When Did Ancient Greece Become a Slave Society?

By the fifth century BCE Athens and many other Greek city-states had large numbers of slaves. During the last years of the Peloponnesian War Thucydides (7.27) believed that more than 20,000 slaves deserted to the Spartans, a number that may have been equal to the number of adult male citizens. Estimates vary for the fourth century, but most scholars would agree that slaves were one fifth to one third of the population. Several passages in the Attic orators and other sources indicate that a wealthy Athenian might own anywhere from a dozen to over fifty slaves. Athens was not unusual: Thucydides (8.40.2) reports that Chios and Sparta had the largest slave populations in the Greek world.



When did Athens and other Greek communities become slave societies? Almost all scholars believe that this development took place in the sixth century BCE. In 1898 the German historian Eduard Meyer delivered a famous lecture about slavery in the ancient world and argued that it did not play a major role in the Greek economy until the sixth century BCE and later. According to Meyer, there were few slaves in the society depicted by the Homeric poems. The aim of Homeric warfare was to annihilate the enemy not to acquire a labour supply. There were female slaves in the household, but they carried out domestic tasks. Some served to satisfy the sexual desires of their masters and thus performed a role later performed by prostitutes. Male slaves were relatively rare because men captured in war were either freed by ransom or hard to control and likely to resist. The need for large numbers of slave arose only after the ‘rise of industry’ because free men were expensive to train and preferred to work independently. M. I. Finley made several harsh criticisms of Meyer’s view about slavery, but his own analysis of the rise of slavery was very similar to that of Meyer. Like Meyer he located the rise of slavery in the sixth century BCE and linked this development to the growth of trade and private property. Before this, Finley believed that the elite relied mainly on dependent peasants, but after Solon ‘liberated’ the peasants by abolishing debt-bondage, the wealthy had to buy slaves to maintain a permanent supply of labour. Meyer and Finley also believed that slavery in the Homeric poems was ‘paternalistic’ and mild. It was worse to be a landless free labourer than a slave.

A careful reading of the Iliad, the Odyssey and Hesiod’s Works and Days call these views into question. First, these poems hardly depict a form of slavery which was mild or ‘paternalistic.’ For instance, when Helen tells how Odysseus made himself look like a runaway slave to enter Troy as a spy, she says that “he marked his body with degrading blows" (Odyssey 4.244-46). A small, but significant detail that reveals that normally a slave would bear the signs of whipping and beating. When Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, is insulted by Melantho, he says he will tell her master to cut her "limb from limb" (Odyssey 18.337-39). Such threats are not reserved for Melantho: afraid that his own nurse will betray him after recognizing his scar, Odysseus tells her to remain silent or "I will not spare you, although you are my nurse, when I kill the other slave women in my halls” (Odyssey 19. 489-90). And to punish the slave girls who have defied his authority by sleeping with the suitors, Odysseus orders his son to put them to the sword (Odyssey 22.440-45). But Telemachus opts for a less dignified form of execution, slow strangulation by hanging.

Masters in the Iliad and the Odyssey exercise all the rights of ownership over their slaves which masters in Athens and Sparta held over their slaves. They had the right to sell them, to make them work without compensation, to control all aspects of their lives, to have sexual relations with them without their consent, and to transmit them to their heirs as part of their estate. Finley noted that when Odysseus sees Achilles in the underworld, the hero says that he would rather work for a man who has no land than be prince among the dead (Odyssey 11. 488-91). He assumed that Achilles has chosen the lowest possible status for a person here and concluded that the slave must have ranked above the hired worker. But the assumption is not warranted. No Homeric hero would prefer slavery to death. The hired worker at least has his freedom and some respect. The slave is degraded and without honor, a position that Achilles would have found intolerable.

A better indication of the general contempt for slaves is found in Eumaeus' statement that Zeus takes away half a man's value when the day of slavery overtakes him (Odyssey 17.322-3). One of the marks of humiliation for the slave was the being forced to wear demeaning clothes (Odyssey 14.342-43). When Odysseus, pretending to be a stranger, sees his father poorly dressed, he assumes that he is a slave (Odyssey 24.249-50). But perhaps the greatest sign of the slave's lack of honor is the way that his body is treated after death. After killing the suitors, Odysseus treats their bodies with respect and leaves them for their relatives to bury (Odyssey 22.446-50). But the body of Melanthius is mutilated and fed to the dogs (Odyysey 22.474-7). And there is no mention of the bodies of the hanged slave women - their corpses simply disappear. All free men, even enemies, have the right to burial. As degraded individuals, slaves are denied this honor.

Another aspect of slavery in the Iliad and the Odyssey is ‘natal alienation’. This is a term coined by the sociologist Orlando Patterson to describe the slave’s lack of kinship ties. Though slaves might have children (either through sexual relations with their masters or other slaves), they had no rights over these children, who could be sold by their masters. The most telling indication of the lack of recognition for the kinship ties of slaves in the Odyssey is different reactions to the deaths of the suitors and those of Melanthius and Melantho. When the suitors are killed, Odysseus expects that their kin will come to avenge their deaths (Odyssey 23.362-65). In fact, the male relatives of the suitors gather in Ithaca and march to Odysseus' house (Odyssey 24.463-71). But when Melantho and Melanthius, the children of the slave Dolios, are killed, Odysseus does not worry that their father and brothers will come to punish him for their deaths. When Odysseus goes to Laertes’ farm, Dolios greets his master as if nothing had happened, and he and his sons fight by the side of the men who have killed two of their relatives (Odyssey 24.496-501). While the kinship tie is strong for the families of the suitors, it does not exist for Dolios and his children.

The Iliad and the Odyssey depict a world in which masters have dozens of slaves, both male and female. At the high end of the scale we have the figure of 10,000 or "countless slaves" (dmoes . . . myrioi) which Odysseus claims to have owned in one of his Cretan tales, told this time to the suitors (Odyssey 17.420). This is obviously an exaggeration but still suggests that people in this period would assume that the rich possessed more than the few slaves needed to attend to their personal needs. More reasonable figures are found elsewhere in the Odyssey: Alcinoos is said to have fifty slave women in addition to the males, who for instance ready Nausicaa's wagon for her trip to the river to wash clothes (Odyssey 7.103; 6.69-70). Odysseus is credited with the same number of female slaves (Odyssey 22.421-22). And Agamemnon can promise Achilles eight slave women as a gift without presumably causing a dent in his overall holdings (Iliad 9.270-76. Cf. Odysseus' claim in one of his false tales that he gave four slave women as gifts - Odyssey 24.279). Only a man with dozens of slaves could afford to make such an offer.

The Homeric poems give the impression that most slaves are women. This is misleading, largely the result of the perspective taken by the narrator, especially in the Odyssey,who concentrates on activities inside the household, where the suitors are feasting. Since most of the action takes place inside Odysseus' house, attention tends to fall on the female slaves who lived and worked there. But the account of Odysseus' brief stay in Eumaeus' hut provides some valuable details and helps to correct this one-sided perspective. Eumaeus himself is a slave; he has been kidnapped as a child and bought by Laertes (Odyssey 14.59-66). He is accompanied by four other slaves who tend Odysseus' herds (Odyssey 14.24-28). But this is not the only livestock held by Odysseus: there are also twelve herds of cattle, twelve flocks of sheep, twelve of pigs, twelve of goats (Odyssey 14.100-4). They are tended by herdsmen like Philoitius (Odyssey 20.185), Melanthius, and Eumaeus, all of whom are slaves. If we assign four or five slaves to each group of animals, we arrive at a total of around two hundred or two hundred and fifty male slaves in addition to the fifty females. One must of course bear in mind the warning of Thucydides (1.10.3) that poets tend to exaggerate. yet even if we reduce these figures by half or more, they are roughly comparable to the numbers of slaves found in the households of wealthy Athenians in the fourth century BCE.

It was not just the wealthiest families who owned slaves in this period. Hesiod was not a member of the top stratum of his society: he grumbles about the basileis who lord it over him, devour his payments made for their protection, and pervert the norms of justice (Works and Days 38-9). Yet Hesiod assumes that those on his social level will not do all the work on their farms by themselves, but will order their slaves to do it. These slaves are active at all times during the agricultural year - they plough and sow crops (Works and Days 405-9, 458-61, 469-71), during summer they build barns (Works and Days 502-3), plant vines (Works and Days 571), reap the harvest (Works and Days 571-73), and winnow the grain (Works and Days 597-99). They are clearly distinguished from the hired labor that works only during the harvest (Works and Days 600-3).

Some scholars assume that slaves had no major role to play in a society in which there was little craft production, no markets and little trade. Though the economy of the households depicted in the Iliad and Odyssey is relatively simple, leaders like Agamemnon, Achilles and Menelaus still needed to generate a surplus to provide the gifts needed to acquire power and influence. For instance, Alcinoos commands other leaders in Phaeacia to give Odysseus twelve tripods (Odyssey 13.13-5). Alcinoors gives his guest Odysseus thirteen each of cloaks tunics, talents of gold, tripods and cauldrons in addition to one gold cup and one sword with an ivory scabbard (Odyssey 8.392, 403, 430, 13.13). The garments appear to be made by female slaves (Odyssey 7.103-6), and the metal goods must have been acquired by a surplus produced by slave labour. Gifts were also important in concluding marriage alliances. One suitor is said to have given 100 cattle with a pledge of another 1,000 goats and sheep (Iliad 11.244). As we have seen, the herds on Odysseus’ estate are maintained by slaves, and this was no doubt true for this suitor. To honour his fallen companion Patroclus, Achilles sponsors games and distributes prizes. Some of the awards are booty gained in battle such as the arms of Sarpedon (Iliad 23.798-800). Yet in other contests the gifts have been acquired by other means. The prize for the foot-race is a mixing-bowl of silver made by Sidonians, which Achilles must have acquired by exchange (Iliad 23.740-51). For the winner in boxing he gives a mule and a two-handled cup (Iliad 23.654-6). For wrestling one of the prizes is a tripod (Iliad 23.704-5). To acquire these gifts Achilles must have had goods to exchange, and these goods must have been produced by the slaves on his estate (Iliad 19.330-33).


Contrary to Finley’s view, slavery was already well entrenched in Athenian society before the Solon' archonship in 594. When describing the crisis that confronted him, the lawgiver alludes in several passages to constant raiding for slaves and plunder. In one passage Solon says how many poor Athenians have been sold abroad and bound in humiliating fetters (fr. 4.23-5 [West]). In another passage (fr. 36.8-15 [West]) he mentions two groups of slaves, those sold to foreign countries, who no longer remember how to speak the Attic dialect, and those trembling in fear at their masters at home.


This essay is based on a forthcoming article entitled ‘Homer, Hesiod, and the "Origins" of Greek Slavery.