Greek Slavery

Ancient Greek slavery was a prevalent and complex institution that played a significant role in their society and economy. Slaves were considered property and were used for various purposes, including domestic work, agriculture, and even as skilled craftsmen.

Although some slaves were treated relatively well, many endured harsh conditions and were subjected to physical and emotional abuse. Slavery in ancient Greece was deeply ingrained in their culture and was a fundamental part of their social hierarchy.

Greek Slavery Facts For Kids

  • Slavery was common in ancient Greece.
  • Slaves were called “douloi” in Greek.
  • Most slaves were prisoners of war.
  • They worked in homes, mines, and farms.
  • Some slaves were well-educated tutors.
  • Athenian law protected slaves to some extent.
  • Slaves could buy their freedom.
  • Spartan helots were a unique slave class.
  • Slavery was key to the Greek economy.
  • Slavery declined during the Hellenistic era.

Public Slaves

Public slaves in ancient Greece, distinct from typical household or agricultural slaves, served the community directly. Employed by the city-state, these slaves undertook tasks vital for civic functions, such as clerical work, public maintenance, or policing, as was evident in Classical Athens.

Their position often afforded them better treatment and more privileges compared to their privately-owned counterparts. Though still shackled by the constraints of bondage, public slaves’ roles were testament to the complexity and nuanced gradations within the overarching system of Greek slavery.

Domestic Slaves

Domestic slaves were a cornerstone of household life in ancient Greece. Serving within private homes, these individuals carried out daily chores, from cooking and cleaning to childcare and tutoring. In affluent Athenian households, domestic slaves were sometimes entrusted with more intimate roles, growing close to their masters and mistresses.

While their proximity to the family could sometimes afford them better treatment than slaves in more labor-intensive roles, they still lacked personal freedom. Their presence in Greek households underscores the ubiquity and societal acceptance of slavery in everyday life.

Slave Markets

Slave markets were bustling hubs within ancient Greek city-states, showcasing the commercial aspect of bondage. Here, humans, often war captives, pirates’ victims, or individuals saddled with debt, were traded as commodities.

Delos, a significant trading island in the Aegean, hosted one of the most prominent slave markets. Buyers assessed potential slaves based on physical health, perceived skills, or age. These markets not only facilitated the distribution of slaves throughout the Hellenic world but also underscored the dehumanization inherent in the institution of Greek slavery.

Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, slavery played a pivotal role in the socio-economic landscape. From the bustling markets of Athens to the militaristic society of Sparta, slaves, known as “douloi,” were integral to daily life. Their origins varied, with some being war captives, others victims of piracy or kidnapping, and some born into servitude.

While Athenian slaves could potentially buy their freedom and had certain legal protections, Spartan helots lived under constant surveillance, fearing periodic purges by their rulers. Slavery underscored the complexities of Greek civilization.

Athenian democracy

Athenian democracy, a pioneering political system of the ancient world, presented a paradox when juxtaposed with Greek slavery. While championing ideals of civic participation and equality among free citizens, Athens simultaneously relied on a significant population of slaves, known as “douloi.”

These enslaved individuals had no political voice or rights, despite forming a substantial portion of the city’s inhabitants. Thus, the celebrated Athenian democracy was built upon a foundation where the freedoms of some were dependent on the servitude of others, highlighting the era’s contradictions.

Spartan society

Spartan society, renowned for its military prowess and strict social hierarchy, was deeply intertwined with the institution of slavery. The helots, a subjugated class, were central to Sparta’s economy and survival. Bound to the land, they cultivated it, ensuring the Spartiates—Sparta’s warrior elite—could focus on martial training.

Despite outnumbering the Spartans, the helots lived under a yoke of oppression and fear, as periodic purges and public humiliations were employed to deter rebellion. This uneasy balance revealed the deep-seated dependence of Spartan might on helot labor.


The Helots, a distinct class within Greek slavery, were primarily found in Sparta. These state-owned slaves, largely of Messenian descent, were tethered to Spartan lands, working as serfs to produce food and resources. Unlike other Greek slaves, helots weren’t personal property but belonged collectively to the state.

Though essential for Sparta’s sustenance, they lived under systematic oppression, subject to annual declarations of war and unpredictable massacres to curtail potential revolts. Their unique status as neither fully enslaved nor free showcased the variances in Greek slave practices.

Greek city-states

Greek city-states, or “poleis,” each exhibited distinct approaches to slavery, reflecting their unique cultures and priorities. While Sparta relied heavily on helots to sustain its militaristic society, Athens integrated slaves into urban life, sometimes in specialized roles.

Other city-states, like Corinth, utilized slave labor for trade and craftsmanship. Despite these variations, slavery remained a common thread, underpinning the economies and daily operations of these poleis. As independent entities, each polis set its regulations and norms, leading to a mosaic of slave experiences in ancient Greece.

Classical Athens

Classical Athens, a beacon of art, philosophy, and democracy, had an intricate relationship with slavery. Slaves, or “douloi,” were interwoven into the Athenian economy and daily life. While the city championed democratic ideals, a significant portion of its population remained in bondage, lacking basic rights.

These slaves served in diverse roles: from household chores to mining in the silver mines of Laurion. Interestingly, despite the inherent contradictions, Athenian slavery was somewhat milder, offering possibilities like manumission and legal protections against extreme mistreatment.

Ancient Mediterranean trade

Ancient Mediterranean trade was a nexus where cultures, goods, and unfortunately, the trade of slaves converged. Greek city-states were actively involved in this network. Slaves were often among the commodities exchanged, captured from distant lands, or victims of piracy in the vast Mediterranean.

Greek merchants acquired slaves to meet domestic demand, while also trading in diverse goods like wine, olive oil, and pottery. The interconnected trade routes not only facilitated the movement of commodities but also brought about a shared, albeit grim, aspect of ancient economies: the commerce of human lives.

Greek warfare

Greek warfare, with its frequent clashes between city-states, significantly fueled the system of Greek slavery. Defeated enemies often met a grim fate: being enslaved and stripped of their former identities.

For instance, after conquering a territory, it was not uncommon for the victors to enslave the surviving population, as was the case with the Spartans and the Messenians, leading to the emergence of the helot class. Thus, the ebb and flow of Greek military conflicts directly influenced the scale and dynamics of slavery across the Hellenic world.

Hellenistic era

The Hellenistic era, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, brought shifts in the dynamics of Greek slavery. As Greek influence spread across vast territories, a fusion of cultures ensued, which altered the traditional paradigms of enslavement.

While the demand for slaves in burgeoning Hellenistic cities rose, opportunities for manumission also expanded, especially for those who demonstrated unique skills or loyalty. The more cosmopolitan nature of the era, with its amalgamation of Greek and Eastern traditions, impacted the conditions and roles of slaves, revealing both continuity and change.

Spartan Helots: Enslaved Majority in Humble Attire.

There were different kinds of slavery in ancient Greece. Not all slaves were treated alike. In Sparta, there were state-owned slaves called helots. Helots were assigned to work a certain piece of land. They were also forced to give part of what they grew to the state. At times, helots outnumbered the free Spartans by twenty to one. Some people believe that Sparta’s military began because of the need to control the large number of helots. Helots were sometimes freed, especially if they fought bravely in a war. But their lives were mostly miserable. They were even forced to wear humiliating clothing to identify them as slaves!

Athenian Slaves: A Kinder, Integrated Existence

In Athens, the lives of slaves were somewhat better. Slaves were privately owned in Athens, and each new slave was welcomed into the family with a ceremony. Slaves in Athens often worked with free citizens, although they were not paid. They could also live outside their master’s home. It was illegal to mistreat slaves in Athens, and they don’t seem to have suffered the same kind of public shame that slaves in Sparta endured. In Athens, slaves usually worked in better conditions. There were also more chances for slaves to become free than in Sparta. It seems that most slaves in Athens worked in their master’s households and were treated fairly.

Athenian Female Slaves: Homebound Allies; Males in Diverse Roles

Most female slaves in Athens did things like bake bread, cook, and weave. Sometimes they grew close to the woman of the house. This was because in Athens, women did not have much of a life outside the home. They often became attached to their slaves. Male slaves usually worked in the fields, as craftsmen, or as assistants to soldiers. Some served (not by choice) in the Athenian navy. Athens also had several thousand slaves who served as policemen.

Athenian Slaves: Skills, Freedom, and Varied Origins

In Athens, slaves who had a certain skill were allowed to work outside the master’s home. They were allowed to earn a small income, but a small part of the money they earned had to be paid to the master. Sometimes, slaves earned enough money to buy their freedom.

Most citizens of Athens did not own slaves. Slaves cost too much for most Athenians. If a person were wealthy, they might own a few slaves but usually did not own large numbers of them.

There were several ways a person might become a slave:

  • They could be kidnapped.
  • They could be enemy soldiers captured in war.
  • They could be captured by pirates and sold into slavery.
  • They could be born into slavery.

Not all slaves in Athens were treated well. Slaves who worked in the silver mines south of the city lived terrible lives. They were often beaten and starved. On top of that, they spent most of their lives underground in darkness!