Slavery played such a major role in ancient Greece and Rome that these early civilizations can accurately be called slave societies. In addition to providing most of the labor in Greece and Rome, slaves made up a large percentage of the population. Perhaps a quarter to a third of the population of classical* Athens were slaves. During the Roman wars of conquest, the Romans captured and enslaved hundreds of thousands of prisoners. By the end of the Roman Republic*, Italy had more than 2 million slaves, which was more than a third of the population.


The Greeks and Romans used slave labor for farming, mining, building, and domestic work. Slaves were mostly war captives, people kidnapped and sold by slave traders, and the children of slave women. Because slaves were considered the legal property of their masters, they had no rights. Although some Greek and Roman writers criticized certain aspects of slavery, none declared that slavery was wrong and should be abolished.

* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

Greek Slavery. During the Mycenaean period, which lasted from the 1400s B.C. to the 1100s B.C., many people were forced to cultivate and give their crops to the kings. Like slaves, these people could be bought and sold. Many of them had non-Greek names, which suggests that they were captured in war. However, they received allotments of land the same way that free people did, and they were allowed to intermarry with free people.

The households of the kings and heroes* that the poet Homer described in the Iliad and the Odyssey kept numerous slaves. They performed the difficult and unpleasant tasks that free people preferred not to undertake. Slaves looked after cattle, pigs, and goats in the pastures, where they could be alone for months at a time. Female slaves often sewed and wove cloth in the household alongside their mistresses.

In the early 500s B.C., the Athenian statesman Solon ended the right of wealthy Athenians to enslave poor people who were unable to repay their debts. Although this law gave freedom to many more Athenians, it increased the demand for slaves to do the work that debtors had done in the past. During the classical period, large numbers of slaves lived in Athens and other Greek city-states*. Owning slaves was considered a sign of wealth. Slaves and free Greeks often had the same skills, and they frequently worked side by side in the fields, homes, and workshops of ancient Greece.

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

Although Greek slaves worked in the mines, where conditions were brutal, some slaves also worked in high-status careers and professions. A slave named Passion established an impressive career for himself as a banker. He not only gained his freedom, but he became one of the few former slaves to be granted Athenian citizenship.

Roman Slavery. During the early Roman Republic, debtors were forced to work for wealthy landowners to repay their debts. After this practice was outlawed, the demand for slave labor increased, as it had in Greece. As the Romans began to conquer other areas of Italy, the enlistment of peasant farmers into the army increased the demand for agricultural workers. The same wars that sent peasants off to battle provided an endless supply of war captives for the wealthy to use as slaves.

By the middle of the 100s B.C., most of Italy had become a slave society. Slave labor became the backbone of the Roman economy, especially in the areas of agriculture, herding, and wine making. The cruel treatment that the slaves received prompted several slave rebellions. Major revolts in Sicily and Italy took years to suppress. In Italy in 73 B.C., Spartacus and thousands of his followers attempted to escape to freedom, but the Romans finally crushed the rebellion with brutal force.

During the later Roman Empire, the infrequency of Roman wars of conquest meant that fewer people were enslaved. The Romans had established a professional army, and free peasants were no longer pulled off the land. Because of this, the role of slavery decreased in importance, but it never completely disappeared.

Remember: Words In small capital letters have separate entries, and the index at the end of Volume 4 will guide you to more information on many topics.


Slaves came from three groups of people—those captured in war, those abandoned by their parents at birth, and those descended from a slave. All three types were considered outsiders by their communities and were allowed to live only by becoming enslaved. Although debtors were sometimes sold into slavery, they had to be sold abroad. According to Roman law, a freeborn Roman could not be enslaved. If a slave could prove in a court of law that he or she had been born free, the individual had to be freed.

Kinds of Slaves. Slaves worked in a wide range of fields. Many were forced to work in the mines. They were often chained to their work areas, and most of them died of malnutrition and overwork. Agricultural slaves were somewhat better off because they worked in the open air. Many slaves—men, women, and children—worked in households. The men worked in the fields, and women and children did house chores. Some owners hired out their skilled workers for specific jobs, such as metalworking or harvesting. Other owners set up their slaves in workshops and took most of the money the slaves earned.

Some slaves were publicly owned. In Greece, publicly owned slaves served as court clerks, record keepers, building superintendents, and police. Because police work was unpopular and dangerous, the Athenians used enslaved Scythian archers as police officers.

The Romans used slaves to assist the magistrates in administering public works, such as buildings, roads, and aqueducts*. Some slaves who worked in the households of emperors rose to positions of great influence and power. Emperors liked to use slaves in sensitive positions because they were loyal to the emperor alone.

Legal Status. Greek and Roman laws regarding slaves were designed to protect the value of the property to the owner; the laws did nothing for the interests of the slave. If a court awarded compensation for injury to a slave, the money went to the master. Similarly, because the slave was property, the slaveholder was responsible for any crimes or mischief the slave committed.

By law, a master had the right to punish, sell, and even kill his slave. A slaveholder could control the slave’s future after the slaveholder’s death or the sale of the slave. For example, a will or sales contract might forbid the new master from freeing the slave for a certain period of time. Some measures, however, protected slaves from excessive cruelty. An Athenian law allowed a citizen to submit a complaint to a board of judges against anybody who treated another person, free or slave, in an illegal or humiliating way.

Slaves could not appear in court on their own behalf, nor could they bring any complaint against their masters. If testimony from a slave was needed in a court case, the court was permitted to torture the slave to obtain the desired testimony.

If a Roman wanted to put his slave to death, he was expected to follow a certain procedure. He first had to discuss the matter with a group of household friends, who served as a court. If the slaveholder was still determined to kill the slave, he had to turn the slave over to a government official for execution. Although masters were discouraged from killing their slaves, they were free to punish them as much as they wanted.

* aqueduct channel, often including bridges and tunnels, that brings water from a distant source to where it is needed

Slaves and Religion. A slave was more highly regarded by Greek and Roman religion than by law and social custom, as seen in Agamemnon, a play by Aeschylus. In the play, the prophetess Cassandra is captured and brought to Greece. As she is about to speak, the chorus declares that “the divine power remains even in the heart of one enslaved.” Slaves who spoke Greek were even allowed to join the cult* of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Some religious shrines and temples were set aside for slaves fleeing mistreatment by their masters. Most runaway slaves were hunted down and sent back, but slaves who fled to a sanctuary* and asked for protection from its god or goddess had a better chance of not being returned. According to one Athenian slave, “The best thing for me to do is to run to the Temple of Theseus for refuge and stay there until I manage to find someone to buy me.” Seeking protection at a shrine or temple did not free the slave, but it might lead to a less severe situation with a new master. At some sanctuaries, slaves became enslaved to the deity* whose protection they sought. They then worked for the temple or for one of the priests.

If a slave ran away to a sanctuary and complained about mistreatment, a priest or magistrate was supposed to investigate that complaint. If the investigation revealed that the slave had been abused, the slave could be sold to a new master. Under Roman law, priests and magistrates were obligated, out of respect for the deity, to honor the complaints of slaves who fled to a temple. During the Roman Empire, statues of Roman emperors were considered sacred and hence places where slaves could seek refuge. During the late empire, Christian churches also served the same function.

Freed Slaves. Ancient Greece, a poor country that suffered chronically from overpopulation, freed very few slaves. Procedures for freeing slaves generally did not exist. However, in the case of a runaway slave, if the master declined to appear in court to get the slave back, he was formally acquitted and declared to be free. The conditions that masters imposed on slaves in return for their freedom might be strict: continuing service for a stated number of years, the payment of a sum of money to provide a substitute slave, or even the provision of the ex-slave’s own child to take his or her place. Only under most exceptional circumstances was an ex-slave granted citizenship.

In Rome, the freeing of slaves, known as manumission, was much more common. The Roman state needed soldiers to fight wars, and upper- class Romans needed supporters in their struggle for political power and status. The Romans were always more willing than the Greeks to grant citizenship to outsiders, and freed slaves became Roman citizens. If a slaveholder fell in love with a female slave and wished to marry her, he had to free her first to give her a legal identity. Slaves who had faithfully served their masters could expect to be freed at about the age of 30. Usually, however, this practice applied only to the slaves of urban households. Most agricultural slaves labored until they died. Upon gaining his freedom, a former slave adopted the name of his master. Tiro, the slave of the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, thus became “Marcus Tullius, Marci libertus, Tiro,” identifying him as the freedman (libertus) of Cicero.

* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

* sanctuary place for worship

* deity god or goddess


When the wealthy Roman Publius Vedius Pollio entertained the emperor Augustus at dinner, one of his young slaves accidentally dropped and broke an expensive crystal cup. Pollio was so angry he ordered his other slaves to throw the boy into the pond, which was full of deadly eels. Augustus was horrified at Pollio's reaction. He ordered the slave boy freed on the spot. Then he collected Pollio's other crystal cups and smashed them all on the floor.

Roman law carefully defined the relationship of dependence between ex-slaves (freedmen) and their old masters (patrons). The freedman owed his patron respect and financial and political support. In return, the patron defended his interests, such as helping him in legal cases. The freedman also had to provide his former master with a stated number of days each year of work or service. Thus, manumission did not mean that the ex-slave was free of obligations. Many occupations, such as those of craftsmen, physicians, or teachers, were performed by both slaves and freedmen. However, because only freedmen had a legal identity, they were preferable to slaves when serving in certain positions in business, such as farm managers. (See also Class Structure, Greek; Class Structure, Roman; Economy, Greek; Economy, Roman; Greece, History of; Labor; Rome, History of.)

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