I was once again reading the Old Oligach’s rant on slaves and how good they supposedly had it.

if it were customary for a slave (or metic or freedman) to be struck by one who is free, you would often hit an Athenian citizen by mistake on the assumption that he was a slave. For the people there are no better dressed than the slaves and metics, nor are they any more handsome. [11]

Now perhaps this is to be taken with more than a mere grain of salt. Or it might be peculiar to Athens, hence worth stressing to the author of the text.

If there is truth to this, why didn‘t most Greek slaves (even if they were a minority among slaves) run off to their cities? Some cities, such as Megara were less than 50km away and long standing enemies of Athens. I assume, if the slave could find his way into the city and to his family without being spotted, they would have helped him to re-settle in Megara!

Despite the Old Oligarch’s information, was there anything such as a metal ring around the neck, a branding, etc., whereby to recognise them?


Thanks for bringing to my attention this informative answer. As a Greek I am of course aware of the problems associated with enslaving Greeks. There is still no doubt that it was done. As the aforementioned answer states:

When cities fell, there was a recurrent tendency for the victor (even when dealing with Greeks) to kill the men and enslave the women and children.

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    @PieterGeerkens obviously. Why does this make it a bad question?!
    – Ludi
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 14:20
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    Some did run, but many were slaves because of poverty and / or had nowhere to go. Have a look at history.stackexchange.com/questions/42140/… and the link Pieter Geerkens provided. You could then refine your question if there is still something you're not clear on :) Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 14:23
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    @PieterGeerkens I may not have researched carefully enough or overlooked something, but at least I read several German and English Wikipedia articles, the one you linked among them. And at no point did I compare American and Greek slaves. That reading stems from your own, probably Anglo Saxon, background, which I don’t share. Although the links you two provided showed me enslaved Greeks were rarer than I thought, they still existed and I don’t see why my question is of poor quality! In particular the enslaved Greek women don’t seem to have been so few.
    – Ludi
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 14:32
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    @Ludi: Link to what you already know, so potential answerers don't simply repeat that effort. Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 14:49
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    @PieterGeerkens You are a far better historian than I, but I cannot understand your implied criticism of the question as equating ancient slavery with ante bellum US Afro-American slavery. The questioner made no such link and, if as his quote suggests, Athenian slaves were indistinguishable from citizens, the question appears to be valid.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 17:41

1 Answer 1



First, it is important to note that Greek (and other) slaves performed many kinds of jobs and this fact alone could influence the likelihood of a slave running away:

The status of slaves, and the conditions under which they lived, depended in part on what kind of work they did....Some slaves received a formal education and training and managed to attain executive positions in business and industry...Slaves...could also attain positions of management and oversee the work of other slaves....

Source: Theodore M. Sylvester, Slavery Throughout History

At the other end of the spectrum,

Some of the hardest work for slaves was in the farm fields, but the worst possible fate for a slave was to be sent to the mines, where the hours were long, the work was backbreaking

Source: Sylvester

Thus generalizing about why they did or didn't run away is impossible, and there is also the character of the individual to consider - ancient sources refer to some slaves being meek while others were difficult to manage. It is also impossible to say what percentage of slaves ran away, but we do know that some did.


There are a variety of reasons why many slaves didn't run away:

1. Slaves acquired through conquest would, in some cases at least, have found it difficult to return home, either because their city was still under the control of the conquering power or because there was nothing / no one left there for them (e.g. Melos).

2. Some slaves were born into slavery, others were abandoned babies (resulting from the practice of infant exposure) who were found and brought up as slaves. In both cases, they had no 'home' to go to and were not citizens of any state (a major handicap in Classical Greece).

3. Others were sold into slavery as children – difficult to return to one’s parents under those circumstances. This was common for Thracians.

4. Some people became slaves due to extreme poverty - slavery at least usually meant food and a place to stay. In Athens, though, Solon (d. circa. 558 BC) made debt slavery of Athenian citizens illegal and had all enslaved Athenians released.

5. Fear of being caught. The comic poet Antiphanes' play Drapetagogos (The Runaway-catcher or The Catcher of Runaway Slaves) is evidence that some slaves clearly did run away but also, at the same time, that those who did could not expect their masters not to do something about it. The risks were considerable: being caught might well mean exchanging a relatively comfortable position for working in the silver mines, probably the worst fate for a slave.

6. It has been argued that some slaves became very close to their master or mistress and were generally content with their lot, or even almost part of the family:

Some have suggested (e.g. Westermann 1955: 18) that slaves failed to rebel there because they were relatively well treated and content.

Source: K. Bradley, P. Cartledge (eds.), The Cambridge History of Slavery

Note also

Euripedes' tragic character of Medea confided her deepest feelings with her nurse, who both advised and comforted her in her troubled times.


Tombstones of upstanding Athenian women often depict scenes of familiarity between the deceased and her slave companion.

7. It has also been argued that the wider dispersion of slaves in Athens (Mines of Laurion excepted) was a factor in slaves not rebelling:

Paul Cartledge (2001b), however, suggested that Athens differed in key ways from modern societies that experienced slave rebellions. Athens had a lower proportion of slaves (a third or less), and they were dispersed in relatively small groups with a relatively personal relationship to their masters.

Source: K. Bradley, P. Cartledge (eds.), The Cambridge History of Slavery

8. The slaves who would have had the most reason to run away would have been the ones who had the worst tasks. The prime example here would be slaves working in the Mines of Laurion, but they were under guard and sometimes (at least) chained (but see below for more on this).

9. A final factor is that research indicates that the large majority of slaves in Athens (at least) were probably either non-Greeks or else Greek women / children, for Greek men captured in wars between Greek states were usually put to death rather than enslaved. The relevance of this is that a young, fit Greek male would find it easier to escape than a 'barbarian' (less far to safety/home city) and a woman / child (on average, better able to evade slave hunters).


We know that some slaves did run away as this is referred to in a number of ancient sources. For example, in Xenophon's Memorabilia,

Socrates expresses surprise that people sometimes give more effort to hunting runaways (or looking after sick slaves) than cultivating friends who are much more useful.

Source: K. Bradley, P. Cartledge (eds.)

Also, Thucydides mentions that

Athens punished the town of Megara for (among other things) harbouring runaways (Thuc. 1.139–40)

Source: K. Bradley, P. Cartledge (eds.)


Several law-court speeches mention owners chasing escaped slaves (Ps.-Demosthenes 49.9, 53.6).3 Travelling after runaways could be a risky business, but these texts do not imply that it was unusual. There is some epigraphic evidence too (SEG iii 92.9–19).

Source: K. Bradley, P. Cartledge (eds.)

There is also a reference to slaves running away noted by R. Zelnick-Abramovitz in Not Wholly Free,

Socrates, speaking about good estate management, claims that there are households in which slaves are fettered and yet attempt to run away, whereas in other households, although they are without fetters, they are willing to work and remain

Finally, there was a major rebellion with thousands of slaves running way to nearby Decelea following an Athenian defeat at the hands of Sparta in 413 BC during the Peloponnesian War.


As noted in the question, slaves could easily be mistaken for citizens. On this, J.W. Roberts says:

The similarity of dress is not surprising in view of the known overlap of occupation: citizen and slave artisans worked at the same tasks for the same wages

Source: J. W. Roberts, City of Sokrates (2nd ed.)

It is also quite plausible that the favoured slave of a wealthy Athenian would be better dressed than some less well-off citizens. However, it is fair to assume that Athenian citizens would not be found in certain jobs - for example, down the mines.

There is evidence of confusion even among ancient historians concerning Argos in the aftermath of their defeat at Sepeia the hands of Sparta in 494 BC as to whether the men who defended Argos after the catastrophic defeat of the Argive army were slaves or local farmers.

According to Kostas Vlassopoulos, it is no surprise that, as

Slaves and freemen exercised the same professions; this overlap made it impossible to differentiate status solely on the basis of profession or living conditions. Thus, many slaves were in a position to take advantage of this blurring of identities to escape detection and create better conditions for themselves.

The only evidence I've found for any kind of 'marking' of a slave is this in J. W. Roberts:

A runaway slave who was recaptured could expect to be branded.


IF one considers the Messenian helots as slaves (which many historians do not, preferring to call them serfs), there were a number of revolts against Spartan ownership of the land and the people. For the most part, though, the helots of Messenia were not 'runaways' - Messenia was, after all, their home.

However, the Athenians helped to establish the city of Naupaktos

as a refuge for liberated ex-helots during the great post-earthquake revolt of the 460s.

Source: Paul Cartledge, The Spartans

Subsequently, over the years, a number of helots did escape from Spartan-controlled Messenia to Naupaktos but, mostly, they stayed put. This was most likely because they considered the land theirs (so why should they move). Also, despite being slaves / serfs, they were left enough of their produce by their Spartan overlords to survive.

Other sources

S. Murnaghan, Women and Slaves in Classical Culture

Robert Osborne, Classical Greece 500 - 323 BC

R. A. Tomlinson, Argos and the Argolid

M. Gann & J. Willen, Five Thousand Years of Slavery

  • Sorry why don't you consider the Messinian Helots as slaves? All I could find on this subject was the absolute brutality the Spartans inflicted on these Helots e.g. the systematic declaration of war and killing them
    – Hao S
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 18:52
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    @HaoSun I'm not really stating a personal opinion, more what seems to be a consensus among modern historians, but calling helots 'serfs' is also problematic. One key difference is that, unlike slaves (and sometimes serfs, with limitations), helots under Sparta control could not be bought or sold. Helots generally belonged to the land (which could also not be bought or sold) and farmed it with the obligation of giving a certain percentage to their Spartan 'master'. Helots share aspects of both slaves and serfs, but are also different from both in some respects. Commented May 10, 2019 at 13:18
  • Okay thats an interesting point on Helots since all I could find on them was about being slaves of absolute brutality Incidently how would the Spartans keep their Slaves loyal during the Greek and Persian wars as well as the Pelopenesian war? Since at times they even had to arm them? history.stackexchange.com/questions/50777/…
    – Hao S
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 22:58
  • @HaoSun Actually, this question puzzled me a bit too many years ago. It can't really be answered in a comment (too long), not least because you have to examine different time periods and assess why they revolted at some times but not at others. I think Pieter Geerkens has covered part of the reason in his answer here, but there other factors. Importantly, I think, helots were free in the sense that they could have families and there is evidence that some were quite well off. Commented May 11, 2019 at 1:52
  • PieterGeerkins answer is just that they kept the wives and children of the helots as hostages I find this a bit unsatisfactory as 1) couldn't this argument be used to say that slavery could only be ended by the masters? as societies could constantly create slave armies by keeping their families as hostages 2) I feel like there would be some impracticality of keeping so many hostages as well as the realism of using hostages to a superior force I would like to see some source on helots were well off since every source I found talks only about the killing helot as right of passage etc.
    – Hao S
    Commented May 26, 2019 at 23:54

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