Ancient Greek Slavery and its Relationship to Democracy Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Ancient Greek Slavery and its Relationship to Democracy

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Slavery underpinned the entire fabric of the society of Ancient Greece. Family life, business life and, most importantly, political life all relied heavily on a class of people who carried out menial and degrading tasks for their masters. Slavery made several direct and fundamental contributions to the practical application of democracy. However, it was not only Greek slavery that led to the development of democracy in Athens and elsewhere; a complex combination of factors produced the institution we so widely regard as the foundation of our own political system. For example, the urbanisation of Greece, philosophical developments and an interest in politics by the population at large all contributed to the rise of democracy in Athens. On the other hand, slavery also underpinned these factors, so perhaps it is only a slight exaggeration to say that only Greek slavery made Greek democracy possible.

Greek Slavery

The Greek populace existed in a complex but clearly defined class structure, from a wealthy and influential aristocracy to a lowly and nearly powerless slave population. The slave was an integral part of Greek society, and the right to own another person was rarely questioned in Greek society, or for that matter, anywhere else. It was considered unfit for a man of distinction to carry out tasks that were fit only for foreigners and slaves, as Dickinson1 points out:

Aristotle, the most balanced of all Greek thinkers and the best exponent of the normal trend of their ideas, excludes the class of artisans from the citizenship of his ideal state on the ground that they are debarred by their occupation from the characteristic excellence of men.

Although Greeks did not have the sheer numbers of slaves that the Romans relied on, it is known that Plato owned 50 slaves, and that one man owned a thousand that he rented out.

The exclusion of a large proportion of the population, namely slaves, foreigners and women2, from the citizenship of a Greek state allowed their particular form of direct democracy to take place much more readily. The numbers of the politically active population were reduced so much so that most of the citizens could meet in one place to discuss matters of importance to the state. Slavery also allowed working citizens the luxury of taking a day off to attend the assemblies, which were held on a regular basis.

However, this alone was not enough to produce democracy. Slavery was the norm in every Greek city-state, yet only a few were governed by a democratic process. Although in 6BC typical governance had shifted away from tyranny to more collective systems, this does not necessarily imply democracy. Roberts3 refers to oligarchies and constitutional governments as well as Athenian-style democracies.


Athenian democracy was not a representative democracy. Greeks were required to attend some 40 assemblies every year. This would have been difficult had Athenian society not become urbanised by the time of its institution as a governmental system.

Poor soil in Attica had led to a reliance on imported grain4 and hence the population of Athens were far more concerned with commercial ventures than agricultural ones. The city itself began to grow, and as the wealth of the Athenians increased, so did the urban population. An influx of foreigners attempting to improve their own position on the back of the Athenian economy led to further urban growth.

Having the majority of its population, and certainly most of its citizens, within the city itself, meant that it was possible for people to attend the assemblies without taking several days off for travel. The general population was also more concerned with matters of the state as they lived in a centralised area and therefore felt a heightened sense of community.

Slavery, however, had already contributed largely to this aspect of Greek democracy. It was the use of slaves that lead to an increase of wealth which was sufficient enough to allow individuals to move from subsistence farming to other enterprises. The city-state itself owned slaves called hierodouloi who were responsible for much of the bureaucratic work of the state, as well as providing a police force. The fact that such activities were carried out at an extremely low wage level greatly increased the viability of the city-state as an entity, and hence accelerated the urbanisation of Athens and other cities.

Philosophical Developments

Going hand in hand with politics in ancient Greece was philosophy. It was those men who contemplated the meaning of life, the universe and everything that were best equipped to shape the political atmosphere of a growing city-state. For example, Plato famously said, 'The state is but man writ large', and Aristotle compiled a vast collection of constitutions from various Greek city-states. The influence of these great philosophers on politics is immense. As Roberts points out:

Aristotle was so rich a thinker and interested in so many sides of experience that his historical influence is as hard to delimit as Plato's. What he wrote provided a framework for the discussion of ... politics for two thousand years.

Most influential in regard to the advent of democracy was the cultural shift from tribal, family-based life to loyalty to a region of Greek land. No longer did people believe that the family was owed ultimate loyalty, but the newly emerging city-state. This was sparked by the harsh conditions of the ancient Greek landscape, which caused groups of people to work together to overcome hardship. Accelerated by an increasing distinction in dialect, Greece was soon settled in a scattered manner. The need to work for the common good in order to survive would be the basis of democratic principles, in which all citizens would be required to help decide on political issues.

Philosophical discussions regarding the nature of 'good' government also bore considerable weight in the ancient Greek world. Various philosophers, not limited to Plato and Aristotle, offered their own conceptions of the ideal city-state. In Athens, it seems, the prevailing support was for a society based on equal rights for citizens. Plato and Aristotle both offered different systems based even more strongly on a class system. It must be stressed, however, that Greek democracy in this sense verged on an aristocracy, as only the upper class was allowed to vote:

A democracy with such significant prejudices about manual labour and commerce; a democracy which only grants citizen rights to a small minority of the population - does not such a democracy bear an uncommon resemblance to an aristocratic régime?
- Flaceliere, Robert. Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles. New York, Macmillan, 1966.

Again, slavery was at the root of these philosophical elements of Greek society. By using slaves to do many of the time consuming chores of everyday life, a certain proportion of the population were left free to think about other things. Rather than worry about where their next meal would come from, wealthy Greeks had time to consider philosophical questions, from metaphysics to politics.

Widespread Political Interest

Even though it was only a relative few who proposed political frameworks to apply to the state, the majority of citizens were interested in the day to day affairs of the state. Democracy spread from the election of public officials, to referenda on various issues, to massive juries in criminal proceedings. As Roberts explains:

By the middle of the fifth century all adult males were entitled to take part in the assembly and through it, therefore, in the election of major administrative officers. The powers of the Areopagus were steadily reduced; after 462 BC it was only a law-court with jurisdiction over certain offences. The other courts were at the same time rendered more susceptible to democratic influence by the institution of payment for jury-service. As they also conducted much administrative business, this meant a fair amount of popular participation in the daily running of the city.

Payment for service in both juries and at the assemblies was nominal, but a small compensation for time lost was enough to guarantee quorum and hence maintain a democratic process.

Here, though, slavery also played a significant role. The fact that most of the citizens were interested in politics was due in part to the exclusion of lower classes from that group. The reluctance of the population to leave their daily routine to assist in public services was minimised by the fact that their slaves could continue to work in their absence. Testament to this is given in our modern, slaveless society, because it is only with difficulty that willing jurors can be found for the pittance offered in compensation for the duty.


In the development of any political system, in antiquity or modern society, a great many factors combine in complex and often indecipherable relationships. Greek democracy was in no way an exception, as it was the result of a great many social beliefs and values, as well as many practical influences on Greek society. Everything from the Greek landscape and urbanisation to the theories of the great philosophers affected the advent of democracy around the Aegean Sea.

Slavery, however, was inseparably linked to these factors of interest with regard to Greek democracy. So reliant on slaves were Greek citizens that all of their social norms were based, at least in part, on these people. We have seen that slavery allowed the attendance of citizens at the assemblies, that slavery enabled philosophers to consider political problems, that slavery accelerated the urbanisation of Athens and other city-states, and that slavery allowed only the relatively wealthy to be involved in politics.

While multiple factors caused democracy to become established, slavery was closely involved at the root of all of them. Although they may have come about in their own right, slavery accelerated the advent of these contributing factors to an alarming extent. In fact, that the precise combination of influences required to produce Greek democracy would have existed at the same time is almost unimaginable, except that they were all sewn together by a common thread: slavery.

1Dickinson, G Lowes, The Greek View of Life. New York, Collier, 19672It must be noted that while women were not considered slaves, they were almost completely excluded from life outside individual homes.3Roberts, JM, History of the World. England, Penguin, 1997.4 Roberts, JM History of the World. England, Penguin, 1997.

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