5 Life at home – Slaves



Slavery was a fact of life in ancient Greece, as it has been in almost all societies until the last two hundred years or so. In Athens, perhaps as much as a third of the population was enslaved, although the Athenians generally treated their slaves well in comparison with other societies of that time.

So how did people become slaves? Some were born as children of slaves, some were captives in war, some were captured and sold by pirates, while the historian Herodotus even tells of some peoples (such as the Thracians) who sold their children into slavery for profit. In Athens, there was a slave market in the city-centre where slaves were bought and sold – it was the kyrios’ duty to buy slaves for his family. Clearly, the value of a slave depended on his or her skills. A well-educated slave who could act as a paidagogos to children would probably have been highly valued. Female slaves who could sing and dance well would also be sought after as entertainers for symposiums. On the other hand, older slaves who were less strong and likely to die sooner would probably fetch a smaller price. If slaves had a particular skill, such as cobbling, metalworking or even accounting, then they could be bought and then hired out for profit by their masters. The average price for a slave seems to have been about 165 drachmas – about half a year’s wages for a skilled worker.

There were a whole variety of roles which a slave could perform. Domestic slaves would help the kyria around the house; females would spin, weave or cook, while male slaves might be used to go shopping, fetch water or supervise the children’s education. Stronger male slaves might be used on the family farm. Slaves skilled in a craft might be allowed to work in a workshop and sell their products, passing on part of the profits to their master. Some slaves were even bought by the state of Athens to work in the police force! Perhaps the worst life was for those slaves who were hired out to the managers of the silver mines near Athens. Conditions were dark and dangerous and many slaves died working in these conditions.

Unlike the later Roman Empire, it was not common for slaves to be freed. However, they did have some legal protection and could complain to a court if they thought that their master was treating them too badly. Despite this, many slaves no doubt had to endure harsh and humiliating conditions throughout their lives.

Extra Resources


A history of slavery in Ancient Greece: where they came from, how they lived, and how they might hope to be freed.