Europeans, Asians, and Greeks: Aristotle on hierarchies, slaves, and environmental determinism (fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Europeans, Asians, and Greeks: Aristotle on hierarchies, slaves, and environmental determinism (fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 28, 2024,

Ancient author: Aristotle, Politics, various passages (link); Aristotle, Household-management / Oikonomika 1343a, 1344a-b  (link; link to Greek).

Comments: As several of the passages from Aristotle’s Politics gathered here illustrate, Aristotle works with overall hierarchical assumptions that place all “barbarian” peoples low down in a hierarchy of nature, alongside slaves and animals. Slaves are slaves due to their essential makeup or nature, according to Aristotle, and barbarians are natural slaves but also beastly savages. The male Greek citizen, of course, is at the top of the hierarchy. Aristotle’s successor, Theophrastos, maintains a similar hierarchy of nature but has a more subtle way of expressing the place of “barbarians” in the scheme (link).

Alongside this hierarchy of nature from the superior Greek citizen down to animals are other more specific categorizations of peoples based on still other factors. 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.

Another set of passages by Aristotle from his discussion of household management (Oikonomika) are 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.”



[Natural hierarchies: Male Greek, female Greek as subject, slaves with “barbarian” peoples as slaves by nature]

(1.1252b) In this subject [i.e. the makeup of the city-state as an association] as in others the best method of investigation is to study things in the process of development from the beginning. The first coupling together of persons then to which necessity gives rise is that between those who are unable to exist without one another: for instance the union of female and male for the continuance of the species . . . [omitted aside]. . . and the union of natural ruler and natural subject for the sake of security. For the one who is able to foresee with his mind is naturally ruler and naturally master, and one that is able to do these things with his body is subject and naturally a slave, so that master and slave have the same interest. So the [Greek] female and the slave are by nature distinct. . . [omitted aside]. Yet among barbarians the female and the slave have the same rank. This is because barbarians have no class of natural rulers. Rather, with them the conjugal partnership is a partnership of female slave and male slave [i.e. all barbarians are by nature slaves]. Hence the saying of the poets that “it is right that Greeks should rule barbarians” [Euripides, Iphigeneia 1400], implying that barbarian and slave are the same in nature. The household is composed first of all from these two partnerships, then. Hesiod [Works and Days 405] was right when he wrote “First and foremost a house (oikos), a wife and an ox for the ploughing,” because the ox serves instead of a servant for the poor. The partnership therefore that comes about in the course of nature for everyday purposes is the “house,” the persons whom Charondas speaks of as “sharers of the same pot of food” and the Cretan Epimenides as “sharers of the same garden.” . . . [omitted sections]

[Hierarchies of masters and slaves and “barbarians” as naturally slaves]

(1.1255a) The term ‘article of property’ is used in the same way as the term ‘part’: a thing that is a part is not only a part of another thing but absolutely belongs to another thing, and so also does an article of property. Hence whereas the master is merely the slave’s master and does not belong to the slave, the slave is not merely the slave of the master but wholly belongs to the master. These considerations therefore make clear the nature of the slave and his essential quality: one who is a human being belonging by nature not to himself but to another is by nature a slave, and a person is a human being belonging to another if being a man he is an article of property, and an article of property is an instrument for action separable from its owner. But we must next consider whether or not anyone exists who is by nature of this character, and whether it is advantageous and just for anyone to be a slave, or whether on the contrary all slavery is against nature. And it is not difficult either to discern the answer by theory or to learn it empirically. Authority and subordination are conditions not only inevitable but also expedient; in some cases things are marked out from the moment of birth to rule or to be ruled. And there are many varieties both of rulers and of subjects . . . [omitted section detailing the argument].

Now to resume, it is in a living creature, as we say, that it is first possible to discern both the master’s and the citizen’s (politikos) rulership. The soul rules the body with the sway of a master, the intelligence rules the appetites with that of a citizen or a king. In these examples it is clear that it is natural and expedient for the body to be governed by the soul and for the emotional part to be governed by the intellect, the part possessing reason. Whereas it is always harmful for the two parties to be on an equal footing or in the contrary positions.

Again, the same holds good between man and the other animals: domestic animals are superior in their nature to wild animals, yet for all the former it is advantageous to be ruled by man, since this gives them security. Again, regarding the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject. And the same must also necessarily apply in the case of humankind as a whole. Therefore, all men that differ as widely as the soul does from the body and the human being from the lower animal . . . [omitted aside] . . . are by nature slaves. Being governed by this kind of authority is advantageous for them to the degree that it is advantageous to the subject things [slaves] already mentioned. For that one is by nature a slave who is capable of belonging to another (and that is why he does belong in that way), and that one shares in reason (logos) so far as to apprehend it but not to possess it. For the animals other than man are subservient not to reason, by apprehending it, but to emotions (pathēmata). And also the usefulness of slaves diverges little from that of animals; bodily service for the necessities of life is forthcoming from both, from slaves and from domestic animals alike. . . [omitted section]

Now some persons, simply clinging, as they think, to principle of justice (for the law is a principle of justice), assert that the enslavement of prisoners of war is just. Yet at the same time they deny the assertion, for there is the possibility that wars may be unjust in their origin and one would by no means admit that a man that does not deserve slavery can be really a slave. Otherwise we will have the result that persons reputed of the highest nobility are slaves and the descendants of slaves if they happen to be taken prisoners of war and sold. Therefore they do not mean to assert that Greeks themselves if taken prisoners are slaves, but that barbarians are. Yet when they say this, they are merely seeking for the principles of natural slavery of which we spoke at the outset. For they are forced to say that there exist certain persons who are essentially slaves everywhere and certain others who are so nowhere. And the same applies also about nobility (eugeneia): our nobles consider themselves noble not only in their own country but everywhere, but they think that barbarian noblemen are only noble in their own country. This implies that there are two kinds of nobility and of freedom, one absolute and the other relative, as Helen says in Theodektes: “But who would dare to call me menial, / the scion of a twofold stock divine?” Yet in speaking this way they make nothing but virtue and vice the distinction between slave and free, the noble and the base-born, because they assume that just as from a man springs a man and from savages (thēria) a savage, so also from good parents comes a good son but as a matter of fact nature frequently while intending to do this is unable to bring it about. . . [omitted sections].

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

[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. . . [omitted sections]

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

(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 eating human flesh, 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.


Household Management

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

(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]

(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 action 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. . .


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

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