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.
The point made by the orators was that citizens of servile origin should never be trusted. In particular, those among them aspiring to leading positions were a potential threat to the community's interests. By proving that a politician had servile or even servile-like origins, his opponents thought that they were disqualifying him from serving his city.
Given the purpose of the argument, it is understandable that only the negative side of a slave's feelings was considered. There was at all times plenty of evidence reminding every master how dangerous slaves could be. Xenophon and Plato, among others, gave vivid accounts of the terror a master was expected to experience if ever he was left to confront his slaves alone (Hieron 4.3; Republic 9.578d-9a). Given the opportunity, as Thucydides records in his account of the Peloponnesian War, slaves would run away to join the enemy camp (7.27). Significantly, even though there were no large scale slave rebellions in classical Athens, masters were being constantly reminded that they should take precautions. One piece of advice, the neglect of which proved disastrous in Roman times, was that a master should never keep together large numbers of slaves of the same nationality.
Under normal circumstances, however, the Athenians had no major problems with their slaves. Slaves were to be found in most households occupied with almost any kind of service. Some were trusted to live on their own or even to take charge of their masters' affairs. Numbers of slaves were constantly being manumitted. Occasionally, an emancipated slave would be granted citizenship status. Admittedly, this was very rare, but the fear of the orators about politicians with servile origins would have been ungrounded had such politicians never existed. In fact, a comprehensive investigation of the ancient sources reveals that the Athenians had, to some extent, ambivalent feelings towards their slaves. Besides regarding them as the natural enemies of their democratic order, there are also signs that, sometimes, they regarded them as potential allies.
Faithful slaves often made their appearance on stage. Expressions such as, 'master's luck is mine' (Agamemnon 32) or 'to a slave his master's affairs mean a great deal' (Helen 728) are quite common in classical tragedy. An Athenian in Plato's Laws (776d) was aware of stories according to which slaves had saved their masters along with their family and property. Naturally, such accounts are not representative of the feelings of real slaves - although we should not rush to the conclusion that no such slaves ever existed. But it is interesting to observe that the Athenians were happy to believe that they were often surrounded by trusty or even friendly slaves.
More significantly, some positive remarks are also made about slaves in a political context. The fact is that slaves seem to have been present in almost all the most important developments in the history of the democracy. Already in the early sixth century, Solon's political reforms prohibited loans on the security of the person, and all Athenian debt-bondsmen were liberated. Debt-bondsmen (whom we may loosely think of as serfs) were not slaves in the strict sense, but under certain circumstances some Athenian citizens were liable to seizure and could be sold along with their children. Solon is also credited with bringing back to the city such Athenians as had been sold abroad. These reforms would not have made Athenians more attractive to slaves at large. The liberation of Athenian bondsmen was followed by mass importation of foreign slaves who had no reason to expect similar treatment in the future. The collective memory preserved, however, that at the very foundation of the first real constitution (which Athenians were later to identify with the origins of their democracy) former bondsmen and slaves were incorporated into the citizen body. Far from suppressing the tradition, the Athenians recorded it with pride.
The establishment of the democracy at the end of the sixth century was also associated with a benevolent attitude towards slaves. Dealing with the problems of citizenship rights, Aristofie in the Politics gives as an example the case of Athens 'after the expulsion of the tyrants, when Kleisthenes made many foreigners and slaves citizens by enrolling them in the tribes' (1275b). The idea was, of course, that such enrolment strengthened the democratic side against the aristocrats. Modern scholars have doubts about this passage, but it must have seemed reasonable enough to Athenian readers. According to Thucydides (3.73), in 427 the slaves of Kerkyra had also sided with the democrats against the oligarchs, when, in their conflict, both parties were appealing to them for support.
In conditions of extreme danger, slaves were called upon to aid the Athenians against external threats. One such occasion was the battle of Marathon. The normal procedure would be to free the slaves in advance. After the battle those of them who had died were buried with honour, but separately from the citizens. The effects of emancipation would not have been negligible, but they were hardly adequate under the circumstances. In return for their freedom, slaves were expected to risk their lives. Athough the evidence is meagre, there are reasons to believe that by allowing them to fight at their side (mostly as rowers), masters were hoping to see some kind of enthusiasm on the part of their former slaves.
The way metics were encouraged at wartime may be, to a degree, relevant. Thucydides gives the details of a battle that was to prove decisive in the Peloponnesian War (7.63). Addressing himself to the metics participating in the Sicilian expedition, the Athenian general, Nicias, made a number of remarks. He reminded them of the honours they had been receiving throughout Greece and of the advantages of the empire they were enjoying, as if they were Athenians, although, in fact, they simply spoke their language and imitated their manners. The general was, therefore, expecting them not to betray the Athenians in a time of need. That metics fighting along with full citizens had to be addressed in such a fashion is understandable. But it is also reasonable to expect that exslave combatants would have been encouraged in some similar way. What sort of help could the Athenians expect from their former slaves if they did not have something persuasive to tell them? For the present argument, it makes little difference that the numbers of such slaves were small. The important fact is that they existed and that their generals would have found the appropriate rhetoric to address them.
In 406 BC metics and slaves were fighting on Athenian ships in the naval battle of Arginusae. As usual under such circumstances, slaves were manumitted, but this time they were also promised, along with the metics, Athenian and Plataean citizenship. The Athenians won an important victory against the Spartans and did not neglect to reward those who had helped them row the ships. The incident seems to have made a great impression, since Aristophanes pays an unusual tribute to the slaves who had 'fought in the naval battle'. In his Frogs (190-1), he makes Charon refuse to ferry over the river Styx to the underworld any slave other than them. The whole affair was a very rare occurrence, but not altogether exceptional.
Slaves became important once more in a later act of the democratic drama. In 404 the Peloponnesian War ended with the humiliation of the Athenians by the Spartans. Their long walls and their league were dissolved and their democracy dismantled. For a brief period a tyranny was imposed. Soon after, however, through a fullscale social and political uprising, democratic rule was restored. Important details are given in Aristotle's Athenian Constitution (40.2). In their struggle, the democrats were aided by metics and slaves. Just before the election of the new archons, a motion was passed in the Assembly 'which was to give a share in the citizenship to all who had joined in the return from the Piraeus, some of whom were palpably slaves'. The decree was eventually annulled and non-citizens were less generously rewarded. In this case slaves may not have been incorporated into the citizen body. The conscription of metics and slaves to the democratic front, however, remains a fact, and so does the intention that existed among many Athenians, to grant them citizenship status.
The evidence presented above should not be over-estimated. The incidents recorded were few and untypical. Overall, the slaves in Athens did not exhibit true respect towards their masters and their masters' democracy. For the most part they were never really given the opportunity to express their true feelings. It is characteristic of the mentality of the Athenians that the testimony of slaves in court was only accepted when they were under torture. Even if they were ever allowed to express themselves freely, it is hardly likely that they would have spoken highly of the democracy. Athenians were obviously aware of this reality. They knew that the general attitude of their slaves was hostile and that not much could be expected from them and their descendants. This plain and clear reality, however, does not make the cases of co-operation between citizens and slaves difficult to explain. Among the thousands of slaves in democratic Athens at any given time, it would not have been hard to find some with respect for their masters. Others would have calculated that their chances of success were greater than their risks.
Manumission alone would have been a great incentive. Aristotle was quite explicit in the Politics (1330a). He argued that 'it is a good thing that all slaves should have before them the prospect of receiving their freedom as a reward'. His expectation was, obviously, that with the reward in their minds, slaves would work harder and exhibit some kind of respect towards their masters as well as towards the city, its customs and its laws. The Athenians did not follow the suggestion, but they constantly manumitted small numbers of slaves nevertheless. Most among them were domestics and artisans, some of whom would have been living on their own. Upward social mobility, from slave to metic and from metic to citizen, minimal though it must have been, was an acknowledged fact.
What is somewhat perplexing is the willingness of the Athenians to record the incidents in which they had been aided by their slaves. As is clearly shown from the funeral oration attributed to Perikles, in standardised appraisals of the city and its constitution there was normally only a place for citizens and hardly any for their women. Slaves were not so much as mentioned. Why was it that the Athenians made some exceptions to this rule? And why was it that these exceptions were related to the most important developments in the history of the democracy?
As the Athenians saw things, their democratic state was preferable for slaves to the Spartan state, or any other state with a less democratic constitution than their own. According to one witness known as Old Oligarch, 'slaves and metics in Athens lead a singularly undisciplined life; one may not strike them there, nor will a slave step aside for you'. The anonymous author of this pamphlet had an anti-democratic mentality and was clearly grossly exaggerating. He claimed that in Athens slaves 'live in luxury, and some of them in considerable magnificence' and went as far as to argue that 'in the matter of free speech we have put slaves and free men on equal terms' (1.10-2). The account cannot be taken literally, but it may reflect a widespread myth.
The Athenians had no problem in acknowledging the exploitation of their slaves. They had no desire to convince slaves that they were their equals and they would have had no chance of succeeding had they made such an attempt. The myth was not so much concerned with class relations as it was with the democracy. The anonymous author was not attacking slaves; he was attacking the constitution that granted them what seemed to him unacceptable privileges. Other Athenians were happier with the 'general benevolence' of their democracy.
In his Poroi, Xenophon advanced a scheme that would improve, in his opinion, the Athenian economy. If it were followed, he argued, all citizens would profit. To begin with, metics and foreign traders should be treated with more respect. Some should be honoured by the city. All should be encouraged to carry on their enterprises in ways benefiting to them as well as to the Athenians. Furthermore, the Athenian economy, which was suffering after the end of the Peloponnesian War, would improve if the city invested in more than a thousand slaves. All of them would be hired out to individual entrepreneurs to be employed in the silver mines of Laurion. Regarding slaves, the last thing which Xenophon had in mind was to conceal the bare fact of exploitation.
Nothing of what he writes gives the impression that those slaves could ever be integrated into Athenian society and life. The work they performed was probably the worst a slave ever did in Athens. As he admits, a slave would work in the mines for as long as he lasted. In due course he would have to be replaced by a younger one - no thought of family relations, manumission, good clothing or treatment, let alone 'freedom of speech'. In fact, to protect the city from fraud, the slaves would be branded as state property.
Xenophon's pamphlet has no clear political aims. It is exclusively concerned with the physical subsistence of the city and it addresses problems of production and trade. Consequently it deals with roetics, traders, artisans and slaves. Yet, at the very end of the long arguments it does not avoid a reference to war, a political act par excellence. What it says is revealing. The value of slaves, it argues, is twofold. On the one hand they are productive; on the other they can fight. If circumstances demand, even the most oppressed slaves can be armed:
For what instrument is more serviceable for war than men. We should have enough of them to supply crews to many ships of the state; and many men available for service in the ranks as infantry could press the enemy hard, ff they were treated with consideration (42).
It is unlikely that Xenophon or any other Athenian statesman believed that branded slaves working in the silver mines under exceedingly harsh conditions would fight in earnest for the citizens' cause. The idea, however, was not altogether absurd. The Athenians recorded and publicised the cases in which they had been aided with profit by their slaves. The accounts were clearly of greater importance to them than they were to the slaves. They strengthened their sense of security and they reassured them that at a deep level the city was united. It could face its external enemies without real dangers from within. The contrast with Sparta could hardly be more obvious, as the helots would never miss an opportunity to revolt and were a greater threat than help whenever they were armed. It was otherwise in Athens. Given the proper incentives, numbers of slaves would not only fight but, having fought, would not pose any problem to the city. In Athens, emancipated slaves could be easily incorporated into the free population and even into the citizen body. Potentially, the democratic system was open to anyone the citizens cared to invite.
Athenians were always reluctant to give slaves their freedom, and even more reluctant to grant citizenship rights. They knew, however, that they could do both easily whenever they wished. This, they thought, was one of the advantages of their constitution. They therefore kept reminding themselves of the occasions on which they had done so with profit. Perhaps they also wanted their slaves to know about these occasions. What the slaves thought is difficult to say. Under conditions of slavery it is unlikely that they bothered to meditate on the advantages of democracy. As free men, however, they would have certainly preferred to live in democratic Athens. Whatever the politicians may have argued in their debates, the democratic constitution gave all citizens the same rights. Even better, as Perikies is reported to have claimed, the system was called a democracy because it served the interests not of the few but of the majority (2.37).
FOR FURTHER READING:
The best introductions to democracy and slavery are Aristotle's Politics (Penguin, 1962) and The Athenian Constitution (Penguin, 1984). For modern discussions see G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Duckworth, 1981) and M.I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (Chatto and Windus, 1980); important points are also made by Nicole Loraux, The Invention of Athens (Harvard University Press, 1986) and Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (Princeton University Press, 1989). For comparison with the helots of Sparta it is useful to consult Paul Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta (Duckworth, 1987).
Dimitrts Kyrtatas is Assistant Professor of Ancient History at the University of Crete and author of Slaves, Slavery and the Slave Mode of Production (in Greek, Polites, 1987).…
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Publication information: Article title: The Athenian Democracy and Its Slaves. Contributors: Kyrtatas, Dimitris - Author. Magazine title: History Today. Volume: 44. Issue: 2 Publication date: February 1994. Page number: 43+. © 2009 History Today Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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