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.

41. The Treatment of Slaves in Athens. - Once purchased, what is the condition of the average slave? If he is put in a factory, he probably has to work long hours on meager rations. He is lodged in a kind of kennel; his only respite is on the great religious holidays. He cannot contract valid marriage or enjoy any of the normal conditions of family life. Still his evil state is partially tempered by the fact that he has to work in constant association with free workmen, and he seems to be treated with a moderate amount of consideration and good camaraderie. On the whole he will have much less to complain of (if he is honest and industrious) than his successors in Imperial Rome.

In the household, conditions are on the whole better. Every Athenian citizen tries to have at least ONE slave, who, we must grant, may be a starving drudge of all work. The average gentleman perhaps counts ten to twenty as sufficient for his needs. We know of households of fifty. There must usually be a steward, a butler in charge of the storeroom or cellar, a marketing slave, a porter, a baker, a cook,[*] a nurse, perhaps several lady's maids, the indispensable attendant for the master's walks (a graceful, well-favored boy, if possible), the pedagogue for the children, and in really rich families, a groom, and a mule boy. It is the business of the mistress to see that all these creatures are kept busy and reasonably contented. If a slave is reconciled to his lot, honest, cheerful, industrious, his condition is not miserable. Athenian slaves are allowed a surprising amount of liberty, so most visitors to the city complain. A slave may be flogged most cruelly, but he cannot be put to death at the mere whim of his master. He cannot enter the gymnasium, or the public assembly; but he can visit the temples. As a humble member of the family he has a small part usually in the family sacrifices. But in any case he is subject to one grievous hardship: when his testimony is required in court he must be "put to the question" by torture. On the other hand, if his master has wronged him intolerably, he can take sanctuary at the Temple of Theseus, and claim the privilege of being sold to some new owner. A slave, too, has still another grievance which may be no less galling because it is sentimental. His name (given him arbitrarily perhaps by his master) is of a peculiar category, which at once brands him as a bondsman: Geta, Manes, Dromon, Sosias, Xanthias, Pyrrhias, - such names would be repudiated as an insult by a citizen.

[*]Who, however, could not be trusted to cook a formal dinner. For such purpose an expert must be hired.

42. Cruel and Kind Masters. - Slavery in Athens, as everywhere else, is largely dependent upon the character of the master; and most Athenian masters would not regard crude brutality as consistent with that love of elegance, harmony, and genteel deliberation which characterizes a well-born citizen. There do not lack masters who have the whip continually in their hands, who add to the raw stripes fetters and branding, and who make their slaves unceasingly miserable; but such masters are the exception, and public opinion does not praise them. Between the best Athenians and their slaves there is a genial, friendly relation, and the master will put up with a good deal of real impertinence, knowing that behind this forwardness there is an honest zeal for his interests.

Nevertheless the slave system of Athens is not commendable. It puts a stigma upon the glory of honest manual labor. It instills domineering, despotic habits into the owners, cringing subservience into the owned. Even if a slave becomes freed, he does not become an Athenian citizen; he is only a "metic," a resident foreigner, and his old master, or some other Athenian, must be his patron and representative in every kind of legal business. It is a notorious fact that the MERE STATE of slavery robs the victim of his self-respect and manhood. Nevertheless nobody dreams of abolishing slavery as an institution, and the Athenians, comparing themselves with other communities, pride themselves on the extreme humanity of their slave system.

43. The "City Slaves" of Athens. - A large number of nominal "slaves" in Athens differ from any of the creatures we have described. The community, no less than an individual, can own slaves just as it can own warships and temples. Athens owns "city slaves" (Demosioi) of several varieties. The clerks in the treasury office, and the checking officers at the public assemblies are slaves; so too are the less reputable public executioners and torturers; in the city mint there is another corps of slave workers, busy coining "Athena's owls" - the silver drachmas and four-drachma pieces. But chiefest of all, THE CITY OWNS ITS PUBLIC POLICE FORCE. The "Scythians" they are called from their usual land of origin, or the "bowmen," from their special weapon, which incidentally makes a convenient cudgel in a street brawl. There are 1200 of them, always at the disposal of the city magistrates. They patrol the town at night, arrest evil-doers, sustain law and order in the Agora, and especially enforce decorum, if the public assemblies or the jury courts become tumultuous. They have a special cantonment on the hill of Areopagus near the Acropolis. "Slaves" they are of course in name, and under a kind of military discipline; but they are highly privileged slaves. The security of the city may depend upon their loyal zeal. In times of war they are auxiliaries. Life in this police force cannot therefore be burdensome, and their position is envied by all the factory workers and the house servants.