One cause of slavery in ancient Greece in the case of Sparta was a complex interplay between political structure, economic pressures and military intentions. This was the case with the Lacedaemonians (i.e. the Spartans), as Polybius explains in his Stories. The Spartans were a militaristic and warlike nation. Still, they were prevented from gaining fame by the constitution that their Lycurgus legislature established. It was an excellent constitution, claims Polybius, for self-restraint and freedom within their own Peloponnesian territory, but it did not allow the nation’s expansionist leanings. A major obstacle to Sparta was the restriction that none of them could own more property than another (Polybius, Stories VI.45.3). They also renounced making money VI.45.4). As Polybius notes, this limited their ability to create wealth, and instead of promoting the virtue of self-control, their lusts turned to war and the enslavement of others (VI.49.1). What the Spartans needed was a supply of grain and labor that would enable them to continue their warlike efforts and rise to greatness as a regional power. So they annexed the territory of their neighbors, the Messenians, and reduced them to working as serfs on their own land. The ambitions of the Spartans, their deliberation that it was more glorious to rule and rule over others than just to be content in their own freedom, required a servile class (VI.50.3).
Polybius’ analysis of the political, economic, and military characteristics of ancient Sparta in the 8th / 7th centuries. BC provides a great example of what Jesus said about the pursuit of greatness in Mark 10: 42-45. He undoubtedly had more in mind than the Spartans, but they are a fine example of those who seek greatness in ways that contradict Jesus. Jesus replied to some of his disciples who were looking for glory that “the rulers of the Gentiles actually rule over others”. His disciples, however, were to serve others: “And whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all.” For the Spartans, the irony of size was that they had to enslave their neighbors. For Jesus, the irony of greatness was that it was about being a slave to everyone.
Jesus himself gave the example: “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45). Instead of enslaving, he served others and offered himself as a ransom for the freedom of the enslaved. That greatness was far beyond what the Spartans achieved, but it was at the expense of his own life to set those enslaved in sin free, as we know from broader theological teaching on the meaning of the death of Jesus. The politics, economics, and aspirations of the Church have been countercultural or opposed to the world, with its desire for power and authority that enabled the enslavement of others to achieve such ends. Jesus’ disciples were to grow up through a “slavery” of service in imitation of their Lord.
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