Dignified slaves, venerable masters

Slavery in ancient Greece was a significant social and economical feature; this was – likewise anywhere else in the ancient world – undeniably a widespread custom that characterised Hellenic poleis, and further political institutions, during their entire development and history. There were a few actual forms of slavery: mainly chattel slavery, but also there were state-owned-slaves (as the Athens’ Scythians guards) as well as serfdom (the helots in Sparta or the penestaeΠενέσται of Thessaly). Any of all of these forms were generally accepted, deemed ordinary and quite indispensable to the normal course of economy, war and general living as it was deeply analysed by Aristotle in his Politics and by Plato in his Laws as well.

Ancient Greek comedy (and its largely transposed Latin versions as well) has plenty examples of various slave characters: helpful and devote, astute and pitiless and ignorant and stupid, yet always within the unquestioned social framework where they maintained their status of mere personal properties. Nevertheless, in spite of this generalised reduction to very objects – just belongings to fully dispose of – during the end of the classic age, perhaps further to the evolution of the civil thought and maybe under the wave of the spreading Sophistic phenomenon, it is possible to gather examples of a rather modern reappraisal of the slave as human being, albeit to some extent quite lamely and without any legal influence on his/her destiny.

In literature a remarkable example of the consideration that slaves were slightly gaining is for instance palpable during this moving dialogue by Euripides in his tragedy Helen:

MESSENGER: Whoever pays no reverence to his master’s affairs, rejoicing with him and grieving with his troubles, is worthless. Although I was born a servant, let me still be numbered among honest slaves; my mind is free, if not my name. For this is better than to suffer double misery as one man: to have a worthless heart and, being a slave, to owe obedience to any other.

MENELAUS: Come, old man – often by my shield you have had your full share of trouble and hard work now also have a share in my success.

Once again, the same Euripides, in another work – namely Ion – focuses on loyalty and dignity of this servant and solicits a greatly important distinction between social/legal status and actual decorum and humanity:

TUTOR: I wish to help you in this work, and kill the boy, entering the house where he is preparing the feast, and when I have paid back my living to my masters, either to die, or live and see the light.

There is one thing in slavery that brings shame, the name; in all other respects a good slave is no worse than the free-born.

It is striking remarkable though, that these promising examples from the ancient Greek literature do not come only from tragedy. Actually the most significant contributions in terms of what nowadays we would probably call defence of the human rights came from speeches written by logographers (i.e. speechwriters who used to be hired to arrange and write speeches that were meant to be delivered by another person) or rhetors with political and/or legal professional background and skills.

One interesting example is found in a scholiast to Aristotle’s Rhetoric: in the very paragraph where he is trying to define justice and law:

“Let us now classify just and unjust actions generally, starting from what follows. Justice and injustice have been defined in reference to laws and persons in two ways. Now there are two kinds of laws, particular and general. By particular laws I mean those established by each people in reference to themselves, which again are divided into written and unwritten; by general laws I mean those based upon nature. In fact, there is a general idea of just and unjust in accordance with nature, as all men in a manner divine, even if there is neither communication nor agreement between them

where is quoted a fragment of a speech – the Messeniakos – delivered by Alcidamas of Elaea (a scholar of Gorgias the sophist) a renowned orator, in favour of the insurgency of the Messenians against Sparta:

God has left all men free; nature has made none a slave”.

Another famous Athenian rethor, Antiphon, had particularly modern ideas in so far as equality and human dignity are concerned:

“By nature we all equally possess with all respect the same origin, both Greeks and Barbarians”

Nonetheless they all seem quite weak and rather isolated voices, within a strongly consolidated practice and social framework, as Xenophon in his Memorabilia reports within this insightful dialogue:

EUTHERUS “I came home when the war ended, Socrates, and am now living here,” he replied. “Since we have lost our foreign property, and my father left me nothing in Attica, I am forced to settle down here now and work for my living with my hands. I think it’s better than begging, especially as I have no security to offer for a loan.”

SOCRATES “And how long will you have the strength, do you think, to earn your living by your work?”

EUTHERUS “Oh, not long, of course.”

SOCRATES “But remember, when you get old you will have to spend money, and nobody will be willing to pay you for your labour.”


SOCRATES “Then it would be better to take up some kind of work at once that will assure you a competence when you get old, and to go to somebody who is better off and wants an assistant, and get a return for your services by acting as his bailiff, helping to get in his crops and looking after his property.”

EUTHERUS “I shouldn’t like to make myself a slave, Socrates.”

SOCRATES “But surely those who control their cities and take charge of public affairs are thought more respectable, not more slavish on that account.”

EUTHERUS “Briefly, Socrates, I have no inclination to expose myself to any man’s censure.”

SOCRATES – “But, you see, Eutherus, it is by no means easy to find a post in which one is not liable to censure. Whatever one does, it is difficult to avoid mistakes, and it is difficult to escape unfair criticism even if one makes no mistakes. I wonder if you find it easy to avoid complaints entirely even from your peasant employers. You should try, therefore, to have no truck with grumblers and to attach yourself to considerate masters; to undertake such duties as you can perform and beware of any that are too much for you, and, whatever you do, to give of your best and put your heart into the business. In this way, I think, you are most likely to escape censure, find relief from your difficulties, live in ease and security, and obtain an ample competence for old age.”

However, although the question was merely slightly raised in maybe some of the more progressist Athenian intellectual circles, apparently there is no trace of a motion submitted to the attention, discussion or vote of the ecclesia on this matter, hence there is no evidence that an actual political or institutional change took place with reference to slavery whatsoever – well small wonder considering it as such a huge industry, profitable business and strong economic infrastructural backbone.

It is albeit quite impressive that this debate developed concurrently with the descending glory of post-Pericles’ age; a circumstance perhaps more than purely coincidental with Hermann Broch’s epoch: a period (1920/1940) he considered as the sunset of spiritual certainties and the eclipse of what was deemed sacred in Mitteleuropa, entirely swept by the fury of the mass propelled by creed discrepancies and inhuman ethnic pseudo-ideologies. He portrayed, in an extremely thorny style, Virgil on his deathbed dialoguing with his Emperor Caesar Octavian Augustus, and the divine poet – the very same who wrote of Turnus begging for mercy and yet hard-heartedly slain by Aeneas – solicits two acts of kindness of the Emperor, namely to set free his slave and to prove compassion to the subjugated:

be lenient to the conquered and temper your arrogance to that end.


20 comments on “Dignified slaves, venerable masters

  1. Grete says:

    Simply lovely and insightful – Kyssa

  2. Monica says:

    My dear,
    splendid writing, I loved it.
    “The death of Virgil” is a true masterpiece, but is one of the most difficult volumes I have ever read, but altogether so inspirational and insightful, I recommend it to every one.

  3. Hellen says:

    Hello darling,
    What an interesting piece! Well arranged and well documented. Speaking of which, I’d love to share with you this quotation:
    “A time would come when Rome would be torn down–not by the slaves alone, but by slaves and serfs and peasants and by free barbarians who joined with them. And so long as men laboured, and other men took and used the fruit of those who laboured, the name of Spartacus would be remembered, whispered sometimes and shouted loud and clear at other times”.
    Zoenen —–Hellen

  4. lustigkulle says:

    We owe a great deal to those voices of humanity and justice, even if they were not strong enough to alter the situation in the societies where they were first heard. They certainly have had an impact on the ideas of later times. And have never been totally silenced. Thank you for letting us hear them again 🙂

    Do I hear an echo of old Hesiod in the words by Sokrates?
    “Work is no disgrace: it is idleness which is a disgrace. But if you work, the idle will soon envy you as you grow rich, for fame and renown attend on wealth.”

  5. Sandrine says:

    Très bon billet, bien écrit et documentée .
    J’ai bien reçu ta lettre. J’espère que ton séjour se passe bien et que tu en profites au max. Ici, rien ne change ….. Je te remercie pour ton immense patience envers moi, devrais-je compter tout ce qu’il m’enseigne, me répète, me rappel….. no : je ne comprends pas suffisamment vite …

  6. Karen says:

    My Dear, what a beautiful post….
    Although still nowadays the means by which contemporary and usual forms of slavery have carried out vary so much, the violation of human rights and human dignity are central issues in both such practices. This is declared in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately even today, to the International Organization for Migration reports that millions of people, first and foremost children and women, are victims to this terrible destiny. We should never underestimate this phenomenon and do our best efforts to tackle and stop the trafficking of human beings
    XXXX Karen.

  7. Clotilde says:

    Mon cher, quand j’ai lu ton billet m’a fait rappeler mon premiers études de philosophie et de droit anciennes. Je te remercie de tout mon cœur. Bisou. Clotilde

  8. Emily says:

    Hello darling, I loved this post very much.
    I remind you that Aristotle in his first book of Politics explains the nature of any city, in portraying both social and political relationships that in nature develop between human being. The first relationship that grows is between man and woman, so “that the race may continue”. Then, quite immediately, he also comments the aspects of this relationship as the one between master and subject, and affirms that it is nature that makes each thing for a specific use. Therefore the relationship between master and slave develops, so that the two of them can survive; Actually Aristotle gives almost no reason to deem that one couldn’t survive without the other, and his assertion on this kind of relationship seems more the theorisation of Athens than a true piece of his philosophy. Again, he believes that the second important relationship is the family, composed of the master (husband) and the subjects (wife and children), whose purpose is the provision of man’s everyday needs. With families gathering into villages, finally the polis is established, an autonomous political community, which exists for the pursue of a good quality life.

  9. Jimena says:

    Querido, enhorabuena por este bueno articulo.
    La esclavitud que vivimos en nuestro tiempo, no es un fenómeno individual sino que tiene un carácter social y colectivo. La falta de libertad y la ausencia de derechos parece no ser importante para seguir caminando. El dinero lo compra todo y las víctimas vuelven a ser las mismas: los pobres, los débiles o los que están enfrentados a los grupos de poder.
    Así que primero te quitan la dignidad, te hacen sentir miserable, que no vales nada. Dejas de ser persona. No tienes poder de elección sobre tu propia vida. Pasas a ser una mercancía que pertenece a un amo. Te sitúas en una especie de limbo jurídico donde no existen los derechos más elementales. Puedes ser comprado y vendido. Eres una especie de marioneta cuyos hilos son movidos por unos individuos que deciden por ti el resto de tu vida.
    Además por el hecho de haber nacido mujer en este mundo, millones de personas no tienen derecho a vivir porque al nacer son asesinadas; o torturadas, violadas, agredidas, insultadas o están exentas de los derechos humanos más fundamentales.
    Un beso

  10. Jacqueline says:

    Mon Chérie, superbe billet!
    A chaque fois que j’ai lu un billet qui traite du matière, je remarque qu’il y a peu de répercussions et de commentaires.
    Pourquoi? C’est une problème à laquelle nous pouvons bien dédier une moment….
    Gros bisou

  11. stoa says:

    Dear Grete, you are always so sweet, thank you…..

  12. stoa says:

    Oh Yes! Dear Monica,
    like many of Broch’s works that’s a book you cannot “eagerly swallow”, you must “read it” and “re-read it”, a few pages at the time, taking notes if you wish and stopping and stepping back every now and then, only then you’ll love it……

  13. stoa says:

    Dearest Hellen,
    I always loved Spartacus, what a fantastic character, thanks for reminding me…!!……………

    I am sure you are not going to miss this, aren’t you?



  14. stoa says:

    Dear Lustikulle,
    You are perfectly right, oftentimes we forget, or we simply neglect the most unfortunates… maybe we are too much involved in our own pursuits that we leave many behind…
    What a lovely quotation, very inspiring – you’re reading your Hesiod!
    Thank you for your lovely words

  15. stoa says:

    Hi Sandrine,
    I am pretty fine regardless.
    No need to thank me, I am just doing what I can………. You know…

  16. stoa says:

    Yes dear Karen,
    This is sooo sad: unfortunately the problem is so large and widespread that overwhelms… nonetheless we still must keep doing what we are already doing – helping people in distress.

  17. stoa says:

    Dear Clotilde,
    I am so happy I gave you the opportunity to go back in time: it is always a nice experience, isn’t it? ……

  18. stoa says:

    Hello dear Emily,
    Thank you for your knowledgeable and detailed comment. Yes I know Aristotle might sound quite antiquate and chauvinist… well nobody in the ancient world has that much consideration for women after all… on the subject there is this marvellously comprehensive and analytic article I strongly recommend you to read…..



  19. stoa says:

    Querida Jimena:
    tienes razón: aprovechamiento sexual de niños y mujeres, situaciones laborales injustas, estipendios mínimos o ínfimos, condiciones míseras, agresiones físicas y psíquicas soy cosas que al día de hoy lamentablemente ni siquiera crean noticia… la gente parece más interesada en los particulares de la vida del las estrellas de Hollywood… y esto de veras me asusta….
    Lo único que podemos hacer es seguir con la instrucción, la cultura, la educación porque a medida que aumenta la capacidad de optar y escoger del individuo y de su país crece su nivel de progreso y se reduce la posición de servidumbre.
    Gracias por tus congratulaciones, besos

  20. stoa says:

    Yes dear Jackie,

    Unfortunately people seem much more concerned on what wearing on Saturday night or which restaurant they should pick to reserve a table and show themselves off…
    sad times…..


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