Compare Slavery in the Ancient World with Slavery in America in the 1800s


The history of slavery spans from the ancient world and extends to colonial America in the 19th century. Greek slavery is rooted in ancient history, while American slavery falls within the early modern era. The economic, social, and legal positions of the institutions significantly differed. The differences resonated with ethnicity and routes of capture. Slaves in Greek could be employed in highly skilled jobs and professions while in America, they only provided cheap labor on the farms. Despite the differences, slavery in both worlds played an essential role in society and contributed to building the economy. Slave masters considered these people to be their property and subjected them to sexual abuse and corporal punishment. This paper compares and contrasts slavery in ancient Greek to that of the 1800s practiced in America. As such, even though the slavery system differed in the two periods, slaves were brutalized, mistreated, and forced to provide cheap labor to their slave masters.

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American system defined slavery on racial terms while in Greek, slaves were majorly whites, and anyone could end up being a slave irrespective of the skin color. In Greek, they were captured in wars, and thus, the race was a lesser factor. On the other hand, American slaves comprised majorly African Americans and a few Indians. No white individuals were enslaved. Slaves did not have similar rights and freedom as those given to the whites. Therefore, a real contrast between the two cases is that American slavery was confined to ethnicity while the ancient world slavery was diverse in races. Douglass indicates in his primary source Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas that due to racial differences, the institution in America was racist, and only black people were slaves (Douglass 29). The process justified racism in the 19th century. It was easy to obtain freedom in ancient Greek compared to America slavery.

Greek slaves carried out high-status jobs. Slaves could do professional works, including being doctors, accountants, managers of local businesses, and many more. In Greek society, slaves could handle white-collar and managerial roles (Millett 182). This was not the case with America as whites could not imagine going to a black doctor for consultation and treatment. Slaveholders in Virginia could not have their accounts checked by African Americans. The major work performed by American slaves was farming.

The routes of becoming a slave in the two worlds also differed. In Greek society, slaves formed the prisoners of war or when one was born into slavery. Abandoned children were also brought up as slaves. Aristotle stated that the slave must have been a citizen of a city that rebelled against the Greek rule (Millett 179). Besides, some sold themselves into slavery when they had many debts. For one to be a slave in America, the person must have come from Africa. Slaves were brought in through the slave trade, such as the transatlantic slave trade. In Africa, blacks were captured and sold to whites who later transported them to New World, including Deep South, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Freed slaves in Greek could end up becoming successful after their release. Aristotle articulates that Greeks, through the manumission practice, encouraged slaves to earn a wage by engaging in other things such as basket weaving (Preus 36). Some saved fortunes and later bought their freedom from the masters at a specific price. They, in turn, pursued successful careers. In America, freed slaves could not become successful, and the slaveholders were reluctant to give liberty. Douglass’ primary source implies that the institution of slavery was virtually cruel, and masters thought that freeing one slave could buy the freedom of the entire slave population (Douglass 23). However, such concerns were never a bother to the Greek slaveholders. In Greek, ex-slaves blended into the community after release while slaves in American remained in captivity, and those who attempted to run away got killed, detained, or severely punished to act as examples to the rest. Lovejoy clearly shows the accounts in the Freedom Narratives’ of Transatlantic Slavery (Lovejoy 98). In a society dominated by white racial superiority, black slaves could never get the chance to prosper. In Greek, slaves could make up the social ladder.

Slaves could, at times, get educated in Greek, were valued by their masters, and occupied status in their households. On the contrary, American slavery did not accord these features to the slaves and were only a source of labor. More so, in the Southern Colonies, slaves were essential in the building of the economy as they provided cheap labor on the plantations.


Slaves in the two worlds provided free labor and were a source of creating social hierarchy and wealth. They were subjected to undeniable brutality. In both Greek and American slavery institutions, sexual abuse was prevalent. Slaveholders took sexual advantages on their slaves. In some cases, the horrible acts resulted in unwanted pregnancies, and children of masters were born into slavery (Blake 17). Rape cases were common, and women denoted to be the primary victims.

In both cases, slaves were expected to be submissive to their masters and follow all the stipulated rules without questioning. Those who failed to abide by the rules received punishment. Also, the slavery system split and separated families. In America, it was worse as some slaves got auctioned. Women and men left behind their children and never got the chance to reunite again. Greeks and Americans viewed themselves to be a superior culture to the enslaved people. Slaves formed the lower class of the social hierarchy.

Slavery was harsh in Greek as it was in Antebellum southern states of America. Greeks maimed, flogged, branded, and executed slaves, and this was similar to the 19th-century system. Slaves that worked in fields, quarries, and mines were treated worse and dehumanized (Sundquist 18). In ancient and colonial America, slaves were always in abundant supply. Ancient Greek continuously involved in foreign conflicts, and thus the slave market was steady. Similarly, in America, the Transatlantic trade ensured that slaves were readily available and in abundant supply.

Humans were made to be the property of others, and the practice was sustained by legally sanctioned violence at personal and institutional levels. Slaves were given little food and worked to death. Besides, Greek and American slaves were taken to conquests and war (Blake 29). Colonial America took slaves to fight in the pre-revolutionary period. In Greek, the conquest led to the capture of more slaves and enslaved as laborers.


The scars of slavery both from ancient Greek and in America are deep and shocking. It is unthinkable to imagine how the two worlds mistreated and dehumanized slaves who they considered to be merely their property. Several factors contributed to the differences in slavery between the two eras. In America, slavery was majorly racial and instituted racism. White superiority impeded the prosperity of black slaves, and attaining freedom was difficult. Racism made it hard for blacks to climb up the ladder and thus remained poor and marginalized. Besides, in America, slaves were captured from Africa and shipped through the transatlantic slave trade. On the other hand, Greek slaves could climb up the ladder when freed, and the system was less racial. Slaves were diverse, and some secured highly professional jobs in society. Majorly, slaves were captured from war. Nevertheless, in both worlds, slavery worked to dehumanize subjects and denied people their freedom.


Works Cited

Blake, W. O. The History Of Slavery And The Slave Trade, Ancient And Modern. Published And Sold Exclusively By Subscription By J. And H. Miller, 1857.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglas. Clydesdale Press, LLC, 2018.

Lovejoy, Paul E. “‘Freedom Narratives’ Of Transatlantic Slavery”. Slavery & Abolition, vol 32, no. 1, 2011, pp. 91-107. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/0144039x.2011.538200.

Millett, Paul. “Aristotle And Slavery In Athens”. Greece And Rome, vol 54, no. 2, 2007, pp. 178-209. Cambridge University Press (CUP), doi:10.1017/s0017383507000150.

Preus, Anthony. “Aristotle on Slavery”. Philosophical Inquiry, vol 15, no. 3, 1993, pp. 33-47. Philosophy Documentation Center, doi:10.5840/philinquiry1993153/42.

Sundquist, Eric J. Empire And Slavery In American Literature, 1820-1865. University Press Of Mississippi, 2006.