Even though classical Greece seemed to be an enlightened culture, it still supported slavery and the oppression of women. How do you reconcile this dichotomy?
Slavery played a major role in ancient Greek civilization. Slaves could be found everywhere. They worked not only as domestic servants, but as factory workers, shopkeepers, mineworkers, farm workers and as ship’s crew members. Women were the property of men. They did not even have the right to divorce in classical Greece. Furthermore, if a man could not get a woman pregnant he might arrange for another man to do it for him. The lack of women’s legal rights has been a common complaint from women and others about Greek law. But because of their important role they could make demands that allowed them more influence than their rights allowed.
There were many different ways in which a person could have become a slave in ancient Greece. They might have been born into slavery as the child of a slave. They might have been taken prisoner if their city was attacked in one of the many battles which took place during these times. Another possible way in which one might have become a slave was if a family needed money, they might sell one of the children into slavery. Slaves were treated differently in ancient Greece depending upon what their purpose was.
If one was a household servant, they had a fairly good situation, at least as good as slavery could be. They were often treated almost as part of the family. They were always supervised by the woman of the house who was responsible for making sure that all the slaves were kept busy and didn’t get out of line. This could be quite a task as most wealthy Greek households had as many as 10-20 slaves. There were limits to what a slave could do. It is important to remember that these people were thought of as property of their masters rather than citizens of Greece Not all forms of slavery in ancient Greece were as tolerable as that of the domestic servant.
The life of a mineworker or ship’s crewmember was a life of misery and danger. These people usually did not live long because of the grueling work and dangerous conditions of their work. Often those forced into these conditions were those condemned to death for committing crimes because it was understood that they wouldn’t live very long under these circumstances. It is surprising to note that the police force in ancient Athens was made up mainly of slaves. Even the clerks at the treasury office were slaves. Slavery was a very important part of ancient Greece. It played a major role in so many aspects of Greek civilization from domestic living to the infamous Athenian naval fleet.