Europeans, Asians, and Greeks: Aristotle on environment, ethnic hierarchies, and slaves (fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Europeans, Asians, and Greeks: Aristotle on environment, ethnic hierarchies, and slaves (fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 21, 2023,

Ancient authors: Aristotle, Politics 7.1327b (link); Aristotle, Oikonomika 1343a, 1344a-b (link to Greek text; link full translation).

Comments: Like the Hippokratic author of Airs, Waters, and Places (link) and other elite Greeks, Aristotle holds to medical theories regarding the correspondence between the climate or environment, on the one hand, and the quality of entire peoples who inhabit such climates or environments, on the other (via the theory of the four humours). In his work on civic organization (Politics) he speaks of the qualities and relative positions of Europeans and Asians in a hierarchy that has Greeks at the top, due to their supposedly well-balanced climate. According to such a view, people from cold climates have too much spirit and are potentially violent, whereas people from warmer climates lack spirit and are easily subjected.

A second passage by Aristotle from his discussion of household management (Oikonomika) is included here to show how such theories regarding the character of whole peoples (here courageous or spirited vs cowardly) could impact even the choice of slaves within the household in the mindset of an elite author like Aristotle, at least.

You can read more about Aristotle and ethnic hierarchies in relation to medical theories in Harland’s article: “‘The most ignorant peoples of all’: Ancient Ethnic Hierarchies and Pontic Peoples.”

Source of the translation: H. Rackham, Politics, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1932), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944 and copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland; E.S. Forster, Oeconomica (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920), public domain, adapted by Harland.


[Ethnic hierarchies, climate, the four humours, and the character of peoples]

[Politics 7.1327b] The peoples inhabiting the cold places and those of Europe are full of spirit but inferior with regard to intelligence and skill, so that they continue to be comparatively free, but lack civic organization and the ability to rule their neighbours (θυμοῦ μέν ἐστι πλήρη, διανοίας δὲ ἐνδεέστερα καὶ τέχνης, διόπερ ἐλεύθερα μὲν διατελεῖ μᾶλλον, ἀπολίτευτα δὲ καὶ τῶν πλησίον ἄρχειν οὐ δυνάμενα). The peoples of Asia, on the other hand, are intelligent and skillful in temperament, but lack spirit, with the result that they continue to be subjected and enslaved (τὰ δὲ περὶ τὴν Ἀσίαν διανοητικὰ μὲν καὶ τεχνικὰ τὴν ψυχήν, ἄθυμα δέ, διόπερ ἀρχόμενα καὶ δουλεύοντα διατελεῖ). But the Greek kinship group (γένος) participates in both characters, just as it occupies the middle position geographically, for it is both spirited and intelligent. For this reason, it continues to be free, to have the best civic institutions, and – if it attains a united civic constitution – to have the ability to rule everyone. The same variety also exists among Greek peoples (ἔθνη) in comparison with one another: while some have a singular nature, others have a good combination of both these qualities [i.e. spirit and intelligence]. So it is clear that those who are likely to be guided to virtue by the lawgiver must be both intellectual and spirited in their nature. . .


[Comparison of animals and “lower” peoples with respect to the dangers of an overemphasis on gymnastic education]

[Politics 8.1338a-b] Now at the present time some of the cities that have the reputation of paying the greatest attention to children produce in them an athletic habit to the detriment of their bodily form and growth. Although they have avoided this error, the Spartans still make their boys animal in nature by their laborious exercises, in the belief that this is most contributory to manly courage. Yet, as has often been said, it is not right to regulate education with a view to one virtue only, or to this one most of all. Indeed they do not even investigate the question whether this virtue is to be had in view at all.

For neither in the lower animals nor in the case of foreign peoples (ethnē) do we see that courage goes with the wildest, but rather with the gentler and lion-like temperaments. There are many peoples inclined to murder and cannibalism, including the Achaians around the Pontos [Black Sea], the Heniochians, and others of the mainland peoples, some in the same degree as those named and some more, which although engaging in banditry do not have the quality of manly courage. We know that even with the Spartans, although they surpassed all other peoples as long as they persisted in their laborious exercises, now they fall behind others both in gymnastic and in military contests. For they did not excel because they exercised their young men in this fashion, but only because they trained and their adversaries did not. Consequently honour and not animal ferocity should play the first part; for it is not a wolf nor one of the other wild animals that will venture upon an noble hazard, but rather a good man. . . It is therefore agreed that we should employ gymnastic training, and how we should employ it.


[Introduction to household organization and its component parts, man and property]

1 [Oikonomika 1343a] Civic organization and household organization differ not only as widely as a household and a city (the subject-matter with which they deal), but also in the fact that civic organization involves a number of rulers, whereas the sphere of economics is a monarchy. Now certain technical skills fall into subdivisions, and it does not pertain to the same technical skill to manufacture and to use the article manufactured, for instance, a lyre or pipes. But civic organization involves both constituting a city in the beginning and also making right use of it when it has come into being. It is clear, therefore, that it must also be the function of household organization both to found a household and also to make use of it. Now a city is an aggregate made up of households, land and property, possessing in itself the means to a happy life. This is clear from the fact that, if men cannot attain this purpose, the community is dissolved. Further, it is for this purpose that they associate together, and that for the sake of which any particular thing exists and has come into being is its essence. It is evident, therefore, that household organization is prior in origin to civic organization. For its function is prior, since a household is part of a city. We must therefore examine household organization and see what its function is.

The component parts of a household are man and property. But since the nature of any given thing is most quickly seen by taking its smallest parts, this would apply also to a household. . . [sections omitted].


[Choosing slaves as property with attention to ethnicity]

5 [Oikonomika 1344a] . . . Regarding possessions, that which is the best and most important subject of household organization comes first and is most essential I mean, man. It is necessary therefore first to provide oneself with good slaves. Now slaves are of two kinds, the overseer and the worker. Since we see that methods of education produce a certain character in the young, it is necessary when one has procured slaves to bring up carefully those who are to be assigned the higher duties. The interaction of a master with his slaves should be done in a way that does not allow them either to be disrespectful or to be irritated. He should give the higher class of slaves some share of honour, and to the workers abundance of food. But since the drinking of wine makes even freemen disrespectful, and many peoples (ethnē) consisting of freemen abstain from wine (the Carthaginians, for instance, when they are on military service), it is clear that wine should never to be given to slaves, or at any rate very seldom.

Three things make up the life of a slave: work, punishment, and food. To give them food but no punishment and no work makes them disrespectful. [1344b] To have work and punishment but no food is tyrannical and destroys their efficiency. It remains therefore to give them work and sufficient food. For it is impossible to rule over slaves without offering rewards, and a slave’s reward is his food. Just as all other men become worse when they get no advantage by being better and there are no rewards for virtue and punishments for vice, so also is it with slaves. Therefore we must take careful notice, granting or withholding everything, whether food or clothing or leisure or punishments, according to merit. In word and deed we should follow the practice adopted by physicians in the matter of medicine, remembering at the same time that food is not medicine because it must be given continually.

The best workers will come from descent groups (genē) that are neither too cowardly (deila) nor too courageous (andria). Slaves who have either of these characteristics are harmful to their owners. Those who are too cowardly lack endurance, while the high-spirited (thymoeideis) are not easy to control.

All should have a definite purpose in view. For it is just and beneficial to offer slaves their freedom as a prize, for they are willing to work when a prize is set before them and a limit of time is defined. One should bind slaves to one’s service by the pledges of wife and children, and not have many persons of the same people (homoethneis) in a household, as is the case in a city. One should provide sacrifices and pleasures more for the sake of slaves than for freemen. For with slaves there are more of the reasons why such things have been instituted. . .

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *