Was Slavery Really All That Bad?

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Can YOU imagine waking up and having to toil the fields for minimum wage? It’s not your own crop you’re harvesting, not your livestock you’re herding, and you don’t get a share of the profits when the fattest cattle is sold at the marketplace. In modern times, you’d think of “human rights”, “freedom”, and how unthinkable a concept like slavery would be. Yet, a closer examination of Ancient Greece revealed how slavery may have been a necessity for society at that point in time.The variation in terminology for “slaves” clearly illustrates the different perspectives the Greeks had about slavery. While slaves are often depicted as commodities, as seen in Roman law where a slave was a ‘res’ (i.e. thing), the Greeks had more than one term assigned to slaves. With terms such as doulos’, ‘andrapodon’, ‘pais’, ‘hypêretês’, ‘sòma’, ‘oiketês’, the Greeks held a variety of viewpoints, each focusing on different aspects of slaves. For instance, the commonly used term ‘doulos’ conveyed the relationship of domination within communities, rather than mere property. Perhaps, this domination was a result of wars, which leads to the question — how did slavery come about?

Origins of Slavery

Slavery was born out of several reasons. War, trade, and in rare occasions, slave breeding. Incessant warring made slaves out of the prisoners of war. Slaves were also considered a tradable commodity at the time, but instead of bartering a cow for 10 chickens, slaves were being sold to Greek traders in exchange for goods such as clothing and liquor.

Abandoned infants were also a source of slaves for opportunistic profit seekers, who would quickly swoop in on the babies once their parents left them for dead. By virtue of their parents being slaves, children born to slaves were also considered property of the master, who could then use or trade them as they deemed fit.

Practices of Slavery*

Athens

In Athens, slaves were either privately or state-owned. Domestic slaves were supervised by the women of the house, often had a close relationship with their masters and became instrumental members of the household — slaves typically took care of the children and handled the running of the household.

State-owned slaves were skilled and worked in mines or quarries, as craftsmen, or if they were educated, in influential positions such as bankers and law enforcement. Both groups received remuneration for their work and despite having unrecognized marriages by the state, were allowed to have families.

Athenians motivated the slaves to work hard and ensured their loyalty with the promise of freedom (manumission). After being freed, former slaves would join the metics—foreigners who were allowed to live in the city-state—instead of becoming citizens.  A slave’s loyalty to the master was so respected that if they were required to testify against their master, their testimony had to be “obtained under torture” as they believed the slave would protect his master at all cost. Slaves almost never revolted partly due to their relatively favourable treatment, but also because they were ethnically diverse and hence, difficult to unify.

Sparta

Sparta, on the other hand, practiced a form of serfdom with the Helots (Spartan slaves). They were “conquered people, living on their own hereditary land but forced to work it for their Spartan masters.” The Helots were from Laconia and Messenia—territories that had been invaded by the Spartans—and were considered by the Spartans to be of lower class, “legally viewed as enemies of the state”. This was reflected in their harsh treatment of the Helots — “forced to wear humiliating clothing”, “publicly punished through annual beatings” to reinforce their lowly position and the “ephors (chief magistrates) annually declar[ing] ‘war’ on the helots.” Being uncertain of when these violent acts might occur, the Helots lived in a constant state of fear and thus, revolted frequently. These harsh treatments, however, were possibly a means of regulation, as there were times when the Helots outnumbered the Spartans 20 to 1. The Helots essentially formed the foundation of the Spartan economy and were critical in agriculture and the production of food.

Slavery,  A Necessity

Despite modern beliefs about the evils of slavery, the Ancient Greeks had undisputable benefits about slavery that far outweighed any potential violation of human rights. A significant contribution to their economy, many of their political philosophies “hinged on the slave system and its requirements”. With agriculture and commerce forming the backbone of the Greek economy, the employment of slaves in labor-intensive industries such as farming, mining and pottery freed up valuable time for the masters’ more intellectual pursuits such as politics or art, which they believed was the heirarchy society should abide by.

The Greeks’ view that slavery was essential culminates with Aristotle’s saying—

“If every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others ... if the shuttle could weave, and the pick touch the lyre, without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not need servants, nor masters slaves."— Aristotle (“Politics Book I”)

Just to prove that we’re not secret Spartans in possession of many Helots, below is some food for thought that shows the other side of the picture.

The reliance on slave labor resulted in the Ancient Greeks lagging behind other societies such as India and China, who had significant technological advances in production that moved away from a dependency on human labor. As such, despite the significant benefits that the Ancient Greeks saw in slavery, it actually limited the development of the civilization as there was no motivation to develop more efficient methods of production.

*Due to the space constraint and word limit, we decided to explore slavery in the two more prominent city-states of Ancient Greece — Athens and Sparta.