Ancient History & Civilisation


Who does all this work? In the countryside it is done by citizens, their families, and free hired men; in Athens it is done partly by citizens, partly by freedmen, more by metics, mostly by slaves. The shopkeepers, artisans, merchants, and bankers come almost entirely from the voteless classes. The burgher looks down upon manual labor, and does as little of it as he may. To work for a livelihood is considered ignoble; even the professional practice or teaching of music, sculpture, or painting is accounted by many Greeks “a mean occupation.”* Hear blunt Xenophon, who speaks, however, as a proud member of the knightly class:

The base mechanic arts, so called . . . are held in ill repute by civilized communities, and not unreasonably; seeing they are the ruin of the bodies of all concerned in them, workers and overseers alike, who are forced to remain in sitting postures or to hug the gloom, or else to crouch whole days confronting a furnace. Hand in hand with physical enervation follows apace an enfeebling of soul, while the demand which these base mechanic arts make on the time of those employed in them leaves them no leisure to devote to the claims of friendship and the state.32

Trade is similarly scorned; to the aristocratic or philosophical Greek it is merely money-making at the expense of others; it aims not to create goods but to buy them cheap and sell them dear; no respectable citizen will engage in it, though he may quietly invest in it and profit from it so long as he lets others do the work. A freeman, says the Greek, must be free from economic tasks; he must get slaves or others to attend to his material concerns, even, if he can, to take care of his property and his fortune; only by such liberation can he find time for government, war, literature, and philosophy. Without a leisure class there can be, in the Greek view, no standards of taste, no encouragement of the arts, no civilization. No man who is in a hurry is quite civilized.

Most of the functions associated in history with the middle class are in Athens performed by metics—freemen of foreign birth who, though ineligible to citizenship, have fixed their domicile in Athens. For the most part they are professional men, merchants, contractors, manufacturers, managers, tradesmen, craftsmen, artists, who, in the course of their wandering, have found in Athens the economic liberty, opportunity, and stimulus which to them is far more vital than the vote. The most important industrial undertakings, outside of mining, are owned by metics; the ceramic industry is theirs completely; and wherever middlemen can squeeze themselves in between producer and consumer they are to be found. The law harasses them and protects them. It taxes them like citizens, lays “liturgies” upon them, exacts military service from them, and adds a poll tax for good measure; it forbids them to own land or to marry into the family of a citizen; it excludes them from its religious organization, and from direct appeal to its courts. But it welcomes them into its economic life, appreciates their industry and skill, enforces their contracts, gives them religious freedom, and guards their wealth against violent revolution. Some of them flaunt their riches vulgarly, but some of them, too, work quietly in science, literature, and the arts, practice law or medicine, and create schools of rhetoric and philosophy. In the fourth century they will provide the authors and subject of the comic drama, and in the third they will set the cosmopolitan tone of Hellenistic society. They itch for citizenship, but they love Athens proudly, and contribute painfully to finance her defense against her enemies. Through them, chiefly, the fleet is maintained, the empire is supported, and the commercial supremacy of Athens is preserved.

Mingled with the metics in political disabilities and economic opportunities are the freedmen—those who once were slaves. For though it is inconvenient to liberate a slave, since usually he must be replaced by another, yet the promise of freedom is an economical stimulus to a young slave; and many Greeks, as death approaches, reward their most loyal slaves with manumission. The slave may be freed through ransoming by relatives or friends, as in the case of Plato; or the state, indemnifying his owner, may free him for service in war; or he himself may save his obols until he can buy his liberty. Like the metic, the freedman engages in industry, trade, or finance; at the lowest he may do for pay the work of a slave, at the top he may become a magnate of industry. Mylias manages Demosthenes’ armor factory; Pasion and Phormio become the richest bankers in Athens. The freedman is especially valued as an executive, for no one is more severe with slaves than the man who has come up from slavery,33 and has known only oppression all the days of his life.

Beneath these three classes—citizens, metics, and freedmen—are the 115,000 slaves of Attica.* They are recruited from unransomed prisoners of war, victims of slave raids, infants rescued from exposure, wastrels, and criminals. Few of them in Greece are Greeks. The Hellene looks upon foreigners as natural slaves, since they so readily give absolute obedience to a king, and he does not account the servitude of such men to Greeks as unreasonable. But he balks at the enslavement of a Greek, and seldom stoops to it. Greek traders buy slaves as they would merchandise, and offer them for sale at Chios, Delos, Corinth, Aegina, Athens, and wherever else they can find purchasers. The slave dealers at Athens are among the richest of the metics. In Delos it is not unusual for a thousand slaves to be sold in a day; Cimon, after the battle of the Eurymedon, puts 20,000 prisoners on the slave market.34 At Athens there is a mart where slaves stand ready for naked inspection and bargaining purchase at any time. They cost from half a mina to ten minas ($50 to $1000). They may be bought for direct use, or for investment; men and women in Athens find it profitable to buy slaves and rent them to homes, factories, or mines; the return is as high as 33 per cent.35 Even the poorest citizen has a slave or two; Aeschines, to prove his poverty, complains that his family has only seven; rich homes may have fifty.36 The Athenian government employs a number of slaves as clerks, attendants, minor officials, or policemen; many of these receive their clothing and a daily “allowance” of half a drachma, and are permitted to live where they please.

In the countryside the slaves are few, and are chiefly women servants in the home; in northern Greece and most of the Peloponnesus serfdom makes slavery superfluous. In Corinth, Megara, and Athens slaves do most of the manual labor, and women slaves most of the domestic toil; but slaves do also a great part of the clerical, and some of the executive work, in industry, commerce, and finance. Most skilled labor is performed by freemen, freedmen or metics; and there are no learned slaves as there will be in the Hellenistic period and in Rome. The slave is seldom allowed to bring up children of his own, for it is cheaper to buy a slave than to rear one. If the slave misbehaves he is whipped; if he testifies he is tortured; when he is struck by a freeman he must not defend himself. But if he is subjected to great cruelty he may flee to a temple, and then his master must sell him. In no case may his master kill him. So long as he labors he has more security than many who in other civilizations are not called slaves; when he is ill, or old, or there is no work for him to do, his master does not throw him upon public relief, but continues to take care of him. If he is loyal he is treated like a faithful servant, almost like a member of the family. lie is often allowed to go into business, provided he will pay his owner a part of his earnings. He is free from taxation and from military service. Nothing in his costume distinguishes him, in fifth-century Athens, from the freeman; indeed the “Old Oligarch” who about 425 writes a pamphlet on The Polity of the Athenians complains that the slave does not make way for citizens on the street, that he talks freely, and acts in every detail as if he were the equal of the citizen.39 Athens is known for mildness to her slaves; it is a common judgment that slaves are better off in democratic Athens than poor freemen in oligarchic states.40 Slave revolts, though feared, are rare in Attica.41

Nevertheless the Athenian conscience is disturbed by the existence of slavery, and the philosophers who defend it reveal almost as clearly as those who denounce it that the moral development of the nation has outrun its institutions. Plato condemns the enslavement of Greeks by Greeks, but for the rest accepts slavery on the ground that some people have underprivileged minds.42 Aristotle looks upon the slave as an animate tool, and thinks that slavery will continue in some form until all menial work can be done by self-operating machines.43 The average Greek, though kind to his slaves, has no notion of how a cultured society can get along without slavery; to abolish slavery, he feels, it would be necessary to abolish Athens. Others are more radical. The Cynic philosophers condemn slavery outright; their successors, the Stoics, will condemn it more politely; Euripides again and again stirs his audiences by sympathetic pictures of war-captured slaves; and the sophist Alcidamas goes about Greece preaching, unmolested, the doctrine of Rousseau almost in the words of Rousseau: “God has sent all men into the world free, and nature has made no man a slave.”44 But slavery goes on.

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