1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Slavery in Ancient Greece: Heroic Times. Historic Times. Sources of Slavery.

(Part 2)


Slavery in Ancient Greece: Heroic Times. Historic Times. Sources of Slavery.

We proceed to a closer study of the institution of slavery as it existed in the Greek and Roman societies respectively.

We find it already fully established in the Homeric period. The prisoners taken in war are retained as slaves, or sold (Il., xxiv. 752) or held at ransom (Il., vi. 427) by the captor. Sometimes the men of a conquered town or district are slain and the women carried off (Od., ix. 40). Not unfrequently free persons were kidnapped by pirates and sold in other regions, like Eumaeus in the Odyssey. The slave might thus be by birth of equal rank with his master, who knew that the same fate might befall himself or some of the members of his family. The institution does not present itself in a very harsh form in Homer, especially if we consider (as Grote suggests) that "all classes were much on a level in taste, sentiment, and instruction." The male slaves were employed in the tillage of the land and the tending of cattle, and the females in domestic work and household manufactures. The principal slaves often enjoyed the confidence of their masters and had important duties entrusted to them ; and, after lengthened and meritorious service, were put in possession of a house and property of their own (Od., xiv. 64). Grote’s idea that the women slaves were in a more pitiable condition than the males does not seem justified, except perhaps in the case of the aletrides, who turned the household mills which ground the flour consumed in the family, and who were sometimes overworked by unfeeling masters (Od., xx. 110-119). Part of the agricultural work was sometimes done by poor hired freemen (thetes), who are spoken of as a wretched class (Od., xi. 490), and were perhaps employed almost exclusively by the smaller landholders. Having no powerful protector to whom they could look up, and depending on casual jobs, they were probably in a less desirable position than the average slave. Homer conceives the lot of the latter as a bitter one (Od., viii. 528; Il., xix. 302); but it must be remembered that the element of change from a former elevated position usually enters into his descriptions. He marks in a celebrated couplet his sense of the moral deterioration commonly wrought by the condition of slavery (Od., xvii. 322).

It is, however, in historic Greece, where we have ample documentary information, that it is most important to study the system of slavery,—and especially at Athens, where the principal work of Greek civilization found its accomplishment. The case of Sparta, in some respects peculiar, must be separately considered.

The sources of slavery in Greece were:—1. Birth, the condition being hereditary. This was not an abundant source, women slaves being less numerous than men, and wise masters making the union of the sexes rather a reward of good service than a matter of speculation (Xen., Aecon., ix. 5). It was in general cheaper to buy a slave than to rear one to the age of labour. 2. Sale of children by their free parents, which was tolerated, except in Attica, or their exposure, which was permitted, except at Thebes. The consequence of the latter was sometimes to subject them to a servitude worse than death, as is seen in the plays of Plautus and Terence, which, as is well known, depict Greek, not Roman, manners. Freemen, through indigence, sometimes sold themselves, and at Athens, up to the time of Solon, an insolvent debtor became the slave of his creditor. 3. Capture in war. Not only Asiatics and Thracians thus became slaves, but in the many wars between Grecian states, continental or colonial, Greeks were reduced to slavery by men of their own race. Thus Spartans were slaves at Tegea, and Gelon sold out of their country the commonalty of Hyblaean Megara. At Plataea, at Scione, in Melos, the men were massacred or deported, the women enslaved. Athenians were sold at Samos, and in Sicily after the failure of the expedition. In the struggle of parties at Corcyra, each faction, when triumphant, condemned the other to massacre or slavery. Callicratidas pronounced against the enslavement of Greeks by Greeks, but violated his own principle, to which, however, Epaminondas and Pelopidas appear to have been faithful. Philip sold his Olynthian captives, and, after Thebes was taken by Alexander, 30, 000 women and children are said to have been sold. 4. Piracy and kidnapping. The descents of pirates on the coasts were a perpetual source of danger; the pirate was a gainer either by the sale or by the redemption of his captives. If ransomed, the victim became by Athenian law the slave of his redeemer till he paid in money or labour the price which had been given for him. Kidnappers (andrapodistae) carried off children even in cities, and reared them as slaves. Whether from hostile forays or from piracy, any Greek was exposed to the risk of enslavement; it was a sword of Damocles suspended over all heads. 6. Commerce. Besides the sale of slaves which took vlaee as a result of the capture of cities or other military operations, there was a systematic slave trade. Syria, Pontus, Lydia, Galatia, and above all Thrace were sources of supply. Egypt and Ethiopia also furnished a certain number, and Italy a few. Of foreigners, the Asiatics bore the greatest value, as most amenable to command, and most versed in the arts of luxurious refinement. But Greeks were highest of all in esteem, and they were much sought for foreign sale. Greece proper and Ionia supplied the petty Eastern princes with courtesans and female musicians and dancers. Athens was an important slave-market, and the state profited by a tax on the sales; but the principal marts were those of Cyprus, Samos, Ephesus, and especially Chios.

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