only celebrated by slaves.

Another way to increase slave morale was to get permission to "marry". That too depended on the arbitrariness of the master, the relationships of the slaves had no legal protection. The children from these marriages remained slaves and thus increased the property of the masters.

Everyday life in the life of the Greek slaves


The clothing of the slaves in classical Greece was no different from that of the simple freemen. There was no legal provision that regulated clothing. Different clothing for slaves was only available in the army. The actors who embodied slaves on the stage were identified by their clothing.

The slaves ate bread made from wheat flour or ate porridge made from the cheaper barley flour. Meat is unlikely to have been on the menu. Fruits and legumes were distributed according to the Lord's whim and ability. The amount of meals allotted varied widely because many slave owners used the reduction of food allotments as a punishment. The slaves did not, of course, eat at their masters' table, unless some were allowed to do so on certain feast days.


The question of whether the Greek slaves were allowed to have their own property between the 4th and 5th centuries BC cannot be answered with absolute clarity. In Xenophon and other authors there is evidence that the master could grant his slaves possession in order to reward them for their performance. This should increase the work ethic. It also enabled the slave to save money for his release. There is little evidence as to whether the slaves' property had legal protection.


The penalties for "wrongdoing" by the slaves were draconian. Often they were punished by whipping. The number and severity of the blows were left to the will of the Lord. The punishment by the whip or the threat was so feared by many slaves that they killed themselves beforehand.

With the blows, the Greek society also documented the rightsless position of the slaves. In classical Greece, free citizens received no lashes as a punishment. They paid a fine for minor offenses.

The restraint was another punitive measure against the slaves. The slaves were given ankle and leg shackles to prevent or discipline them from escaping. Wooden boards were also known, the head and arms of which had to be inserted into the openings. The bondage was considered particularly humiliating in Greece. There was always outrage when the citizens of a city learned that their soldiers captured by the enemy had been shackled.

The branding with a glowing branding iron was also brutal. Captured or unruly slaves were tagged by their owners. That could be characters and letters.

The slaves had no legal protection from the arbitrariness of their owners. The Greek public found nothing in the fact that slaves were brutally punished and tortured. Only criticism was loud when the owner killed slaves in a rage. But that had no legal consequences for the owner.

Already in the legends of Homer it is reported that a slave could ask for mercy. As he did so, he knelt, cupped the knee and touched the Lord's chin. Slaves also sought protection from their vengeful master by taking shelter in temples and in front of altars. So-called slave asylums have been identified for the classical period. Here, too, the slaves seeking help received no trial that could protect them from their master's charges.

In the best case scenario, the slaves only had the chance to be sold to another master. In this way, the original owner was able to get his "annoying" problem with the slave out of the public eye.


There are no precisely recorded figures about the slaves released in classical Greece. Some information that is not representative can be found in surviving wills. In Plato, Aristotle and others, there are indications that they gave freedom to a small number of their slaves. The remaining slaves were left to the respective heirs, as they belonged to the property of the deceased.

Another possibility was the ransom of slaves. This happened mostly for political reasons. The citizens of a polis offered ransom for their fellow citizens who had been deported into slavery. In classical Greece, these ransom purchases are only documented for abducted citizens who had not yet been sold by the victorious opponent.

Personal motives also gave rise to releases. Slaves who were more closely related to their owner could be released. Children from these relationships also had the opportunity to be released.

The slaves also had the option of buying themselves freely, provided they were allowed to purchase personal property. The slaves who worked in agriculture were unlikely to have saved any money from their work unless they served as administrators or overseers on the estate. Slaves who had been rented out by their owners for work in the mine and for construction work were also among those slaves who could not save money to buy.
Slaves employed in commerce and banking had better chances of buying themselves freely. They often acted independently on behalf of their owners. They were often traders in the then known world without being under the direct control of the owner. These relatively independently working slaves often paid a certain amount to their owners; the apophora. What the slaves earned beyond that they could keep to themselves. So there was the phenomenon of the “rich slaves” in Greece. These slaves had acquired a great deal of specialist knowledge during their service so that, after they had bought themselves free, they continued to hold management positions in the company.

Fields of activity


In pre-classical Greece, the farmers cultivated their fields themselves and were supported by wage laborers. With the growing prosperity and the political importance of the country also appeared from 400 BC onwards. Chr. Slaves on the lands. In Rome they were sent to the fields from the Punic Wars onwards.

Quarries, mining, pottery, building trade

It is not clear how many slaves were employed in the quarries. They seem to have had a smaller proportion of the workforce. There is evidence of evidence of paid craftsmen.

During the imperial era, slaves were used in numerous pottery workshops in Italy. But they didn't just work as simple henchmen. Numerous artists and workshop managers were among them. It is not known whether there were any significant numbers of slaves employed in this branch outside of Italy.

The information on the number of slaves employed in the building trade is also uncertain. But among them were some important architects!

The factories that started in the 2nd century BC BC, also employed slaves in unknown numbers.

Services in Greece and Rome

Slaves were also involved in banking in ancient Greece. The slave Pasion is known from the 4th century and was released by his master because of his successful work. That didn't stop Pasion from continuing to work for the bank as a free person. Freedmen also took on managerial positions in banks and often ran the business of their former masters. Other slaves worked as craftsmen, sellers and traders after their release.

The Roman banks employed slaves mainly as coin checkers, accountants, secretaries and messengers. Slaves who were allowed to enter into financial transactions on their own are only proven from the imperial era.

The state as a slave owner

The state and the municipalities also employ slaves in their services. So-called state slaves were responsible for the administration, for road construction and cleaning. Athens allowed its state slaves to acquire property. Many of these "officials" were held in high regard in the city. Around 475 slaves also took on police duties, the troop at that time comprised 300 archers. How many employees in the Roman administration worked as slaves is unknown. They were accountants as well as personal slaves of senior officials.

The military also used the slaves who served the hoplites and as rowers on the warships. In contrast to Greece, Rome had hardly any rowing slaves. The few who were deployed were released after their missions. There is no evidence of slaves in the Roman legions. They only served in the entourage of the troops.

House slaves

There is a great deal of archaeological and literary evidence of slaves in the household. They worked as cooks and servants. Women worked as wet nurses for the children and also looked after them as adolescents. Slaves also taught in schools. In the Roman Empire there were slaves in the noble families who worked as general practitioners. Many midwives were slaves. Sometimes a relationship of trust developed between owner and slave. In recognition of the services rendered, slaves could be released by their master.

"Entertainment industry"

Slaves were employed as dancers, musicians, performers, and actors in amusement venues, theaters, and arenas. Slaves were also used predominantly in gladiator fights and chariot races.

Women were forced into prostitution in the brothels of Rome and Greece.

Slaves in everyday life in Rome

Slaves were hardly to be recognized in the Roman cities. They often wore the same clothes as ordinary citizens. Slaves who worked in respected professions also wore the clothes they were used to. The slaves were also allowed to move freely in the city and to attend festivals and celebrations.

In contrast to the slaves who lived in the city, their fellow sufferers were more strictly controlled on the lands. They had significantly less "freedoms". Unpleasant slaves were locked in workhouses in the evenings.

The owners had the right to punish slaves. Beatings and imprisonment were common punishments. Excessive cruelty in punishment could, however, be punished by the Roman judiciary. But the judges first had to learn about it. The prosecution of brutalities committed against a slave was relatively rare.

The punishment a slave received for killing his owner was draconian. Not only was the perpetrator sentenced to death, the slaves living in the house of the victim were also executed.

Mass enslavement in antiquity

The enslavement of the inhabitants of Greek cities is one of the darkest chapters in ancient war history. Since there was no institutionalized martial law at the time, the victor got everything, people and property. Conquered cities were often completely destroyed and their inhabitants sold into slavery. People who could not be used as slaves were murdered.

In antiquity, enslavement or the threat of it was an effective means of wearing down the enemy. Economically, the slavery also served to finance the campaigns. It is not known how the slaves were sold in classical Greece. It is known that the prisoners were taken to larger places to be sold on their marketplaces. It is not known whether there were professional slave traders at that time.

The victorious generals often had the right to enslave people. Likewise, the people's assembly of a city could decide to enslave the inhabitants of inferior cities.

Athens used mass slavery as a means of political leverage in its wars. In the Peloponnesian War, renegade allies were punished by the fact that the women and children of the conquered cities were taken into slavery. The male residents were killed. This is what happened in 421 BC. In Skione and 416 in Melos. The Spartans also had no qualms about using the same methods, e.g. B. 427 BC In Plataiai.

Philip II of Macedonia adopted this tactic from Greek military policy. The Macedonians conquered dozen of Greek cities. So in 348 BC Philip sent Over 10,000 inhabitants of the conquered city of Olynth into slavery. His son Alexander continued this “profitable” business. After he died in 335 BC. Chr.Having defeated Thebes, he had 30,000 people sent into slavery. For this he received a proceeds of 440 silver talents.

It wasn't just the inhabitants of conquered cities who were dragged into slavery. In classical Greece the soldiers of defeated armies were also sold into slavery. If slavery was tolerated in Greek society, there were always voices that opposed the fact that soldiers were degraded to slaves.

Athens sent a fleet against the Sicilian Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War. The attack failed and the Greek army was taken prisoner. Almost all soldiers were enslaved and thousands were sent to the island's mines.

480 BC Gelon defeated a Carthaginian army near Himera. The Carthaginians captured were then sold as slaves. Alexander the Great also had few qualms about selling captured Greek mercenaries who had fought for the Persians into slavery.

The Romans also initiated mass slavery in the wars with Greece. In the First Macedonian War, the Roman legionaries plundered the conquered cities and dragged the inhabitants into slavery.

Although mass slavery was used as a military means by the opposing parties, the Roman Senate raised concerns about its own generals during the Third Macedonian War. Roman troops looted valuable art treasures and burned cities. Thousands of defenseless people were killed by the legionnaires, especially old people and children. The remaining residents were taken into slavery. This is what happened in 171 BC. In Haliartus by Roman troops. Rome's generals did not hesitate to liquidate members of the upper class of a conquered city.

170 BC Abdera was conquered and the citizens willing to negotiate were murdered or enslaved by the legionaries. The Roman Senate had these enslavements reversed.

Aemilius Paullus was particularly brutal and insidious. He condemned the defeated Molossians to surrender all precious metal. The Molossians obeyed this order. But that did not protect them from the arbitrariness of Rome. Aemilius Paullus had the city plundered by his legionnaires. Over 100,000 Molossians became slaves.

With the fall of the Roman Republic, the end of mass slavery began in Greece. These only existed in the border wars that Rome waged in the Balkans. But the Roman politicians soon abandoned these punitive actions. It was more useful for the Roman Empire if one resettled inferior peoples and used them for border protection.

Mass slavery in ancient times was not just limited to Greece. First mass slavings are also reported from Etruscan times in Italy. The emerging Rome took this pressure on the civilian population.

After Hannibal was defeated, the era of mass slavery ended in Italy. They should only be used again during the period of the Great Migration.

However, the Roman emperors continued to sell the citizens of subjugated cities in Gaul, Spain, Africa and Asia into slavery when it seemed politically useful. The Romans had little scruples because they only fought against “barbarians”. In doing so, they followed a Greek point of view. There was no mass enslavement in Greece when wars took place between Greeks. In the fratricidal wars, the Romans did not enslave any Roman citizens, even if they were on the opposing side.

Julius Caesar was particularly active in enslaving underlying tribes in Gaul. Ancient historians report that Caesar should have enslaved over a million people. To what extent these numbers are correct remains a matter of dispute among historians. For example, the fate of the inferior Atuatuk core is documented. 57 BC 50,000 of them were sold on Caesar's behalf. His legionnaires also acted as buyers.

Mass slavery has always been a means of political pressure. As soon as it seemed politically favorable to the victor, he could take back slavery. Destroyed cities were rebuilt, and their enslaved inhabitants were freely bought and settled in their homeland. This is what happened with the Greek city of Stageira, the birthplace of Aristotle. Alexander the Great wanted to honor his teacher.

Only the Roman Senate and the People's Assembly reviewed the actions of the generals they had commissioned. So enslavements were reversed when it was politically opportune.


Horsmann, Gerhard:
The mass enslavement of the inhabitants of conquered cities in the Hellenic-Roman period
2., through and exp. Ed.
Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 1990
(Ancient Slavery Research; 22.)

Klees, Hans: slave life in classical Greece
Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 1998
(Ancient Slavery Research; 30.)

Schumacher, Leonhard:
Slavery in Antiquity: Everyday Life and Fate of the Unfree
Munich: Beck 2001

Weeber, Karl-Wilhelm:
Everyday life in ancient Rome; a lexicon. 3rd ed.
Düsseldorf: Artemis 1997

Loading ...