Slavery in Athens

Originally, slavery in Greece would have been a topic for one day. Given that ancient Greece was composed of numerous autonomous city-states, however, there was no single description of slavery in Greece. While slavery gave Athens the opportunity to develop its system of government and culture and Sparta its strong military, the role, conditions under law, and treatment of slaves in Athens and Sparta were vastly different. So different, in fact, that Athens will be the subject of today’s post, and Sparta’s tomorrow.

Much of what is known about slaves has been inferred from various sources. In general, though, slaves were acquired through war as prisoners, from barbarians, enslavement of freemen by pirates or for debt.

Slaves were either owned by the State or privately. Privately-owned slaves worked mainly in domestic roles, though it was not uncommon for them to become tutors or nannies. Slaves were welcomed into the family with a formal ceremony. Often slaves became part of the family and were buried with the family. They generally received payment from their masters. Some workers trained in a craft earned good salaries of which part went to their owners. (See pic of slave nanny)

The state-owned slaves received their clothing, as well as a daily ration allowance. They  also had the opportunity, depending on their education, to rise to relatively high positions within the community, including secretaries, bankers, and law enforcement—even working beside citizens. Many, though, lived rough lives in agriculture and the mines.

The individual treatment of slaves depended on the owner and they were protected under the Athenian law. Although some runaways were branded and severely punished, Athenian law provided for 50 blows for most punishments. A master could punish his own slave but not anyone else’s.  Slaves, though holding few personal legal rights, were in part protected by Athenian law and society. The legal system investigated the death of slaves, and attempted to protect them from injury and murder, either at their master’s or another’s hands. If unfairly treated, a slave could gain sanctuary in a temple and he could appeal to the authorities to allow him to be resold to another master. If a slave was living away from his master’s house, his master could go to court on his account.  (See funerary pic of slave mourning her mistress)

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. Manumission was controlled by law. Slaves could either buy their freedom or receive freedom for special service. They did not receive full citizenship but a foreigner’s rights.

Tomorrow, The Fate of Spartan Slaves.   Rita Bay


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12 responses to “Slavery in Athens

  1. are these real facts?

    • Slavery varied among cultures over the millenia. Until the 19th and 20th centuries, it was an acceptable practice in many cultures. Read some of the other posts on slavery in the blog to get a general overview of slavery as an institution throughout history. As for accuracy, some info about earlier cultures is researchers’ best guesses but are based on books in my personal library and research. So, yes, Elise, these are real facts. Rita

  2. kassie

    so the athenans treaed the slaves better than the spartans oh and im in the six grade and i need it for a project

  3. turtle

    how did the slaves get 2 b slaves?

    • Hi Turtle, Slavery was commonplace in the ancient world. Many children were born slaves. Children generally followed the status of the mother. Some were enslaved as captives of war, either soldiers on the losing side or residents of conquered lands. Some were enslaved by pirate raids. (Julius Caesar was captured by pirates as a young man, but ransomed. He returned after he was free and killed them all.) Others were enslaved because they or their family were debtors. All slaves did not do manual labor. Some worked in homes; others, in mines or as skilled craftsmen/artisans. Educated people who were enslaved as adults could work in business or as educators. In Rome, educated Greek slaves were used to teach wealthy Romans.

  4. Rei

    Which countries/areas were conquered by the Athenians?

  5. River

    Can you give me some specific key terms, events, dates, places, people? I’m working on a project, thanks.

  6. annika

    so slaves are basicaly people who do things so rich people dont have to?

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