|Photo courtesy of|
Museum of Wales
Logically the first question I asked was, “what was the extent of slavery in this time and place?” In the search for answers, I began looking into the work of Sir Moses I. Finley (1912-1986), who was a long-time professor at Cambridge University and wrote several books on Ancient Greece. I was exceedingly pleased to discover a collection of his essays, several of which focused on slavery. While I found a lot of what I was initially looking for, I was also surprised to find that one of Finley’s gifts as a historian and writer was his ability to intuit the mindset of the ancient world.
First off, slavery in ancient Greece was absolutely all-pervasive. At all times and in all places, compulsory, dependent labor was used to meet the Greek world’s needs. It was so normal, so taken for granted that few, if any, questioned its existence. The ethics of it were not questioned either, nothing like in later times, nothing like we would now.
Agriculture formed the main economy. The owner of a small farm worked his holding alone or with his family members if he had any. If he could afford one, he bought a slave, usually just one, sometimes a few. Like these farms, small mining concessions, shops and manufacturing operations could be worked alone as well and any additional labor was usually a slave. A free man might also own one slave to run his household, attend him in town or when he did military service. Unfortunately, no reliable figures have been left behind to say how many slaves were used in smallholdings like these.
Large landholders, in contrast, were usually absentee, lived in town and owned many slaves to work the land. Likewise, large mining operations in Greece and neighboring Thrace had large slaveholdings. It is estimated there may have been 30,000 slaves in Athens’ silver mines and processing mills at one time. That’s just Athens.
One of the most surprising aspects is that not all slaves were assigned to pure drudgery even though, of course, many, perhaps most, were. One ancient writer says the life of slaves consisted of three things: “work, punishment and food.” But slaves were actually in every part of life except political office. Finley says, “The efficient, skilled, reliable slave could look forward to managerial status. In the cities…he could often achieve a curious sort of quasi-independence, living and working on his own, paying a kind of rental to his owner, and accumulating earnings with which, ultimately, to purchase his freedom.” Records also show that archers from Scythia made up the Athenian police force, but they were state-owned slaves.
Even in the face of civil war, revolution or other crises, slavery remained unchallenged because it was so rooted in society. Free workers apparently did not see slaves as competition for work, nor did they join up with slaves in a struggle against authority. If a slave did revolt, it was usually to flee for his homeland. A completely different sense of freedom existed in the ancient world. Finley explains that freedom came in a range of degrees along a “spectrum” that ran between true freedom and pure slavery. He described it as a complex array of statuses of being ‘unfree.’
Value, in Greek thinking, was in status, not in the nature of the work. According to Aristotle, “The condition of the free man is that he does not live for the benefit or profit of another.” In other words, those who work for another were rare because that would not raise their status. Likely, a free man, even if he could not truly afford one, often bought a slave to raise that all-important status.
One more note on how deeply rooted slavery was in ancient Greece: the Greek language had many words for ‘slave.’ Compared to modern English, Greek’s many fine nuances demonstrate the complexity of the slave system and how it was interwoven in society. In addition, meanings changed from one place to the next and from one time to the next. The character I have envisioned for my story is a Celt who had dealings of some sort in the Balkan region or the Pontic steppe and ended up being taken as a slave. The Thracians of the Balkans likely had a similar mindset like the Greeks regarding slavery. The Celts, however, appear to have had a deeply imbedded sense of freedom that was reflected in their lifestyle, art and mythology. Imagine how this character must react to the very different attitude of the Greeks and Thracians.