Nowadays scientists say that the democratic model most American and European countries use, is built on the foundations of democracy that were first developed in Ancient Greece. The citizens’ equality is considered to be one of the most valuable principles that came to us from the Ancient Greece. Therefore, to deepen the understanding of the democratic processes that take place all over the world nowadays it is necessary to explore the phenomenon of equality, existing in Ancient Greek city-states.
Athens were one of the brightest representatives of the Greek city-state culture, thus they became a suitable example for studying some elements of the democratic culture developed and introduced in Greek cities for the first time. Democracy in Periclean Athens was much stronger than the contemporary one. The thing was that at the fourth century B. C in Athens the citizens had much more influence on decision making process, than the simple vote. Every citizen could bring his own alternatives of political decisions and choices, and he could encourage other citizens to support him.
This was obviously the reason that made rhetoric so popular and important in Periclean Athens. Ancient Athens’ dwellers understood that one could have a considerable impact on the city’s policy only if he was respected by the other citizens. That’s why merit was the main criterion of success at those times. The more merits the citizens had, the more influential he was. Ancient Greeks perceived honorable deeds and merits as a method to become a better citizen of the police, and the better citizen the person were, the more respect and trust he could expect from his co-citizens.
Ancient Athens was the state that rarely interfered with the personal life of its citizens. The policy in this city-state was that until a man possessed the qualities of a good citizen, and didn’t break the laws, he had the freedom to do everything he wanted to do. The state didn’t interfere in personal life of the citizens, the same as it didn’t care about the private property of the citizens. The only exception from this rule was the situation, when the citizen gained too much power, political, social and economical one.
In this case he could be banished from the city-state, in order to remove the threat of the appearance of the tyrant. As it was already mentioned, citizenship was the crucial concept in Greek consciousness. Most of all the social, cultural and democratic achievements that emerged in the city states were for citizens only. Equality was not the exception from this consistent pattern. The concept of equality in the Periclean Athens was used only towards those, who possessed the status of the citizen. According to Sennet’s writings, the quantity of dwellers in the Athens contemporary to Pericles, during the fourth century B.
C, was 150,000 – 250,000, while only 20,000-30,000 of them were citizens. Only free males could possess this status. Moreover, only a small part of those could participate directly in the political life of the city, as only 5-10% of all the Athens citizens had a fortune big enough to “live leisurely, spending hour after hour, day after day among their fellow citizens, talking and debating” (Sennet, 1942:52). Other citizens had to work in order to provide their living, thus the Athens democracy was in fact actualized by the wealthiest citizens of the city-state.
For some reasons the researchers, who glorified the democracy in Ancient Greece forgot to mention about the status of women who lived there. Sennet mentions, that for Greeks women were inferior to men regardless of the personal traits they possessed, just because of their biological sex. Moreover, women were considered to be the men’s property, the objects of erotic love, or the instruments for childbearing, but no more. Greek philosophers explained this attitude using the concept of body heat, as Sennet mentions (1942:41).
They presumed that only the hot body possessed the traits essential for every citizen, like courage, dignity, and physical strength, while cold bodies were weak and recreant. Men were considered to have hot bodies, while women were thought to possess cold bodies, and thus were inferior to men. The attitude towards women in the Periclean Athens can be illustrated with the piece from the Pericles’ funeral oration, where he says that: “…the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you, or criticizing you. (1972:430) Thus, as we can see, women weren’t subjected to the equality that was said to exist in the Greek city-states. The position of the Athens’ slaves was worse than that of the women that lived in this city. The Greek philosophers, like Socrates, noted, that the slaves were not considered to be people at all.
Plato in his work Crito – Justice and Duty recalls the words of Socrates, his teacher, who notes it is no wonder that the slaves are able to act contrary to law. 2003:95) To explain the attitude demonstrated by this phrase, the city-state citizen’s attitude towards the law should be recalled. Plato describes it as something very close to religious worshipping, as in the consciousness of the Athens’ citizens laws were the basis which allowed the existence of the city-state itself, the basic value for them. This attitude was demonstrated by Socrates, who refused to run away from imprisonment to escape death, motivating it by the fact that it would have disproved all of the principles he propagated.
The Athens dwellers also used the concept of body heat to explain their attitudes towards slaves. Slaves were considered to have cold bodies, even in case they were males, as they didn’t have enough time and opportunity to keep their bodies hot. Sennet noted the Greeks were sure that the slave’s body grew dull and cold through the lack of speech. (1942:43-44) Debates, physical exercises, and erotic relationship were considered to be the keys to keeping the citizens’ bodies hot. Historical evidence proves that Athens’ citizens valued their laws a lot.
After continuous fighting against tyranny, Greeks became very severe towards those, who made the attempts to break the laws, as for them it meant the demolition of society they lived in. As it was already mentioned, the status of the citizen meant a lot to the Athens’ dwellers, it brought a lot of rights, but, many duties were also attached to it. Among these, the duty to fulfill the requirements the laws imposed on citizens was one of the crucial ones. In the Periclean Athens most of the conflicts that appeared among the citizens, and inside the police were solved on the agora, the main square at the city centre, were the citizens gathered.
Every citizen had the opportunity to influence the decisions made, but after the case was decided, the decisions of the “court” were compulsory. As Socrates proved by his refusal to escape from the prison where his co-citizens put him, breaking those decisions was one of the most shameful deeds a citizen could perform, as in the Greeks’ opinion these actions disrupted the very idea of the democratic society free of tyranny, which was the main value at those times in Athens.
As it was already mentioned, equality indeed existed in the Periclian Athens, but those were only the citizens who were subjects to it. As it can be seen in Plato’s Crito – Justice and Duty, status of the citizen was the most valued thing for the dwellers of this city, as well as for those, who lived in other city-states. (2003: 84-87) The reason was that the citizens were seen as the only source of power and law in the ancient city-states, and equality among the citizens was seen as the key to maintaining the type of state that existed in Athens and other city-states.
The citizens had equal rights to be involved in the political life of their city-state, and moreover, it was considered to be their duty, at least according to the Pericles’ words, who said that: “…we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all. ” (1972:147) The ability to take part in forming the political life of the city was seen as, in the same time, the right, and the duty of every citizen.
This political phenomenon may be considered a key to the favorable social climate that existed in Athens most of the times, and even to the military might Athens possessed. The Athens in the fourth century B. S was the place where the status of the citizen was more important than wealth, appearance, and even intellectual potential. Being a citizen was synonymous to being a human being, a creature with some inalienable rights and duties. This is easily proved by recalling the Pericles’ speech, who noted that: “Our constitution is called a democracy, because power is in the hands not of the minority, but of the whole people”. 1972:145) And, it was well-known that in Athens political power was the prerogative of the citizens only. A person could be beautiful, nice, and knowledgeable, but he was seen as worthy of respect by other citizens, and his opinion was considered in deciding important questions only in case he was a citizen. Nevertheless, people, who had the status of the citizens, received all the privileges that belonged to the citizen despite of their age, wealth or occupation.
Of course those, who had more property, as a result had more opportunities to influence the policy of the city, but being wealthy wasn’t the compulsory attribute to earn the respect of other citizens. The Athens dwellers rather valued rhetoric skills, physical perfection and intellect, than material attributes. The historians noted that Athens was a tolerable community. All of the citizens had the right to lead their private lives the way they wanted it, unless they broke the law. Breaking the law was a borderline of the Athens dweller’s tolerance, and in case the law was broken it was no matter, who did it.
The violator was punished for his actions despite of the social position he had. Socrates’ behavior before his death, described by Plato, was the salient acknowledgement of this rule. The Athens citizens were ready to suffer in order not to let the laws be broken, as the laws in their opinion were the basis on which their society had been built. Ancient Athens in the period when Pericles lived, in the fourth century B. C, was one of the most prominent representatives of Greek city-states. Indeed, Athens was one of the places, where the democracy was born, but it was not the kind of democracy existing nowadays.
The citizens of Athens were indeed equal in their rights and duties, but those, who had the citizenship, comprised only 20-30% of the whole Athens’ population. The analysis of the writings used in this essay shows that there were only citizens that were considered people in Athens, and only the citizens had democratic rights. Women, slaves, and foreigners were not considered worthy of those rights. Therefore the conclusion is that equality indeed existed in Athens, but it was only for those who had the status of the citizen. This concept was never used for other categories of dwellers.