In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek Slavery

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Collective Volumes
  • Series
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Comparative Studies
  • Historiography
  • Reception
  • Definitions and Controversies
  • Terminology
  • Supply
  • Numbers of Slaves
  • Prices
  • Names
  • Female Slaves
  • Warfare

Classics Greek Slavery
Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0041


The earliest Greek texts known to us already attest to the existence of unfree labor. Despite being widespread and considered essential for the well-being of the dominant elite, even in Antiquity slavery in its various forms sparked debates, and writers speculated about its origins, nature, and justification. The theme gained new impetus in modern times with the transatlantic slave trade and later with the abolitionist movements. But even after slavery was formally abolished, the subject never ceased to engage the minds of historians, sociologists, archaeologists, and philosophers. Writing about slavery has always been affected by contemporary ideologies and their underlying values, as well as by historiographical trends. Thus, in the 20th century, one of the central issues of debate was the question whether, as Marxists believed, slaves comprised an economic class, or, as Neo-Marxists and others have argued, slavery should rather be seen as a social status. In modern times, studies tended initially to be historical and general, but from the mid-20th century monographs on various aspects of slavery have been written by scholars from various disciplines. This article cannot cover all the thousands of publications on slavery or all the trends and approaches, but must be selective. It focuses on the main issues raised by the subject and is meant to provide tools to navigate through the vast scholarship in this area, but also to point to controversies. Some old publications are also cited because they echo the ideologies and concerns of their time. Here, “Greek slavery” means slavery in all areas of Greek settlement and culture, including Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt.

General Overviews

The number of books that offer a general overview is vast. A good starting point is Fisher 1993 and Garlan 1988 (a fuller and thorough account), both specifically on Greek slavery, and Wiedemann 1987 on both Greek and Roman slavery. A dated but still useful study of slavery in both Greece and Rome is Wallon 1974. Westermann 1955 is a broad survey of slavery in Greece and Rome, with comparisons with other ancient slave systems. Brockmeyer 1979, Herrmann-Otto 2009, and Klees 1998 likewise offer comparative studies of Greek and Roman slave systems. The multi-authored Bradley and Cartledge 2011 examines the development of the institution of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world, especially in Greek and Roman societies. Hunt 2018 is an introduction to and a textbook for the study of slavery in Greece and Rome. Bradley 2015, although an article and not a book, is a good survey of the main features of slavery.

  • Bradley, Keith R. 2015. The bitter chain of slavery. Dialogues d’Histoire Ancienne 41.1: 149–176.

    DOI: 10.3917/dha.411.0149

    This article is a good survey of the main features of slavery in ancient Greece and Rome, emphasizing slavery’s central place and long life in the ancient Mediterranean societies and characterizing it as domination by the strong over the weak. Bradley points to the importance of the literary and documentary texts as tools for understanding and reconstructing the reality of ancient slavery.

  • Bradley, Keith, and Paul Cartledge, eds. 2011. The Cambridge world history of slavery. Vol. 1, The ancient Mediterranean world. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521840668

    Several chapters in this volume are cited under separate subjects: Morris 2011 under Archaeological Sources and Death; Rihll 2011 under The Classical Period and Regional Studies; Thompson 2011 under the Hellenistic and Roman Periods; Braund 2011 under Supply; Cartledge 2011 under Helots; Kyrtatas 2011 under the Economic Role of Slavery; Golden 2011 under Slaves at Home and Household Slaves; McKeown 2011 under Resistance and Revolt; Hunt 2011 under Representations of Slaves.

  • Brockmeyer, Norbert. 1979. Antike Sklaverei. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

    Though discussing mainly chattel slavery rather than other forms of dependent work and unfreedom, this book also offers (in chapters 1–4) a historiographic survey of approaches to ancient slavery, from the late 19th century to 1978, and a thorough and detailed study of slavery.

  • Fisher, Nicolas R. E. 1993. Slavery in Classical Greece. London: Bristol Classical Press.

    This introduction to ancient Greek slavery addresses most of the major issues raised by the subject in a concise but lucid way. On pp. 111–118, the author suggests further reading, based on the literature previously published. See also under the Classical Period.

  • Garlan, Yvon. 1988. Slavery in ancient Greece. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    This is a revised and expanded translation from the French original (Paris: Maspero, 1982) of a thorough and comprehensive account of the institution of slavery and its central issues. Garlan discusses all forms of unfreedom, from Homer onward.

  • Herrmann-Otto, Elisabeth. 2009. Sklaverei und Freilassung in der griechisch-römischen Welt. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verlag.

    The book examines slaves’ lives, legal and economic place, social status, and future prospects in the Greek and Roman societies. The author draws attention to the differences in forms and slavery conditions among the diverse political and social systems of the Greek states, and between the latter and Rome.

  • Hunt, Peter. 2018. Ancient Greek and Roman slavery. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

    This is an introduction to classical slavery as well as a textbook intended for courses on slavery (ancient or comparative) and on social history. Using case studies, Hunt addresses the subjects of enslavement, economics, politics, culture, gender and family life, manumission and ex-slaves, everyday conflicts, revolts, representations, philosophy and law, and concludes with a chapter on the decline and the legacy of ancient slavery.

  • Klees, Hans. 1998. Sklavenleben im klassischen Griechenland. Forschungen zur antiken Sklaverei 30. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

    This extensive study of the reality of slavery explores the conditions of chattel slaves’ lives (but not of other forms of servile labor), including the means of enslavement and the ways out of slavery (whether by manumission or death), and slaves’ opportunities of integrating into society. See also under the Classical Period.

  • Wallon, Henri A. 1974. Histoire de l’esclavage dans l’antiquité. 3 vols. Aalen, Germany: Scientia Verlag.

    This dated study (first published in 1847 by l”Imprimerie royale) is still useful as an introductory book. Volume 1 deals with slavery in ancient Greece (types of slaves, their sources, roles, prices, numbers, their place in the family) and also discusses manumission and the views held by the ancient Greeks on slavery. Reprinted from the second edition (Paris: Hachette, 1879). See also under Reception.

  • Westermann, William L. 1955. The slave systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

    Though in some respects dated, this broad survey of slavery in Greece and Rome and the ancient East is still a useful introduction as well as a comprehensive and comparative survey of slaves’ economic roles, prices, and status.

  • Wiedemann, Thomas E. J. 1987. Slavery. 2d ed. Greece and Rome: New Surveys in the Classics 19. Oxford: Clarendon.

    This is a second edition of a short but excellent study, discussing some of the main issues of ancient slavery: the historiographical issue, the evidence, slavery as a social category, the economic role of slavery, public slaves, and slave rebellions. See also under Historiography.

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