Chapter VII. The Slaves.
39. Slavery an Integral Part of Greek Life. - An Athenian lady cares for everything in her house, - for the food supplies, for the clothing, yet probably her greatest task is to manage the heterogeneous multitude of slaves which swarm in every wealthy or even well-to-do mansion.[*]
[*]The Athenians never had the absurd armies of house slaves which characterized Imperial Rome; still the numbers of their domestic servants were, from a modern standpoint, extremely large.
Slaves are everywhere: not merely are they the domestic servants, but they are the hands in the factories, they run innumerable little shops, they unload the ships, they work the mines, they cultivate the farms. Possibly there are more able-bodied male slaves in Attica than male free men, although this point is very uncertain. Their number is the harder to reckon because they are not required to wear any distinctive dress, and you cannot tell at a glance whether a man is a mere piece of property, or a poor but very proud and important member of the "Sovereign Demos [People] of Athens."
No prominent Greek thinker seems to contest the righteousness and desirability of slavery. It is one of the usual, nay, inevitable, things pertaining to a civilized state. Aristotle the philosopher puts the current view of the case very clearly. "The lower sort of mankind are BY NATURE slaves, and it is better for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master. The use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both by their bodies minister to the needs of life." The intelligent, enlightened, progressive Athenians are naturally the "masters"; the stupid, ignorant, sluggish minded Barbarians are the "inferiors." Is it not a plain decree of Heaven that the Athenians are made to rule, the Barbarians to serve? - No one thinks the subject worth serious argument.
Of course the slave cannot be treated quite as one would treat an ox. Aristotle takes pains to point out the desirability of holding out to your "chattel" the hope of freedom, if only to make him work better; and the great philosopher in his last testament gives freedom to five of his thirteen slaves. Then again it is recognized as clearly against public sentiment to hold fellow Greeks in bondage. It is indeed done. Whole towns get taken in war, and those of the inhabitants who are not slaughtered are sold into slavery.[*] Again, exposed children, whose parents have repudiated them, get into the hands of speculators, who raise them "for market." There is also a good deal of kidnapping in the less civilized parts of Greece like Aetolia. Still the proportion of genuinely GREEK slaves is small. The great majority of them are "Barbarians," men born beyond the pale of Hellenic civilization.
[*]For example, the survivors, after the capture of Melos, in the Peloponesian War.
40. The Slave Trade in Greece. - There are two great sources of slave supply: the Asia Minor region (Lydia and Phrygia, with Syria in the background), and the Black Sea region, especially the northern shores, known as Scythia. It is known to innumerable heartless "traders" that human flesh commands a very high price in Athens or other Greek cities. Every little war or raid that vexes those barbarous countries so incessantly is followed by the sale of the unhappy captives to speculators who ship them on, stage by stage, to Athens. Perhaps there is no war; the supply is kept up then by deliberately kidnapping on a large scale, or by piracy.[*] In any case the arrival of a chain gang of fettered wretches at the Peireus is an everyday sight. Some of these creatures are submissive and tame (perhaps they understand some craft or trade); these can be sold at once for a high price. Others are still doltish and stubborn. They are good for only the rudest kind of labor, unless they are kept and trained at heavy expense. These brutish creatures are frequently sold off to the mines, to be worked to death by the contractors as promptly and brutally as one wears out a machine; or else they become public galley slaves, when their fate is practically the same. But we need not follow such horrors.
[*]A small but fairly constant supply of slaves would come from the seizure of the persons and families of bankrupt debtors, whose creditors, especially in the Orient, might sell them into bondage.
The remainder are likely to be purchased either for use upon the farm, the factory, or in the home. There is a regular "circle" at or near the Agora for traffic in them. They are often sold at auction. The price of course varies with the good looks, age,[*] or dexterity of the article, or the abundance of supply. "Slaves will be high" in a year when there has been little warfare and raiding in Asia Minor. "Some slaves," says Xenophon, "are well worth two mine [$36.00 (1914) or $640.80 (2000)] and others barely half a mina [$9.00 (1914) or $160.20 (2000)]; some sell up to five mine [$90.00 (1914) or $1,602.00 (2000)] and even for ten [$180.00 (1914) or $3,204.00 (2000)]. Nicias, the son of Nicaretus, is said to have given a talent [over $1,000.00 (1914) or $17,800.00 (2000)] for an overseer in the mines."[+] The father of Demosthenes owned a considerable factory. He had thirty-two sword cutters worth about five mine each, and twenty couch-makers (evidently less skilled) worth together 40 mine [about $720.00 (1914) or $12,816.00 (2000)]. A girl who is handsome and a clever flute player, who will be readily hired for supper parties, may well command a very high price indeed, say even 30 mine [about $540.00 (1914) or $9,612.00 (2000)].
[*]There was probably next to no market for old women; old men in broken health would also be worthless. Boys and maids that were the right age for teaching a profitable trade would fetch the most.
[+]Xenophon, "Memorabilia," ii. 5, section 2.