Slavery was a very important part of ancient Greece. It played a major role in so many aspects of Greek civilization from domestic living to the infamous Athenian naval fleet.
The price one might have paid for a slave in ancient Greek times varied depending on their appearance, age and attitude.
Those who were healthy, attractive, young and submissive, could sell for as much as 10 minae ($180.00).
Those who were old, weak and stubborn might have sold for as little as 1/2 a mina ($9.00). If there happened to be a large supply of slaves on the market, the price automatically went down.
Traditionally, studies of Ancient Greece focus on the political, military and cultural achievements of Greek men. Unfortunately, the information we have about ancient Greek women is biased because it comes from various sources such as plays, philosophical tracts, vase paintings and sculptures which were completed by males. From these sources, we can conclude that Greek society was highly stratified in terms of class, race, and gender.
The segregation of male and female roles within ancient Greece was justified by philosophical claims of the natural superiority of males. As we shall learn, slave women were at a disadvantage in Greek society not only because of their gender but also because of their underprivileged status in the social hierarchy.
Slave labor was an essential element of the ancient world. While male slaves were assigned to agricultural and industrial work, female slaves were assigned a variety of domestic duties which included shopping, fetching water, cooking, serving food, cleaning, child-care, and wool-working. In wealthy households some of the female servants had more specialized roles to fulfil, such as housekeeper, cook or nurse.
Because female slaves were literally owned by their employers, how well slaves were treated depended upon their status in the household and the temperament of their owners. As a result of her vulnerable position within the household, a female slave was often subjected to sexual exploitation and physical abuse. Any children born of master-servant liaisons were disposed of because female slaves were prohibited from rearing children.
As Xenophon’s Oceonomicus reveals, slaves were even prohibited from marrying, as marriage was deemed the social privilege of the elite citizens of Athens.
In addition to their official chores in the household, slave girls also performed unofficial services. For example, there is evidence that close relationships developed between female slaves and their mistresses. Given the relative seclusion of upper-class women in the private realm of their homes, many sought out confidantes in their slave girls.
For example, Euripedes’ tragic character of Medea confided her deepest feelings with her nurse, who both advised and comforted her in her troubled times. Furthermore, slaves always accompanied their mistresses on excursions outside of the home.
Tombstones of upstanding Athenian women often depict scenes of familiarity between the deceased and her slave companion. It is likely that a sense of their common exclusion from the masculine world of public affairs would have drawn women together, regardless of class. The only public area in which women were allowed to participate was religion.
Slave women were included in some religious affairs and could be initiated to the Eleusinian Mysteries which celebrated the myth of Persephone.
Thus, the fate of a Greek slave girl was determined by circumstance and more or less rested in the hands of her owners, who had the power to shape her existence.