16. Athenian Democracy (cont.)

16. Athenian Democracy (cont.)


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. 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 a a 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. 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.
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. 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.Student: [inaudible]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?Student: [inaudible]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.Student:
[inaudible]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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