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The Extent of Slavery

Chattel slavery became widespread in Greece only after about 600 B.C. Eventually, slaves became cheap enough that people of moderate means could afford one or two1. Nevertheless, even wealthy Greek landowners never acquired gangs of hundreds of slaves like those who maintained Rome's water system under the Roman Empire or worked large plantations in the southern United States before the American Civil War. Maintaining a large number of slaves year around in ancient Greece would have been uneconomical because the cultivation of the crops grown there called for short periods of intense labor punctuated by long stretches of inactivity, during which slaves would have to be fed even while they had no work to do.

By the fifth century B.C., however, the number of slaves in some city-states had grown to as much as one-third of the total population. This percentage still means that most labor was performed by small land-owners and their families themselves, sometimes hiring free workers. The special system of slavery in Sparta2 provides a rare exception to this situation.

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