The Treatment of Athenian Slaves

Cait Smith, Dickson College, 2011


The following essay was written as part of the Athens to Alexander unit at Dickson College, Semester 2. 2011. It responds to the self-devised focus question: “How were slaves treated in Athens?”

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Slavery was one of the key aspects of Greek life: in Athens it was the backbone of their society, so important that the number of slaves outnumbered the citizens (Cartledge, 2000, p.177-179). Although there were a lot of slaves it is believed that the Athenians respected and even formed relationships with their slaves, although this depended on the type of slave. There were three main types of slaves found in Athens: the first was the household slave, who in many regards would have had a relatively good life and good treatment. There were also the entertainment slaves who had opportunities to improve their standing in society. The final type of slave was the labouring and skilled slave, whose treatment rested on their occupation. It is important to note that the treatment of particular slaves depended on the owner and occupation as well as the fact that by treatment we are comparing the slaves to Athenian citizens; Athenian men who had come of age. Athenian slaves had many opportunities to improve their lives as well as being able to rely on laws to protect them, allowing for treatment that was almost equal to that of an Athenian citizen.


The household and farm-hand slaves were the group of slaves who spent their lives closest to their masters. The Greeks believed it to be shameful not to work (Dillon 2002, p.127), but they still needed assistance. Smaller numbers of household slaves also allowed for closer relationships with the household, which could ultimately lead to slaves being freed by their masters; manumission (Finley, 1964, p.239). Athenians treated their slaves with the same respect as they would a woman or child; although not as well as a citizen it was not inhumane (Golden, 1984, p.317). Despite this, the Athenians still did not want to be a part of the slave class due to its lowliness and the associated shame. This attitude is reflected in the situation depicted in Xenophon's Memorabilia, where the recently destitute Eutherus explains to Socrates that "it would be difficult to submit myself to slavery".' (Xenophon, Memorabilia, 2. 8. 3-4).


Although the Athenians didn’t want to be slaves they were not barbaric in their treatment and they created many laws to benefit them. These included laws against abuse unless it was by their master (Pseudo-Xenophon, The Constitution of the Athenians, 11), laws permitting them to seek refuge in temples and a related law to have a slave removed from a bad master and sold again if another citizen brought it up in court (Dillon 2002, p.132). The murder of a slave was also treated the same as murdering a citizen which was punished with the death penalty. Although in many senses a slave was treated as a citizen there were still laws that treated them harshly. This can be seen in the case of an attempted murder of a master by a slave, who only left the man wounded when he fled. If the slave had not stepped forward then all the slaves in the household would have been put to death (Antiphon, 5, 69). Laws such as this show the boundaries of Athenian respect for their slaves;, that they had no qualms about exercising their power over the slaves. Despite these laws Athenian slaves were treated much like women and children because of the laws that protected them and how closely they worked with their master.

Related Article: Slavery in Ancient Greece
Slaves used for entertainment had a notoriously difficult time, due to their occupation, but there were opportunities to improve their situation. Although this group was mostly made up of women (Dillon 2002, p.126) there were male entertainers. However, there were laws against homosexual relationships between male citizens and slaves (Golden, 1984, p.317) and as such they were less common and more likely to be persecuted.

No Athenian citizen could take money or any other form of payment for sexual favours. This was prostitution – an occupation fit for a slave or an alien – and the penalty was loss of citizen rights. (Golden, 1984, p.317)

Most slave prostitutes lived in shady brothels, owned by a master who had little interest in them. The living conditions of Athenian prostitutes are often considered the main reason for their hardship but poorer Athenians would have lived in the exact same way: small houses and large families. The main hardship suffered by prostitutes was their work and even then the same laws that protected household slaves also protected them, especially against abuse. It was also commonplace for Athenians to develop relationships with their favoured prostitutes which could be very beneficial. This can be seen in a case where a prostitute, Neaera, was given the money to be manumitted by several of her most devoted clients (Demosthenes, 59, 29-32).


Manumitted and owned prostitutes often became hetaera, or courtesans (Dillon 2002, p. 143-145), if they were very good at their job (Dillon 2002, p. 126). They were educated women who would work in the Symposium, a place for men to discuss politics and drink. Similar to the Geisha, hetaera were educated prostitutes who were respected for their intelligence and great beauty, like the famous free prostitute Phryne whose beauty made her extremely wealthy and famous.

At the festival of the Eleusinia and Poseidonia in the sight of all the Greeks she took off her outer cloak, and letting down her hair stripped into the sea. Apelles painted his ‘Aphrodite Rising from the Sea’ with her as the model. (Athenaeus, The Wise Men at Dinner, 590f)

Being a hetaera was better than manumission because hetaera had more economic power than an Athenian housewife (Dillon, 2002, p.143). Not only were they wealthy, they were of a status almost equal to a citizen; they even had to pay taxes. Despite their living conditions, slave prostitutes were treated in a similar way to their household counterparts and they also had more opportunities to increase their status.


The treatment of a working slave was dependent on their type: factory worker or miner. What these slaves had in common was that they worked as a large group and saw little of their master (Dillon, 2002, p.133). Instead they had an overseer who was appointed and trained by their master, or bought for the purpose (Aristotle, Politics, 1255b31-1255b37). Although slave overseers were expected to maintain the same control and discipline as a master naturally would (Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 13.12), it was likely that an overseer would take more care and be able to relate more to the other slaves. Athenians believed in training their slaves so that they were better skilled and happier. By training their slaves the Athenians developed skills that would help a slave achieve manumission as well as benefit them once they were free. Untrained slaves were seen as useless and idle and were punished for being so, as indicated in this quote from Oeconomicus.

There are other duties that are specifically yours, my wife, and pleasant for you, as when you take an unskilled slave girl and train her, and she becomes worth twice as much... and when you are able to reward both the self-controlled and useful slaves in your household, and punish anyone who seems bad. (Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 7.41)

A common working condition in factories was that the slaves ran it for their master (Aeschines, 1, 97). The overseer and all the slaves would have to pay their master a share of the profits but kept the rest (Dillon, 2002, p.133), a practice common in Athens to allow more time for “politics and philosophy” (Aristotle, Oeconomicus, 1255b31-1255b37). The Spartan Helots were similar in that they had to pay their master with the food they grew, but unlike the Athenian slaves they were not paid.


Although many working slaves were treated well and were given freedoms wholly unexpected of their status in society there was a group that suffered despite their important work: the miners. Athenians felt that mining was too dangerous for citizens and so they used slaves in their silver mines (Cartledge, 2000, p.181). The work was deadly, so only the most ‘barbaric’ slaves were sent there (Dillon, 2002, p.135). Despite the dangerous conditions of the silver mines the Athenians were not completely cruel in their treatment so as to avoid inefficiency.

There are three areas of importance in dealing with slaves: work punishment and food. Not being punished and not being worked but having food makes slaves insolent. Yet being worked and punished but not having food is an act of violence... (Aristotle, Oeconomicus, 1344a29-1344a34)

This shows that the Athenians had no respect for their slaves yet they knew they needed healthy slaves, although that meant only just healthy. This may have been because the masters of the slaves were never near and thus could not develop a relationship or feel empathy towards them. The mining slaves were at the lowest level to which a man could fall in the eyes of the Athenians (Cartledge, 2000, p.181) and they were treated accordingly. The treatment of working slaves is difficult to gauge due to the varieties of work but it is clear that the slaves who were skilled were treated with respect for the work they did, but the miners were the worst treated slaves in Athens.


Athenian slaves were treated well because of the laws that protected them, the principles the Athenians held dear and the opportunities they had for improving their life. For the household slave living close to their master benefitted them with greater opportunities for kindness and manumission. The entertaining slaves had poor living conditions but they formed relationships to benefit themselves and had many opportunities to improve their lives. Of the two types of overseer-based slaves the trained slaves had greater opportunities for manumission whilst the mining slaves suffered and were treated more like farm-animals than humans. Although there were times when Athenians treated their slaves badly, most slaves had rights and opportunities that made their treatment almost equal to that of the citizens.


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