How will these resources help you?

These resources show that it is vitally important to understand the contribution made by enslaved people to ancient Greek life. Slaves were active in nearly every area of Greek city politics, society and economy. By bringing enslaved people  into focus, it is possible to both credit their work as well as restore their humanity. A discussion of this topic can take in both the historical record and Aristotle’s definition of slavery. From here, there is a wealth of opportunities to develop lessons around both the role of the slave and how we should define human beings. In addition, the treatment of Greek enslaved people can act as a point of comparison to other historical eras of slavery.

The experience of slaves from their own perspectives

Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Greece

by Sara Forsdyke, published by Cambridge University Press, (2021), 9781107658899

This book aims to understand what it was like to be enslaved  in ancient Greece, from a wide range of experiences of enslaved people. It corrects a number of misconceptions, offering the unexpected evidence that not only were many Greeks enslaved by other Greeks, but that some slaves actually lived independently and were able to amass their own fortunes. However, Forsdyke makes clear that alongside slaves being the legal property of their owner, there was always a strong undercurrent of violent domination. The justification for that came from Aristotle, whose classification of slaves dehumanises them in a way that conveniently claims that there are inborn differences between humans, and which clearly has been used as a justification for slavery for centuries. You could develop a lesson investigating Aristotle’s ideas and how they are flawed in their conception of humanity. This is particularly apposite as Forsdyke explores the importance of slavery outside the traditional paradigm of biological racism. The Greeks are a ‘startling example of how … rational people … are capable of believing a wholly arbitrary and wholly convenient construction of difference’. This perspective can thus shape a lesson on how false narratives are constructed and perpetuated. Forsdyke also shows how enslaved Greeks continually undermined Aristotle’s distinctions because of their shared (Greek) racial background and complete involvement in Greek city life, thereby underlining the critical importance of enslaved people. By recognising their existence and their contribution, we can acknowledge their ‘enormous contribution to the features of Greek society that are so often heralded’. Much that was achieved by the Greeks with regard to their political sophistication and their artistic and intellectual accomplishments was achieved through the work of enslaved people. I would encourage students to re-examine the great achievements of Greek civilisation by exploring where enslaved people played a vital role in their creation.

How the Greeks perceived slaves

Reconstructing the Slave: The Image of the Slave in Ancient Greece

by Kelly L. Wrenhaven, published by Bloomsbury, (2013), 9781472504425

In this book, Wrenhaven presents a clear outline of the ideology that the Greeks used to justify slave-owning. The Greeks used four different words to describe enslaved people and linked them to Aristotle’s definition of a free man: one who does not live under the control of another. Though Aristotle’s ideas are not definitive, they are the only comprehensive treatment of slavery that has survived from ancient Greece. A good way to explore that in a lesson would be to look at the portrayal of slaves in Aristophanes and Euripides. Athenian comedy was characterised by slaves who shirked their duty and were untrustworthy. The Greeks believed that a slave’s lack of autonomy was demonstrated by his hurried movement, drunkenness and violence. Wrenhaven shows these plays on ‘othering’ the character of the slave (lazy, barbarian, servile, inferior) as well as constructing the ideal Greek (free, beautiful, intelligent and civilised). I would then use some of the details about the role of ‘good’ slaves in Chapter 3 to assess the accuracy of these portrayals. The evidence of the role of public slaves as well as the ‘unmistakeable affection’ for wet-nurses, as demonstrated on Athenian tombstones, suggests that the Greek view of their slaves was much more nuanced than it might at first have appeared.

Greece: one of the first major slave societies

The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Volume 1: The Ancient Mediterranean World

by Keith Bradley and Paul Cartledge (edited by), published by Cambridge University Press, (2011), 9780511780349

This is the first volume in a scholarly survey of slavery stretching across four volumes. The first volume has ten chapters on Greek slavery. This offers the opportunity to give students appropriate resources for research tasks on specific areas. I would ask groups to use individual chapters to make presentations on the Helots of Sparta, the role of enslaved people in classical Athens, the place of enslaved people within the family, and resistance/rebellion by enslaved people.

Further materials

The Principles of Slavery in Ancient Greece by Robert Garland, published by Wondrium Daily, (2020) Read this article
Mark Robinson is a history teacher who has many years’ experience of teaching both History and Classical Civilisation. He has also been an examiner. He has written on a wide range of topics for the educational website TEDEd.

Text © Mark Robinson, 2021-2023