February 1st, 2005


Athenian slavery, American wage slavery

Let me make one thing clear before I even start in on this topic.

We don't know much about slavery in Corinth. We don't know much about slavery in Thebes. Neither state left any written accounts, and archeology hasn't told us much. What we know about slavery in ancient Greece is pretty extensive, but it is only about Athens and Sparta. And the most important thing that you must know about slavery in Athens and Sparta is that slavery in Athens is nothing like slavery in Sparta.

You all have seen, by now, some of the resistance that comes up whenever anybody apologizes for or attempts to defend ancient Greece. Some of you can't believe that a post-modern American like me could stand up for a society with certain faults that you find intolerable, for gods who blessed such a society. Well, frankly, that's how I feel about Sparta, and it is almost entirely because of the issue of slavery. What the Spartans did to the Messenians is entirely comparable in brutality and savagery to anything that England, France, Spain, and America did to imported African slaves. No, that doesn't go far enough. It was actually much, much worse. For example, African slaves weren't as routinely hunted for sport. I will not say anything favorable about it. Not one thing.

At the height of the Athenian empire, all the world traded with Athens. One thing about Athens baffled the Persians and the Egyptians, seemed bizarre and hilarious to the Macedonians, and angered the heck out of the early Romans. What was incomprehensible and a little threatening to all of the other nations of the world was that when you walked down the street, there was no way to tell a citizen from a slave. Slaves wore no badge of shame; citizens no badge of honor. Citizen and slave men wore the same, well, frankly, not much more than rags or bits of draped cloth, the same straw hats and sandals. They couldn't be told apart by speech or mannerisms; they looked alike and spoke the same dialect of Greek. Citizens and slaves attended the same temple ceremonies and ate equal portions at those banquets. And I wonder how many of the foreigners noticed the most truly weird part of the situation. The city police force was 100% slave, were the only ones who routinely went armed in the city, and as slaves of the city could and did give orders to citizens.

Nor would any foreigner have realized that your average slave takes the same days off that his owner does, is allowed to work or trade for wages on those days, and is allowed to keep that money and spend it for his or her own purposes; this was especially common with slaves who had at least one skilled trade. And when home, the slaves not only wear the same clothes as the owners, but eat the same meals at the same hearth, and sleep in quarters no worse. I'm not going to say that life as a slave was a picnic. The slave's owner gives the orders and the slave obeys ... for all that the master works right along side the slave, and for the most part does the exact same work, it's the owners who make the decisions. On the other hand, every slave knows that if the household starves, they starve, and has the reasonable expectation that if the household thrives, they'll live better too.

If this seems incomprehensible to you, it's because a Greek slave, a doulos, is something different from a slave anywhere else: he's a native. Only in late and decadent times did the Greeks import slaves from elsewhere, and this didn't last long enough to change the customs and practices. The Greeks got their slaves through a process of informal, almost accidental exchange with other Greek cities. You see, when a Greek phalanx goes to war, it takes roughly equal numbers of citizens and slaves to carry the armor, weapons, and two days' or so of provisions to the battlefield. Both sides' citizens then fight; according to battlefield markers, the average fight ends when the winners have taken about 5% casualties, but the losers have taken about 15% casualties and their phalanx breaks. At this point, some large percentage of the losing side's warriors and slaves are taken by the winning side as slaves. This means that even free Greeks have a strong incentive to keep the institution of slavery as humane as possible; it is always possible that some day, they may be slaves themselves.

In the Odyssey, the ghost of swift Achilles tells clever Odysseus that he would rather be a poor man's paid employee and alive than be king of all the dead. He was clearly try to say that the worst of our world is better than the best of Hades. Isn't it interesting that he considered being a paid employee the worst thing imaginable, considering that Greece had slavery? He wasn't wrong, though. Slaves in Greece had more rights than employees. Poor people who had no land, who lost their land, or who ruined their land were available to work for hired wages. Work was available, or not, depending on the vagaries of the economy, but day laborers worked the fishing fleets, loaded and unloaded cargoes at the docks and the warehouses, and during harvest often found work on the more successful farms. But when you're hired as an employee, your employer has no obligation to feed you, house you, or clothe you ... but you're subject to the same discipline that a slave would be. Worse, actually, you don't have the slave's customary escape.

Athenian law allowed owners to beat slaves and employers to beat employees, but not to injure or kill them. And even then, there's a standard escape available to slaves: the slave has access to the family altar, and to any altar of the city. By long-standing religious law, nobody can be harmed or in any way interfered with while they are touching an altar. Of course, you don't have to feed them, either. On the other hand, while you're standing there waiting to beat them the second they leave the altar to eat or find a chamberpot, neither of you is getting any work done. It also makes both sides take time to talk it out and to calm down. This standoff is the stock scene in New Comedy, the single most common bit of theater painted on commemorative vases and cups. Hourly employees probably get the sanctuary of the city's numerous public altars, but farm laborers don't have access to the altar in the house.

I'm not saying that this would be a picnic. I'm certain that no middle class or upper class citizen would voluntarily change places, really, with his or her slaves, although threatening to do so to show the slave that the grass isn't greener is also a standard joke in Greek comedy. And there is at least one incomprehensible bit of weirdness in Athenian law regarding slaves. It's completely incompatible with all of the rest of the laws on slavery, and this baffled ancient Greek writers just as much as it baffles us. My guess is that it's a misremembered and misunderstood bit of bronze age law. Slaves can not give testimony in a court case until after they've been tortured. No, this didn't make sense to them, either. Plenty of bronze age legal codes say that slaves can't testify against citizens unless they do so even after torture; my guess is that the Greeks remembered it wrong, and got stuck with it. But judging by the few examples we have where it came up, the net effect was that owners went way out of their way to keep their slaves out of court cases altogether, and when they ended up having to testify, the torture was almost symbolic, pro forma. (There's a rather funny burlesque of this in Aristophanes' Frogs.)

So what does this mean to us? Probably nothing. Maybe something if you're a farm worker; conditions for migrant farm workers are still not much better than they were in ancient Greece. The United Farm Workers forced California growers to at least house their day laborers, rather than leaving them vagrant, but we're nowhere near granting them the same rights the Athenians would grant a slave. The rest of our households and our businesses don't run on slavery because frankly, we don't need slaves as badly as they did; that's what machinery and electronics are for, mostly. And besides, Americans have proven, beyond all shadow of a doubt, that we are no more to be trusted with slaves than the Spartans were. No, I'm not advocating slavery; I'm just saying that except in the horror show that was Sparta, the institution of slavery as it was practiced in the rest of the Greek world was not so horrible as to disqualify those people's gods from honorable worship.

But wouldn't it be something if you couldn't tell the richest people in America from the poorest people? Wouldn't it be amazing if poor people and rich people lived in the same houses, wore the same clothes, ate the same meals? Wouldn't it be interesting if, as was the case in Athens, the richest people in America only made 50 times what the poorest people made, or at least something less than tens of thousands of times as much?