Category: Historical subjects

Society in Classical Athens

Classical Athens was populated by thousands of people. According to the customs of the period, they were divided into groups of divergent political, social and professional rights and obligations.

Population and stratification

In archaic times, the citizens of Athens were grouped into four tribes – as it was the case with most Ionians. Membership was granted by descent, and prescribed religious and familial duties. Solon’s reforms furthered the division of the population into four property classes (telē), which were provided with their appropriate political rights and obligations. Eligible for appointment to the higher offices were only Athenians from the two upper classes: the pentacosiomedimnoi and the hippeis. On the other hand, the zeugitai, wealthy farmers deprived of noble lineage, were enlisted as hoplitai (infantry), and could take some of the many lesser offices. Lastly, the thetes, commoners with no or small landholdings, were excluded from all offices. However, all citizens were allowed to participate in the Ekklesia (Assembly) and to form the court of Heilaia. The type of this constitution was called timocracy.

The democratic reforms imposed by Cleisthenis preserved the subdivision of the citizenry into telē, but as of 457 B.C. allowed for the election of the zeugitai to higher posts. The four tribes gave their way to ten. The principle of kinship was dropped and the tribes were now formed arbitrarily. Those tribes were the backbone of all democratic institutions.

Athens was the place of residence for aliens and their families – the so-called metics. They were not slaves, and although often born in Athens they were deprived of citizen rights. They were liable to an annual tax; they were enrolled in special military units; but they had no privilege of owning land. However, the metics could own residencies and create big wealth. Apart from the citizens and the metics, Athens was populated by huge numbers of slaves and travelers.

According to some vague calculations, the total sum of the population might have exceeded 300.000 around the 5th c B.C. Half of them were citizens with their families. The metics were above 20.000, and the slaves greater than 100.000. By the 4th c. B.C. the population of Athens had decreased drastically.

The agrarian character of the society

Agriculture, livestock and (at a smaller degree) fishery were the primary sectors of economy in antiquity. Most Athenians were landowners and worked in agrarian production. Wealthier citizens employed large numbers of slaves, who were also settled to work in smaller households. The thetes made their living as seasonal laborers, and as wagers in any other job they could take.

Oversees trade could make large profits, but was exposed to many risks. Some wealthy Athenians thought it opportune to trade the scruples of their production via it. However, they reinvested their earnings in their lands, which secured their lives and maintained their good social status. Athenians of the lower classes were artisans, but it was slaves who were operating the medium and (relatively) big industrial workshops. A big slave force was also occupied in the exploitation of mines, such as the Laurium mines of silver. For metics the only available revenues were commerce and crafts. A famous metic, Lysias, was a rhetorician and writer of speeches; Aristotle a philosopher.

The import of large amounts of wheat was necessary for the big population of Athens. Athenians granted its traders favorable regulations and motives. In times of war, the success of oversees trade was becoming a matter of life and death.

War and peace

The rural nature of Athens shaped all aspects of everyday life, as well as significant features of the political system. Besides the warlike Iliad, Athenians held in great esteem the farmer’s almanac Works and Days composed by Hesiod. In classical Athens, war and peace were caught up in a circle of constant succession.

The main armed force of Athens was formed up by peasants. They could provide weapons for themselves and were enlisted as hoplites (infantry). Progressively the number of the thetes serving in triremes (triērēs) increased. Poorer Athenians often opted for war, because they could thus be employed and gain respect. Successful missions allowed landless Athenians to settle down in other lands, without losing their political privileges in the Metropolis as it was the case with settlers.

On the other hand, peasants, and particularly the richer ones, wanted peace in order to dedicate themselves in tilling their lands. The belligerent of Athens during the Peloponnesian War and the destruction of farms was a devastating blow against the Athenians, who had to crowd in Athens, inside the city’s walls.

The city offered many opportunities for amusement and recreation, and charged the expenditures to the richest citizens. Cultural events were organized according to the religious calendar of the city, which, in turn, conformed to the circles of agricultural production. War alike conformed to those circles, and this is evinced by the fact that Athenians and other Greeks preferred to fight after harvest and before seed.

Author: Dimitris Kyrtatas
  • Andrewes, A. Greek Society. Middlesex, 1971.
  • Αustin, M. M. , Vidal-Naquet, P. Economic and social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction. London, 1977.
  • Gschnitzer, F. Sozialgeschichte: Von der mykenischen bis zum Ausgang der klassischen Zeit. Wiesbaden, 1981.
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