Two Perspectives on Slavery

The starkest of contrasts: an anonymous Hellenistic epigram depicting a grateful slave and his benevolent master, and an Athenian letter recounting a slave’s desperation and his master’s brutality.

Anonymous Epigram 7.179 (Greek Anthology)

Even now from under the earth, master,
I remain obedient to you.
Your kindness I haven’t forgotten:
Three times you saw me from sickness to health;
And now you’ve gone so far as to lay me
Under this sheltering stone, announcing:
Medes, a Persian.
You’ve done right by me.
For that, you’ll have willing slaves in your debt.

In 1972, excavation of the Athenian Agora turned up a unique c.4th-century-BC letter inscribed on a lead tablet: the speaker is an actual slave describing the actual conditions of bondage. (Presumably the letter was dictated to a scribe, and since it was found in a well, presumably it was never delivered.)

As in the fanciful epigram, δεσπότης (“master”) designates the man who command’s the slave’s life. But unlike the fictional δεσπότης whose kindness can never be repaid, the real δεσπότης is a man of limitless brutality.

The letter reads:

“Lesis sends a letter to Xenochles and his mother saying do not overlook that he’s dying in the forge, but come to his masters and find him something better. For I have been handed over to an entirely bad man: I’m dying from the whippings; I’m tied up; I’m horribly abused. And more, more!”

7.179 (Greek Anthology)

σοὶ καὶ νῦν ὑπὸ γῆν, ναί, δέσποτα, πιστὸς ὑπάρχω,
ὡς πάρος, εὐνοίης οὐκ ἐπιληθόμενος,
ὥς με τότ᾽ ἐκ νούσου τρὶς ἐπ᾽ ἀσφαλὲς ἤγαγες ἴχνος,
καὶ νῦν ἀρκούσᾐ τῇδ᾽ ὑπέθου καλύβῃ,
Μάνην ἀγγείλας, Πέρσην γένος. εὖ δέ με ῥέξας
ἕξεις ἐν χρείῃ δμῶας ἑτοιμοτέρους.

Lead tablet letter from the Athenian agora, c.4th BC. (quoted in Edward Harris, Democracy and the Rule of Law in Classical Athens, page 271)

Detail of lines 2-4 of the slave’s lead tablet letter. Reproduced from David Jordan’s “A Personal Letter Found in the Athenian Agora,” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 2000), pp. 91-103.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

One thought on “Two Perspectives on Slavery

  1. Are there more such records in Latin from the Roman world? I know of a few, but am curious about finding more.

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