Labor, or work, was viewed very differently in ancient Greece and Rome than it typically is today. In the modern world, most people place a high value on work, seeking the security and income of a steady job. In contrast, in ancient Greece and Rome, work was viewed as a necessary evil that took time away from leisure, politics, education, and culture, and had little positive value in and of itself.

Although only a minority of the wealthier citizens could avoid working to earn a living, those who did have to work strove to work for themselves. Working for another person was considered degrading, because it meant being dependent on someone else—or, in other words, not free. This is because wages were seen as purchasing the entire person, not just his or her labor.

Because of this attitude toward labor and wages, there was only limited development of a working class in ancient Greece and Rome. Most work was done instead by slaves or others who were forced to work. An exception to this was agricultural work, which, because of its seasonal nature, required temporary wage workers at certain times of the year. Other exceptions included military and government work. Working as a paid soldier or as a laborer constructing a state temple did not carry the same stigma as other types of wage labor.


Most of the labor in ancient Greece and Rome was agricultural work. In the first two centuries A.D. in Rome, for example, between 80 and 90 percent of the population was engaged primarily in agriculture. Peasant families in the countryside raised most of their own food and traded their surplus to tradespeople in town for goods they could not produce themselves, such as pots, lamps, iron tools, nails, keys, ornaments, dishes, and cloth. Although many peasants lived close to the subsistence level—raising little more than their families needed for food—there were considerable differences in economic status among peasant households. The wealthier the family, the more numerous and luxurious the items obtained in trade were likely to be.

Most of the remaining 10 to 20 percent of the population included beggars, priests, and tradespeople who lived in the towns and cities and made or imported goods. The larger the town or city, the greater the diversity in occupations, although even small towns had a surprisingly large number of different types of tradespeople. In Rome, inscriptions on tombstones show the existence of more than 200 occupations. Burial inscriptions and election posters in Pompeii, which had a population of just 12,000 when Mt. Vesuvius erupted and covered it with lava in A.D. 79, reveal about 85 different occupations. Between the A.D. 200s and 500s, one small town in the Roman Empire had more than 100 occupations, including woodcutters, tailors, sellers of cooked food, and goldsmiths.

In ancient times, working for wages was considered beneath the dignity of most Greek and Roman citizens. Instead, slaves formed the backbone of the Greek and Roman economies, performing much of the manual labor citizens despised.


In practice, much of the work in ancient Greece and Rome was performed by dependent laborers—workers who were compelled to work for others. Dependent labor included compulsory labor, in which politically weak individuals or groups were forced to work for the rich and powerful. It also included slavery, in which individuals as well as their labor were controlled by masters.

Dependent laborers were virtually everywhere—in the fields, in the household, in the marketplace, in medicine, and in government (sometimes even in positions of considerable responsibility). They did the same types of work as free laborers, often working side by side with them. However, dependent laborers never replaced free laborers, and only in a few occupations—notably mining—was work done solely by slaves or other dependent laborers.

Chattel-Slavery. Slavery was a widespread institution throughout the ancient world. What was unique in ancient Greece and Rome was the widespread adoption of chattel-slavery, a form of slavery in which the slave was literally the possession of the master. Like any other possession, chattel-slaves could be bought, sold, or bequeathed to another person at the death of the owner. Slaves were captured in war and purchased from professional slave traders at established slave markets. In Athens, a monthly slave market was held in the agora, or central marketplace. And as Rome conquered distant lands, hundreds of slaves were sent back to Italy to do the work left behind by the conquering soldiers.

From about 750 B.C. onward, chattel-slavery became the dominant form of dependent labor in Greece, growing in importance as political freedoms for the lower classes grew. In the Roman Empire, slaveholdings were concentrated in Italy, and by the end of the last century B.C., slaves probably made up at least a third of Italy’s population. In Rome, slavery came to pervade all aspects of society, including religion. For example, early Christians characterized themselves as “slaves” of God (later translated as “servants” of God).

The greatest economic advantage of chattel-slavery was its flexibility. Chattel-slaves could be purchased by anyone who could afford them, put to almost any use, and then sold when they were no longer needed. Individual slaves with particular talents or skills were used to great advantage, and slaves as a group performed a variety of functions, which were reflected in the wide range of status assigned to different slaves. Some slaves worked as private servants in individual households, while others worked as respected public servants in government administration. Some slaves were unskilled factory workers; others were trusted overseers in managerial positions who supervised the work of other slaves. Some slaves were even physicians. Slave labor provided economic advantages to the owners, because slaves could be made to work harder, longer, and under more difficult conditions than free laborers were willing to work. Thus, although slaves were expensive to buy, slave labor was more cost-effective than free labor.

In addition to the economic advantages for those who could afford to own slaves, chattel-slavery also offered advantages to the poorer citizens of the state. Chattel-slavery meant that the rich and powerful were exploiting slaves instead of poor citizens, and by doing so, they indirectly elevated the status of the poor. This helped preserve the poor’s political participation and freedom. For this reason, the poor had as much interest in the institution of slavery as the wealthy.

Remember: Consult the index at the end of volume 4 to find more information on many topics.

From the point of view of the slave, chattel-slavery was an inhumane institution. Although some slaves were treated very well by their masters, cruel treatment was more common. Agricultural slaves on large estates were forced to work in chain gangs, and conditions for slaves working in mines were terrible, in some cases even deadly. Sick slaves were sometimes cast out to die, and in the gladiatorial games in Rome, slaves were killed as a form of public entertainment. In addition, virtually all slaves were uprooted from their homelands, separated from their families, and denied the right to have families of their own.

Not surprisingly, some slaves were resentful and rebellious. Runaway slaves were a constant problem, and many masters lived in fear of physical harm from their slaves. In response, some masters used force to control their slaves and took security precautions to protect themselves and their families. Other masters tried to control their slaves by rewarding them for good behavior, sometimes even offering them freedom from slavery, which was called manumission. The hope of manumission encouraged many slaves to be obedient, and many did earn their freedom in this way. However, there was little debate in society about the morality of the institution of slavery itself. Some may have believed that slavery was “contrary to nature,” but this never led to a movement to abolish the practice of owning slaves.

Compulsory Labor Besides chattel-slavery, other forms of dependent labor were common in ancient Greece and Rome, particularly in rural areas. For example, an individual might be required to work for another person within his or her own community in order to pay off a debt, or an entire community might be forced to perform specific duties for another community. Sparta’s subjugation of the helots of Messenia is the best-known example of the latter type of compulsory labor. Sparta’s warrior class forced helots to perform virtually all of the nonmilitary duties in Spartan society.

The status of compulsory laborers fell somewhere between free laborers and slaves. Like free laborers, they remained members of their community of origin. They therefore retained a communal identity, culture, language, and religion. They also kept their right to have families. However, like slaves, they were required to work for others against their will.

Compulsory labor was less flexible than chattel-slavery because workers could not be bought or sold as needed. In addition, compulsory laborers, because they maintained their cultural identity and community solidarity, were more likely to revolt than were chattel-slaves, who lived in isolation from their families and homelands. Once again, Sparta is the best-known example. Helot revolt was a constant threat, and most of the military efforts of Sparta’s warriors were turned inward to keep such revolts in check. For these reasons, the use of compulsory labor declined in Greece during the classical period (from 500 to 323 B.C.), while chattel-slavery continued to be an important institution in Greece as well as in Rome. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Class Structure, Greek; Class Structure, Roman; Markets; Mining; Trade, Greek; Trade, Roman.)


Slavery in ancient Greece and Rome differed in several important respects from the slavery of the American South. Greek and Roman slaves were often employed in highly skilled occupations, ranging from literary agents to bankers. Many Roman and Greek slaves earned their freedom, and once freed they became citizens. Some even became rich and powerful members of society. Perhaps most importantly, there were no racial differences between slaves and masters in ancient Greece and Rome, so there was little discrimination based on skin color or other obvious physical differences between masters and former slaves.

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