Slavery in Ancient Greece

Ursula Cliff, Dickson College, 2009

Ursula Cliff has also written The Roman Theatre for Clio, for which she won the 2009 ANU Award for best Ancient History essay contributed to Clio.

Slavery was the backbone to the strength and greatness of the ancient Greeks. Slave labour allowed the citizens of Athens and Sparta to focus on the aspects of life they thought important, whether that be developing a grand system of government and culture, or creating a military society to rival that of anywhere in the ancient world.[1] Ascertaining a true understanding of slaves’ relative standards of living in Athens and Sparta is difficult, because of the imbalance of information from the two cultures, and because the majority of slaves were uneducated, and thus could not leave records of their own conditions. Therefore scholars rely on the viewpoint of the contemporary Greek writers, who may have shown bias. In determining the quality of the slaves’ conditions, the following considerations must be made: working conditions, rights and treatment, social and legal security, and the possibility of freedom.

In comparing working conditions, the following elements are important: treatment within the household, provision of necessities, payment, and the positions slaves could acquire. Attica being a mainly developed area, the majority of privately owned Athenian slaves worked in the households of citizens (Jones in Lloyd-Jones 1965, p72). Here, sources say treatment was generally fair: ‘The Athenians treated their slaves better than any other ancient society’ (Webster 1969, p43). Slaves worked mainly in domestic roles, though it was not uncommon for them to become tutors or carers for the children of the household (ibid., p46). Privately owned slaves generally received payment from their masters, whilst state-owned slaves received their clothing, as well as a daily ‘ration allowance’ (Bury et al 1964, p7). Individual treatment was dependent on the leniency of the owner, though it may be assumed that treatment was in most cases fair, due to slaves’ partial protection under Athenian law (see later discussion). State-owned slaves also had the opportunity, depending on their education, to rise to relatively high positions within the community, such as secretaries, bankers, and law enforcement (Bowman 2007, p34). Often, these slaves worked alongside the citizens and metics (resident foreigners), under the same conditions — the only difference being a detraction in their salary (Murray 1986, p223).

Some wealthy Athenians also chose to allow skilled slaves to work as craftsmen, or in other higher-skilled work. In such cases, the slave might live in their own accommodation, and be paid a proportionately higher salary, though a fixed percentage of this went to their master (Bowman 2007, p34).

Related Article: The Nature of Athenian Democracy
In Spartan society, all slaves were owned by the state, and allocated to work on particular plots of land. At times, the helots (as Spartan slaves were known) outnumbered the citizen population by about twenty to one (Bowman, 2007, p26). Scholars have suggested that the need to control the helot population may have been one of the reasons for Sparta’s militaristic society (ibid). Helots formed the basis of the Spartan economy, and were essential to food production. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus writes of their working conditions:

As asses worn by lords intolerable,
So them did stress of cruel force compel,
Of all the fruits the well-tilled land affords,
The moiety to bear to their proud lords (Bury 1959, p127).

By many accounts, treatment of the helots seems to have been harsh. Although it is unclear whether helots were allowed to sell any surplus produce for their own benefit, it is apparent they were required to give a fixed quantity[2] of their produce to the state. Helots were unable to leave the land they were bound to (Darlington 2005, p40). In wartime, they were also required to act as servants to the warriors or serve as light infantrymen. Given the Spartan principle of fighting to the death, it is unlikely that these conditions, especially when a Helot’s life was so lowly valued, were pleasant.

The treatment of Athenian and Spartan slaves in the household and in greater society is the second consideration in determining their relative situations. Athenian slaves generally seem to have been accepted into their master’s family:

Slaves purchased by the master of the household were received into the household community with a ceremony, attended family ceremonies, adopted the family’s religion and were buried in the family graveyard (Bowman, 2007, p34).

There is much evidence for fond relationships between slaves and masters. A common character in many contemporary plays was the faithful slave, who accompanied his master to war; or who comforted her mistress in times of distress (such as in Euripides’ Medea). Sources generally provide little evidence of abuse towards slaves in Athenian society (Westermann 1955, p22). Although some runaways were branded and severely punished, this was rare.[3]

Athenian slaves worked alongside the free men and metics, performing the same work, indistinguishable but for their salary (Andrewes 1967, p135). It also seems they were similar in other ways, as indicated by an Athenian critic of the times:

Now as for slaves and metics in Athens, they live a most undisciplined life: one is not permitted to strike them there and a slave will not stand out of the way for you there. Let me explain why. If the law permitted a free man to strike a slave or a metic or a freedman, he would often find that he had mistaken an Athenian for a slave and struck him, for, so far as clothing and general appearance are concerned, the common people look just the same as the slaves and the metics (Pseudo-Xenophon quoted in Murray 1986, p224).

By contrast, in Sparta, helots were legally viewed as enemies of the state. They were forced to wear humiliating clothing to distinguish themselves from the Spartan population and were publicly punished through annual beatings, as if such were necessary to remind them of their servile position (Darlington 2005, p25). Plutarch in his work The Ancient Customs of the Spartans describes the Spartan attitude: "They used to make the Helots drunk and exhibit them to the young as a deterrent from excessive drinking" (Darlington 2005, p30). Clearly, again, on this basis, Athenian slaves fared better than their Spartan counterparts.

A sense of personal safety — of security within the society — is a third fundamental consideration in determining the relative living conditions for slaves in Athens and Sparta. In this area, the two societies greatly differed, and on available evidence, again Athenian slaves held the advantage. Slaves in Attica, though holding few personal legal rights, were in part protected by Athenian law and society. The legal system in Attica investigated the death of slaves, and attempted to protect them from injury and murder, either at their master’s or another’s hands (Westermann 1955, p17). If unfairly treated, a slave could gain ‘right of sanctuary’ in a temple and he could appeal for the authorities to allow him to be resold to another master (Bury 1964, p9). If a slave was living away from his master’s house, and was wronged, his master could go to court on his account.

This system strongly contrasts with that in Sparta, where ephors (chief magistrates) annually declared ‘war’ on the helots. This was enacted through the ‘Krypteia’, a force of male adolescents charged to sporadically hunt down any helot they thought ‘suspicious’. As Plutarch states in his work, Lycurgus:

The magistrates dispatched privately some of the ablest of the young men into the country … armed only with their daggers … in the night [they] issued out into the highways, and killed all the Helots they could light upon; sometimes they set upon them by day, as they were at work in the fields, and murdered them.

This system, in reality a means of keeping the Helot population under control by terror, meant slaves could never be assured of their personal safety, as they could never be certain when this violence could descend upon them. There was no penalty for the death of a Helot: indeed, by the state declaring open ‘war’ on the Helots, Spartans were freed from any criminal consequences, even in the face of religion.

A fourth and final consideration for evaluating the slaves’ relative standard of living in Sparta and Athens is their capacity to obtain their freedom: to attain personal property, to live privately and freely, and, ultimately, to gain full citizenship. In Athens, those slaves who lived outside the master’s house had the right to marry, and to create a household of their own, attaining personal property. Privately owned domestic slaves, living within the master’s house, though legally unable to marry, were on occasion permitted to live with a partner, although any children produced officially belonged to their master. Slaves in Athens were by most accounts not subject to social prejudice. A slave could buy his freedom with the percentage of pay left over from his salary after paying the required amount to his master, though this only gave him status equal to that of a metic — not full citizenship. This said, there were individual exceptions, as in the case of the former slave Pasion. The practice of emancipation (manumission), first introduced into Athens in the 5th century BCE, was not an uncommon practice, enacted either by the state, or individually by the master. There were, however, conditions to this freedom, as evidenced by Plato and others. State emancipation often occurred after war; slaves were not subject to military conscription, and so when war came, may have been offered their freedom (or even full citizenship) as an incentive to fight. Even this conditional freedom though, was more than Spartan slaves received.

Spartan slaves were allowed to acquire their own land and property, however unlike in Athens, the power to emancipate slaves lay solely in the hands of the state. Again, this emancipation seemed a reward for the slaves’ excelling in warfare, though whether it was truly put into practice is debatable, as suggested by an incident in 424 BCE recorded in Thucydides, Book IV.

The Helots were invited by a proclamation to pick out those of their number who claimed to have most distinguished themselves against the enemy, in order that they might receive their freedom; the object being to test them, as it was thought that the first to claim their freedom would be the most high-spirited and the most apt to rebel. As many as two thousand were selected accordingly, who crowned themselves and went around the temples, rejoicing in their new freedom. The Spartans, however, soon afterwards did away with them, and no one ever knew how each one of them perished.

Overall, it seems clear that slaves fared better in Athenian society than in Sparta. The Spartan slaves’ situation only really improved after the Messenian revolt (464-c.459 BCE). This ended the citizens’ stronghold over the helots, and the majority of the Messenians were then freed. Throughout the slaves’ history in the two cultures, a difference existed in their standard of living. As argued, the majority of Athenian slaves lived and worked in safe conditions, were better treated by both master and state, and had more opportunity, at both a domestic level and within greater society, to improve their situation. They were partially protected by Athenian law, and could achieve emancipation, and beyond that, full citizenship. Although there are less historical sources available on Sparta, it would appear to be clear that on both personal and social levels, slaves in this more militaristic society were severely disadvantaged in comparison to their Athenian counterparts. As designated ‘enemies of the state’ the most helots might expect to achieve would be to live with their own people, and possibly achieve freedom, the latter only being attained through military achievement. Throughout the majority of the helots’ history, they were at the mercy and whim of the Spartan state. In considering the relative standards of living, as one recent scholar noted: ‘The Athenian, Critias, was nearer the mark when he said that in Sparta, the free were more free, and the slaves more fully slaves than elsewhere’ (Andrewes 1967, p139).


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Annotated Bibliography

All primary sources were accessed through secondary sources, which did not always include bibliographic details, and are therefore discussed with the secondary source they appeared in.

Andrewes, Antony 1967, The Greeks, Hutchinson and Co, London.
This thoughtful and informative text examines different aspects of Greek society, and the groups within it, as well as a historical and geographical setting. In the section entitled ‘Traders, craftsmen and slaves’, Andrewes describes the importance of slavery for Greek civilisation, particularly that of Athens. He also defines the institution of slavery and provides figures and background information, as well as analysing the problems with deducing a true understanding of slavery in ancient Greece, including bias. This was a useful text, providing a comprehensive base for further research, and context for the information.

Bowman, Robyn 2007, Ancient Greece for Senior Students, Thomson/Social Science Press, Victoria Australia.
Bowman’s textbook provides a brief overview of the major stages and developments of ancient Greek society. The text begins by questioning the reliability of archaeological sources. It then divides into focus questions coupled with sources, both primary and secondary. Bowman also aims to demonstrate the application and knowledge of skills when studying history. A brief but informative text, and useful source for accessing primary texts.

Bury, J.B. 1959 (3rd edn.), A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great, Macmillan and Company Limited, London.
Bury affords a thoroughly comprehensive history of ancient Greece, beginning with the very origin of the Greeks and finishing with the conquests of Alexander. It also includes an expansive chronological table and complementary images. This text did not focus so strongly on the aspects of society, rather the progressive developments and events covering a rich and long history. Bury’s work was more useful in gaining a historical context for the institution of slavery and the developments occurring in ancient Greece at the time, rather than determining facts about the slaves themselves. Bury’s text includes the description of the Helot’s working conditions by the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus. It may be assumed that this text was written sometime in the 7th century BCE, but apart from that there is very little known about Tyrtaeus. The fact that he writes negatively about the Helots cruel overlords, his own people, may however indicate that he wishes to show faithfully the conditions of the Helots. This text is useful in gaining an understanding of the attitudes the Spartans held toward the Helots, and the conditions of their work.

Bury, J. B. et al. (editors) 1964, The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 5: ‘Athens 478-401 BC.’, The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, England.
The Cambridge Ancient History is a comprehensive set of texts, affording a detailed understanding of the history of the ancient world. Volume 5 examines Athens from 478-401 BC. The section on slavery provided a reasonably detailed source of information of the lives of slaves both in Athens and in Sparta. It allowed for clear comparison, and its thorough nature provided details about aspects such as payment, which were not mentioned in other sources.

Darlington, Robert 2005, Heinemann ancient and medieval history: Greece – Spartan society to 371 BC., Harcourt Education, Victoria, Australia.
Darlington’s text was extremely useful because it was devoted entirely solely to Spartan society, and as such was free from the dominating Athenian point of view. Like Bowman’s work, it was written in a textbook style, and thus provided a clear and easily comprehendible overview of the important aspects of Spartan society. This book also provided a useful source of both primary and secondary texts. Darlington presents his information in a way that is easily validated by the sources chosen, and thus seems highly reliable, and relevant to higher school students. Darlington’s text also included excerpts from Plutarch’s Lycurgus and The Ancient Customs of the Spartans. Not writing at the time that the events occurred might have affected the reliability of his work, though he is generally accepted as a reliable source of information. Lycurgus was useful in gaining a description of the work of the Krypteia. Later in the quote, Plutarch also mentions the thoughts of Aristotle on the matter, almost citing him as a historical source. The Ancient Customs of the Spartans analysed the lives of Spartans in ancient Greece, and was useful in gaining an understanding the Spartan’s behaviour toward the Helots. An excerpt from Thucydides’ Book IV was also included in this text. Thucydides is well noted for being thorough and fair in his research, though it is difficult to know how much of his work was affected by his personal views or through misinformation. In this excerpt, Thucydides describes the actions of the Spartans toward the Helots after war against Athens. He strongly conveys the Spartan’s sense of paranoia, emphasised by later scholars.

Jones, A.M.H. ‘Athens and Sparta’, published in Lloyd-Jones, Hugh (ed.) 1965, The Greek World, Penguin Books, England.
The Greek World is a selective text, comprised of informal though informative essays describing various aspects of Greek society. Jones’ essay describes the relations and characteristics of the two societies, before briefly analysing the different treatment of slaves in each society. Jones includes many primary sources in his work, adding credibility to his evaluation. Jones’ work was not particularly useful in this case, as he did not provide much information on slavery, though it would make an interesting and informative read.

Murray, Oswyn ‘Life and Society in Classical Greece’, published in Boardman, John et al. (editors) 1986, The Oxford History of the Classical World, Guild Publishing, London.
Murray offers a broad and informative view of everyday aspects of Classical Greece, and its people. His section on the Athenian economy provides readers with a basis of background knowledge, such as the political and agricultural aspects, from which they can gain an understanding of the importance of slavery in Attica. This text offers an unbiased viewpoint of slavery, taking into account both the advantages and disadvantages of a slave’s life in Athens. In particular, it offers a useful account of the working conditions at the silver mine in Laurium. Murray’s article was thoughtful, providing strong background knowledge and a fair and varied collection of information.

Rymer, Eric 2004, Slavery in Ancient Greece, Viewed 2 September 2009.
Rymer’s text was a good brief source of background information, and useful for preliminary research. It provided a short overview of ancient Greek slavery, but was not detailed or sourced, and therefore was not appropriate as a reliable text.

Webster, T.B.L. 1969, Life in Classical Athens, B.T. Batsford Ltd, London.
In his text, Webster evaluates the need and attitudes toward slavery, both in ancient times, and modern, as scholars discover yet more information. Though limited in that it only describes the living conditions of Athenian slaves (as one may expect from the title), Webster offers sound information, and in particular, interesting examples. A strong point of Webster’s text is the examples he finds in literature written at the time, which he uses to emphasise his information. This was a useful and easily accessible text.

Westermann, William L. 1955, The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity, The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.
Westermann’s book was by far the most useful text in studying this topic. Although quite long and detailed, the information found in this book was hard to find, or otherwise only hinted at, in other, briefer, sources. Westermann evaluates a wide range of aspects of slavery, from supply, to legal aspects, to social attitudes. His work is peppered with reliable sources, including many primary sources, helping to ensure the validity of his information.


  1. ^ Although estimations of the slave population in Athens range greatly, Andrewes places it at 80,000-100,000 c.400-500 BCE (Andrewes 1967, p135). No figure could be found for the helot population in Sparta.
  2. ^ Tyrtaeus writes half, Plutarch writes fixed amount (Darlington 2005, p40).
  3. ^ Though this may have been because it was difficult to resell such a slave (Westermann 1955, p23).