Slave ownership in ancient Greece was widespread even in the poorest communities. Athens is believed to have had the largest population of slaves. It is believed that in 385 B.C., there were 100,000 people enslaved in Athens. Most slaves were obtained by kidnapping, piracy, warfare, or as a result of debt bondage. Debt bondage was considered a temporary status, but it was very difficult to buy back your freedom. Greek citizens did not serve as slaves unless they owed money. At the time it was common for women and children to become slaves after their city was besieged. Most of the slaves came from other regions, others were bred in captivity. It was also common for them to wed and have children.
Every citizen in Athens wanted to own a slave, but only those in the middle class or higher could afford one. Athenians who were well off financially owned 2 or 3 slaves, while the wealthiest owned as many as 20. Nikias, who was one of the richest men in Athens, owned over a thousand slaves. He made a living by renting them out to other citizens. The purchase price of a slave was determined by a number of factors. Pretty girls, slaves who were educated, and slaves with management skills brought the most money. Slaves were not cheap. A good hardworking slave who was in excellent health cost as much as an average Greek salary for a ½ a year.
Homers poems tell us about the close relationships that existed between master and slaves. The treatment of slaves varied from household to household. The majority of the female slaves worked in homes as domestic servants. They did every household job imaginable. They even followed their masters into war if they were called up to serve. In Athens, slaves were often buried next to their masters. There were no laws to protect them. Starvation and whipping were common punishments that were administered. If they ran away and were caught they were branded with a hot iron.
There were several other classes of slaves. The privileged Athenian slaves were owned by the state. These slaves worked on the roads, on large construction projects, and in the courts. There were a few hundred of them. At the same time, the silver mines used slave labor. The survival rates were horrible and the work was miserable. The shifts were 10 hours long, and the work in the mines went on for 365 days a year without a break. Slaves worked every day. In addition there were slave agricultural workers. Overtime, the Spartan economy would become entirely based on slave labor agriculture.
The institution of slavery was never challenged in classical Greece. In fact, it was even defended by Aristotle in his book “The Politics.” In his book he not only justifies slavery, but he also distinguishes between the types of slaves. In his story he separates slaves who were bred into captivity, and what he calls slaves by law, or those who were captured in battle. Other classical critics enlighten us by saying that there were advantages to slavery. They state that slavery provided economic security in a very dangerous world. However, we know that most of the slaves deplored there lives and when given the chance they fled to freedom.