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The Lives of Slaves

Under the best conditions, household slaves1 with humane masters might live lives free of violent punishment. They might even be allowed to join their owners' families on excursions and attend religious rituals such as sacrifices. Without the right to a family of their own, however, without property, without legal or political rights, they lived an existence alienated from regular society. In the words of an ancient commentator, chattel slaves lived lives of “work, punishment, and food.”2 Their labor helped maintain the economy of Greek society, but their work rarely benefited themselves. Yet despite the misery of their condition, Greek chattel slaves—outside Sparta3—almost never revolted on a large scale, perhaps because they were of too many different origins and nationalities and too scattered to organize themselves for rebellion. Sometimes owners freed their slaves voluntarily4, and some promised freedom at a future date to encourage their slaves to work hard in the meantime. Freed slaves did not become citizens in Greek city-states but instead mixed into the population of resident foreigners (the metics). They were expected to continue to help out their former masters when called upon.

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