Slavery in Classical Greece and Rome Introduction

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Slavery in Classical Greece and Rome
Introduction: Slavery was an accepted part of life in both ancient Greece and Rome. Slavery was an integral part of Athenian life, and the number of slaves was fairly high. Some argue that the leisurely lifestyle of ancient Athens would have been impossible without a large slave workforce. Greek city slaves were typically allowed second jobs and could sometimes buy their freedom, though slaves who worked in agriculture or in the mines were usually treated as chattel and occasionally even worked to death (it was sometimes cheaper to buy a new slave than to feed the ones already owned). Slavery was even more common in the Roman Empire, and the Romans used slaves for all sorts of purposes, in both the city and the countryside. Wealthy Romans owned multiple slaves; the emperor Augustus' slave graveyard includes at least 6,000 slave burials. 

Greek slavery is presented here by Aristotle, who wrote extensively on the natural world but did not avoid social and political issues. In this selection, Aristotle focuses on the slave as human property. The Roman documents that follow include excerpts from Gaius' Institutes, apparently written sometime in the late second century C.E. Nothing is known about the author, but the text became the most influential and useful legal textbook for Roman law students. The other source comes from the first systematic collection of Roman laws, put together in 438 C.E. by order of Emperor Theodosius II; hence, its title: the Code of Theodosius.
Document One – Aristotle on Slavery
About the Document: Slavery has existed since early times, even in a civilization as "enlightened" as that of ancient Athens. Scholars who study slavery continue to argue over the place of the slave in ancient Greek society. Generally speaking, slaves who lived in the cities were well treated; could have their own, separate jobs; and were sometimes freed for loyal service. Slaves who lived outside the cities and toiled in the mines or fields were subject to much harsher treatment and literally might be worked to death. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) was the most noted student of the philosopher Plato and wrote extensively about the natural world. In addition, however, Aristotle wrote on many of the same subjects as his mentor: politics, government, and society in general. Aristotle provides the following insight into the position of Greek slaves in ancient Athens.
The Document:
Property is a part of the household, and the art of acquiring property a part of household management (since no kind of life, and certainly not a fulfilled life, is possible without the basic necessities); and so, just as in particular crafts the relevant tools are needed if a job is to be done, exactly the same applies to managing a household. Tools can be divided into animate and inanimate (for instance, for the helmsman of a ship, the rudder is inanimate while the look-out man is animate: since an assistant can be categorised as a "tool" as regards that particular craft). So a piece of property is, similarly, a tool needed to live; "property" is a collection of such tools, and a slave is an animate piece of property.
The word "property" is used in the same way as the word "part": a part is not simply a section of something else, but belongs to it completely, and the same is true of a piece of property. Therefore a master is simply the master of a slave, but does not belong to the slave, while the slave isn't just the slave of a master, but belongs to him completely.

It will be clear from these facts what the nature and the functions of a slave are.

A: A human being who by nature does not belong to himself but to another person -- such a one is by nature a slave. 

B: A human being belongs to another when he is a piece of property as well as being human. 

C: A piece of property is a tool which is used to assist some activity, and which has a separate existence of its own. 

(1) The principal and most essential form of property is that which is best and most central to managing a household: the human being. So the first thing to do is acquire good slaves. There are two categories of slaves: overseer and labourer. Since we can see that it is upbringing that gives young people their particular character, it is essential to educate any slaves we have bought if we intend to give them that kind of work which is appropriate to free persons [i.e. supervisory functions]. 

(2) In our dealings with slaves, we should not let them be insolent towards us nor allow them free rein. Those whose position is nearer to that of free men should be treated with respect, those who are labourers given more food. Since the consumption of wine makes free men behave insolently too (and in many cultures even free men abstain from it -- like the Carthaginians when they go campaigning), it is clear that wine should never, or only very rarely, be given to slaves.
(3) There are three things [that concern slaves]: work, punishment and food. Having food but no work and no punishment makes a slave insolent; giving him work and punishment without food is an act of violence and debilitates him. The alternative is to give him work to do together with sufficient food. One cannot manage someone without rewarding them, and food is a slave's reward. Slaves, just like other human beings, become worse when better behaviour brings no benefits, and there are no prizes for virtue and vice. 

(4) Consequently we ought to keep a watch over how our slaves behave, and make our distributions and apportion privileges according to desert, whether it is a matter of food or clothes or free time or punishment. In word and deed we must adopt the authority of a doctor when he issues his prescriptions -- noting the difference that, unlike medicine, food has to be taken continuously. 

(5) The races best suited for work are those which are neither extremely cowardly nor extremely courageous, since both of these are likely to cause trouble. Those who are too easily cowed cannot persevere with their work, while those who have too much courage are difficult to control.

(6) It is essential that each slave should have a clearly defined goal (telos). It is both just and advantageous to offer freedom as a prize -- when the prize, and the period of time in which it can be attained, are clearly defined, this will make them work willingly. We should also let them have children to serve as hostages; and, as is customary in cities, we should not buy slaves of the same ethnic origins. We should also organise sacrifices and holidays, for the sake of the slaves rather than the free men -- for free men get more of the things for the sake of which these practices have been instituted.
Source: Aristotle, The Politics, trans. T.A. Sinclair, rev. Tervor J. Saunders (New York: Penguin, 1981).
Document One Analysis Questions: On a separate sheet of paper, answer the following questions in complete sentences. Provide proof from the document for each response.

  1. 1. How does Aristotle define property?

2. What are the nature and functions of a slave?

  1. 3. What does Aristotle claim is an advantageous "prize" to entice slaves with?

  1. 4. What needed to be done to slaves who were bought to be supervisors?

  1. 5. What provision for punishment is given in this selection?

Documents Two and Three

About the Documents: Slavery was a common and accepted institution in the ancient Mediterranean, practiced by virtually every civilization and society. Because of the prevalence of slaves in these societies, there were usually numerous laws governing the institution of slavery, the treatment of slaves, any rights that a slave might have, and what rights and responsibilities slave owners might have. Roman law, typically a fairly comprehensive set of codes, includes many slave laws that give us an interesting view into the past.

The first document that follows comes from an obscure legal scholar named Gaius, who, sometime in the late second century, wrote the Institutes, a legal textbook that became the standard law book for law students. The second document comes from a legal code ordered by the Emperor Theodosius II in 438 C.E. The Code of Theodosius was the first systematic collection of Roman laws. Each document provides insight into the position of slaves in Rome.

The Documents

Document Two - From The Institutes

Every community that is governed by laws and customs uses partly its own particular law and partly the law common to all mankind. Thus the Roman People in part follows its own particular system of justice and in part the common law of all mankind. We shall note what this distinction implies in particular instances at the relevant point. 

  • The principal distinction made by the law of persons is this, that all human beings are either free men or slaves.

  • Next, some free men are free-born (ingénue), others freedman (libertine). [blt] The free-born are those who were free when they were born; freedmen are those who have been released from a state of slavery. 

  • Freedmen belong to one of three status groups: they are either Roman citizens, or Latins, or subjects (dediticii). 



The Lex Aelia Sentia requires that any slaves who had been put in chains as a punishment by their masters or had been branded or interrogated under torture about some crime of which they were found to be guilty; and any who had been handed over to fight as gladiators or with wild beasts, or had belonged to a troupe or gladiators or had been imprisoned; should, if the same owner or any subsequent owner manumits them, become free men of the same status as subject foreigners (peregrini dediticii).

  • 'Subject foreigners' is the name given to those who had once fought a regular war against the Roman People, were defeated, and gave themselves up.

  • We will never accept that slaves who have suffered a disgrace of this kind can become either Roman citizens or Latins (whatever the procedure or manumission and whatever their age at the time, even if they were in their masters' full ownership); we consider that they should always be held to have the status of subjects.


  • But if a slave has suffered no such disgrace, he sometimes becomes a Roman citizen when he is manumitted, and sometime a Latin.

  • A slave becomes a Roman citizen if he fulfils the following three conditions. He must be over thirty years of age; [his master must own him under very specific conditions;] and he must be set free by a just and legitimate manumission. If any of these conditions is not met, he will become a Latin.

  • A just reason for manumission exists when, for example, a man manumits in the presence of a council a natural son, daughter, brother or sister; or a child he has brought up, or his paedagogus [the slave whose job it had been to look after him as a child], or a slave whom he wants to employ as his manager, or a slave girl whom he intends to marry.

  • In the city of Rome, the council comprises five Roman senators and five equestrians; in the provinces it consists of twenty local justices who must be Roman citizens, and meets on the last day of the provincial assizes; at Rome there are certain fixed days for manumissions before a council. Slaves over thirty can in fact be manumitted at any time; so that manumissions can even take place when the Praetor or Proconsul is passing by on his way to the baths or theatre, for instance.

  • Furthermore, a slave under thirty can become a Roman citizen by manumission if he has been declared free in the Will of an insolvent master and appointed as his heir, provided that he is not excluded by another heir. 

Junian Latins 

  • . . . [persons who do not fulfil the conditions for full citizenship] are called 'Junian Latins': Latins because they are assimilated to the status of those Latins who lived in the ancient colonies; Junian because they received their freedom through the Lex Junia, since they were previously considered to have the status of slaves.

  • But the Lex Junia does not give them the right to make a Will themselves, or to inherit or be appointed as guardians under someone else's Will.

Digression – Dediticii 

  • But those who have the status of subjects cannot receive anything at all by Will, no more than any foreigner can, and according to the general opinion, they cannot make a Will themselves. 

  • The lowest kind of freedom is therefore that of those whose status is that of subjects; and no statute, Senate Recommendation or Imperial Constitution gives them access to Roman citizenship.

  • They are even banned from the city of Rome or anywhere within the hundredth milestone from Rome, and any who break this law have to be sold publicly together with their property, subject to the condition that they must never serve as slaves in the city of Rome or within a hundred miles of Rome, and that they must never be manumitted; if they are manumitted, the law stipulates that they become slaves of the Roman People. All these provisions are laid down by the Lex Aelia Sentia. 

  • But there are many ways in which Latins can become Roman citizens. 

  • First of all there are the regulations laid down by the Lex Aelia Sentia. Anyone under thirty who has been manumitted and has become a Latin; if he marries a wife who is either a Roman citizen or a colonial Latin or a woman of the same status as himself, and this marriage was witnessed by not less than seven adult Roman citizens, and he has a son; then, when that son becomes one year old, he has the right under this law to go to the Praetor (or in a province the governor) and prove that he has married in accordance with the Lex Aelia Sentia and has a year-old son. 

  • And if the magistrate to whom the case is taken declares that the facts are as stated, then both the Latin himself and his wife (if she is of the same status) and son (if he is of the same status too) must be recognised as Roman citizens.

  • (I added the phrase 'if he is of the same status too' with respect to the son because if the wife of a Latin is a Roman citizen, then her son is born as a Roman citizen, in accordance with a recent Senate Recommendation proposed by the Divine Emperor Hadrian.)

  • But even if the Latin dies before he has been able to establish that he has a year-old son, the mother can prove it, and if she was previously a Latin she will thus become a Roman citizen herself. Even if the son is a Roman citizen already, because he is the child of a mother who is a Roman citizen, she still ought to prove his case; for then he can become the natural heir of his father.

  • What was said regarding a year-old son applies equally to a year-old daughter.

  • Furthermore, under the Lex Visellia, anyone who has become a Latin through manumission, whether he is over or under thirty, acquires the full rights of a Roman citizen if he has completed six years' service in the vigils (police) at Rome. It is asserted that a Senate Recommendation was later passed granting citizenship on completion of three years' service. 

[Restrictions on Manumission]


Not everyone who wishes to manumit is legally permitted to do so.

  • A manumission made with a view to defraud creditors or a patron is void; the liberation is prevented by the Lex Aelia Sentia.

  • The same Lex also prevents an owner under twenty from manumitting, except by [special legal provision] and after a council has accepted that there is a just reason. 

Document Three – from The Code of Theodosius

The August Emperor Constantine, to Bassus. 

If an owner has chastised a slave by beating him with sticks or whipping him or has put him into chains in order to keep him under guard, he should not stand in fear of any criminal accusation if the slave dies; and all statutes of limitations and legal interpretations are hereby set aside.

1. But he should not make excessive use of his rights; he will indeed be accused of homicide if he willingly

-- kills him with a stroke of a cane or a stone;
-- inflicts a lethal wound by using something which is definitely a weapon;
-- orders him to be hung from a noose;
-- gives the shocking command that he should be thrown down from a height;
-- pours a poison into him;
-- mangles his body with the punishments reserved to the State, viz. by having his sides torn apart by the claws of wild beasts; or applying fire to burn his body;
-- or by forcing the man's weakened limbs, running with blood and gore, to give up their life spirit as the result of torture -- a form of brutality appropriate to savage barbarians.

Rome, May 11, 319 CE


1. The Institutes: From The Institutes of Gaius by Francis de Zulueta (Oxford University Press, 1953), pp. 23-27.

2. The Code of Theodosius: The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions, trans. Clyde Pharr. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952).

Document Two-Three Analysis Questions: On a separate sheet of paper, answer the following questions in complete sentences. Provide proof from the document for each response.

  1. Do slaves who have served in the police force have any special privileges? What are they?

  1. Does it seem to you that the Romans had a fairly liberal view of slavery? Do they appear to have treated slaves well, or not?

  1. Under what conditions could a slave owner be charged with murder in the death of one of his slaves?

  2. What was a "paedagogus"?

  3. Who were the "libertini"? What three divisions does the group have?

Comparative Questions: On a separate sheet of paper, answer the following questions in complete sentences. Provide proof from the document for each response.

  1. Do any of the documents deal with cruelty towards slaves?

  2. Does either selection give the impression that being a slave was actually a “good” thing?

  3. If you had to pick, would you rather be a Greek or a Roman slave? Why?

  4. Some scholars have suggested that Aristotle believed that some people were simply “better” than others. Does this selection support this? Is Aristotle’s attitude (whatever it is) reflected in the Roman selections?

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