A paradox: slavery and democracy in the same time and place


A tiny remnant of ancient Greece in our school building – minus the slavery…

One of the reasons that I like history so much is that it is full of contradictions. Just when you think you know everything, have seen it all, you read some unexpected story or discover some absurdity. The story of history, like the story of any single person, is full of twists and turns, inconsistencies and moments (or long periods) of hypocrisy. Like slavery in ancient Athens. Now there’s a brilliant example.

The ancient Athenians are often praised for their contributions to the modern world, and yet in the midst of that seemingly free-thinking, creative society they kept thousands of slaves. Of course, so did the United States until 1865, even though they had written in the beautiful words of their Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “all men are created equal”. You can see what I mean about contradictions.

When I ask my students to describe slavery, they always say, “hard work, no pay, hardly any rights…” Then they do a double-take. “Hey!” they cry. “That sounds like us.”

But that’s an exaggeration. Your teachers don’t own you. Even your parents don’t. We adults must follow the rule of law in how we treat you. A slave, in contrast, has no rights. A slave is the legal property of another and is forced to obey the owner. The owner can oppress the slave, punish him and sometimes even kill him without any punishment.

Slavery is the topic you will be exploring today. Try to work hard. Like a slave.



What percentage of the people of Athens were slaves?
How did one become a slave? (There are several possibilities.)
What jobs were done by slaves? 

What do you think would be the most difficult aspect of being a slave? (put a thoughtful one-sentence answer into a comment)

Finally, try the “House Challenge” at this site, provided by the British Museum. You are not allowed to play this game until you have done the work above!


Kind regards from

Your friendly slave-driver,

Ms Green