1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Slavery in Ancient Greece: Condition of Slaves. Emancipation.

(Part 4)


Slavery in Ancient Greece: Condition of Slaves. Emancipation.

The condition of slaves at Athens was not in general a wretched one. Demosthenes (In Mid., p. 630) says that, if the barbarians from whom the slaves were bought were informed of the mild treatment they received, they would entertain a great esteem for the Athenians. Plautus in more than one place thinks it necessary to explain to the spectators of his plays that slaves at Athens enjoyed such privileges, and even licence, as must be surprising to a Roman audience. The slave was introduced with certain customary rites into his position in the family; he was in practice, though not by law, permitted to accumulate a private fund of his own; his marriage was also recognized by custom; though in general excluded from sacred ceremonies and public sacrifices, slaves were admissible to religious associations of a private kind; there were some popular festivals in which they were allowed to participate ; they had even special ones for themselves both at Athens and in other Greek centres. Their remains were deposited in the family tomb of their master, who sometimes erected monuments in testimony of his affection and regret. They often lived on terms of intimacy either with the head of the house or its younger members; but it is to be feared that too often this intimacy was founded, not on mutual respect, as in the heroic example of Ulysses and Eumaeus, but on insolent self-assertion on the one side and a spirit of unworthy compliance on the other, the latter having its raison d’être in degrading services rendered by the slave. Aristophanes and Plautus show us how often resort was had to the discipline of the lash even in the case of domestic slaves. Those employed in workshops, whose overseers were themselves most commonly of servile status, had probably a harder lot than domestics ; and the agricultural labourers were not unfrequently chained, and treated much in the same way as beasts of burden. The displeasure of the master sometimes dismissed his domestics to the more oppressive labours of the mill or the mine. A refuge from cruel treatment was afforded by the temples and altars of the gods and by the sacred groves. Nor did Athenian law leave the slave without protection. He had, as Demosthenes boasts, an action for outrage like a freeman, and his death at the hand of a stranger was avenged like that of a citizen (Eurip., Hec., 288), whilst, if caused by his master’s violence, it bad to be atoned for by exile and a religious expiation. Even when the slave had killed his master, the relatives of the house could not themselves inflict punishment; they were obliged to hand him over to the magistrate to be dealt with by legal process. The slave who had just grounds of complaint against his master could demand to be sold; when he alleged is right to liberty, the law granted him a defender and the sanctuaries offered him an asylum till judgment should be given. Securities were taken against the revolt of slaves by not associating those of the same nationality and language; they were sometimes fettered to event flight, and, after a first attempt at escape, branded to facilitate their recovery. There were treaties between states for the extradition of fugitives, and contracts of mutual assurance between individuals against their loss by flight. Their inclination to take advantage of opportunities for this purpose is shown by the number that escaped from Athens to join the Spartans when occupying Decelea. There were formidable revolts at the mines of Laurium, and more than once in Chios. The evidence of slaves—women as well as men—was often, with the consent of their masters, taken by torture; and that method is generally commended by the orators as a sure means of arriving at the truth, though sometimes, when it suits their immediate object, they take a different tone. The several forms of the "question" are enumerated in the Frogs of Aristophanes. If the slave was mutilated or seriously injured in the process, compensation was made, not to him, but to his master by the person who had demanded the use of torture.

The slave could purchase his liberty with his peculium by agreement with his master. He could be liberated by will, or, during his master’s life, by proclamation in the theatre, the law courts, or other public places, or by having his name inscribed in the public registers, or, in the later age of Greece, by sale or donation to certain temples—an act which did not make the slave a hierodule but a freeman. Conditions were sometimes attached to emancipation, as of remaining for life or a definite time with the former master, or another person named by him, or of performing some special service; payments or rights of succession to property might also be reserved. By manumission the Athenian slave became in relation to the state a metic, in relation to his master a client. He was thus in an intermediate condition between slavery and complete freedom. If the freedman violated his duties to his patron he was subject to an action at law, and if the decision were against him he was again reduced to slavery. He became a full member of the state only, as in the case of foreigners, by a vote in an assembly of six thousand citizens ; and even this vote might be set aside by a graphe paranomon. Slaves who had rendered eminent services to the public, as those who fought at Arginusm and at Choeronea, were at once admitted to the status of citizens in the class of (so-called) Plataeans. But it would appear that even in their case some civic rights were reserved and accorded only to their children by a female citizen. The number of freedmen at Athens seems never to have been great.

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