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The Occupations of Slaves

Rich Greeks everywhere regarded working for someone else for wages as disgraceful, but their attitude did not correspond to the realities of life for many poor people, who had to earn a living at any work they could find. Like free workers, chattel slaves1 did all kinds of labor. Household slaves2, often women, had the physically least dangerous existence. They cleaned, cooked, fetched water from public fountains3, helped the wife with the weaving4, watched the children5, accompanied the husband as he did the marketing, and performed other domestic chores. Yet they could not refuse if their masters demanded sexual favors. Slaves who worked in small manufacturing businesses, like those of potters6 or metalworkers7, and slaves working on farms often labored alongside their masters. Rich landowners, however, might appoint a slave supervisor to oversee the work of their other slaves in their fields while they remained in town. The worst conditions of life for slaves obtained for those men leased out to work in the narrow, landslide-prone tunnels of Greece's few silver and gold mines8. The conditions of their painful and dangerous job were dark, confined, and backbreaking. Owners could punish their slaves with impunity, even kill them without fear of meaningful sanctions. (A master's murder of a slave9 was regarded as at least improper and perhaps even illegal in Athens of the classical period, but the penalty may have been no more than ritual purification.) Beatings severe enough to cripple a working slave and executions of able-bodied slaves were probably infrequent because destroying such property made no economic sense for an owner.

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