Reading Greek Literature with The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Edward M. Harris

In 1972 during excavations in the Athenian Agora a fourth-century BC lead letter was discovered in a well next to the Stoa Basileios. This was the building that housed the office of the magistrate called the basileus or king, and it is where Socrates came to meet his accuser in 400/399 before his trial for impiety. Lead was often used for writing letters in antiquity as a plentiful by-product of refining silver for coinage and because it is a soft metal and easily incised and folded. The letter reads as follows:

Lesis is sending a letter to Xenocles and his mother asking that they by no means overlook that he is perishing in the foundry, but that they come to his masters (despotās) and that they have something better found for him. For I have been handed over to a thoroughly wicked man; I am perishing from being whipped; I am tied up; I am treated like dirt – more and more![1]

The word despotās (δεσπότας, “masters”) indicates that Lesis was a slave. We have many passages in Greek literature that mention slaves and slavery, but this is the only one that contains the voice of a slave describing his own suffering.

The letter of Lesis (reproduced by permission of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Agora Excavations).

We can reconstruct the background that gave rise to the letter. The masters of Lesis entrusted him to the owner of the forge either as an apprentice or to work for a wage in the forge. The owner treated him abusively, and Lesis asked Xenocles (an otherwise unknown individual) and his mother to intervene with his masters. What Lesis, his mother and Xenocles obviously knew but what he does not make clear is their status. Was the mother of Lesis a slave or free? And what was her relationship to Xenocles? He might be her master or a friend or husband if she was free. What is clear is that Lesis was suffering from terrible abuse.

The letter opens up a valuable, if disturbing, perspective on life in Classical Athens, a state often regarded as the world’s first democracy. But the letter also reveals some valuable parallels with the life of slaves in the American South before the Civil War. Although the basic legal features of slavery were the same in both societies, there was one genre of literature in the American South that has no parallels in Athenian literature of the Classical period – the slave narrative. Perhaps the most famous work of the genre is the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass in his early sixties (c. 1879).

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery around 1818 in Tuckahoe, Talbot County, Maryland. On 3 September 1838 he boarded a train of the Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia Railroad and by various means was able to reach New York on the following day. He married Anna Murray-Douglas, a freedwoman whom he met in Baltimore; their marriage lasted until her death in 1882. They lived in Lynn, Massachusetts, where Douglass wrote his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which was published by the Anti-Slavery Office in Boston in 1845. He went abroad to lecture on the evils of slavery and returned to the United States in time to attend the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 where he linked the abolition of slavery to the promotion of a woman’s right to vote. He continued to speak and organize for the abolition of slavery through the Civil War (1861–5) and was politically active until his death in 1895.

Frederick Douglass, incidentally, visited Athens with his wife in 1887 and toured the archaeological sites, recording his impression in his diary. Despite his achievements, American racism followed him to Athens. During his visit there, the U.S. Minister to Athens, John Walker Fearn, who had been a Confederate diplomat, organized a reception for Heinrich Schliemann (the German millionaire-turned-archaeologist who had uncovered the sites of Troy, from 1870, and Mycenae, from 1876). Fearn, however, pointedly did not invite Douglass. When Schliemann discovered this, he organized a reception for Douglass and his wife and was assisted by Captain George Dewey, whose ship was in the Piraeus at the time. While the letter of Lesis and scattered passages in Greek literature contain hints and suggestions about the nature of slavery in Greek society, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and other slave narratives help us to understand the full impact of slavery on the individual slave. There are three aspects of the letter which can be illuminated by the Narrative of Frederick Douglass.

Anna Murray and Frederick Douglass, each photographed in the late 1850s.


First, there is the brutality of the violence that is an inherent part of the institution. The letter of Lesis is not the only evidence for the beating of slaves in Greek literature. The earliest passage comes from the Odyssey (c. 700 BC) in which Helen tells Telemachus how his father disguised himself as a runaway slave so that he could enter Troy. To convince the Trojans that he was a slave, Odysseus gave himself many stripes from whipping (Od. 4.244–46). This is a minor detail in the narrative, but it speaks volumes about Greek slavery. It reveals that the Trojans would not have believed that Odysseus was a slave unless he bore the marks of a whip.

The practice of whipping slaves was so common that the comic poet Aristophanes could make a joke out of it in his plays. In the Wasps, the slave Xanthias, who has just been beaten, makes a pun on the Greek word παῖ, which is vocative of the word παῖς, or “boy,” which was the way Greeks referred to slaves, but was also an abbreviated version of the imperative of the Greek verb παίω, which means to “beat” (1307). The chorus leader (1297–8) explains why it is appropriate to call a slave “boy”: he is someone who can be beaten even as an old man, just as free children also are. Given this treatment, one can well understand why over twenty-thousand slaves fled to the Spartans after the Athenian fortress of Deceleia was occupied in 413 BC (Thucydides 7.29). This flight of slaves was similar in proportion to the massive numbers of slaves who fled from their Confederate masters to the Union Army during the Civil War and were called “contraband.”

A slave working in a Greek mine (5th-century BC Boeotian cup).

But no passage in Greek literature conveys the full brutality of the practice. Frederick Douglass describes how his Aunt Hester was punished by her master Captain Anthony.

He would at times take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie upto a joist and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood… The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest.


From Wilson Armistead’s Five Hundred Thousand Strokes for Freedom: A Series of Anti-Slavery Tracts (W. & F. Cash, London, 1853), accessible here.

The violence against slaves in antiquity was not limited to beatings. Masters also had the right to kill their slaves and did not face retribution or have to justify their right to kill in court. In the Odyssey, the brutal nature of a master’s power is very clear. After regaining control of his house after killing the suitors, Odysseus and Telemachus hang the slave women who have been sleeping with the suitors. As the poet sings, the young women “struggled for a while, but not for long” (Od. 22.462–73). True, Odysseus also kills the suitors, but they have relatives who come to avenge their murder. No one contests the right of Odysseus and Telemachus to end the lives of their slaves.

There were laws on the books in the American South against killing slaves, but they were almost impossible to enforce. Douglass recounts several murders of slaves by masters who were not prosecuted for their actions. He describes in detail the murder of his wife’s cousin, who was about fifteen or sixteen years old, by the wife of Mr Giles Hicks. She beat her so harshly with a stick that she broke her nose and breastbone with the result that she died soon afterwards. The young slave girl had been ordered to mind Mrs Hicks’s baby. The baby started crying in the middle of the night, but the slave girl had lost sleep during several nights and did not hear the crying. When Mrs Hicks found the girl asleep, she grabbed an oak stick of wood and ended her life. The community was shocked, and a warrant for the arrest of Mrs Hicks was issued, but it was never served.

From Wilson Armistead’s Five Hundred Thousand Strokes for Freedom: A Series of Anti-Slavery Tracts (W. & F. Cash, London, 1853), accessible here.

Social Death

Another aspect of slavery is the topic of natal alienation. This is an aspect of slavery stressed by the sociologist Orlando Patterson in his book Slavery and Social Death.[2] Although slaves may be permitted to cohabit and have children, they have no rights over these children, who become the property of the master. The most telling indication of the lack of recognition for the kinship ties of slaves in the Odyssey are the different reactions to the deaths of the suitors and those of the slaves Melanthius and Melantho. When the suitors are killed, Odysseus expects their kin to come to avenge their deaths, as we noted before. When the children of Dolios, Melantho and Melanthius, are killed, Odysseus does not worry that their father and brothers, who are living with his father Laertes, will come to punish him for their deaths. In fact, Dolios greets Odysseus when the latter comes to Laertes’ farm in Book 24 as if nothing had happened. Later in the same book Dolios and his sons fight alongside Odysseus and his son Telemachus against the relatives of the suitors (Od. 24.496501). While the kinship tie is strong for the families of the suitors, it does not exist for Dolios and his children.

One should also recall that Dolios and the Sicilian woman owned by Laertes have six sons (Od. 24.38390). Dolios is called their father, and the Sicilian woman is called their mother, but she is never called the wife of Dolios. This stands in stark contrast to the other women in the poem who are given the title “wedded wife” (γυνὴ γαμετή, in Greek). These two slaves live together and have children, but their marriage does not exist in the eyes of the community.

Finally, one may remember that the slave Eurycleia was the nurse of Odysseus when he was young (and was later the first to identify the disguised Odysseus when she saw a scar on his leg, Od. 19.48990). As one woman in my Core Studies 1 class at Brooklyn College pointed out to me, a woman cannot usually lactate unless she has been pregnant. It is possible to induce lactation in women who are not pregnant, but the ancient sources do not indicate that the Greeks were aware of this possibility. The poet says that Laertes did not have sexual relations with Eurycleia out of respect for his wife (Od. 1.433). This is interesting because it reveals that in normal cases masters would have sexual relations with their female slaves. Who did have sexual relations with Eurycleia and who were her children? What happened to them? We would like to know this answer, but the poet did not expect his audience to pose this question because the audience did not recognize the kinship ties of slaves or consider them important.

Eurycleia kisses the hand of Odysseus, Theodoor van Thulden (after Francesco Primaticcio and Niccolò dell’ Abbata), 1663.

The Greek texts reveal the natal alienation of slaves, but aside from a few passages, they do not examine its emotional impact on the slaves themselves. By contrast, with eloquent understatement, Frederick Douglass describes his relationship with his father and mother.

My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father, but of the correctness of this opinion, I knew nothing: the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant – before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age… I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night… Death soon ended what little (i.e. communication) we could have while she lived and with it her hardships and suffering. She died when I was about seven years old… I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death or at her burial.

Even if slaves were permitted to have families, they might be separated and sold to different plantations either as a punishment or to pay off a debt.

Uncaptioned illustration to Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself (self-published, New York, 1850).


The Athenian sources also contain some information about slaves paying apophora. In this arrangement a master would allow a slave to work on his own – the practice is mainly attested for male slaves.[3] The slave would hire himself out or work at a craft. This practice sounds very humane because it afforded some freedom to the slave in return for regular payments. But none of our Greek sources analyze the rationale behind the practice or consider the perspective of the slave in the arrangement. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass reveals that the practice need not have been motivated by any sense of humanity on the part of the master but by calculations of profit.

I applied to Master Hugh for the privilege of hiring my time. … [He] proposed the following terms: I was to be allowed all my time, make all contracts, and find my own employment; and in return for this liberty, I was to pay him three dollars at the end of each week; find myself in calking tools, and in board and clothing. My board was two dollars and a half per week. This, with the wear and tear of clothing and calking tools, made my regular expenses about six dollars per week. This amount I was compelled to make up, or relinquish the privilege of hiring my time. Rain or shine, work or no work, at the end of each week the money must be forthcoming, or I must give up my privilege. This arrangement, it will be perceived, was decidedly in my master’s favor. It relieved him of all need of looking after me. His money was sure. He received all the benefits of slaveholding without its evils; while I endured all the evils of a slave, and suffered all the care and anxiety of a freeman. I found it a hard bargain. But, hard as it was, I thought it better than the old mode of getting along.

This was a privilege that may have mitigated the conditions of slavery but still kept the slave aware of his lack of freedom.

From Wilson Armistead’s Five Hundred Thousand Strokes for Freedom: A Series of Anti-Slavery Tracts (W. & F. Cash, London, 1853), accessible here.


Finally, we should note a major difference between the two systems of slavery. After Frederick Douglass escaped from Maryland and made his way north, his status changed from slave to free, but the color of his skin did not change. Even though he was a free man, his race still mattered. Greek slavery by contrast did not discriminate by race. The Greeks enslaved many other nationalities including Sikels in Sicily, Thracians, Syrians, Colchians, Paphlagonians, Jews and people from southern Italy. And they enslaved other Greeks. The Greeks also frequently manumitted slaves though we cannot calculate the numbers. By contrast, the practice of manumitting slaves in the American South was very restricted: a rate of 0.04% in 1850. This low rate was partly for racial reasons because the white population could not tolerate the presence of numerous free blacks.

This difference between the racial composition of Greek slavery and that of slavery in the American South and economic factors therefore made a great difference in the treatment of former slaves. Manumitted slaves in Athens and other Greek communities did not become citizens but became metics or resident aliens. Some exceptional ex-slaves were able to become citizens, but this was rare. There was social prejudice against ex-slaves. We know from Attic oratory that one of the worst insults one could bring against an enemy was to accuse him of being a former slave or having slave parents. But once an ex-slave spoke Greek, dressed like a Greek and behaved like a Greek, there was nothing to distinguish him from other Athenians or Megarians or Corinthians. And in Rome during the Republic and Empire, ex-slaves became citizens if they were manumitted in a certain way. One should recall that the poet Horace was the son of a freedman and rose to join the highest social circles in Augustan Rome. He was not unusual.

One of the best indications of Greek awareness of the brutal nature of slavery was their political vocabulary. Slavery was such an important component of Greek society that it provided a powerful metaphor for types of political regimes the Greeks considered unacceptable. The word despotēs, which meant a master of slaves in the letter of Lesis, was one of the words used to denote a tyrant (e.g. Herodotus 3.89; Thucydides 6.77). When several Greek communities began to develop political institutions governed by the rule of law in the late seventh and sixth centuries BC, they contrasted this type of government that aimed at protecting the freedom of citizens with the traditional type of regime by calling the latter a tyranny, in which the leader treated his subjects as if they were his slaves. This metaphor derived its power from the Greek awareness that slavery was a brutal institution that deprived people of their dignity. One of the characteristics of the tyrant, or “despot”, was his hybris, which the Greeks defined as the tendency to treat free people like slaves. But the use of slavery as a metaphor in Greek political thought and its role in defining political freedom is a subject for another time.

Edward M. Harris is Emeritus Professor of Ancient History, Durham University. This essay is an abbreviated version of his Langford Lecture given to the Department of Classics, University of Florida State, on 6 November 2020. For the complete lecture see here.

Further Reading

The letter of Lesis was published in David A. Jordan, “A Personal Letter Found in the Athenian Agora,” Hesperia 69 (2000) 91–103. For discussion and the meaning of the term despotēs, which identifies Lesis as a slave, see Edward M. Harris, “Notes on a Lead Letter,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 104 (2004) 157–70, which is reprinted in Edward M. Harris, Democracy and the Rule of Law in Classical Athens (Cambridge UP, 2006) On slavery in Greece, see David M. Lewis, Greek Slave Systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, 800–146 B.C. (Oxford UP, 2018).

On Frederick Douglass, see David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2018). For a good recent edition, see Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, edited by William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely (Norton Critical Editions, New York/London, 2017).

On natal alienation, see O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Harvard UP, 1982) 5–8. For manumission and citizenship at Rome, see H. Mouritsen, The Freedman in the Roman World (Cambridge, 2011). On slavery in the Homeric poems, see Edward M. Harris, “Homer, Hesiod, and the ‘Origins’ of Greek Slavery,” Revue des Étude Anciennes 114 (2012) 345–66. On apophora, see D. Kamen, “Manumission and Slave Allowances in Classical Athens,” Historia 65 (2016) 413–26.


1 For the Greek text and broader context about this document, please see the articles by David Jordan and me cited under “Further Reading”.
2 For further details, see the “Further Reading” section.
3 For additional information, see Kamen’s article in “Further Reading”.