H.M. Hyndman

The Evolution of Revolution

Chapter 7
Slavery in Greece

There is no accurate record of the development from tribal, patriarchal slavery to the period of complete chattel slavery. The nearest approach to such a record is in the case of Greece and Rome. Here again, as in the instance of the duration of communism, of the change from matriarchal to paternal descent, of the growth of the institution of private property and the transformation from the gentile society to the citizen polity and state – from societas to civitas – the length of time occupied was probably far greater than is as yet generally recognised. It was accompanied in each country where the full evolution was accomplished by the simultaneous growth of exchange as an economic factor, until the power of that impersonal and for centuries wholly uncomprehended agent of accumulative and individual tyranny, money, overshadowed all else, and led in state after state to genuine social revolution. Moneylending, usury, mortgages, commerce, production and mining for profit, with the ever-magnified strength of the merchant, helped to extend the sphere of slavery, and to put the slaves quite outside the category of independent human beings. Capture in war universally obliterated freedom for the captives save those exceptional cases where ransom was permitted and taken advantage of. There was no evading this recognised rule. Might, as already said, constituted ethical right, not only in Asia and Africa, but among the most capable and cultured peoples of Europe. Debt acted in the same way as the agent of slavery at home.

For centuries before the complete organisation of slavery the free farmers of the land and the freemen workers in the cities carried on their employment, and constituted their trade combinations outside the the slave system which was slowly growing up. As in Attica and other city states, the power of usury went hand in hand with the development of slavery. The farmer on the land, or the workman and trader of the city fell into the grip of the usurer, was in the long run forced by his relentless creditor into the ranks of the slaves as the last means of paying his debt. But this was a slow process of increase in the home production of slaves, slower even than the domestic reproduction of the slaves themselves.

For domestic and farm slavery the slave’s condition was precarious enough, yet the relations between master and bondsman were at least human. But work in mines was, during the whole slave period, the worst fate that could befall a man. There was no personal relation, nor any touch of humanity in it. Brought directly into contact with the compelling motion of immediately realising production for profit, the life of the slaves in the gold and copper, and later in the silver, mines was one perpetual routine of slow torture. This applied not only to the slave labour in the mines of Greece, Sicily and Egypt, but likewise to the mines worked by the Carthaginians and afterwards by the Romans in Spain, in Gaul and other countries. The slave miner was the soulless, material instrument for wealth production in fact, which philosophers and jurists declared him to be in theory. In the hey-day of the slave system, when slaves could be easily and cheaply obtained by capture in war, by piracy in peace, or by the selling into slavery of debters by the usurer, the life of the slave was of no account. The calculation simply was, how much gold or silver he could be forced by repeated floggings to obtain before utterly exhausted human nature relieved his sufferings by death.

The quantity of treasure thus gained was enormous. In one district alone in Spain at a late period 40,000 slaves were continuously employed; and probably Hannibal was to a large extent supported by the produce silver mines near Saguntum which have never been rediscovered. All these mines, and the mines in Gaul as well, after the Roman conquest of that province, were steadily worked with the same ruthless disregard for human life and human suffering. It was a pure matter of calculation. If more gold could be won at less cost by working men to death under the lash than in any other way, then that method was at once adopted and persistently applied. This was the system in use at Laurium at the time of the successful rising. But though the slaves were victorious for the moment, that did not suffice to change the methods of working in the long run or to ensure more humane treatment. Thus the general conception of Greek and particularly Athenian mildness in relation to slavery is quite a misconception. The great slave market at Delos, where ancient writers tell us that arrangements were constantly offering and selling as many as 10,000 slaves a day, was of course a Greek centre of this huge trade. The steady demand and ready sale for eunuchs at a high price on this mart proves also that, though the Western Greeks might not use these unfortunate appurtenances of polygamous civilisation for themselves, they were quite ready to procure them for others.

The ablest of Greek thinkers, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, Socrates, Plato, could not even imagine a state of society where the chattel slavery which they were accustomed would not continue as the foundation of their civilisation, and the economic basis of industry, art, science and culture generally. Yet Plato had been made a slave himself, in the course of one of those changes which were so common in the political affairs of his day. Aristotle, of course, considered slaves as a necessary and permanent portion of family life. His speculation as to the function of wholly mythical automatic machinery, whereby slavery could be avoided, is drawn from the conceptions of the poet Hesiod. At the disposal of the deified ironmaster, Vulcan, in his labours such machinery might work alone, subject only to the supervision of Vulcan himself. If the shuttle could weave of its own motion, and the lyre could play of itself, then also the builder might need no artificers nor the master any slaves. As things were, however, slaves performed, under the control of the master, those services with which the gods alone could dispense. Slaves were, in fact, indispensable human instruments of production like other animals. As a great reward for their good behaviour or for some conspicuous deed of bravery they might be given their freedom, and even accorded the rights of citizenship. These entailed the power and advantages of entering the competitive stage of freemen, and working for wages, advantages of which the slaves were by no means always inclined to avail themselves, sacrifice the security of their dependent position, with all its manifold drawbacks, for the uncertainty of a life of liberty.

Aristotle returns to this subject of the inevitability and the ethical status of slavery several times, having always, apparently, on his conscience, an unexpressed, perhaps half-conscious, doubt as to whether all slavery was not opposed to “nature.” Thus the human being who does not belong to himself by nature, but belongs wholly to another man, is a slave by nature; is, therefore, the property of somebody else, and consequently a mere chattel, though a man all the same. But the main origin of this slavery being capture women and children in and by war, the man who was the ablest thinker of all antiquity found himself, after all, greatly puzzled to give an equitable or even legal status for this same chattel slavery which he contended was not only inevitable, but in itself just. So in his usual laudable endeavour to be quite clear and precise he becomes, of course entirely against will or intention, confused and even contradictory, though he imputes the same self-contradiction to others. Some, he avers, with whom the philosopher himself does not agree, put forward this identical plea that right founded upon custom justifies slavery due to success or defeat in war. But then the war itself which led to this slavery may have been unjust; and it cannot reasonably be affirmed that a man who is by this means unjustly enslaved is consequently a slave by nature. For then men of the highest families and noblest descent might be made slaves if taken prisoners in war and sold. But such persons ought not to be regarded as slaves at all. The outer barbarians, however – those who are not noble Greeks, that is to say – stand on quite a different level. There are, then, some necessarily slaves and others who under any circumstances never can be slaves.

So it all comes to this: that some human beings are slaves and others are free men and women owing to the decision of nature; that there are two different classes of mankind, the one, advantageously for society, destined to be slaves, the other beneficially ordained to be masters; that it is just and right that some should be under control and that others should govern as nature fitted them to do. In which case it is likewise just that the master being fit to rule should dominate the slave who is unfit to rule. The slave, also, being under these conditions a piece of property, his owner can use this his chattel as he pleases and in quite a different way from that which is applicable to free men.

Throughout this strange medley of inconsequent argumentation “nature”, it will be observed, plays much the same part as that which was ascribed to this abstract entity by certain superficial philosophers in the eighteenth century, some two thousand years later. Aristotle’s attempt to give a natural, legal, equitable foundation to human slavery obviously failed as, from any point of view, it was bound to fail. For slavery had, in effect, become natural from man’s familiarity with it as a universal institution. When Aristotle discussed its basis it had already grown up through many, many centuries, possibly even thousands of years, out of gradual but unconscious economic and social development, until men’s minds were completely saturated with it as an inevitable outcome of all known, or hypothetically traceable, human relations in society. With all his Utopian effort in his Republic, Plato, like Aristotle, could not think outside its influence. Slavery had been, was and would be. The communism of the past, which alone had dispensed with it, was too far behind and too little known to occasion any doubt as to the permanence of the ownership of man by man; the communism of the future was too far ahead for the most brilliant philosopher to conceive of its approach, or to apprehend the causes of such social reintegration and personal emancipation.

The important fact for sociology is that Aristotle, with all his power of thought, of induction, of hypothesis, and vast capacity for analysis and ordering and marshalling of known facts, could not himself imagine or hypothetically construct any form which would not rest upon slaves – slaves obtained by victory in war; slaves bred of slaves begotten in peace; both condemned to penal servitude for life, not by the chance of battle, but by nature. When, in fact, he tried to give some historical groundwork to this his inevitable subjection of men by men, of the vast majority to the comparatively small minority, we are confronted only by the vaguest phrases. The material and historic method of investigation was then impossible. Still more remarkable, however, than the bemused perplexity of the great philosopher and jurist, who examined and recorded all the political and social institutions of his time, is the frame of mind of the slaves themselves, even of those who were quite recently enslaved: free men but yesterday, meeting in peace and fighting in war their successful antagonists on perfect equality: slaves to-day to conquerors who were assuredly no better in any way than themselves. They accepted their new position, with resentment no doubt, and with hope of revenge upon the victors; but, nevertheless, they accepted it without organised revolt. So did all the slaves of Aristotle’s period. Yet slaves formed the overwhelming majority of the population in each of the Greek cities at the period of their greatest prosperity, and in their dependent territories and colonies as well.

In Sparta the proportion of the slaves was still greater than elsewhere. Here the gentile aristocracy, perhaps the most thoroughly trained and organised warrior caste of the ancient world, constituted so petty a minority of the people that they were in constant fear of their helots. They treated them with hideous cruelty, and had no hesitation in slaughtering them wholesale under circumstances of revolting treachery when they even imagined that any chance of a rising threatened. The butchery in cold blood of 2,000 of the finest of armed slaves, at one blow, was so horrible an atrocity that it appears to have shocked the not very sensitive feelings of the other slave-holding minorities in the Greek States. Yet in spite of this and other similar tragedies, in spite of the persistant miseries of their daily life, and their great superiority of numbers, there is no record of any successful revolt of the helots in the Spartan community. This is the more noteworthy since a considerable proportion of their slaves were trained to the use of arms, and thousands of them fought in battle side by side with their masters. Custom, which limited the range of philosopher’s mental vision, rendered it practically impossible for the slaves to survey the possibility of their own emancipation by conjoint effort.

Similarly in Athens, Aegium, Corinth, Thebes, Syracuse, Corcyra, there was passive acceptance of the existing things state of things, notwithstanding the enormous disproportion between the slave-owning class, with the freemen citizens, and the slaves. Long-continued custom, that is to say, here as in Sparta, had the same influence on the spirit of the slaves throughout Greece that religious ordinances, upheld by super-natural sanction and perpetuated from generation to generation by stereotyped castes, had on the same subjected class of the slaves of the Orient and Egypt. This, too, although when the slave period in Greece was at its height, freemen in a depressed condition were working for wages alongside the slaves, and there were besides considerable numbers of manumitted slaves. But numbers appeared to give them no confidence. Such partial plots as were set on foot were rendered futile by treachery among the slaves themselves. Only in the mines of Laurium, where a wholly atrocious system of working to death prevailed, against which the victims rose in a paroxysm of despair, and in the island of Chios, where the slaves eventually deserted their emancipator and went back to their servitude, were even temporarilty successful revolts carried out. In Athens and Attica generally this is the more remarkable, since not only were the slaves, as elsewhere, immensely preponderant in numbers to the extent of fourteen slaves to one adult citizen, but they also provided from their ranks the entire body of armed police who were kept and paid in order to maintain security of life and property in the interests of their masters and the free citizens. Great precautions were at first taken against the likelihood of organised insubordination. But these gradually fell into abeyance, as it became evident that, whether the slaves were contented with their lot or not, nothing serious in the way of general upheaval need be apprehended.

This quiescence and obedience on the part of the slaves would have seemed to us, who live under another form of economic and social servitude, almost unintelligible, having regard to the circumstances which brought these men and their families under slavery – even had they been well treated and not greatly worse off than the free citizens who laboured for wages as artisans and the like. But this was not so. Although a contrast has frequently been made between the slaves of Greece and those of other countries, more particularly of Rome and Egypt, and although the Greeks were not so systematically cruel as some peoples, their slaves were nevertheless badly treated. In ordinary life the domestic, industrial and even agricultural slaves may sometimes have enjoyed mildness and humanity, but there is quite enough to show that this consideration was but skin-deep. What happened to them if they were called upon to give evidence in any court of law proves clearly that slaves, even those who had been captured and enslaved but recently, and themselves guilty of no offence whatever, suffered under the most horrible disabilities. Their testimony was rarely received as trustworthy on either side, save after they had been subjected to torture of the most excrutiating description, rivalling in ingenuity and horror the worst atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition. This was done as a matter of course and the noblest of Athenian advocates and orators, so far from raising any protest against such legal outrages upon nature, insisted upon their being carried out to the fullest extent.

The whole scheme of torture was pressed to the extreme limit of what is conceivable. Humane masters who hesitated, or refused, to submit their slaves to forms of the “question” which must not only inflict frightful agony upon the unfortunate victims, but might easily result in their physical ruin for life, would certainly lose their case and incur public obloquy into the bargain. Not only so, but any litigant who thought that slave evidence would be useful to him might, and frequently did, insist upon his legal right that slaves belonging to another master should also be conducted to the torture chamber. This was done if the party in the case who demanded that such evidence should be rendered would guarantee to pay the owner of the slaves the value of any damage, including death, that his chattels had sustained during these endeavours to elicit the truth from them by intolerable physical suffering.

When we consider all these undoubted facts, which are recorded as taking place every day, it is evident that the cultured and elegant Athenian democracy of free citizens was as much imbued with the very worst anti-human tendencies of their time as any of the less civilised nations around whom they stigmatised as barbarians. It is unnecessary to recite the terrible penalties for small offences committed by slaves, when, however innocent a slave might be as a complete outsider in any case, he was liable to be handled in this manner without redress. It is all summed up in the few words: no slave might give evidence court on any matter unless he had been thoroughly well tortured beforehand. This was the view of the best men in Athens, a view which was acted upon to the full extent that was thought desirable, and as a matter of course. It was just and right that this should be done.

Knowing well that this dreadful physical suffering was what any of them might have to undergo, at any moment, if their master should happen to be dragged into legal proceedings, it becomes still more wonderful that such monstrous injustice did not impel the slaves to take up arms to avenge themselves, to free themselves or to die in the attempt. But it was not so. Cold-blooded legal torture, carried to its utmost limit, like frequent severe corporal chastisement in the homes or on the farms, failed to rouse the slaves to break through the ties of usage which bound their minds tighter than weights and chains confined their bodies. Time after time we see this same phenomenon throughout history: men under varying forms of servitude disinclined or unable to combine against their oppressors. When, by some accident, goaded into insurrection, momentarily successful, they can form no design except to inflict on others the tyrannous and degrading system from which they had suffered themselves. What renders this quiescence and apathy the more remarkable in Greece, and particularly in the case of fact that the slave-owning minority, gentile and insurgent constantly at variance among themselves, and were likewise frequently engaged in bitter warfare with their rivals outside. Yet the slaves looked on at these civil conflicts campaigns and external campaigns without any organised endeavour to take advantage of the mutual animosities between their respective masters. Nay, often, as already noted, they fought bravely on either side in their masters’ cause, when the same courage and devotion and skill in the use of arms might have secured their own emancipation, at the cost of enslaving others.

Our admiration for the great works of Greek genius too often blinds us to the truth that Greece with Athens was herself the centre of perhaps the worst and most highly developed system of commercial conquest, usury, slave raids, piracy and general pecuniary infamy in the whole Mediterranean basin. The same highly cultured citizens who listened to and saw with cordial appreciation the splendid plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and enjoyed the brilliant comedies of Aristophanes and Menander, not only treated their slaves in the abominable fashion spoken of above, but were terribly unscrupulous and treacherous in all their dealings with other peoples. The Romans themselves, those past masters in the art of profitable conquest and fraudulent rapine, learnt much of their financial rascality from the Greeks. This all shows that, as terrible oppression and cruelty fail to rouse resistance among those accustomed to a life of subjection, so the highest culture and intelligence, even when combined with a lofty ethic among their equals, have no power to soften or restrain the brutality and greed of a dominant class. And this appears to be the universal rule throughout the series of class antagonisms and slave forms which arose after the break-up of gentilism and communism.

Important, however, as Greek slavery was in its day, nowhere can the development of chattel slavery be traced so clearly and certainly, step by step, as in the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. That is the reason why Roman slavery, with its vast extent and importance in the history of European civilisation, has been taken as typical of this institution generally, outside Egypt and Asia. Other great states of antiquity, notably Carthage, Persia, India, Asia Minor, Assyria, Babylon, based their prosperity for centuries on slavery; but our knowledge of their economic and social life, even in the case of Egypt, is far inferior to that which we have of the life and institutions of Rome. Slavery in Greece, though in the main of the same character, and due to similar causes, was smaller in extent compared to the populations affected – when the Greek colonies and the settlements in Asia Minor are taken into account – that, from the point of view of world history, it plays quite a secondary part. Sparta, which looms so large for us in the pages of Thucydides and in the institutions of Lycurgus, contained but 32,000 Spartan fighting men; while the estimate that these overlords had more than 200,000 helots and 120,000 semi-serfs is not improbably excessive. With Rome at the height of her domination we come to very different figures of population, both free and enslaved.

Last updated on 27.7.2006