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Sources of Slaves

Captives taken in war provided an important source of slaves1, and relatively few slaves seem to have been born and raised in the households of those for whom they worked. Slaves were also imported from the regions to the north and east of Greek territory, where non-Greek people would be seized by pirates or foreign raiders. The fierce bands in these areas would also capture each other and sell the captives to slave dealers. The dealers would then sell their purchases in Greece at a profit. Herodotus, a Greek historian of the fifth century B. C., reported that some of the Thracians2, a group of peoples living to the north of mainland Greece, “sold their children for export.” But this report probably meant only that one band of Thracians sold children captured from other bands of Thracians, whom the first group considered different from themselves. The Greeks lumped together all foreigners who did not speak Greek as “barbarians”3—people whose speech sounded to Greeks like the repetition of the meaningless sounds “bar, bar.” Greeks, like Thracians and other slave-holding peoples, found it easier to enslave people whom they considered different from themselves and whose ethnic and cultural otherness made it easier to disregard their shared humanity. Greeks also enslaved fellow Greeks, however, especially those defeated in war, but these Greek slaves were not members of the same polis as their masters. Rich families prized Greek slaves with some education because they could be made to serve as tutors for children, for whom there were no publicly-financed schools in this period.

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