Slaves made up a significant portion of the Ancient Greek population. Many were prisoners of war. Others were traded for goods or to pay off debt.
Although there were many slaves in Ancient Greece, they could not participate in government or own property.
Who had slaves in Ancient Greece?
Many people owned slaves in Ancient Greece. Even middle-class families usually had between three and twelve slaves.
Wealthy businessmen owned many slaves, and so did the state. Not owning slaves was seen as a sign of poverty.
In fact, it’s estimated that slaves made up 15-40% of the Ancient Greek population in different regions at different times.
What did Ancient Greek slaves do?
Ancient Greek slaves completed many different jobs. They were craftsmen, shopkeepers, farm and factory workers, tutors, nurses, miners, baggage carriers, and sometimes soldiers.
Craftsmen and some other specialists could work and live separately from their masters. They could also make money, but part of the money they earned had to be given to the master.
Domestic slaves helped women take care of the home. They cooked, cleaned, cared for the children, sewed clothes, fetched water for the family, and other household tasks.
Because Ancient Greek women could barely leave the home, they frequently developed close friendships with domestic slaves. Domestic slaves were often considered part of the family.
In Athens, the police force was made up of slaves. Slaves also gathered citizens for important assemblies, usually herding them with a rope dipped in paint.
Some slaves worked in the silver mines, where they were treated very poorly and often died.
Could slaves gain their freedom?
Slaves who earned money, like craftsmen, could eventually save enough to buy their freedom. To buy their freedom, they would pay the master an agreed upon amount of money.
Some slaves who fought in wars could be given their freedom as a reward for their military service.
On some occasions, domestic slaves were set free by their masters. This was called “manumission.”
Even if they did become free, slaves did not have the rights of full citizens.
In Athens, however, a free slave who could save up enough money to purchase property could be allowed to participate in government.
Appearance of Slaves
Slaves dressed like other Ancient Greeks, usually wearing short white tunics. Sometimes, slaves working in the hot sun wore loincloths.
Both male and female slaves often kept their hair cut short. One reason other Greek women wore their hair long was to show that they were not slaves.
Sometimes, slaves were also marked with scars or tattoos.
Slaves in Sparta
State-owned slaves in Sparta were called helots. They farmed the land and performed other types of manual labor in Sparta. They sometimes worked in the home.
In Sparta, there were many more helots than Spartans. To prevent the helots from rebelling and fighting against the Spartans, the Spartans treated the helots very cruelly.
They were forced to wear leather tunics and caps made of dog fur. The Spartans often beat the helots.
The Spartans had a secret police force called the Crypteia who kept track of the helots and made sure they did not rebel. The Crypteia would kill any helot that they thought might lead a rebellion.
Other Interesting Facts About Slaves in Ancient Greece
The Ancient Greek economy was based almost entirely on slaves, and they worked in almost every occupation that was available.
Some wealthy Ancient Greeks would buy slaves and then earn money by renting them out to others or to work in factories and mines.
If a slave committed a crime, his master was held responsible for it.
Slaves worked in factories producing swords, shields, couches, and other goods.
In most city-states, slaves were not allowed to marry or raise children. Helots, however, could have families in Sparta.
Instead of using their own names, slaves were assigned names by their masters.
There were many places slaves couldn’t go and many rights that they did not have. In most cases, however, an Ancient Greek slave could not be put to death without a trial.
In Athens, new slaves were welcomed into the family with a ceremony.