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'The Yoke'
Bondage and Slavery in Thucydides, Aechylus and Sophocles
When Agamemnon brings Cassandra, prophetess and princess of conquered Troy home to his traitor wife and soon to be murderess, Cassandra bemoans her lot to the attendant in whose charge she is placed. The man is moved to pity as she predicts her doom. However, the context of her plight is set as being that of any unarmed or conquered man and the fate of the women and children of any conquered men. The poets from Homer down to Aechylus and Sophocles are in very specific agreement, that every person, even a princess, is a mere sword stroke from slavery. Even Prometheus, a god is bound in cruel brazen fetters.
A curt fact gleaned from this reading of Thucydides, is that though the spear is the keen weapon of war and the dagger the tool of the assassin, the sword is most often the tool for butchering defeated foes—just as in Homer.
The above is well established in poetics. So the job here before us is to look at the most sober account of war to come down to us, even more sober than that of his fellow Athenian Xenophon, who will take up the rest of his story in the Hellenica. Thucydides is a general early on in the Thracian phase of the Peloponesian war and in the end, before he writes that the 21st year of the war has begun and then does not put ink to parchment again, he is found pleading with younger Athenians not to fight with each other with their enemies all around. Elsewhere I will discuss the personalities and the military and political dynamics of the age.
Here I am only concerned with the fate of most of humanity during the life of these authors, a fate shared by most of humanity before and after the 400s B.C.: slavery, bondage. This will be done from their perspective only.
As best as I can determine, the general value of a slave when taken in mass was a drachmae. This was the premium price to pay a free fighting man for a month, a price that often went unpaid and was often less. On can see why many of the crews of fighting ships were not manned by free men. Only the best crews such as those of Athens, Syracuse and Thuri were stated as having free sailors. Mixed free and unfree crews seem to have been common, as they would be in the Great Age of Sail from 1400 through 1860. After a battle in the last, Ionian phase of the war, the Athenians enslaved the free enemy and freed their slaves, sailor all.
The fighting forces described generally had men serving “according to compulsion” as well as “for interest” and “for pay.”
All of the men were subject to discipline, including generals being beaten, exiled and slain. How the men were brought into the force, to which they were all bound by honor, interest, contract or force, was as follows:
-Volunteer citizen
-Inducted citizen, compelled by tradition, which was regarded as just
-Volunteer ally
-Mercenary, serving only for pay, though other troop types were usually paid as well
-Compelled ally, his community forced to send him
-Conscripted ally, mustered by an allied commander directly
-Freedman, free on the condition that he serve as a soldier or sailor
-Allied warrior, non-Greek serving for pillage
-Slave sailor
-Slave soldier
-Slave porter, carrying baggage and such
This is all too complex for the simple modern mind to easily understand. But the more nuanced minds of antiquity had internalized this entire order of civic morality and naked force.
The prime value of a military target, was the taking of its people as slaves.
Typically, barbarian cities would have all of the people sold into bondage.
Typically, Hellenic cities would have all of the Greek men “butchered” and all women and children and slaves taken and usually sold to pay expenses. Why Greek men are executed most of the time and barbarian men are enslaved more often then not, is never explained. The Greeks were all, also, in the habit of killing their own community members for various reasons, including, but not limited to treason. The more democratic cities were more likely to slay their own people, while oligarchical cities were more likely to exile their own people.
When speaking of slavery, the ancient Greeks shared various concepts of bondage, beyond the individual being owned by an individual and these concepts were shred by their barbarian enemies and allies.
Slaves, could always be killed by their masters, just like in Plantation America, fell into the following categories:
-A slave owned by a family and attached to the household, possessing limited social standing
-A slave that is a commodity traded on the market for its skill set and potential use
-A slave owned by an individual, who is extended certain regard by others due to this association, such as being free of abduction and punishment and use by others of the same community on their own initiative and having the responsibility of representing their master, for instance, as a messenger, porter or even bodyguard. The master may kill him out of hand. But another who kills him must pay restitution tot he master.
-A slave owned in common by a community. This may seem odd to us, but villages and towns in England and Virginia from the 1300 through the 1700s, routinely owned individuals as municipal property. Indeed, a modern convict is owned by the state in the very same way. The 10,000 men constantly being worked to death for hundreds of years at the laurium silver mines in Attica, fell into this category.
An interesting case is the fate of the 40,000 man Athenian and Allied army that tried to breakout from Syracuse. This number included many slaves who deserted, many fighting men of all of the above types who were killed, captured and butchered, captured and taken as booty, captured and taken as community property, and also those who got away, not thought to be many.
“Not less then 7,000 men” were held as slaves of Syracuse.
More, perhaps twice as many, were taken as slaves by their captors, in most cases probably not men of Syracuse, but their many allies.
Of the 7,000 held as community property, thousands died from the conditions of their being held outside for 70 days in quarries in Autumn and given only a half pint of water a day and as much grain. Those who survived this were sold. Enough of these who were sold managed to escape to tell the tale of their bondage back in Athens.
There is another category of bondage which the ancient recognized but which modern people do not—community bondage. A free person, was regarded as being unjustly taxed by his community if he had to give over more than 5% of his earnings to the state. Taxation by one's own community was not regarded as slavery. However, one community could be enslaved by another community. Athens called these lesser, conquered states, who must forever pay taxes to Athens their mistress, as well as muster their men out to fight Athenian wars “allies” and “confederates.” This was thought to be as bad a fate for a nation or community of people, as the fate of Cassandra of Troy or the Athenians held in the quarries of Syracuse. Like the bondage of an individual man, who has the choice of dying fighting, the bondage of a state is a choice. The Melians, had the choice of being a slave state to Athens, but chose oblivion, every man butchered, every woman and child sold.
In this way, this reader suspects that the gradual human inability to perceive ourselves as slaves, even as we are forbidden to carry arms or defend ourselves and must submit to court-ordered bondage and rates of taxation five to ten times higher than what the ancients thought to be justly applied to free people, might be the result of thousands of years of choice. Every time a people makes the choice of the Melians and are obliterated, their paternal line is erased. Every time we submit, we inculcate our submissive values among our kind.
The three communities with the most slaves were, according to Thucydides:
-Sparta, a sovereign monarchy
-Chios, an oligarchy enslaved by Athens
-Athens, a sovereign democracy
By the evidence, and according to the many declarations by the various authors of history and poetry that heaven decreed that might makes right and the weak shall be owned by the strong, it is apparent that the chief social value held by the ancients was that bondage of individuals and groups was just. These are the very same opinions advanced in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
Thucydides recognizes that the process of Empire, pursued by Persia and Athens—counter to the Spartan practice of voluntary alliance for mutual freedom—consisted of strong states enslaving weak states. Thus, the ancients are honest, and the Anglophone world is is lie, though this lie was contested in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. Interestingly, both the Spartans and Americans in their turn, would become enslavers of weaker states, as each state returns to the reason for the birth of the state as an institution, the despoiling of people as groups rather than as individuals.
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