Once purchased, what is the condition of the average slave? If he is put in a factory, he probably has to work long hours on meager rations. He is lodged in a kind of kennel; his only respite is on the great religious holidays. He cannot contract valid marriage or enjoy any of the normal conditions of family life. Still his evil state is partially tempered by the fact that he has to work in constant association with free workmen, and he seems to be treated with a moderate amount of consideration and good camaraderie. On the whole he will have much less to complain of (if he is honest and industrious) than his successors in Imperial Rome.
In the household, conditions are on the whole better. Every Athenian citizen tries to have at least one slave, who, we must grant, may be a starving drudge of all work. The average gentleman perhaps counts ten to twenty as sufficient for his needs. We know of households of fifty. There must usually be a steward, a butler in charge of the storeroom or cellar, a marketing slave, a porter, a baker, a cook, a nurse, perhaps several lady's maids, the indispensable attendant for the master's walks (a graceful, well-favored boy, if possible), the pedagogue for the children, and in really rich families, a groom, and a mule boy. It is the business of the mistress to see that all these creatures are kept busy and reasonably contented. If a slave is reconciled to his lot, honest, cheerful, industrious, his condition is not miserable. Athenian slaves are allowed a surprising amount of liberty, so most visitors to the city complain. A slave may be flogged most cruelly, but he cannot be put to death at the mere whim of his master. He cannot enter the gymnasium, or the public assembly; but he can visit the temples. As a humble member of the family he has a small part usually in the family sacrifices. But in any case he is subject to one grievous hardship: when his testimony is required in court he must be "put to the question" by torture. On the other hand, if his master has wronged him intolerably, he can take sanctuary at the Temple of Theseus, and claim the privilege of being sold to some new owner. A slave, too, has still another grievance which may be no less galling because it is sentimental. His name (given him arbitrarily perhaps by his master) is of a peculiar category, which at once brands him as a bondsman: Geta, Manes, Dromon, Sosias, Xanthias, Pyrrhias,—such names would be repudiated as an insult by a citizen.
Next Chapter : The Children
Back to A Day in Old Athens Contents
The Greek Word Library
Reference address : https://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/ancient-Greece/old-athens-slaves.asp?pg=4