Classical Athens (500–300 bc) produced many of the modern icons of ancient Greece: the Parthenon, democracy and tragedy. But classical Athens by itself is not ancient Greece. Ancient Greece was a much larger and more diverse entity than ancient Athens, for the Greeks were not united politically: Athens, Sparta, Argos, Corinth, Thebes and thousands of other poleis or microstates were independently governed. Yet there was cultural unity, dependent on language, religion and a common, if variable, set of distinctive norms. Within that general Greek culture, Athens developed a unique portfolio of institutions and traditions, just as Sparta and every other Greek microstate did.
A huge array of extant sources demonstrates clearly that slaves were an integral part of ancient Athens, and scholars regularly refer to classical Athens (rather than ancient Greece) as one of the only five ‘genuine slave societies’ in world history. What does that term mean? Why does classical Athens qualify for inclusion under that label? This chapter is an extended answer to those questions.
To begin with the basics, there are two principal factors for qualification as a ‘slave society’ (rather than simply a society with slaves): the sheer number of slaves, relative to the population as a whole, and the significance of the role slaves played in the society at issue, especially economically. For most scholars, economics is fundamental to the classification: a society is a slave society if slaves played a vital quantitative and qualitative role in production, and the material basis of that society absolutely depended upon slave labour.