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Slavery in Archaic Hellas
By the Wine Dark Sea, Slavery
“The girl—I will not return the girl. Long before that,
old age will overtake her in my hall, in Argos
far from her fatherland, toiling back and fourth
at the weaving rack, forced to share my bed!”
-Agamemnon, from The Rage of Achilles
Life without forced servitude would have been unthinkable to the fighting men of Hellas. A life of servitude was the price one paid for surrender. The price of conquest was generally death for men and enslavement for their women and children. The ancients recognized slavery for what it was; the very foundation of civilized society. Compared to a free society, a society that tolerates slavery is inhumane. However, a society who takes slaves instead of committing genocide is acting in a relatively humane manner.
Subsistence level hunting and gathering societies typically exterminated defeated enemies—even women and children—in order to insure the use of the meager natural resources for which they had fought, only adopting enemy survivors into the tribe to replace their losses. Hence we should understand the first incidence of slavery as an act of mercy tied to practical economic considerations. In Hellas, prior to the 6th Century B.C. it appears that slaves were primarily family assets attached to individual households, indicated by the Homeric term for slave dmos, derived from the word for house domos or doma.
The particular type of slavery practiced in Homeric and Archaic times was founded on piracy and conquest: slaves themselves being the prizes acquired on raids and in battle. Ownership of slaves was the mark of a hero. There was not a racist component to slavery, and slaves were not viewed as subhuman, simply people without social status. A slave was unlucky enough to be at the mercy of a conqueror, but fortunate enough to be more valuable alive than dead. There might even be a chance for redemption and freedom. Servile status was not yet a barrier to achievement. Slaves were even permitted to compete in the PanAthenaea in Athens from 546 to 526 B.C.
The institution of the dmos, intruded on every aspect of the fighting man’s life. The piper who played the boxer’s tune may well be a dmos. A heavy infantryman’s 70 pounds of armor was often carried by a dmos while the army was on the march. This armor bearer might fight as a light-armed fighter, or serve as a medic, possibly dragging his wounded master off the battlefield, and perhaps earning his freedom. A boxer might even be arrested by a dmos for getting rowdy in Athens. The 300-man Athenian police force consisted of Skythian slaves.
For all of the slavery in Hellas, it was a place of relative freedom. This was an age of slave-economies. The sprawling Persian Empire was almost entirely populated by slaves. Only the Great King and his immediate family possessed rights amounting to anything like legally recognized ownership of their own persons.
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