The local slave systems of Ancient Greece

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Abstract / Description of output

A key objective of this volume is to explore the history of groups that are either underrepresented in our ancient literary sources and/or overlooked in modern scholarship. These may include, for instance, women, metics and immigrants, lower-class labourers, and slaves. Slavery is the subject of this chapter; but when we talk about slavery in ancient Greece, the tendency to date has been to talk about slavery in Athens, a choice that may seem odd in a world of a thousand or so far from uniform poleis. That choice has been justified in part due to the distribution of evidence: Athens simply represents the focal point of the vast majority of our literary sources, whilst slavery in the vast majority of other poleis goes completely unattested (though it is prima facie likely to have played a significant role in economy and society).
There is a second reason for the focus on Athens, however; and that is to do with taxonomy and scholarly tradition. For much of the twentieth century, labour systems described as systems of slavery in classical Greek sources have been categorised as something else by modern scholars. Most prominent among these labourers are the Helots of Lakonia and Messenia; analogous groups include the Penestai of Thessaly, the Killyrioi of Syracuse, the Klarotai of Crete, and the Mariandynoi of Herakleia Pontike. These have typically been counted not as slave populations but as systems of “serfdom,” “dependent peasantry,” or “unfree labour.”
The present chapter has two aims. The first is to show that the classification of such systems as something other than slavery is unwarranted: it depends on overlooking more reliable early sources (which classify these populations as slaves, privately owned and subject to sale) in favour of less reliable late sources written long after these systems of slavery had ceased to exist (which classify them as something other than slaves). A source-critical method enjoins us to take seriously these early sources and re-admit such systems into our overall framework, seeing Greek slavery not just as Athenian slavery writ large, but as a patchwork of diverse epichoric slave systems whose distinctive features were adaptive responses to local historical developments. The second aim of this chapter is to illustrate the diversity of Greek slave systems, and thereby the experiences of those exploited in them, through a series of thumbnail sketches: Thessaly, Lokris, Herakleia Pontike, and Khios. Although such a survey is far from comprehensive, its range should indicate how the experience of work, supervision, and violence was extremely varied across the Greek world.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationVoiceless, Invisible, and Countless
Subtitle of host publicationThe Experience of Subordinates in Greece, 800-300 BC
EditorsSamuel D. Gartland, David W. Tandy
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)9780191995514
ISBN (Print)9780198889601
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jan 2024

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • slavery
  • serfdom
  • Thessaly
  • Locris
  • Heraclea Pontica
  • Chios


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