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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A house slave was a slave who worked, and often lived, in the house of the slave-owner. House slaves had many duties such as cooking, cleaning, serving meals, and caring for children.

In antiquity

In classical antiquity, many civilizations had house slaves.

In Greece

The study of slavery in Ancient Greece remains a complex subject, in part because of the many different levels of servility, from traditional chattel slave through various forms of serfdom, such as Helots, Penestai, and several other classes of non-citizen.

Athens had various categories of slave, such as:

  • House-slaves, living in their master's home and working at home, on the land or in a shop.
  • Freelance slaves, who didn't live with their master but worked in their master's shop or fields and paid him taxes from money they got from their own properties (insofar as society allowed slaves to own property).
  • Public slaves, who worked as police-officers, ushers, secretaries, street-sweepers, etc.
  • War-captives (andrapoda) who served primarily in unskilled tasks at which they could be chained: for example, rowers in commercial ships; or miners.

Houseborn slaves (oikogeneis) often constituted a privileged class. They were, for example, entrusted to take the children to school; they were "pedagogues" in the first sense of the term.[1] Some of them were the offspring of the master of the house, but in most cities, notably Athens, a child inherited the status of its mother.[2]

Sexual reproduction and "breeding"

It appears that the Greeks did not breed their slaves, at least during the Classical Era, though the proportion of house born slaves appears to have been rather large in Ptolemaic Egypt and in manumission inscriptions at Delphi.[3] Sometimes the cause of this was natural; mines, for instance, were exclusively a male domain.

Also known as a writer of Socratic dialogues, Xenophon advised that male and female slaves should be lodged separately, that "… nor children born and bred by our domestics without our knowledge and consent—no unimportant matter, since, if the act of rearing children tends to make good servants still more loyally disposed, cohabiting but sharpens ingenuity for mischief in the bad."[4] The explanation is perhaps economic; even a skilled slave was cheap,[5] so it may have been cheaper to purchase a slave than to raise one.[6] Additionally, childbirth placed the slave-mother's life at risk, and the baby was not guaranteed to survive to adulthood.[2]

In Socratic dialogues and Greek plays

A house slave appears in the Socratic dialogue, Meno, which was written by Plato. In the beginning of the dialogue, the slave's master, Meo, fails to benefit from Socratic teaching, and reveals himself to be intellectually savage. Socrates turns to the house-slave, who is a boy ignorant of geometry. The boy acknowledges his ignorance and learns from his mistakes and finally establishes a proof of the desired geometric theorem. This is another example of the slave appearing more clever than his master, a popular theme in Greek literature.

The comedies of Menander show how the Athenians preferred to view a house-slave: as an enterprising and unscrupulous rascal, who must use his wits to profit from his master, rescue him from his troubles, or gain him the girl of his dreams. We have most of these plays in translations by Plautus and Terence, suggesting that the Romans liked the same genre.

And the same sort of tale has not yet become extinct, as the popularity of Jeeves and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum attest.

In the Americas

The leader of the Haitian revolution, Toussaint L'Ouverture, was a former house slave.
The leader of the Haitian revolution, Toussaint L'Ouverture, was a former house slave.

House slaves existed in the New World.


In Haiti, before leading the Haitian revolution, Toussaint Louverture had been a house slave.

Toussaint is thought to have been born on the plantation of Bréda at Haut de Cap in Saint-Domingue, owned by the Comte de Noé and later managed by Bayon de Libertat.[7] Tradition says that he was driver and horse trainer on the plantation. His master freed him at age 33, when Toussaint married Suzanne.[8] He was a fervent Catholic, and a member of high degree of the Masonic Lodge of Saint-Domingue.[9][10] In 1790 slaves in the Plaine du Flowera rose in rebellion. Different forces coalesced under different leaders. Toussaint served with other leaders and rose in responsibility. On 4 April 1792, the French Legislative Assembly extended full rights of citizenship to free people of color or mulattoes (gens de couleur libres) and free blacks.

United States

In many households, treatment of slaves varied with the slave's skin color. Darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while lighter-skinned house servants had comparatively better clothing, food and housing.[11]

As in President Thomas Jefferson's household, the presence of lighter-skinned slaves as household servants was not merely an issue of skin color. Sometimes planters used mixed-race slaves as house servants or favored artisans because they were their children or other relatives. Several of Jefferson's household slaves were possibly children of his father-in-law John Wayles and the enslaved woman Betty Hemings, who were inherited by Jefferson's wife upon her father's death. In turn Jefferson himself had a long relationship with Betty and John Wayles's daughter Sally Hemings, a much younger woman who was mostly of European ancestry and half-sister to Thomas Jefferson's wife. The Hemings children grew up to be closely involved in Jefferson's household staff activities; one became his chef. Two sons trained as carpenters. Three of his four surviving mixed-race children with Sally Hemings passed into white society as adults.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Carlier, p.203.
  2. ^ a b Garlan, p.58.
  3. ^ Garlan, p.59.
  4. ^ The Economist, IX. Trans H. G. Dakyns, accessed 16 May 2006.
  5. ^ Pritchett and Pippin, pp.276–281.
  6. ^ Garlan, p.58. Finley (1997), p.154–155 remains doubtful.
  7. ^ Bell, pp.59-60, 62
  8. ^ "Toussaint L’Ouverture", HyperHistory Archived 2010-03-28 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 27 Apr 2008
  9. ^ David Brion Davis, "He changed the New World", Review of Madison Smartt Bell's Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, The New York Review of Books, 31 May 2007, p. 55
  10. ^ "Toussaint Louverture: A Biography and Autobiography: Electronic Edition". University of North Carolina. Retrieved 22 August 2007.
  11. ^ Genovese (1967)
  12. ^ Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, New York: W.W. Norton, 2008
This page was last edited on 19 March 2020, at 08:11
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