The Athenian Democracy and Its Slaves

By Kyrtatas, Dimitris | History Today, February 1994 | Go to article overview

The Athenian Democracy and Its Slaves

Kyrtatas, Dimitris, History Today

Ancient Greek city-states had too any external enemies to be happy with anything weakening their defensive or offensive capacity. To cope with their internal problems, the Greeks were quite inventive. Colonisation was a successful remedy for land-hunger, which was probably among the principal causes of social discontent. Arbitrators and lawgivers, often called from abroad, were able, on several occasions, to mediate between conflicting factions and secure workable solutions. By exiling political leaders, alone or along with their supporters, Greek cities gave other leaders a good chance of proceeding with their programmes unchallenged. Wars with neighbours may not always have been victorious, but even when they did not lead to the annexation of productive land, they normally strengthened the internal front. Furthermore, ritual purifications, religious festivities and athletic contests served, among other purposes, the cause of civic cohesion. The most inventive and lasting protection against threatened internal strife, however, was the establishment of majority rule. The originality of this device, which was the essence, though not the exclusive privilege, of Athenian democracy, lay in its ability to keep a community united, without evading the issues that divided it. Far from suppressing existing differences, a political system working on the principle of majority rule could accommodate diametrically opposed views. All sides would be allowed to advance their arguments and, at the peak of the debate, when everything would suggest that the community was on the verge of an open conflict, everybody was prepared to accept the verdict of the majority. Those in favour of peace were ready to lead an expedition; those who had argued for the capital punishment of an accused person were ready to accept him as a full member of the community.

The ability of a community to reunite so speedily after a formal declaration of a split within it is impressive. Behind this consensus there must have functioned very powerful factors. Whatever the origins of these factors, by the fifth century they were in full operative force. At the height of its development, when Athenian democracy was self-assured and optimistic, it welcomed this 'good division' as a sign of a healthy constitution.

Decision-making by majority rule, however, was strictly located within the limits of a citizen body. In Athens, as elsewhere, it was only full citizens who were entitled to participate 'in Judgement and Authority', as Aristotle formulated it in his Politics (1275a). Slaves and foreigners, including those with permanent residence, were excluded - and so were of course, women and children. This simple fact, acknowledged theoretically by most scholars, though often forgotten thereafter in their investigations, is deeply problematic. A city was interested in securing the unity of its total population, not just of its privileged |lite. Pace Aristophanes, the citizens of Athens had no reason to question the loyalty of their women and children, and the same held true for resident foreigners, called metics. Such foreigners had chosen to live in Athens of their own free will, and some of them had prospered in the great city for generations. But a reasonable question to ask is whether the Athenians expected some kind of loyalty from their slaves as well. Did they feel that living in a democratic city had positive effects upon their slaves or did they rely exclusively upon their coercive institutions to secure their domination?

Political oratory suggests that slaves were regarded as natural enemies of the political order. They were kept in bondage in accordance with the laws and customs of the city and they were, therefore, expected to hate the system that maintained their servile status. This view must have been shared by most Athenians, though not without significant qualifications. Political oratory was concerned with the behaviour of citizens, not slaves. …

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