How Did Slavery Sustain the Agrarian Economy, Urbanization, Trade and Colonization in Classical Greece?

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At the outset of this answer one important generalization should be made which is that, at all times and in all places the Greek world relied on some form (or forms) of dependent labor to meet its ends, both public and private. This means that dependent labor was essential, in a significant measure, if the requirements of agriculture, trade, manufacture, public works and war production were to be fulfilled. Here, dependent labor means the work performed under compulsions other than those of kinship or communal obligations. Another unique feature of the Greek slavery was that with the rarest of exceptions, there were always substantial numbers of free men engaged in productive labor. This means primarily not free hired labor but free men working in their own land, shops or homes.

The importance of slavery in Greece can be understood by evaluating how the Greeks always took slavery for granted as one of the facts of human existence which is quite evident for anyone who has read their literature. In the poems which are attributed to an elusive character called ‘Homer’ (between 900-700 BC) it is assumed, and correctly so, that captive women will be taken home as slaves and that occasional male slaves will also be on hand. However, after around 800 BC we see a change in the nature of Greek poems. Compared to the epic poems by Homer the poems written between 900 BC to 800 BC by poets like Archilocus and Hesoid mainly talked about the present everyday life of peasants. Hesoid in his “Works and Days” tells his brother how to properly use slaves, the fact that slaves will be available is simply assumed.

In the post-800 BC period which is classified as the Archaic period we see tensions growing in the Greek society because of certain factors which are:

The population of the region increases during this time creating a problem of scarcity of resources.
Land tenure and debt-laws invariably favored a small elite known as the ‘Eupatridae’. Hence, starting the never ending struggle between the many poor and the few elite. The debt-bonded slaves of the eupatridae constituted the necessary but involuntary labor forces (Finley, 1959).

New military formation (called ‘hoplite’) needed large numbers of armed infantry which was usually conscripted from well-off families outside the aristocracy as the soldiers had to pay themselves for their weapons and armors. This led to a widespread resentment *among the families from which hoplites were forcibly recruited.

As the tensions reached their height around 600 BC the Greek poleis started a campaign of

organized migration of people into new areas (Black Sea, North Africa, Syria etc.) to gather resources for dealing with the internal crisis. However, this migration should not be considered colonization. The migrants used to setup agrarian settlements, interact and trade with the natives to collect the much needed resources.

As measures against these internal tensions poleis like Athens and Sparta took rather different routes. While Sparta subjugated its neighboring poleis and enslaving their population, Athens made a rather innovative choice. In 594 BC the people of Athens elected Solon as the magistrate of the polis and the reforms introduced by Solon are known as the ‘Solonic code’. The most distinct feature of the Solonic code was its source of authority, which was the community of Athens and not their pantheon. The reforms proposed in the Solonic code were:

Dividing the community/city into four economic classes based on the agricultural produce of the households. The four divisions (from highest to lowest) are- the ‘Pentakosimedimnoi’ (financed public services and religious functions), the ‘Hippeis’ (provided horses and armor for warfare), the ‘Zengitai’ (fought in the army while providing their own armor) and the ‘Thetes’ (rowed the naval ships and also got paid). Eupatridae were replaces and the exclusive hereditary rights were broken. Enslavement of Athenians from debt...
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