Ancient Greece Citizens


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When we use the word “citizens” we are usually referring to a group of people who live in the same city, with a common origin, language, customs and laws. According to Plato, the ideal city should have no more than 5000 inhabitants, so that they would all know each other. But in 5th century Athens, things were somewhat different, with approximately 40,000 citizens, 20,000 metoici (resident aliens) and about 100,000 slaves. To these we must also add the women and children, who were never included in the numbers of inhabitants.

The male inhabitants of Athens were divided into three groups: citizens, metoici and slaves. Athenian citizens were only men 18 years of age and older whose forebears had been Athenians for three generations. These fortunate people enjoyed all the rights of free men and could be elected to all the offices of the State. The villager who arrived at dawn from Acharnes in order to take part in the daily draw for participation in some service, had the same possibility of being elected as the son of the old-time aristocrat. This ability to concern one’s self with public matters naturally persupposed the existence of leisure time. Athenian citizens preferred not to work, but rather tried to be men of independent means, having others look after the cultivation of their lands and the administration of their property. Manual labour, even artistic creation, was considered by many to be degrading. Despite this, Socrates made a speech urging the poor people to work, even though he himself did precisely the opposite. The need for manpower was often covered by the thetes who were the poorest of the citizens and made their living as workers or as rural day-labourers. In this way, wealthier Athenians were absolutely free to occupy themselves with public matters, primarily with politics. But the poor citizens were obligated to present a certain minimum attendance at the Assembly, and for this reason the state had the foresight to provide some money for those who represented their tribe at sessions and trials, thus at least making good their lost earnings.

All inhabitants paid the same taxes. In addition, the wealthy undertook sponsorships thus acquiring both the moral satisfaction of their contribution and the social prestige. They served in the army in accordance with their income: as knights with their own horse and a suitable retinue, or in the navy as captains of trirenes, which they themselves took care to man. The poor but proud thetes frequently preferred the harsh life of the oarsman, solely to show their identity as free equal citizens, even though the earnings were meagre. Wealthy, poor or destitute, Athenian citizens were all extremely proud of their origin, so proud that they never called their city “Athens” but the “city of the Athenians”. Participating in the administration of the Polis was taken for granted for the citizen who voted, judged and, like all people with plenty of free time, took care to be informed about what was happening in the city. This dedication of the Athenians to public life made them obey the laws and worry about any possible breach of the law which would cause them to be downgraded through the loss of their citizen’s rights.

One might say that the biographers of the Athenian citizens were Aristophanes, Plato, Xenophon and Plutarch, each from a different point of view. Much of what we know about the working classes is taken from peevish references in the comedies of Aristophanes, whose sharp tongue conceals nothing. He may have been making fun of the village lout, who went to the Agora reeking of garlic to hear a philosopher speak without realising it, but he also gave us information about each person’s chances of acquiring knowledge. From the kindly villager Strepsiades in Clouds, we hear complaints about his wife, a woman from the capital city, who makes him wash and take off his comfortable but dirty clothes, and we realise that an unsuitable marriage has always been a disaster. Xenophon, also, was a practical man of the city who fought far away from his homeland, became acquainted with the people of other countries and developed the taste for a city open to all kinds of positive influences, even foreign. This breadth of mind may perhaps have been the natural destiny of a dynamic man who undertook to lead his fellow soldiers from distant Mesopotamia, through the highlands of Armenia, to the shores of the Black Sea, and finally home. Plutarch, too, who was born in Chaeronia in the first century AD, has left us invaluable information about public life and chiefly about certain famous Athenians whom he included in his Lives.

Plato, one of the most significant figures in the history of philosophy, was born of a father who came from the Kodros family, and a mother from that of Solon. He usually wrote in the form of a dialogue in which he himself did not appear, although he put his views into the mouth of Socrates, his teacher. Plato enlivened his social environment in which refined men went to symposia and exchanged views about philosophy or music. At the home of the enormously wealthy Kallias, for example, intellectuals speculated on whether virtue could be taught; they would spend their evenings with music from a lyre accompanying their conversation or perhaps with the occasional song. Although all had some musical training, no one would agree to play the flute, because to do so one had to disfigure one’s face by puffing up one’s cheeks to make sound. At the most famous supper in history, the participants selected eros (love) as the subject for the evening. This was the Symposium at which well-to-do Athenian citizens represented by aristocrats, men of learning, poets, politicians and philosophers joined together in a lively discussion. Together with Socrates, the invited guest, they also welcomed a poor barefoot man who was fortunate enough to be Socrates’ pupil and follower. Each one spoke on the selected topic, expressing his views in a witty and pleasant way. At some point the handsome Alcibiades appeared, roaring drunk, leaning on a courtesan and garlanded with Attic pansies. Even though a great deal of wine was consumed, the discussion continued without exceeding the bounds of propriety, while other groups of revellers were constantly coming and going.

They all agreed that eros has the greatest power since it awakes in human beings abilities to distinguish themselves and that it also is a factor deterring unseemly behaviour, as one is afraid to lose face in the eyes of the beloved. Everybody distinguished the transient physical attraction of Aphrodite from the uncorrupted beauty of Urania who brings souls closer together, approaching perfection. They would say in jest that eros always looks young because by leaving, he avoids growing old; and perhaps he is always immortal because he lives, is lost and is reborn again. They concluded that what is important in love is quality, to whichever sex one’s love is addressed, because eros is the purpose and not the object of desire. Such were the surroundings of the golden youth of Athens who, listening to such lofty discussions, would fall in love at will, admired physical beauty and the intellectual vigour of wise men with equal ardour, and whenever required, went into battle where they won awards for valour. Athenian citizens were people who could live in a democratic world with the subtlety of an aristocrat; they obliged Plato to say how praiseworthy was the man who could distinguish between the three gradations in the human personality: free speech, courage and base desires. The ideal citizen never allows the first two to be subjugated by the last.

The large number of metoici was a purely Athenian phenomenon, as xenophobic Sparta kept those who were not from its region at a distance. Athens on the contrary, was open to Greeks from other cities and even to foreigners who wished to live and work in Attica. The metoici had all the obligations of the Athenian citizen but enjoyed very few of his rights. They lived scattered over the townships, paid taxes and served in the army only as hoplites (footsoldiers). They were able to acquire goods and slaves, but were not permitted to own land. They could worship any gods they chose, but had no right to vote nor could they be elected to any important office, only to the lower ones, e.g. as heralds or contractors for public works. Most of them were artisans, merchants and a good number acted as bankers.

Since they constituted the productive class, many of them became wealthy and distinguished themselves through sponsorships, indeed some became legally accepted into the class of citizens. On the contrary, if a metoicos attempted to usurp the rights of the free citizen illegally, then he was downgraded to a slave. In trials, metoici always had to have the support of an Athenian citizen as guarantor and it is characteristic that if a metoicos killed a citizen, he was condemned to death, while if he murdered another metoicos, the punishment was only exile. The children of marriages between citizens and metoici were not considered to be Athenians unless they won general esteem through wealth or special acts. Many famous artists and philosophers in ancient Athens were metoici and it seems that they accepted their treatment as second-class citizens without protest. Generally, Athenian citizens treated metoici with the politeness of a host toward a welcome guest, up to the point where vested interests were affected, and above all the inherited tradition of the state.

Women, in the homes of both citizens of Athens and metoici, had absolutely no right to hold an opinion or to participate in public affairs. The Athenian imagination justified depriving women of their rights since the goddess Athena had won the contest for the naming of the city by just one female vote. It was then that the matriarchy was nearly set aside in favour of the warrior protectors, who never tolerated female initiatives, which is why women were punished by being excluded from any future important decision. This happened at the time of Kekrops who established marriage as a consolation, making it the primary goal in the life of Athenian women. And of course, marriage meant having children, which is why from birth to death, the female Athenian remained confined inside the home. Girls were married very young to a husband selected by their fathers, to whom they owed absolute obedience. They had to be fully familiar with housekeeping, command the respect of the household slaves and be imbued with a spirit of economy. If an educated slave happened to live in the house then there was a possibility that the girls would learn some reading and writing; but more frequently they were taught only music and dancing.

If a daughter happened to be the sole inheritor of the patriarchal fortune, she would be given in marriage to the closest relative on her father’s side, even with a brother of the same father, but never one by the same mother, because the genuine blood line was regarded as being only from the side of the mother. In the event of a request for a divorce, the interested woman had to present herself to the Archon, a virtually heard-of procedure. But even if some desperate women dared, the possibilities of being heard were minimal. There is the example of Hipparete, wife of the incorrigible Alcibiades, who at some point, could no longer stand the incongruities of her marriage. The courageous lady took her application to the Archon, but Alcibiades was notified by his friends, and instead of being divorced, caught her and shut her up in the women’s section of the house, without anyone objecting.

We have a good deal of information about Athenian women from Xenophon who wrote about a certain Isomachos, about 30 years old, who married an ignorant 15year-old girl and announced her duties to her: to cook, weave, oversee the slaves, avoid waste and above all to be obedient to her husband. Plutarch also spoke of the dignity of Athenian women and the modesty of their dress, as opposed to the athletic young Spartan women whom he referred to contemptuously because they wore short tunics that showed their thighs. But it was Aristophanes who castigated the dynamic women who dared to protest; his Lysistrata demonstrated the opinion of the ancient Athenians about where the power of women lies. In the Ecclesiazouses, he notes sarcastically that everything has always taken place behind closed doors, without disturbing the calm of ignorance and custom.

Perhaps the most succinct indication of the status of women in Athenian society was that of an orator who said that women fall into three categories: courtesans for the delight of the spirit, concubines for pleasure, and wives for the acquisition of legitimate children. It appears that things were so difficult for wives that Solon instituted a law demanding that Athenian men who happened to have property from their wives, visit them in their chambers at least three times a month in order to produce a male heir to carry on the family name. In the Symposium, Socrates noted that men have fewest conversations with their wives, and mentioned the name of a certain Nikiratos who was bound to his wife by true mutual love, a very rare occurrence. Plato, too, suggested that marriage based on love would be better; but this was for the ideal utopian “Republic” and not for the Asty of reality.

The instruments of pleasure, the hetaeres (courtesans), were of two types: the common ones who were called walkers and the special ones, who lived on the support of their rich patrons. Selected from childhood for their physical beauty, they were especially trained to be pleasing. They were the only women who could circulate freely and thus many of the courtesans had the opportunity to receive an education by listening to the various philosophers. In all symposium scenes, we can see young hetaeres. Orchistrides danced and the avlitrides played the flute and chatted with the carefree revellers whom they were entertaining, whose homes were supervised with the zeal of Cerberus by the dignified lady of the house, who always carried bunch of keys at her waist. The homes of the famous hetaeres were open to philosophers and artists, who would meet in a highly intellectual atmosphere; many of these women used their charms for diplomatic or spying purposes: situations as old as society. One famous hetaera was the beautiful, learned Aspasia from Miletus, who so influenced Pericles and so provoked the envy of the Athenians.

Representations on ceramics show us scenes from a very controversial phenomenon, pederasty, which was one outlet for the instincts in a society where women were confined to their apartments and were without interests or education. Another reason was that constant wars kept the male population far from home. The rise in pederasty coincided with the cult of the naked male body which we admire in the young kouroi. But also, in a society where the father, when he was not at war was busy with public matters, it was natural for a boy to seek guidance from some older friend of the same sex, creating a relationship between an experienced person and someone to whom he passes on his knowledge. It is noteworthy that the lovers were always very masculine and never appeared to be feminine or dressed in women’s clothes. Plutarch said that when the young man’s beard began to grow, that was the end of the relationship, which was socially acceptable.

It was noted earlier that Plato in his Symposium presented a unique analysis of the concept of eros, the beginning and end of which was intellectual unanimity. It is possible that at this very famous supper, Alcibiades in a jest created a jealous scene over Socrates, but he himself, whom Plato called the “image of eros” died in the arms of a famous courtesan Timandra, mother of the equally famous Corinthian Laida. Of the ten people present at the symposium, only two were conscious homosexuals: the host Agathon and his companion Pausanias. As for Socrates, he was presented there as paragon of abstinence, even though he had had too much to drink, and even though he was provoked shamelessly, because in any relationship, what was important was the mind and not the instincts. It seems that pederasty rarely turned into homosexuality. This male companionship was usually limited to teen-age. Moreover, the phenomenon was restricted after the 4th century, when the various presentations on pottery show the great majority of couples to be heterosexual. But let us leave the private life of the Athenians and talk about another social presence in the Polis, that of the slaves.

In order to expand their businesses, metoici bought ever more slaves. Thus a third group of inhabitants of Athens was created: people who had few hopes of improving either their own lot, that of their children or of their children’s children. In Attica, slavery had begun in the mythical time of the Pelasgians. The construction workers brought in from elsewhere to build the first Athenian walls annoyed the women and children of the local people at the well from which they all drew water, and for this reason, the angry Athenians took them prisoner and began to use them as servants. According to Plato, true slaves had to be foreigners, mainly prisoners of war; he recommended that his fellow citizens avoid buying enslaved Greeks from other regions. The slave trade flourished in ancient Greece and we wonder how a wise man like Aristotle can refer to these unfortunate creatures as being like wild animals.

The largest slave market in Attica was in Sounion, obviously for the needs of the mines in Lavrion. The slaves who were bought and became metallevomenoi (mine workers) were the most unlucky because few of them lived very long, due to the hard work and appalling conditions. To this day, the Greek word ekmetallefsi means exploitation. Family slaves had a much better fate, even though they too were considered to be a type of property.

When someone bought a slave and took him home, the lady of the house made him sit at the family hearth and the other members of the family sprinkled him with nuts, giving him a name. From that moment on, the slave was an inseparable member of the family and had to participate in sacred rituals. If he had children, they belonged to the family and when he died, they buried him in the family grave. He had no rights, apart from the possibility of appealing to the altar in the Agora, and to request sanctuary if his life was unbearable. But he had to prove his case.

No Athenian citizen or metoicos considered himself to be worthy of respect without a few slaves. It is believed that every home had an average of about 10 slaves, who looked after the household tasks and also accompanied their masters in their public appearances. In wartime, slaves followed on foot, carrying their master’s weapons or holding slingshots. In the event that a slave was educated, he served as a teacher of the young people of the family, passing on his knowledge to them and accompanying them to the higher schools and gymnasia. Information has come down to us that quite a few slaves were given their freedom, promoting them to the group of freemen, but the bonds with the family always remained very strong.

Looking at the various inhabitants of Athens, we are often surprised by their way of life and by their values which are frequently incomprehensible to people living today. But we have an enormous obligation to all of them for their contribution to the heritage they left behind: to the wealthy for the mind, to the workers for the art, to the women for maintaining the family, to the slaves for the endless free and creative hours enjoyed by their masters. Pragmatists and poets, merchants and philosophers, warriors and peacemakers, the ancient Athenians cultivated clear thought with their minds which, with boldness of inspiration and freedom of expression, made them the epitome of their age, and the founders of Western civilisation.



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