CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
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Introduction to Ancient Greek History
CLCV 205 - Lecture 16 - Athenian Democracy (cont.)
Chapter 1. Organization of Athenian Democracy: The Judicial [00:00:00]
Professor Donald Kagan: I was trying to describe to you how the Athenian democracy in its full form, after the reforms that were instituted by Pericles, after the death of Ephialtes, how that system worked and I had described what we would call the legislative branch and the much less significant executive branch, and now I’d like to turn to what we would call the judicial branch. Now, this Athenian judicial system, I think, might seem even more strange to the modern eye than the rest of the constitution. You start with this panel of six 6,000 jurors who enlisted to serve in the courts each year. On any given day, the jurors who showed up to accept an assignment were assigned to specific courts and to specific cases. The usual size of a jury seems to have been 501, although there were juries as small as fifty-one to as many as 1,501, depending on what the case was, whether it was public or private, and also how important it was.
To avoid any possibility of bribery or partiality, the Athenians evolved an astonishingly complicated system of assignments that effectively prevented tampering. That system is described in Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens. I think it’s chapter 61; if any of you think that you have about a month or two to spare, read that paragraph and tell me what the hell it means, how it works. It’s so complicated and the point is that they wanted to be sure that it was just impossible for anybody to know who was going to be on a particular jury panel for a particular case so that if you wanted to bribe anybody you’d have to bribe 6,000 people and that might be mildly discouraging. You might say that’s an honest bunch of people.
Well, you don’t devise such a complicated system if everybody isn’t busily thinking of a way to cheat, it seems to me. However, they would have failed, the system certainly was full proof I think. Legal procedure was remarkably different from what takes place in a modern American court. The first surprise you would meet is the absence of any public prosecutor or state’s attorney. In fact, there are no lawyers at all. Think of that. Think of how happy that would make Shakespeare. Complaints, whether they were civil or criminal, public or private, large or small, were registered and argued by private citizens. Plaintiff and defendant, suer and sued, each made his case in his own voice, if not in his own language, because anyone was free to hire a speech writer to help him prepare his case and that profession flourished in Athens. Although it reached its peak only many years after the days of Pericles, the greatest writers of courtroom speeches that have been preserved, and I believe they were preserved because generations thought they were the very best speeches there were, come from the next century, from the fourth century B.C.
Here’s another surprise. There is no judge. The jury was everything. No self respecting Athenian democrat would allow some individual, whatever his qualifications, to tell him what was relevant evidence and what was not, or which laws or which precedence applied. From the Athenian point of view, that would give too much weight to learning and to expertise, and it would also create the danger of corruption and undemocratic prejudice. I mean, if you couldn’t conceal who the judge was going to be as you could the jurors, you could — if there was a judge and he was important, you might be able to bribe him. Indeed, in our own system it is not unheard of that judges are bribed. It’s not even unheard of that they were unduly prejudiced in one direction or another.
The Athenians would have none of that. So, it was up to the contestants in the case to cite the relevant laws and precedence, and it was up to the jurors to decide between the plaintiff and the defendant. So, in fundamental matters of justice and fairness, the Athenian democrat put very little faith in experts. This was one of the most democratic aspects of this democratic constitution, the assumption that all citizens had enough sense and enough of whatever else it took to make the judgments that were so important in the courts. In the courtroom, the plaintiff and defendant each had an opportunity to present his case, also to rebut his opponent, to cite what was thought to be the relevant law, to produce witnesses, and then to sum up his case.
Now, here’s another amazing thing from an American perspective, each case — I’m sorry, each phase in the case was limited to a specific amount of time, which was kept by an official using a water clock, and no trial, get this, lasted more than a single day. Finally, the case went to the jury, which, of course, received no charge or instruction since there was no judge to tell them what they had to think about and what possibilities were available. The jury did not deliberate; you didn’t have 1,501 angry men. They just voted by secret ballot and a simple majority decided the issue.
If a penalty was called for, and it was not one that was described by law and very few penalties were described by law, the following procedure was used: the plaintiff who had won the case proposed a penalty, the defendant then had the opportunity to propose a different penalty. The jury then, again no deliberation, just voted to choose one or the other, but they could not propose anything of their own; no creative penalties were possible, just one or the other of the ones proposed by each side. Normally, this process led both sides, if you think about it, to suggest moderate penalties. For the jury would be put off by an unreasonable suggestion one way or another.
If the plaintiff asked for too heavy a penalty that would guarantee they would take the other guy’s penalty and vice versa. Critics of this system complained that democracy made the Athenians litigious. The system contained a device therefore — well, not therefore but as a matter of fact, in contradiction to that — Let me back up. Of course, the Athenians were litigious and knowing that they built in an element meant to reduce the degree of unfounded, unreasonable, silly, or just terrible accusations. The system contained this device. If the plaintiff did not win a stated percentage of the jurors’ votes, then he was required to pay a considerable fine.
In public prosecutions he paid it to the state. In private prosecutions he paid it to the defendant. Surely, this must have served as a significant deterrent for frivolous, malevolent, and merely adventurous suits. Just think of how it would change our system if we had something like that. In a way, we do have some of it available in our system. It is possible, for instance, if somebody brings a suit against somebody else and fails, it is possible for the judge to decide that the defeated side must pay court costs which is a form of defense against the frivolous charges. But it isn’t anything as thorough as the Athenian system, which always had that around. So, if you had a case that wasn’t going to win many friends on the jury it was going to cost you one way or another.
Chapter 2. Flaws in the Athenian Democratic System [00:09:51]
Well, this Athenian system of justice had many flaws obviously. Decisions could be quirky and unpredictable since they were unchecked by precedent. Juries could be prejudiced and the jurors had no defense except their own intelligence and knowledge against speakers, who cited laws incorrectly and who distorted history and we have speeches in law courts in which these guys are making up laws that nobody ever heard of and that they are making arguments that are terrible. So, that they did abuse this opportunity, there’s no question about it. Speeches unhampered by rules of evidence and relevance, and without the discipline imposed by judges could be fanciful, false, and sophistical.
There’s one anecdote that is handed down about a famous Athenian orator that I think gives you some clue about this. This was Lysias, who lived at the end of the fifth century and into the fourth, and he was one of the great successful speech writers in Athens. Well, somebody came to him and said, “I’m involved in this lawsuit Lysias and I’d like to pay you for writing a speech on my side,” and Lysias said, “fine.” He went home, he wrote the speech, he brought it to the man, and said, “here it is.” The guy read it and he said, “Lysias this is terrific, great speech, I can’t lose, thanks a million”; Lysias goes home. Little while later Lysias hears a banging on his door, it’s the same guy. He said, “Lysias I read that speech again, was I wrong, it’s filled with terrible arguments, contradictions, there are holes in your logic that they can run trucks through” and Lysias says, “calm down my friend, the jury will only hear the speech once.”
So, of course, all of these flaws were there, yet from a modern perspective I would argue that the Athenian system had a number of attractions. The American legal system and court procedures have been blamed for excessive technicality verging on incomprehensibility and for the central role of lawyers and judges which give an enormous advantage to the rich who can afford to pay the burgeoning costs of participating in the legal system. The absence typically of a sufficient deterrent to unfounded lawsuits has helped to crowd court calendars. Time spent in jury selection, which didn’t take any time at all of course in Athens, and wrangling over legal technicalities stretches out still further, a process that has no time limit. It is not uncommon for participants in a lawsuit to wait for many years before coming to trial. Sometimes the plaintiff has died before his case gets to court.
Not everyone is convinced that the gain in the scrupulous protection of the participant’s rights in an increasingly complex code of legal procedure is worth the resulting delay, and some point to the principle that justice delayed is justice denied. Often, in our courts, decisions are made by judges on very remote, difficult, legal or procedural grounds that are incomprehensible to the ordinary citizen. As a result, there is much criticism of judges and lawyers, and a loss of faith in general in the legal system. For all its flaws, I think the Athenian system was simple, speedy, open, and very easily understood by its citizens. It did contain provisions aimed at producing moderate penalties and at deterring unreasonable lawsuits.
It placed no barriers of legal technicalities or legal experts between the citizens and their laws, counting as always on the common sense of the ordinary Athenian. Now the Athenian democratic system as a whole, brought to its height in the time of Pericles, has been harshly criticized through the ages immediately by contemporaries, who were hostile to the democracy, and through the centuries by people who have looked at Athenian history as it was depicted by the surviving authors and concluded harsh conclusions about democracy. Ancient writers directed most of their attacks against the idea of government by mass meeting and the selection of public officials by allotment.
The Athenian renegade Alcibiades told a Spartan audience, as for democracy nothing new can be said about it, an acknowledged foolishness. Plato has Socrates make the same point more fully and seriously. Socrates observes that when it is a matter of building a house or a ship the Athenian assembly listens only to experts. If someone without expert qualifications tries to give advice in such things, even if he is very handsome and rich, and noble they refuse to listen to him. Instead they laugh and hoot at him until either he is shouted down and withdraws of his own accord, or the sergeants at arms drag him off, or he is expelled by order of the presidents. So, just imagine that when you get up to speak in the Athenian assembly, you better be ready for anything.
But when the discussion is about affairs of state says Socrates, anyone can get up to speak, carpenter, tinker, cobbler, passenger, ship owner, rich and poor, noble and commoner, and nobody rebukes him as they did in the earlier case; for trying to give advice when he has no knowledge and has not been taught. Now in fact the Athenians did appreciate the importance of knowledge, skill, talent, and experience, when they thought these things existed and could be used in the public interest. So, they did not allot, but elected military officers, some treasurers, naval architects, and managers of the water supply. These are essentially questions of life and death, or of the financial security of the state; apart from that they did not care much about expertise. If they did not elect professors of political science or philosophers, or lawyers to govern and judge them, it was because they were skeptical that there is a useful expertise in these areas, and that if it did exist it could safely and profitably be employed for the public good.
It is not clear, to me anyway, that the experience of the last twenty five hundred years has shown them to be wrong. I don’t know what percentage of the representatives and senators in our Congress are lawyers by training, but whatever that figure is, it’s far too large. It’s really extraordinary that we all sit still for that kind of thing. The kind of variety of profession that one can find in our society is absolutely not to be seen in our government institutions. Well the Athenians would never permit anything so undemocratic as that. Secondly, it is most unlikely that many fools or incompetents played a significant part in public affairs.
Of course, that’s the flip side of rejecting expertise and experience; you may end up with people who don’t know what they’re talking about in any shape, manner, or form having influence. Well the Athenians knew that and they were worried the fact that there was a possibility of idiots, fools, jerks, and other unworthies dominating the political decisions. I don’t think that it’s clear that we are better off than they are in this respect. I remember William Buckley once said, he would rather be ruled, governed by the first forty or whatever he said forty-fifty people in the Boston Telephone Directory, than by the Harvard faculty. I thought we could all agree with that, maybe even the Yale faculty. I think that we ought to think a little bit longer before we assume our system is the only way one can think about conducting a democracy.
But to get at how the Athenians coped with this problem the assembly itself was a far less unwieldy or incompetent body than is generally assumed by its critics and that you might ordinarily think would be the case if you’ve got five or six thousand people out there trying to make a decision. Think of this, if an Athenian citizen attended no more than half the minimum number of sessions held each year, he would hear twenty sets of debates by the ablest people in the state, chiefly, elected officials or those who formerly had held elective office, the leading politicians in all factions, and a considerable number of experts on a variety of subjects who would simply get up and express their views.
These were true debates in which it was not possible to hold prepared remarks and look at your — what do they call these books that they use? Their policy books or whatever; they were real debates and the speakers had to respond extemporaneously to difficult questions and arguments from the opposition, nor were they irresponsible displays, but serious controversies leading immediately to votes that had important consequences for the orators and their audiences. Now if you assume that each attendant at the assembly had been listening to such discussions for an average of only ten years, and many of them would have had a much longer stretch, think of it, such experiences alone must have fashioned a remarkable body of voters.
Probably, I would argue, more enlightened and sophisticated than any comparable group in history. Apart from that, every year five hundred Athenians served on the council, where everyday they gained experience in the management of Athens affairs from the most trivial to the most serious, producing bills that served as the basis for the debates and votes of the assembly. So, in any particular assembly thousands of those attending, perhaps a majority of them would have had that kind of training on the council. In light of that breadth of experience, the notion that decisions were made by an ignorant multitude is simply not persuasive.
I like to compare that situation with something that I think perhaps we can understand. In the nineteenth century, when people went to a concert of what we call classical music, almost everybody in the audience was a musician of some kind. Before radio, television, recording systems, if you wanted music you had to play it and so people, especially women but men too, studied how to play various instruments and they could. So, they could read music and they could understand it in a way that only a participant can. Hardly anybody who goes to a concert today is in that situation. So, Beethoven and Brahms and people like that wrote their compositions and orchestras and so on and they played to people who were in a certain sense almost experts, in any case, very well educated amateurs.
That’s the analogy I would suggest that we’re talking about that. A professional politician so to speak, insofar as there were any in Athens, we’re dealing with people who didn’t just come in off the street and didn’t know anything about it. They were prepared by their life’s experience to be a very, very tough audience indeed. But that raises the question, were debates in the assembly carried on by ordinary citizens without the necessary special knowledge and capacity for informed advice? The evidence, I think, suggests not. For there were impressive deterrents, both formal and informal, that would make an inexperienced, ill informed, poorly educated man reluctant to speak up in the assembly or the council even.
To begin with I would suggest another analogy for you. For the many, many years I have attended meetings of faculties at great American universities, what I have seen is that very few and generally the same few are bold enough to speak for or against some not very controversial policy argued in a group of fewer than hundred people, not to mention those rare, larger meetings when subjects arousing passions are at issue. Now the people we’re talking about, these faculty meetings, have extraordinary educations, they are alleged to have unusual intellectual ability, and they belong to a profession where public speaking is part of the trade. The meetings are conducted in the decorum of established rules of order that forbid interruptions and personal attack.
If a guy wants to say that man is a goddamn liar, somebody will call him to account and say that was a violation of personal privilege and you should cut it out. That’s not the way it happened in the Athenian assembly. Yet, even at these very, very gentile faculty meetings I’m talking about, those who attend them speak very rarely if ever. Why? Why? What is that deters them? I ask you, for instance, you all know the answer but you won’t speak up. Why? Why are you afraid to answer that question; you know the answer.
Student: You don’t want to look stupid.
Professor Donald Kagan: Thank you. That’s exactly the reason. People really are afraid of that. They’re just afraid that even if nobody even tells them they’re stupid, just the way they react may make them feel as though they are stupid. This is a fantastic deterrent and if we don’t understand that we will not understand the way the Athenian assembly worked, because that — but of course you know perfectly well their problem was much greater. Meetings of the Athenian assembly were not quiet, seemly occasions. We should not forget what Dekaioplis said in Aristophanes plays, sitting there on the Pynx, he threatened to shout, to interrupt, to abuse the speakers. We shouldn’t forget Plato’s report of how the Athenians laughed and hooted, or shouted down speakers who lacked what they thought was the necessary expertise.
Now, these informal deterrents alone, I believe, sharply limited the number of speakers in the assembly, but there was also a formal device that encouraged them to take thought before they intervened and to be careful in what they said in these debates on the Pynx. At some time, perhaps during the career of Pericles, but certainly not more than fifteen years after his death the Athenians introduced a procedure called the grafe para nomo that had the effect of making the citizens in the assembly the guardians of the constitution. Any citizen could object to a proposal made in the council or in the assembly simply by asserting that if contradicted an existing law. That assertion stopped action on the proposal or suspended its enactment, if it had already been passed.
The proposer was then taken before a popular court and if the jury decided against him, his proposal was disallowed and he was fined. Three findings that a person had done this, deprived him of his rights as a citizen. The expectation of the assembly and its procedures, formal and informal, made it most unlikely that ignorance and incompetence played a very significant role in its deliberations. Of course, there are some ignorant imbeciles who nothing will deter, but that’s true of our system too.
An even graver charge has been leveled through the ages against the kind of democracy promoted by Pericles. It is said to be inherently unstable, inviting faction and class warfare. It is said to be careless of the rights of property and to result in the rule of the poor, who are the majority over the rich minority. These arguments weighed very heavily in the thinking of the founding fathers of the American Constitution, who rejected democracy. You need to be aware of that. Their notion of what democracy was Athenian democracy as described by its critics and they consciously and plainly rejected democracy. They thought something else, they thought they were creating a popular republic, and by republic they meant something different from democracy.
Starting with the fuller democracy, instituted by Ephialtes and Pericles, in fact, we discover an almost unbroken orderly regime that lasted for a hundred and forty years. Twice it was interrupted by oligarchic episodes. The first resulted from aa coup d’état in the midst of a long and difficult war. The government of that oligarchy lasted just four months. The second was imposed by the Spartans after they won the Peloponnesian War that one lasted less than a year. On each occasion, the full democracy was restored without turmoil, without class warfare, without killings or exiles or revenge, without confiscating the property of anybody.
Through many years of hard warfare, military defeat, foreign occupation, and oligarchic agitation, the Athenian democracy persisted and showed a restraint and a moderation rarely equaled by any regime. Now this behavior is all the more remarkable in light of the political and constitutional conditions that prevailed in the Periclean democracy and thereafter. Remember that the mass of Athenians were not faced with the power of what has been called a military industrial complex. They were not thwarted by the complexities of representative government by checks and balances, by the machinations of unscrupulous lobbyists, or manipulated by the irresistible deceptions of mass media.
They had only to walk up to the Pynx on assembly day, make speeches, and vote in order to bring about the most radical, social and economic changes. They could, if they had wanted to, they could have abolished debt which presumably would be something the poor would favor. They could institute confiscatory taxation of the rich to the advantage of the poor. The simple expropriation of the wealthy few, all of these things they simply could have done, nothing would have stopped them but they never did. Although political equality, that is to say, equality before the law, that was a fundamental principle of democracy, but economic equality had no place in the Athens of Pericles.
On the contrary, the democracy he led defended the right of private property and made no effort to change its unequal distributions. The oath taken by jurors each time that they sat on a jury included the following clause. “I will not allow private debts to be canceled, nor lands or houses belonging to Athenian citizens to be redistributed.” In addition, the chief magistrate each year swore that whatever anyone owns before I enter this office, he will have and hold the same, until I leave it. The Athenians respect for property and their refusal to insist on economic equality go a long way towards explaining why their democracy was so peaceful, so stable, and so durable. But why were the majority of citizens so restrained and moderate?
Part of the answer lies in the relatively broad distribution of property in fifth century Athens. It was by no means equal. I want to emphasize the word “relatively” compared to states that were oligarchical or aristocratic. Also, in its growing prosperity, through the greater part of that time, it’s very hard to sustain any kind of a reasonable, moderate regime in times that are hard, in times in which there is great poverty so that was - these were certainly among the reasons why Athens was so successful. But there was always, you should remember, a group of fabulously wealthy citizens and also thousands who were poor by any standard. It certainly seems clear that at any time in this period the majority of Athenian citizens were not rich enough to be hoplites. Not rich enough even to have those small family farms that supported your infantrymen. So, it’s not as though there aren’t a lot of poor people in the state.
The poorest, moreover, those who lacked the property to quality as infantrymen, were the very men who rode the ships that brought Athens wealth and power and glory. The last 30 years of the century furthermore were terrible times of war, plague, impoverishment, and defeat. Yet neither during nor after the war did the Athenian masses interfere, in any way, with private property or seek economic leveling in the two ways the revolutionaries always wanted it, canceling debts and redistributing the land. In the Periclean democracy, the Athenian citizens demanded only equality before the law. I think that is the key principle to understand when you’re thinking about Athenian democracy.
Full political rights for all citizens, and that is what separated the Athenian democracy from oligarchies and aristocracies in other Greek states, and the kind of even chance that is provided by these two things, equality before the law and participation in the political process for all citizens. By these rules, the Athenian was willing to abide in the face of the greatest disasters and the greatest temptations. It was this politically equal, individualistic law abiding, and tolerant understanding of the democracy that Pericles had done so much to create and to which he could appeal, and point with pride confident that his fellow citizens shared his views.
In their rational, secular, worldly approach to life, in their commitment to political freedom, and to the autonomous importance of the individual in a constitutional republican and democratic public life, the Athenians of Pericles day were closer to the dominant ideas and values of our own era than any culture that has appeared to the world since antiquity. That is why Periclean Athens, I believe, has so much meaning for us. But if there is much to learn from the similarities, there’s at least as much to learn from the differences between the Athenians and ourselves.
Although the Athenians value wealth and material goods as we do, they regarded economic life and status, both as less noble and less important than participation and distinction in public service to the community. Although they were pioneers in recognizing the importance, the autonomy, and legitimate claims of the individual, they could not image the fulfillment of the individual’s spiritual needs apart from his involvement in the life of a well ordered political community. To understand the achievement of Pericles and his contemporaries, we thus need to be aware of these significant differences. I think we ought to also study them with a certain humility.
For in spite of their antiquity, the ancient Athenians may have known and believed things we have either forgotten or never known, and we ought to keep open the possibility that in some respects they might have been right about some of these things. Now what I’ve been talking about up to now is the workings of the Athenian Constitution for active citizens, and I remind you, that means free men, adults, who have citizen parents. That excludes a lot of people, who lived in Athens and so I’d like to spend a little time also talking about two groups of such people, who were excluded from the political process: women and slaves, both of which have caught the attention of modern scholars eager to demonstrate the undemocratic aspects of ancient Athens when judged by our criteria, which seem more and more to require that every living creature — I was going to say every living thing be treated with equality.
I know that of course there are feelings that people who wanted to say that — we all say, we all agree there should be no discrimination between men and women. There, of course, should be no slaves, but now we’re moving towards saying that people should receive citizenship or citizen rights who aren’t even legally citizens. There are many people who want to give protections to animals that now are limited to people and there are people also who want to include trees and other vegetation under these protections. So, we need to examine the Athenian situation and make our judgments about that. Let’s talk about women first.
Chapter 3. Women’s Roles in Athenian Society [00:40:20]
Greek society, like most cultures throughout history, was dominated by men. This was true of the democratic city of Athens in the great days of Pericles, no less than in other Greek cities. Nevertheless, the position of women in classical Athens has been the subject of a great deal of controversy. The bulk of the evidence coming from the law, the actual laws of Athens, from philosophical and moral writings, and from information about the conditions of daily life and the organization of society shows that women were excluded from most public aspects of public life. They could not vote, they could not take part in the political assemblies, they could not hold public office, or take any direct part in politics.
Male citizens of all classes had these public responsibilities and opportunities. The same sources show that in the private aspects of life, women were always under the control of a male guardian. A father at first, a husband later, or failing these, an appropriate male relative designated by the law. Women married young, usually between the ages of twelve and eighteen. I think if we think of them as being about fifteen years old we’ll probably have a reasonable average. Husbands, on the other hand, were typically at least 30 and usually over it when they married. So, women were always in a relationship like that of a daughter to a father when you think about the realities of life. Marriages, furthermore, were arranged. By the way, as in other societies, the higher you get in society the more likely it is that these marriages will be arranged with economic considerations, social considerations predominating.
As you get lower in society, I can only suspect, because we don’t really have evidence that it was far more informal and maybe that marriages may have been as a consequence of mutual desire than was true of the upper classes. Normally these — I’m shifting again to where we have evidence, and that means probably not the poorest women in the city, the women normally had no choice of their husband. The woman’s dowry, and dowries were required, was controlled by a male relative. Divorce was very difficult for a woman to obtain, for she needed the approval of a male relative, who if he gave that approval had then to be willing to serve as her guardian after the dissolution of her marriage.
In case of divorce the dowry would be returned with the woman, but it was still to be controlled in that case by her father, or the appropriate male relative. The main function and responsibility of a respectable Athenian woman, of a citizen family, was to produce male heirs for the household of her husband. If, however, her father’s household lacked a male heir, the daughter became what the Greeks called an epikleros, the heiress to the family property. In that case, she was required by law to marry the man who was the next of kin on her father’s side, in order to produce the desired male offspring. In the Athenian way of thinking, women were lent by one household to another for purposes of bearing and raising a male heir to continue the existence of the oikos, the family establishment.
Because the pure and legitimate lineage of the offspring was important women were carefully segregated from men outside the family and were confined to the women’s quarters even in the house. Men might seek sexual gratification in several ways outside the house with prostitutes of high or low style, prostitutes frequently recruited from abroad, but respectable women stayed home to raise the children, cook, weave cloth, and oversee the management of the household. The only public function of women was an important one in the various rituals and festivals of the state religion. There is a very new book by a professor at NYU by the name of Connelly, which studies very carefully all the information that we know about ancient Greek priestesses which reveals, I think, something that we haven’t known enough about before, that women in that realm at least had an enormously important and I would say sort of glorious role in that way.
It doesn’t change any of the things I’ve said about the other aspects of life but we’ve really not paid enough attention to this religious side of things and we should remember that religion was very important for these people even though to us it looks as though they were very secular in the way they lived. Religion in their way of thinking was very important. So anyway, apart from these religious things, Athenian women were expected to remain home, quiet, and unnoticed. Pericles told the widows and mothers of the Athenian men who died in the first year of the Peloponnesian War only this. You will either have read or you will read the Pericles famous funeral oration, and he has all these things to say, and at the very end he addresses the widows and the mothers of the men, who have died in a way that puzzles me beyond belief and I still don’t understand why he chose to say what he did.
But what he said, I think, was the common wisdom about what the situation was. He said, “your great glory is not to fall short of your natural character and the greatest glory of women is to be least talked about by men, whether for good or ill.” Okay, that’s what they thought. Why the hell did he say it at the end of that funeral oration? If anybody has any insight on that, I would be very grateful if you would tell me about it; now or at any time in the future. The picture derived from these sources is largely accurate, but I would argue that it does not fit in well with what we learn from the evidence of a wholly different set of sources. First of all, what we see in the pictorial art chiefly in vase paintings, and even more strikingly I think, in what we learned from the tragedies, and the comedies that were performed every year at two great festivals in Athens.
Finally, these things derive very much from the mythology, which is after all their religious tradition of the Athenians. Now these sources often show women as central characters and powerful figures in both the public and the private spheres. The Clytemnestra, who shows up in Aeschylus’ tragedy Agamemnon, she arranges the murder of her royal husband and establishes the tyranny of her lover whom she dominates. Then there is the terrifying and powerful Medea of Euripides, who negotiates with kings and can commit horrible deeds in her fury, which I think Euripides suggests is very justified fury, even if the deed is not. And these are just two examples of which there are many, in which women are central and important, and powerful, and active, and not passive, and it’s all about them.
We are left with an apparent contradiction, clearly revealed by a famous speech in Euripides tragedy Medea and I’d like to read you that. He presented his play at the Dionysiac festival in Athens. His heroine Medea is a foreign woman who has unusual powers. I mean she is practically something like a witch, a sorceress; don’t imagine these Halloween kind of witches, a proper witch is so beautiful that she can bewitch you; think of that. So she’s a foreign woman with these powers, but in the speech that follows she describes the fate of women in terms that appear to give an accurate account of the condition of women in fifth century B.C. Athens.
Here’s what she says, “Of all things which are living and can form a judgment, we women are the most unfortunate creatures. Firstly, with an excess of wealth, it is required for us to buy a husband and take for our bodies a master. For not to take one is even worse, and now the question is serious, whether we take a good or bad one, for there is no easy escape for a woman, nor can she say no to her marriage. She arrives among new modes of behavior and manners, and she needs prophetic power, unless she has learned at home how best to manage him who shares the bed with her. If we work out all this well and carefully, and the husband lives with us and likely bears his yoke, this life is enviable, if not I’d rather die.”
“A man when he’s tired of the company in his home goes out of the house and puts and end to his boredom and turns to a friend or companion of his own age, but we are forced to keep our eyes on one alone. What they say of us is that we have a peaceful time living at home, while they do the fighting in war. How wrong they are! I would very much rather stand three times in the front of battle than to bear one child.”
I wonder what the Athenian men in that audience thought about all of that. The picture that Medea paints that women subjected to men accords well of course with much of the evidence, but we have to take note of the fact that the woman who complains of women’s lot is the powerful central figure in a tragedy that is named after her. By the way, it’s not the only case, another of the great tragedies of Attic drama is Sophocles’ Antigone, and Antigone is another heroic woman who defies kings and everybody else in order to do the right thing and who accepts death rather than to give way in her principles. This is not the kind of a woman that Pericles had in mind when he said, just shut up and be sure nobody’s talking about you. Now, this tragedy was produced, we need to remember, at state expense before most of the Athenian population, and was written by a man, who was one of the Athens greatest poets and dramatists.
Medea is a cause of terror to the audience, and at the same time, and object of their pity and sympathy as a victim of injustice. She is anything but the creature least talked about by men whether for good or for bad. When those men walked out of that theatre they would be talking about Medea for the next week. There is reason to believe that the role played by Athenian women may have been more complex than their legal status might suggest. That’s all I feel I can say about that subject because I haven’t been able to resolve the contradiction. Well I won’t go into modern scholarly arguments but let me just say that no matter what they all say, no matter how they come out, this dichotomy is there, it’s in the sources. We need to do something and some supplying for things that are missing if we are to comprehend how both halves of this can be true as I’m sure they both are somehow.
Chapter 4. Slavery in Athenian Society [00:54:16]
Let’s turn next to the question of slavery. In Greece, chattel slavery proper began to increase about five hundred B.C. and it remained an important element in society. The main sources of slaves were war captives and the captives of pirates, who made a living in large part by catching people and selling them as slaves, and of course those people at first enslaved through war piracy or other means, who were sold by slave traders. They did not, unlike in the American south were they successful, nor necessarily did they try, to breed slaves themselves. They were typically bought from slave traders. Like the Chinese, the Egyptians, and almost every other civilized people in the ancient world the Greeks regarded foreigners as inferiors.
They called them barbarians, because they uttered words that sounded to the Greeks like bar, bar, bar, bar, bar. Most slaves, working for the Greeks, were foreigners. Greeks sometimes enslaved Greeks, but typically not to serve in the Greek home as a servant — really not so much at home. They did use slaves, as I’ve told you earlier, to work on the farms alongside the farmers. The chief occupation, as always before the twentieth century, was agriculture. The great majority of Greek farmers worked these small holdings to poor to support even one slave. Some would be so fortunate as to have as many as one or two slaves to work alongside them. I think, as I said earlier, I think probably most of the hoplites could manage that but I think we really don’t know the answer to that. I’m sure they range from zero to more than two, but if you’re thinking one or two you’re probably right.
The upper classes had larger farms, of course, that would be led out to free tenant farmers or worked by slaves, generally under an overseer, who was himself a slave. Large landowners generally did not have one single great estate. In every way I want you to try to get out of your head the picture of slavery in the American South with its plantations and great squads of slaves in one place, under one master. That was not the typical way for the Greeks, but rather the wealthy would have several smaller farms scattered about the polis. Well that arrangement did not encourage the amassing of these great hordes of agricultural slaves who would later work the cotton and sugar plantations of the new world.
Slaves were used in larger numbers in what I laughingly call industry in the ancient world, I mean handicrafts, but one exception to that typical system was mining. We know something about the mines in southern Athens, where the silver was found and that reveals a different picture. Nicias, a wealthy Athenian of fifth century B.C., owned a thousand slaves, whom he rented to a mining contractor for a profit. But this is unique; we don’t know of anything like this besides this situation, and it’s by far the largest number of slaves that we know any individual held. In another instance of large slave holdings in Athens, a family of resident aliens employed about a hundred and twenty slaves in their shield factory that was the military industrial complex in Athens.
Most manufacturing, however, was at very small scale with shops using one or two, or a handful of slaves. Slaves worked as craftsmen in almost every trade, and it was true for the agricultural slaves on small farms, they worked alongside their masters. If you took these slaves that I regard as taking care of the majority of the work in Athens, if you translated them into being handymen or regular workers who worked at jobs regularly who were free, if you went in you went into these shops that’s what you would think, because you didn’t have somebody lashing anybody over great numbers of people. You would have two or three guys working there. One would be the guy who owns it, and maybe the other two guys would be slaves.
A significant proportion of slaves of course were domestic servants and many were shepherds. Publicly held slaves also served as policemen; don’t get carried away there were very, very few policemen. They were also prison attendants; there were very, very few prisons and very few prisoners. There were clerks, and there were secretaries and some of them worked their way up because of their natural skills, if they worked — this was usually the case, if you found such people in commerce, and most especially in banking. We hear that one of the richest men in Athens in the fourth century was a man called Pazian who had been a slave, and by his talents had bought his own freedom, and then had become one of the richest men in Athens. That’s an oddball story; don’t take that as being very widespread, but it shows you one element in the system.
The number of slaves in ancient Greece is a subject of continuing controversy and that’s because we don’t have the kind of evidence to come to a conclusive answer. There are no useful figures for the absolute number of slaves, or for their percentage of the free population, in any city except Athens. There the evidence permits estimates for the slave population in the classical period, by which I mean the fifth and the fourth centuries that range from a low of twenty thousand slaves to a high of about a hundred thousand slaves. If we accept the meaning between these extremes, I love to do that when I don’t have any better thing to do, you come up with sixty thousand slaves.
Now, the estimates that are made about the free population of Athens in the same period at this height, some people would say as low as — nobody gets much below forty thousand households, some want to move it up towards about sixty thousand households. What do I come up with? Right fifty thousand - that would yield a figure of fewer than two slaves per family. It has been estimated that only a quarter to a third of free Athenians owned any slaves at all. So, the distribution was unequal, with most families having no slaves and some families having many. Some historians have noted that in the American south, in the period before the Civil War, where slaves also made up less than a third of the total population and three quarters of free southerners had no slaves. The proportion of slaves to free citizens was similar to that in ancient Athens.
Because slavery was so important to the economy of the south, these historians suggested it may have been equally important and similarly oppressive in ancient Athens. I find several problems with this analogy. For one thing it’s important to make a distinction between a world such as the cotton states of the American south before the Civil War, where a single cash crop well suited for exploitation by large groups of slaves, dominates the economy, and a society like the one in Athens, where the economy was mixed, the crops varied, the land and its distribution very poorly suited to massive slavery. Another major difference is in the likelihood of a slave achieving freedom. The freeing of American slaves, although it happened, was comparatively rare, but in Greece it was very common.
The most famous example I’ve told you already about, Pasion who began as a bank clerk, earned his freedom, became Athens richest banker, and then was even rewarded with Athenian citizenship but that’s very rare. On the other hand, the acquisition of freedom by slaves was not. People frequently free their slaves on their own death and often before that for various reasons. It’s also important to distinguish the American south where the slaves were distinguished from their masters by skin color, where the masters were increasingly hostile to the idea of freeing slaves, and in terror of slave rebellions with a very different society of classical Athens. There slaves walked the streets with such ease as to offend noblemen, who were class conscious.
Plato complained about the Athenian democracy, that men and women who have been sold are no less free than their purchasers. An anonymous writer of the fifth century was appalled by the behavior of slaves in Athens. He says, “One may not strike them there, nor will a slave step aside for you, and if it were legal for a free man to strike a slave an Athenian would often have been struck under the mistaken impression that he was a slave. For the clothing of the common people there is no way superior to that of the slaves and the resident aliens, nor is their appearance. They allow slaves there to live in luxury and some of them in considerable magnificence.” An estate relying on naval power, it is inevitable that slaves must work for hire so that we may take profits from what they earn. While there are rich slaves, it is no longer profitable for my slave to be afraid of you. In Sparta, my slave would be afraid of you but there in Athens, if your slave is afraid of me, he will probably spend some of his own to free himself from danger.”
This, then, is why in the matter of free speech we have put slaves and free men on equal terms. Now a lot of this is absolute baloney; this is some right wing character who is just so annoyed with Athenian democracy that he is making over the top statements, but it cannot be so far removed from reality as to be ridiculous or else it wouldn’t be in any persuasive. So, I think we have to imagine slaves moved about Athens with a degree of ease and security and as must rightly be saying you really couldn’t tell a slave from a free man very readily in ancient Athens. All of this is meant to be by contrast with the picture of the south.
Even more remarkable, the Athenians were on occasion willing to contemplate the liberation of all their slaves. In 406, their city facing defeat in the Peloponnesian War, they freed all slaves of military age and granted citizenship to those who rode the ships that won the Battle of Arginusae. Twice more, at crucial moments, similar proposals were made although without success. Now during the Civil War people did suggest to the South that they liberate their slaves and enroll them in the Southern army and such ideas were always quashed, and I think we can read something very important into the difference between the two situations. The southerners were afraid to do it because they didn’t trust the slaves not to turn on them and kill them if they were armed.
The Athenians just didn’t have that fear at all and I think that’s a big story about the difference between the two systems. Okay, that’s all I have to say about these subjects.
Chapter 5. Question and Answer [01:07:37]
We do have six, seven, eight minutes I’d be delighted to respond to any comments or questions any of you would like to put about any of these topics. Yes sir?
Student: Why do you think the Athenians did not fear their slaves?
Professor Donald Kagan: They did not fear their slaves, because I think in the first place they did not treat them so harshly as to create that kind of absolute hatred that nothing could take care of. Second of all, I think because the prospect of their liberation being not an out of the question idea softened the edge between master and slave to a degree where the Athenians didn’t have that sense these people are waiting to kill me. I guess another thing is since so many of them — first of all you start with household slaves, well even in the south there were very, very few household slaves, who did not develop friendly and warm feelings towards the people in the house. So, that takes care of another situation and than there are all these slaves who worked side by side with their master, not as part of a gang under an overseer, but as a fellow worker with their farmers. So, the whole way of thinking about it I think was so different that — and here’s another thing, we never hear of a slave rebellion among the polis of Athens. We do hear of helot rebellions, of course. It doesn’t fit the mold in Sparta, but we never hear of a slave rebellion in spite of all the troubles these towns have. So, I think those would be the reasons. Anything else? Yes.
Professor Donald Kagan: Well when they had skills, and this happened in the south too, by the way, just not to the same extent. When they had skills it was in the master’s interest to encourage them to do their work to the best of their ability, and so they rewarded them by letting them keep part of the profits of what they produced and it was that of course which allowed some of these people to buy their own freedom. It is true that that happened in the south as well. Anything else, yes ma’am?
Professor Donald Kagan: The answer is I’m sure there must have been runaway slaves, but it’s just a non-issue so far as we can see. It’s the big deal in the south and the north when fugitive slave laws become a great source of trouble, but I think there was not too much running away of slaves, because there really wasn’t any place to run to. There was no place where there wasn’t slavery. So if an Athenian slave runs to the Boeotia, he’s going to be a Boeotian slave, I think that was one of the reasons and put that together with a rather gentle arrangements I’ve described, the combination I think reduced the problem of runaway slaves. Anything else? Yes?
Student: Could you address the Athenian slavery compared to Sparta?
Professor Donald Kagan: The Spartan situation as compared to the Athenian situation, night and day. The helots, I’ve told you all about it; you’ve read all about it, and as a man leading the rebellion in Sparta at the beginning of the fourth century said about helots and other people who were not Spartiates in Lacedaemon, they would have gladly eaten the Spartans raw. So, that’s all you need to know about the difference. Yes.
Student: According to the discussion about the judicial system and the fact the plaintiffs were fined if they lost [inaudible]
Professor Donald Kagan: Too badly.
Professor Donald Kagan: Yeah. I don’t know, how does the British system work? Do they do that? I’ve told this story to various American lawyers and law professors, and I’ve been struck by their absolute lack of imagination, but when I finally get them to think about these things they tell me that some of them tell me very happily that in some areas we are moving towards that or we have some of that. They tell me that in civil cases, very often, the arrangement that they agree to is that one side will make one proposal, one side will make another proposal, and some arbiter will choose between the two.
But mostly if I speak to, especially law professors, I’ve tried to get them to think about the advantages and disadvantages of the Athenian system with some objectivity, and I say to them put aside for the moment the question of whether you think justice is more likely to be arrived at through the Anglo-Saxon system of law or the Athenian system of law, because the truth is we don’t know one way or the other, and I found that they can’t do it. They’re so committed to the conviction that justice is only possible under the Anglo-Saxon system of advocacy and competition, and all of those things that they just won’t think about it.
But, you of course, although three quarters of you are going to become lawyers anyway, you’re above that you’ll be much more judicious in thinking about that. Do I have to make an announcement? Yeah, those of you who were good enough to serve as hoplites in our demonstration, it turns out we need for you to say it’s okay for your pictures to appear on these deathless productions that we’re engaged in now. So, would you if you could please come up forward and speak with John Lee and he’ll talk to about what has to happen. Thanks very much.
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