I found something online mentioning a passage from the Odyssey, Book XVII. I checked it against my own Odyssey translated by Samuel Butler. The passage holds true.

"...Servants never do their work when their master hand is no longer over them, for Zeus takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him."

Why was it believed that Zeus took half the goodness of a mortal when they become a slave?


1 Answer 1


It's not a common accepted believe, just something that Eumaeus, the swineherd of Odysseus, says to his master while Odysseus is still in disguise.

Slaves, when their masters lose their power, are no longer minded thereafter to do honest service: for Zeus, whose voice is borne afar, takes away half his worth from a man, when the day of slavery comes upon him.

Odyssey, XVII, 320

This observation of Eumaeus is quite poignant, as he himself is a slave: his father was king of the island of Syra, but he was abducted and sold to Odysseus's father, the king Laertes.

But there is no myth related to Zeus removing goodness of a man when becoming a slave. The passage you mention is just a poetical way in which Eumaeus complains about his condition, quite ironically, when he is about to prove his worth, aiding his masters Odysseus and Telemachus against the suitors.

The same quote can be found in this Wikipedia article: Slavery in ancient Greece, in Origins of slavery:

In the Iliad, slaves are mainly women taken as booty of war, while men were either ransomed or killed on the battlefield. In the Odyssey, the slaves also seem to be mostly women. These slaves were servants and sometimes concubines. There were some male slaves, especially in the Odyssey, a prime example being the swineherd Eumaeus. The slave was distinctive in being a member of the core part of the oikos ("family unit", "household"): Laertes eats and drinks with his servants; in the winter, he sleeps in their company. The term dmōs is not considered pejorative, and Eumaeus, the "divine" swineherd, bears the same Homeric epithet as the Greek heroes. Slavery remained, however, a disgrace. Eumaeus himself declares, "Zeus, of the far-borne voice, takes away the half of a man's virtue, when the day of slavery comes upon him".

This idea of "incompleteness" in slavery is also expressed in the opening lines of the ancient Greek comedy Wealth (Ploutos), where Aristophanes makes the slave Cario say this:

What an unhappy fate, great gods, to be the slave of a fool! A servant may give the best of advice, but if his master does not follow it, the poor slave must inevitably have his share in the disaster; for fortune does not allow him to dispose of his own body, it belongs to his master who has bought it. Alas! 'tis the way of the world.

Aristoph. Pl. 1

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