Ancient Greece, part 5 – Athenian Society


Citizens and Hoplites

Although citizenship brought with it many privileges, it was not without its obligations.

Throughout the fifth century, the Athenians maintained what was essentially a citizen army. It was only in the fourth century that the use of professional soldiers became widespread.

Every Athenian citizen was eligible for military service during the campaigning season.

In practice, it was not the entire citizen body that was called out for military service. Lists would be posted in public places naming those who would have to report for military service.

The backbone of the Athenian army was the “hoplite”.

Greek “hoplites” were essentially heavy infantry. The hoplite usually provided his own arms and armour.

Hoplites were usually armed with a spear. In classical times, it was the spear and not the sword which was the nobleman’s weapon. (The conflict between Hector and Achilles in the Iliad, for example, consists of the two heroes throwing spears at each other)

Hoplites were also equipped with a helmet, breastplate, greaves (metal shin-guards) and a large round shield. The round shield was known as a “hoplon”, and it is thought that this is where the word ‘hoplite’ comes from.

In addition to the hoplites, there were also lightly armed troops which were usually used for skirmishing purposes and as support troops.

These lightly armed forces were often made up of foreign mercenaries.

Women in Athens

The position of women in Athens has always come as a bit of a surprise for those who still entertain a ‘romantic’ view of Classical Greece.

In his ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ Thucydides has the great Pericles make the following statement in an important speech:

“The greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you”.

In other words, Thucydides has Pericles say that a woman belongs in the house, away from the attention of other men, and should behave in such a way that she should not be talked about in public, even if the remarks being made are complimentary.

This remark has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly debate.

Earlier classicists found it very difficult to believe that their darling enlightened Classical Greeks should have held such unenlightened views about the place of women.

Gallant attempts have been made to explain away this incongruity. Many classicists apologetically point out that relations within the household between husband and wife were, by contrast, often ‘warm and intimate’ (as though one would expect that the relations between husband and wife in ‘male chauvinist’ societies would always be cold and distant!).

One scholar has even gone to the extent of arguing that the remark was merely a reflection of an old-fashioned kind of courtesy towards women (that is, “he didnt really mean it THAT way, he was just being polite”).

In order to really understand this remark, we need to rid ourselves of the ‘romantic’ notions that nineteenth century scholars have put into our heads and look at the Greeks in their actual context.

It has been effectively argued that the Ancient Greeks were an ‘Ancient Near Eastern’ civilisation, just like the Lydians, the Persians and the Babylonians. If we take this point of view, then it is hardly surprising that they should also have ‘Ancient Near Eastern’ attitudes towards their womenfolk.

(I would even hazard a guess that if such a remark had been attributed to, say, one of the Assyrian kings of the seventh century BC, it would not have excited any comment at all and would simply have been accepted as evidence of the ‘conventional Ancient Near Eastern attitude’ towards women).

Of course we would be wrong to come to such far-reaching conclusions about the position of women based on just one sentence in Thucydides.

There is a great deal of additional evidence, however, to substantiate the view that the position of women in Athens was essentially one of inferior status.

For example, the inheritance laws in Athens were blatantly sexist. A man’s property (and it was always a man’s property – women could not own any) was always divided among his sons when he passed away. His daughters were entitled to nothing.

Even in the event of a man passing away without having any sons, but only a daughter, she was still not entitled to the property. Instead she became an ‘epiklerate’.

What this meant was that she held the property with her, but it was not legally hers. What is more, she had no choice but to marry the male relative who was ‘entitled’ to her. The first claimant to the ‘epiklerate’ and to the property that went with her was her paternal uncle.

Some evidence from plays written in the late fifth century also point towards the conclusion that women were essentially of a lower status than men.

S@x and Sexuality in Athens

One aspect of classical Athenian society which modern students definitely do find ‘enlightened’ is in the attitude towards homosexuality.

Not only was male homosexuality considered to be acceptable by the Athenians, it even seems to have been actively encouraged. The dialogues of Plato are full of allusions to male homosexual love.

The most well-known such reference is in the Platonic dialogue known as the ‘Symposium’. Here the general Alcibiades describes his attempt to seduce Socrates (which ends in his being disappointed) in no uncertain terms.

Although there seems to have been no stigma associated with male homosexuality among the Greeks, it would be wrong to assume that this was the primary sexual focus among Athenian men.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the majority of Athenian men were actually heterosexual and enjoyed physical relations not only with their wives but also with courtesans and with prostitutes.

Foreigners in Athens

We know for sure that there were large numbers of ‘foreigners’ in Athens. These foreigners were known as ‘metics’.

The majority of ‘metics’ were actually Greeks from other city-states who were not entitled to Athenian citizenship.

The most famous example of these is probably the wealthy Syracusan Lysias, whose father Cephalus and brother Polemarchus appear as characters in Plato’s Republic.

In addition, there would have been many non-Greeks who also lived in Athens. Many of them would have worked either as traders or craftsmen.

These ‘metics’ were not entitled to any of the privileges that Athenian citizens were entitled to.

For example, they were not entitled to own landed property.


The Athenian economy was based to a large extent on slave labour.

It would be wrong to assume that slavery in Classical Athens corresponded to the stereo-typical image of slavery that we have today.

In the plays of Aristophanes, we often see slaves interacting on an almost equal basis with their masters. Although this does not of course mean that all Athenian slaves were treated well, it is strong evidence for the fact that in many cases, slaves would have been quite well-treated by their masters.

There were many different sub-groups of slaves in Athens.

At one end of the scale were the Scythian archers who policed the city. These were basically slaves who belonged to the state. We hear about them in some of the plays of Aristophanes.

These Scythian constables seem to have been quite free to come and go as they pleased within the city.

At the other end of the scale, however, were the slaves who worked in the silver mines at Laureion.

These slaves seem to have lived in very difficult conditions. Archaeological evidence shows that there were watch-towers around these mines, which would indicate that many of these slaves would have wanted to escape from the mines (and no doubt many did!!)

We must always be careful not to judge the Athenians by our own standards, especially when it comes to discussing issues like slavery. The Ancient Greeks lived in a world where slavery was considered to be part of the natural order of things.

On the other hand, in many older (and even in some new) books, you might find unsupported claims that although the Ancient Greeks did use slaves, the lot of the slave in Greece was a little better than that of the slave in “other” parts of the ancient world.

This kind of view is simply based on the worst kind of ‘romantic’ conception of the Ancient Greeks that I am doing my best to debunk in this course.

This view is based on outdated interpretations of Herodotus’ presentation of the conflict between the Greeks and the Persians as a war between “Freedom” and “Tyranny”.

One only has to bear in mind that Leonidas and the other heroic Spartan defenders of Thermopylae were actually fighting for a social system in which a very small minority (the Spartan elite) exercised political power, while the majority of the population was subject to the worst kind of discrimination and had no political rights. (The Spartan system of course was not democratic like the Athenian one).

The Symposium

In classical Athens, a symposium did not refer to an academic meeting filled with a lot of boring speeches.

Instead, it was essentially a banquet in which a group of friends met to have something to eat, drank some wine and spent the evening indulging in various forms of entertainment.

Often, the quantities of wine drunk could be quite large, and the image of a group of sopisticated gentlemen discussing philosophical issues that we get from Plato’s “Symposium” is not necessarily representative of what went on in most of these gatherings.

Only men were invited as guests to these symposia.

(If you are beginning to feel that the Ancient Greeks were very sexist, then you are starting to get the picture!!)

Wives and girlfriends were not allowed to attend them. In fact, even the Greek name for the room in which these gatherings were held was ‘andron’, which referred to the men’s living quarters.

Although wives were not present, courtesans and prostitutes were often brought along to these events.

Essentially, many of these symposia would in all probability have degenerated into wild, drunken orgies.