Libertas inaestimabilis res est.
Kurios was nearly impossible to please. When I made his breakfast each morning, he complained that it was either burned or not fully cooked. No matter how many hours I spent cleaning his home, he always claimed it was filthier than the Augean Stables.
My master and his wife were hardly wealthy. They wouldn't have been able to afford a slave, but they had found me abandoned as an infant. Instead of raising me as their son, my masters had seized the opportunity to make someone else do their chores. As the only slave of their household, I had no one to help me with any of the work or errands, and the faster I finished each task, the faster Kurios thought of another. By the end of each day, I was exhausted, but Kurios always scolded me for not having worked hard enough, making sure to remind me that the gods were displeased with laziness. I always wondered if they were also displeased with men who were never satisfied, no matter how much work their slaves did, but I knew better than to ask aloud.
There were some days when Kurios would command me to accompany him to the temple, making sure to let me know what a burden it was to have me follow him.
"If it displeases you, master," I asked one day, "why do you order me to come with you?"
"Don't be a fool!" he retorted. "If you stayed at home, I would have to make the offering myself!"
After carrying a gift, such as incense or a dish of food, from my master's home, I would leave it on the altar just outside the temple and give the priest a little oil, wine, or honey to offer as a libation. Kurios rationalized that if I were the one to present the offering, then it would be my fault rather than his if the gods found fault with the gift. For this reason, it was also my duty to offer the libation at home before every meal.
Having finished with the offering, I would follow him past the towering pillars and into the temple. As was the custom of many citizens of Greece, Kurios mostly practiced his religion at home, visiting the temple only during festivals, holidays, or other occasions. There were always several priests who were willing to advise us, but my master followed the same routine each time. Raising his arms above his head, or turning his palms to the ground when appealing to the gods of the underworld, he would face east to pray, turning to the direction of the sea to address marine gods.
He always began by asking Zeus to continue to bless his life, next praying that Hera would help his wife learn her place so their marriage would be a happier one because to this day, he was unsure why Aphrodite had punished him by causing him to fall in love with that woman. Kurios would then ask Demeter and Dionysus to grant a bountiful harvest to all who worked in fields and vineyards. This was followed by imploring Hermes and Poseidon to be merciful to travelers of land and sea. My master would also pray that Hades would allow him to enjoy a long life before having a peaceful death and being allowed into the Elysian Fields. Having beseeched Asclepius to grant him good health, he would pray for Apollo to enrich his life with both poetry and science, for one was nourishment for the soul as the other was sustenance for the mind. His final prayers were that Ares would prevent our fair city from becoming as warlike as Sparta, and that Athena would fill him with wisdom so he could manage his own household.
"Finally, I beseech you, Hestia, to continue presiding over my home," he would conclude. "Help my worthless slave not to be so lazy, and help him to realize how blessed he is to have such a master."
As he addressed the gods, I would always stand a respectful distance away from him, watching silently until he had finished. However, there was one time when a priest suggested that I might wish to pray for my master.
"It might be good for him!" Kurios agreed, turning to me.
Although I had never before had the opportunity to pray in the temple, I already knew what to say. Turning east, I lifted my hands.
"I have done nothing to deserve such a master," I began. "May the gods be as merciful and kind to him as he has always been to me. May they grant his requests as he has always met my own needs. May they treat him with the same patience and understanding with which he treats his slave, and may he experience as much joy serving the gods as I do serving him."
Judging from the way some of the priests raised or furrowed their brows in disapproval, they had sensed the true meaning of my words, but Kurios hadn't. In fact, he seemed pleased with what I had said.
Although my visits to the temple were few, I was often sent to the agora in order to purchase what my master and his wife needed. No matter how quickly I finished my errands and returned home, Kurios upbraided me for dragging my feet, reminding me what a less patient master would do to a slave who forgot that he had been sent to the agora for a purpose, not for gossiping under the colonnades.
Even though it provided a welcome respite from my masters, I despised the agora. I had been taught from an early age how to bargain skillfully, but I often had to partake of my noon meal there. As if eating in public, a custom reserved only for the lower class and slaves, wasn't humiliating enough, I frequently encountered Aisopos, no matter how I tried to avoid him.
There have been many wise philosophers throughout history, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The Stoics and Cynics also had profound opinions about the meaning of life. Although I had no time to contemplate insightful truths, I had nothing against those who chose to do so, as long as they left me in peace so I could finish my errands and return home before Kurios found even more reasons to scold me for delaying.
Aisopos may not have been a philosopher, but he was renowned for his wisdom, which he tried to share with me every time our paths crossed. He never failed to find fault with anything I did.
"Khaíre!" he greeted one day, falling into step beside me.
"Good afternoon," I replied. "I was just on my way to the stoa for…"
He clicked his tongue disapprovingly. "Must you be in such a rush? Nothing good was ever done in a hurry."
"With the utmost respect due a man as sage as yourself, it is the fastest man in Olympia who receives the laurel crown."
"Do you believe the Pythia, who answers for Apollo at Delphi, gives her answers quickly, or do you believe she allows herself enough time to respond accurately?"
Hiding a sigh, I attempted to explain, "Sir, it is the duty of every slave to be obedient to his master, and mine has commanded me to make haste. Was it not yourself who compared the industrious ant to the grasshopper who sings all summer?"
Aisopos stroked his chin sagely. "Hestia has blessed you with a kind master. To express your gratitude, you should work harder to become a better slave."
"I do my best, sir," I answered, "but my master is never satisfied."
"For shame!" he scolded. "The other slaves at the agora could show you scars from the way they are treated by their masters! Why must you be so bitter against yours?"
Adjusting the basket that I carried, I quickened my pace without responding. Aisopos merely walked faster to keep up with me.
"Bitterness is as the smallest brier," he lectured. "At first, it is nothing but a slight inconvenience, but if the cause is not removed, it inflames until the trouble affects one's entire life…"
I tried unsuccessfully to ignore him. This was hardly the first time I had heard his oration about how bitterness leads to irrepressible wrath.
"My master is a powerful lion," I responded when he had finished. "A slave is a helpless mouse at the lion's mercy."
"It is the glory of man that is as a wounded lion," Aisopos countered.
As he explained his latest proverb, comparing man's inner strength with the fragility of prominence, making sure to mention that each man must use kindness to overcome his most powerful vices so that such attributes served him, I wanted nothing more than to tell Aisopos that if I saw any lions, I would give them his regards, but until then, I had errands to finish. However, I would not shame my master by making a sharp retort to the wisest man in the city.
Although I often wished to run away, perhaps going to the temple and claiming sanctuary so I would not have to stay with Kurios any longer, I knew the risk if caught trying to escape. Slaves could be beaten or kept in chains for having the audacity to leave their masters.
No matter how bad life is, there's always the possibility that things could be worse. I discovered this the night my master invited his friends over for a symposium.
For those who have never attended a symposium, I would not recommend the experience. The host treats his guests to a splendid banquet, and they have intellectual discussions that gradually become drunken revelry. Usually, only the elite hold such feasts, but Kurios had decided to invite his friends to his home, declaring that he had "as much right as the idle rich to enjoy good company."
No one asked about my rights. No one cared that I had spent hours preparing the feast after I had been with my master at the temple all morning and spent that afternoon buying what my master's wife needed from the agora.
Some slaves were allowed to learn trades and were given advice rather than orders by their masters, who had come to the conclusion that slaves were human beings capable of listening to reason and understanding logic. In fact, there were those who were even allowed to own property or have certain legal rights! I couldn't imagine what it would be like to own anything, even a pair of sandals.
How I loathed sandals! I wouldn't have minded wearing them if they were my own, but I despised having to see them every time I knelt, not only before my master, but his guests as well, to wash every pair of feet presented to me. As dusty as some of them were, I was surprised there was a speck of dirt left anywhere in Greece.
"Your slave washes feet well," one man complimented my master. "My slaves always have the water either scalding or frigid. How did you teach him to lift feet so skillfully that your visitors are hardly inconvenienced?"
It must have been incredibly inconvenient to have someone else kneel before you to remove your sandals and gingerly place your feet in a bowl of warm water, carefully rinsing each foot before patting it dry with the slightest hint of perfumed oil. Surely such a fate was much worse than greeting each visitor in this manner after having prepared an exquisite feast for them, knowing you would be the one to serve the meal and refill their cups each time any of the guests would wave his hand.
There were times I hated the name that my masters had given me. I wouldn't have minded "Aischylos," which came from the word "shame," but "Androkles" was a terrible name for a slave, for it meant "the glory of man."
Was this truly the glory of man, to wash the feet of others? Was it the glory of man, or merely the glory of slaves, to see to it that the needs of everyone else were met while their own were unnoticed?
I dismissed the thought. It hardly mattered what name I had been given. My masters called me "slave" so often that there were times I sincerely believed they had forgotten I even had a name.
At the symposium of a wealthy man, there would be a few female guests to encourage witty conversation. Music and acrobatics were also common forms of entertainment; however, as I have mentioned, Kurios was hardly wealthy. Although his guests debated many topics, I would hardly have considered this gathering to be a true symposium, not that my opinion mattered.
As the guests made themselves comfortable and began their discussions, it was my duty to make sure their plates were full. Kurios was fond of wine, but he was more accustomed to gleukos, which wasn't nearly as strong. However, he had insisted that only the finest oinos would be served that evening, and although I secretly despised any drink that caused guests to become unruly or ruin the furniture, it was not my place to advise him, so I held my peace. I had heard wise men claim that drunkards and gluttons would surely come to poverty, and after my master's symposium, I began believing that these men were correct.
Having finished their meal, my master and his visitors began asking each other riddles. Anyone who guessed incorrectly had to drink salt in his wine. This pastime was harmless enough, but I despised the game of kottabos, which involved swirling the final dregs of wine in a bowl before hurling them at a target. Whoever missed had his bowl refilled. No one cared whether or not the slave who had to wipe away the spilled wine considered his chore to be a game.
"Do you not tire of the same amusements?" one of the visitors asked Kurios. "Let us gamble!"
This suggestion was met by hearty agreement, and they began gambling away enough coins to have purchased half the items in the agora. After a while, my master announced to his friends that he would have to decline the next round as he had no more money.
"Is there anything else you can bet?" The guest sitting closest to the window thought a moment. "Your slave, perhaps?"
Kurios frowned. "What would you want with him? He is still too young to have a beard!"
"He's a good slave. He's quiet, and he seems to be a hard worker. The Romans would pay a handsome price!"
I barely heard the rest of the conversation. In fact, I was so stunned at being gambled away as easily as a drachma that I never once wondered why this man wanted to sell me in Rome rather than elsewhere in Greece. Perhaps he was a merchant, worked with pirates, or had found himself in debt to a citizen of Rome through some means.
Kurios was too drunk to be disappointed when he lost. When this visitor returned to his home, I accompanied him, for I was now his property.
"Do you think you can learn Latin, slave?!" he demanded.
I lowered my eyes respectfully. "If it pleases my master."
"A wise enough answer!"
We left Greece the following afternoon. Despite my unhappiness as a slave, I felt as if I were losing the closest thing to home I had ever known, and I knew I would miss the agora and the temple and every other place where I had spent a lifetime working against my will. I greatly feared what my new life in Rome would bring, for I had never heard anyone speak in favor of the Romans or their culture.
The Roman slave market was bustling with activity. I stood on a platform with a placard around my neck while people scrutinized me as if I were a chariot they were deciding whether or not to purchase. At least I was spared from having my feet covered with chalk, an identifying mark of those who had only recently become slaves. Some people seemed appalled that we were seen as nothing more than any of the other items sold at the market, but I was accustomed to this status, for no one had ever thought of me as human, only as a slave.
One man seized my arm and lifted it. He then put his finger under my chin and tilted my head, pressing the sides of my jaw firmly to force my mouth to open. I didn't understand his Latin, but I could tell he was worried that I wasn't muscular enough; however, it pleased him that I was young and had no rotten teeth.
That was my introduction to Dominus. I had no way of knowing that his cruelty would make me regret every complaint I ever had against Kurios.
Liberty is a thing beyond all price.