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Female Slaves During Greek Times

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.

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3 comments on “Female Slaves During Greek Times

  1. “Even though the gender that one was erotically attracted to (at any specific time, given the assumption that persons will likely be attracted to persons of both sexes) was not important, other issues were salient, such as whether one exercised moderation. Status concerns were also of the highest importance. Given that only free men had full status, women and male slaves were not problematic sexual partners. Sex between freemen, however, was problematic for status. The central distinction in ancient Greek sexual relations was between taking an active or insertive role, versus a passive or penetrated one. The passive role was acceptable only for inferiors, such as women, slaves, or male youths who were not yet citizens. Hence the cultural ideal of a same-sex relationship was between an older man, probably in his 20’s or 30’s, known as the erastes, and a boy whose beard had not yet begun to grow, the eromenos or paidika. In this relationship there was courtship ritual, involving gifts (such as a rooster), and other norms. The erastes had to show that he had nobler interests in the boy, rather than a purely sexual concern. The boy was not to submit too easily, and if pursued by more than one man, was to show discretion and pick the more noble one. There is also evidence that penetration was often avoided by having the erastes face his beloved and place his penis between the thighs of the eromenos, which is known as intercrural sex. The relationship was to be temporary and should end upon the boy reaching adulthood (Dover, 1989). To continue in a submissive role even while one should be an equal citizen was considered troubling, although there certainly were many adult male same-sex relationships that were noted and not strongly stigmatized. While the passive role was thus seen as problematic, to be attracted to men was often taken as a sign of masculinity. Greek gods, such as Zeus, had stories of same-sex exploits attributed to them, as did other key figures in Greek myth and literature, such as Achilles and Hercules. Plato, in the Symposium, argues for an army to be comprised of same-sex lovers. Thebes did form such a regiment, the Sacred Band of Thebes, formed of 500 soldiers. They were renowned in the ancient world for their valor in battle.”

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/homosexuality/

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