Medieval Slavery and Slaves in Ancient Greece: A Study
Were Medieval Slaves Like Slaves in Ancient Greece?
To begin, let’s first understand that slavery used to be a socially accepted part of civilization in ancient Greece. With part two of this study I’ll try to prove that slavery wasn’t as socially accepted in medieval Europe as it was in ancient Greece. Instead of comparing ancient times to modern times, or ancient times to medieval times for that matter, we should try to place ourselves in the shoes of ancient and medieval minds respectively if we’re to understand the past.
With all that taken into account let’s now start this study with Aristophanes’ Clouds, a theater comedy from ancient Greece, which features a slave who carries the same name as a slave of the god Dionysus–Xanthias, a popular name for slaves in Greek mythology. The voice of Strepsiades, in lines 1485-6 of the play, addresses the said slave by name: “Come here, here, Xanthias, and bring the ladder and the mattock!” But, to prove that fiction even from ancient Greece may not be a good source for understanding reality, Kelly L. Wrenhaven makes the point that slaves are not always addressed by name in Greek literature, and out of all the genres comedy is the most kind to slaves, giving them more prominent roles in the plot.
To understand slaves in ancient Greece we must remove them from fictional contexts like Clouds as well as from our own modern concepts of what is acceptable today, because fiction always runs the risk of being a source for misconception no matter how contemporary it is to the topic of study. Also, and I say this for the sake of your own understanding in case you decide to do dig deeper on your own, there will not be time to go into too much detail into the daily life of slaves in ancient Greece here because this study has two parts. After part one, a broad exploration of ancient Greek slaves, this paper will digress into part two, a broad exploration of medieval slaves in Europe and along the Silk Roads. The goal is to reach an interesting conclusion with an entry-level understanding of the differences between slaves in ancient Greece and slaves in the medieval world. But first, if you enjoy historically accurate details in historical fantasy, click here to subscribe to my book launch newsletter. Now let’s begin!
Slaves in Ancient Greece
Manumission inscriptions from mainland Greece from the 5th to 3rd centuries BC altogether list the names of hundreds of slaves that were freed under paramone restriction, which meant that since their masters possessed full rights to them (paramone) they were manumitted upon their masters’ deaths, inherited by heirs like chattel no more, unless said otherwise in wills, albeit slaves freed under paramone restriction were still obliged to continue certain tasks for the household (oikos) they had previously served. Other slaves were granted apolysis (release) from paramone altogether by their master’s will, and did not have to continue these obligations for their prior master’s heirs. But how did these slaves get into bondage in the first place?
A common Greek belief was that, in war, the losers deserved to become the chattel of the winners, and this is where a great portion of slaves came from in ancient Greece. Such slaves who were not of Greek origin but captured abroad, or indeed purchased abroad, were treated more harshly than slaves who were born into a Greek oikos. This is because Greek-born slaves grew up to speak Greek and carry Greek culture, whereas foreign slaves, kidnapped and chained, did not speak Greek nor carry Greek culture and so they were seen as inferior barbarians.
Whether or not it was due to this higher respect for fellow Greeks, Solon in the 6th century BC forbid Athenians from selling themselves or family members with citizenship into slavery, acts which had previously been done in order to pay debts. An example of barbarian slaves treated with less respect took place at the Athenian silver mine at Laurion. Here, captured and brutalized slaves with short life expectancies were used like sumpters to mine silver. On the other hand, good, Greek-speaking slaves were seen as the most important possession for managing an oikos, and to keep good slaves loyal it was advised to allow them to have children and to keep their children as hostages.
Other examples of slaves with higher status in ancient Greek culture are so-called public slaves, those being not part of a private oikos. Helping to police the streets of Athens were enslaved Scythian archers camping in the agora, while other public slaves served Athens by cleaning the roads. But keep in mind these Scythian slaves were still seen as barbarians, as they were not Greek-born. Furthermore, another great example of slaves being well-treated are nurses, as nurse-slaves were given more authority in the oikos than average slaves. Penelope’s nurse-slaves in Homer’s Odyssey serve as a great instance of this. But if these well-treated slaves were not born into the oikos yet were still of respectable Greek origin, where were they purchased from? The answer is the slave trader.
Being a slave trader in ancient Greece was a full-time career, although a dangerous one because if a trader’s slaves escaped it was not uncommon for them to torture or kill their enslavers. One story that illustrates this is the sorry tale of one Panionios. This slave trader was known to castrate comely boys before selling them, and so when his slaves escaped they forced him to castrate his own sons before his sons were then forced to castrate him. With that said, we cannot deny how lucrative this career could have been. It was commonly agreed upon that slaves with skills were more valuable, and so it was prudent for slave traders to train their slaves in some craft before selling them.
Now before we speak generally about the roles slaves played in ancient Greece, it would be useful to clear up some more foundational points. The Greeks had many interchangeable words that meant slave, each one meaning a different task-orientation or status: doulos, andrapodon, oiketês, theraponte, pais, dmôs, dêmosioi. According to Athenaeus, writing in the 2nd century BC, Greek slavery originated in Chios long ago, as he recounts how the Chians purchased their slaves from non-Greek traders. Although it may be hard to trust such an account, it should not be surprising if found true for slavery had long been imbedded in Greek society seemingly for as long as they could remember. After all, even the gods themselves had slaves, Dionysus’ Xanthias being a prime example.
Furthermore, slaves were recorded into accounts as assets, and wills included the dispositions of dead slaves, as slaves were often listed as part of an heir’s inheritance if the prior master chose not to give his slaves apolysis from paramone, of course. Also, quite interestingly, in legal trials the testimonies of slaves under torture or the threat of torture were counted as credible evidence.
Nicholas Himmelmann, as credited by Page DuBois, conveniently lists all the roles slaves played in Greek society as found on vase art: “wet-nurses, pedagogues, negroes, weapons-bearers, grooms, charcoal-haulers, camel-drovers, serving-women, hetairai, symposium-boys, acrobats, flute-girls, dancers, sacrificial victims, athlete-youths, potters’ apprentices, travelling-companions, forge-workers, shepherds, miners.” Slaves in Athens were usually from Thrace, Anatolia or Syria, and in the excavations of slave homes we can see evidence of their foreign heritage in their statuettes of gods unique to Greek culture. Another prominent role slaves played in Greek culture is that of the soldier. At the battle of Arginusae, Athenian slaves were honored and remembered for fighting valiantly.
Now getting deeper into the daily life of Greek slaves, we should note the ceremony called katachusmata. The katachusmata was a ceremony for a newly purchased slave entering a master’s oikos, analogous of the ceremony held to celebrate a bride entering a husband’s oikos. The katachusmata involved getting the newly purchased slave to stoop at the master’s hearth where nuts or dried fruit were sprinkled over the slave’s back to bring good luck to the master. The slave, already being separated from its kith and kin, was also given a new name in order to establish its new identity as a slave belonging to a new master, and this was standard practice at least in Athenian society. From now on, whenever the slave was to address their new master, they would say despota (master); to the mistress, despoina (mistress).
We have already explored well-treated slaves, but what about the majority? What was the average slave’s treatment like in the Greek day-to-day? Well, slaves were often tattooed or branded to mark their status, and they were also simply tattooed by their masters for the sake of decorative design able to be admired and enjoyed on a daily basis like wall-hangings. Whether being of private or public status, a slave was always at risk of being flogged, and in Greek literature they are often described as being “fettered, bound [and] beaten.” Female slaves were treated with no less brutality than their male counterparts, subject to whipping and threats of torture, although captured women with prior high status, such as the mother of Neoptolemus’ son who bore the rank of a former queen, were spared from the violence ordinary female slaves suffered.
Slave owners could rightly have sex with their slaves, whether it’s the master or the mistress committing the act, and in Herodas’ Mime V a slave is threatened by a jealous mistress with being “tied up, beaten, and tattooed or branded” for sleeping with another woman. But no matter how horrible a slave’s abuse might have been, there was a law that protected them from the sway of such jealous threats. In Athens, slaves fleeing from abusive owners could obtain sanctuary in the shrine of Theseion, protected against assault by law. And just because a slave was considered the literal property of its owner like chattel did not mean justice was never on their side. A text by Antiphon tells the story of how, even though the slave carried out the crime, the owner was convicted for murder for getting her slave to do it for her.
Slaves were a huge part of ancient Greek society, reflected in its art and culture. Inviting one to feel sympathy, perhaps, or to study more into the lives of this brutalized lower strata of the ancient Greek day-to-day are the many vases, inscriptions and stories passed down to us through the sands of time. Now, one can be grateful in the modern West, understanding how much smoother the bedrock of our civilization has become compared to its rough foundation. But was the life of a slave in medieval times any better?
Slaves in Medieval Europe and the Silk Roads
Before delving into slavery practices in medieval western Europe where the practices of ancient Greek and Roman slavery were fairly non-existent due to more complex systems of serfdom being more effective, it will be helpful to see where and when ancient slavery traditions did continue on through the Middle Ages, namely in the lands along the Silk Roads: Islamic empires and Chinese dynasties. Understanding this will make it less surprising when we begin to explore the slavery practices of Viking raiders and Jewish merchants in western Europe.
Much like Solon’s law reforms of 6th-century Athens, a law in Han dynasty China (206 BC to 220 AD) forbid families from selling their relatives into slavery. However, this is much different than in classical Rome where a father was allowed to sell a child into slavery up to three times as part of his patria potestas (power of the father). Moreover, slaves of elite families in the Chinese Jin dynasty (AD 265 – AD 420) were exempt from military service and tax. However, medieval Chinese slavery traditions reflected those of classical Rome in more ways than they did not. The legal code of the Tang Period (AD 618 – AD 907) put slaves as the most inferior class of a total of three classes and their punishments were more severe than they were for the upper two echelons.
Much like in ancient Greece, slaves across medieval Eurasia were for the most part victims of war or kidnapping, shuttlecocked as gifts between elites. This is because, like the aforementioned common Greek belief, Eurasians and the Chinese, too, saw the vanquished as property of the victors. Now moving to the medieval Muslim world, slavery practices were not much different. To set the tone, one might read One Thousand and One Nights to find one al-Khwārizmī using slaves as pawns in a math equation. In medieval Arab society, the child interestingly took the status of their mother, not their father, much like in Chinese society at certain points in time, showing how a significant portion of Eastern slaves found themselves born into slavery.
In the Central Asian Samanid Empire (AD 819 – AD 999), neighboring Turkic-controlled lands were a great source of slave soldiers, with one raid in 893 gathering 15,000 slaves. Now we find ourselves in the Viking Era when we should not be so surprised to see western Europeans doing the exact same thing, though on a smaller scale, as illustrated in The Saga of Erik the Red showing how common slavery was to northern Germanic society. Also similar to the practices of the Samanid Empire were those of Constantinople in the 10th century, as the Byzantines were infamous in Syria and Egypt for their coastal raids as recorded by the Arab geographer Ibn Hawqal.
Now to western Europe, a few more clarifying points can bring valuable context to understanding slavery in the Middle Ages on a broader scope. The Radhanites, Jewish merchants in the 9th and 10th centuries, as recorded by the Persian Ibn Khurdādhbih, had a trading network that included the buying and selling of slaves and extended from western Europe to China, passing through Arabia and India on the Silk Roads. Notably, other Jews, too, would buy slaves in Prague only to sell them in Spain.
In north-eastern Europe, Vikings captured many Slavs from the Khazar and Bulgar kingdoms, where they then traveled southward to sell the Slavs to Muslims for dirhams (silver coins), eventually giving us our English word for slaves. The Vikings treated western Europe no differently, playing a large role in what was most likely western Europe’s largest slave market, Dublin, where Vikings and even the Irish themselves sold slaves captured in battle.
Conclusion: Medieval Slaves vs. Ancient Slaves – What Happened?
Considering everything we’ve already covered, I’ll now attempt to give a sweeping, general answer to the question, “Were slaves in the Middle Ages anything like slaves in ancient Greece?”
Overall, in terms of rural life across medieval Europe, slavery as it was known in ancient Greece and Rome no longer existed. Mostly everyone in Europe was Christian by now, and beside the point that no one would want to enslave a fellow Christian, the cost of feeding slaves had always been a problem for slaveowners. A system where indentured workers were only half-free became more economical for landowners not long after the decline of the Roman Empire.
Many medieval landowners who needed vast tracts of crops and cattle tended yearly could not afford to cover the living expenses of hundreds or thousands of slaves without causing them to suffer in cramped conditions like Early Modern sugar plantations. It was much more affordable in the Middle Ages to borrow land to workers and take a portion of whatever goods they produced. This system is often called serfdom but its features were different from region to region. Interestingly, serfdom is more similar in characteristics to the ancient Spartan helot system than any form of slavery. Different regions in the East also had their own similar systems throughout the Middle Ages.
Although slaves still existed throughout medieval times, whether they be captured Christians manning the galley oars of Muslim privateers in the Mediterranean or thralls sweeping the hearths of Scandinavian chiefs, the urban slave as we’ve explored in ancient Greece would be an extremely rare sight. So, miners and nurses, watchmen and deckhands, who had mostly been slaves in the ancient world, were now either freemen or partly free in the medieval world. While nearly half of all people in ancient Greece were slaves, many people in medieval Europe were indentured workers who owed their allegiance to someone other than themselves.
DuBois, Page. Slaves and other objects. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Reilly, Linda Collins. Slaves in ancient Greece: slaves from Greek manumission inscriptions. Ares Publishers, 1978.
Whitfield, Susan. Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road. University of California Press, 2018.
Wrenhaven, Kelly L. Reconstructing the slave: The image of the slave in ancient Greece. A&C Black, 2012.
 Wrenhaven, Kelly L. Reconstructing the slave: The image of the slave in ancient Greece. A&C Black, 2012. Pages 38-9.
 Reilly, Linda Collins. Slaves in ancient Greece: slaves from Greek manumission inscriptions. Ares Publishers, 1978. Pages 10, 12.
 Reilly 12
 Wrenhaven 128
 DuBois, Page. Slaves and other objects. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Pages 25-6.
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 Whitfield, Susan. Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road. University of California Press, 2018. Page 253.
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