Open Dimensions of Space, Socioeconomic Mobility, and Anxiety About Identity in Classical Athens
By Elizabeth Vo-Phamhi
World history from antiquity to the present day has abounded with examples of classism and xenophobia as counterforces against socioeconomic mobility and the democratization of opportunity. Societies with servile components are particularly rich in these narratives, and classical Athens (508 – 322 BCE) presents an interesting case of inter-class dynamics involving socioeconomic tensions formed around a spectrum rather than a binary of servile and free statuses.
Historians classify classical Athens as a “slave society,” which requires that a significant proportion of the population be enslaved and that the society’s social, political, and economic well-being relies on the productivity of the servile population. According to conservative modern estimates, slaves comprised at least fifteen percent of the classical Athenian population; Finley estimates that at least 60,000 chattel slaves lived in Athens at any given time—more than any other contemporaneous Greek city. Regarding Athens’ economic dependence on the slave population, Finley writes, “No one can seriously deny that [slaves] constituted a critical sector of the labour force.”
Given that slavery was a fact of life in classical Athens, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a wealth of legal and literary evidence regarding slaves and the ways in which they were perceived by other members of Athenian society. These other members of Athenian society would engage with slaves in “free spaces” where they could witness the occasional instances of upward socioeconomic mobility for slaves. Drawing upon literary and legal evidence, this paper argues that the role of slaves in classical Athenian society—specifically, the phenomena of inter-class interactions in free spaces and of manumission—complicated the boundary between citizen and non-citizen, resulting in a chronic anxiety among citizens around the issue of Athenian identity.
Before exploring the characteristics of slavery which contributed to this anxiety, it is necessary to briefly establish some definitions, given that slavery at this time took various forms throughout the Greek world. This paper limits its scope to the chattel slaves of classical Athens—laborers belonging to slaveholders who could sell, endow, and perform similar transactions upon their legal property. Non-slave, non-citizen groups included women and metics (resident aliens), a status which extended both to xenoi (foreign guest-friends with whom Athenian citizens shared a relationship characterized by xenia—courteous hospitality and gift exchange) and to freedmen (manumitted slaves), who had more rights than slaves but fewer rights than full citizens. Free spaces, defined by Vlassopoulos, refer to socially heterogeneous spaces which brought together citizens with non-citizens, including slaves, metics, and women.
III. Inter-Class Interactions in Free Spaces
The free male citizens of classical Athens frequently interacted with women, metics, and slaves in free spaces. These inter-class interactions weakened distinctions between slaves, citizens, and people on the intermediate spectrum of freedom. Free spaces included a diverse array of settings in classical Athenian life such as workplaces, taverns, religious sanctuaries (Figures 1a, b), triremes (warships operated by both free and servile Athenians), the agora (a marketplace and gathering space comparable to the Roman forum), and the oikoi (homes) of Athenians who were wealthy enough to own slaves. These spaces allowed new forms of class identity to take shape within the Athenian populace through shared experiences and interactions rather than through reinforcing segregated identities. This paper will focus on the agora, where the greatest amount of relevant literary evidence exists.
The agora was the free space which brought slaves and free citizens closest together because it significantly democratized the privilege of political participation intrinsically associated with Athenian citizenship (Figures 2a, b). Literary evidence makes it clear that Athenian democratic processes were not restricted to citizens in closed-off institutional settings, such as the Assembly and law courts. Rather, the agora was an open-access venue for political discourse. Dinarchus, a political rival of Demosthenes, explicitly writes that the latter’s political campaigns included discussions in the agora: “Demosthenes went round the agora making speeches and associating himself with [his political agenda].” As Millet and Vlassopoulos have remarked, Dinarchus’s account suggests that substantial political discussion took place in this space which was open to slaves and other non-citizens and therefore could have reached the lowest-ranking Athenians, even when they were simply completing their quotidian errands.[7, 9]
The presence of political discourse in the agora gave non-citizens the opportunity to influence politics. Literary evidence suggests that non-citizens listened to and even participated in the agora‘s political discourse. In his Life of Nicias, Plutarch reports an open and animated discussion in the agora on the role of Athens in the ongoing Peloponnesian War. That this highly political discourse is precipitated by a non-citizen who brings the news of Athens’s catastrophic defeat in Sicily demonstrates an awareness among Athenian citizens that the agora served as a free space where people of non-citizen status could take on roles in the sphere of Athenian citizenship. Similarly, it is reasonable to suppose that if politicians were making rounds through the agora among audiences of poor citizen artisans and laborers, it is unlikely that their stated political platforms would exclude issues important to Athenians of low socioeconomic status at large because of the diverse makeup of these spaces.
The role which slaves and other low-ranking Athenians played in politics caused anxiety among citizens in regard to the blurring of class distinctions and the dilution of a key aspect of their identity as Athenian citizens: the privilege to participate in politics. The prominent Athenian Aristotle, founder of the Lyceum’s peripatetic think tank, openly opposed the open-access nature of the agora as a petri dish for inter-class political, social, and commercial exchange. His Politics presents a “free agora” as the ideal space for community discourse—”free” in the sense that it should be a space “kept clear of all merchandise and into which no artisan or farmer or any other such person may intrude unless summoned by the magistrates.” Aristotle’s elite agora is a rarefied domain into which slaves and other low-status Athenians would have neither need nor license to freely operate. That his ideal conceptualization is juxtaposed with the dissonant reality of the socioeconomically diverse Athenian agora reflects a concern among his peers that extending such a degree of political participation down to the level of slaves somehow infringes upon their own identities as politically active Athenian citizens.
The proximity between slaves and non-slaves in free spaces also enabled citizens to witness slaves exercising other liberties. McInerney has defined slavery in the Athenian context as the lack of access to isegoria, the nearest Greek word to “freedom of speech,” since free people were characterized by the ability to speak and exercise the right to open expression; therefore slaves in principle should not possess that privilege. However, a classical Athenian treatise preserved among the minor works of Pseudo-Xenophon makes a contrary observation, complaining that “slaves enjoy just as much freedom of speech as do the free” (though this characterization of the freedom of speech for slaves is likely exaggerated for comedic effect). Accounts such as this indicate that Athenian citizens were perceptive of and at times alarmed by these infringements upon their political privilege—the cornerstone of Athenian citizenship and identity—by slaves.
IV. Manumission: The Fluidity of Slavehood and Citizenship
While free spaces facilitated proximity between slaves and citizens, the phenomenon of manumission in classical Athens facilitated the closing of these distances socioeconomically. Manumission allowed slaves and their descendants to move toward attaining many of the rights and privileges which Athenian citizens enjoyed. Unlike other contemporary slave societies, classical Athens had a path to freedom and socioeconomic self-improvement embedded within its legal codes and institutions, which slaves could openly aspire to achieve.
It is important to remember that the pursuit of manumission was a grueling process. Slaves first had to save up enough of their personal earnings—the meager margins remaining after paying dues to their masters—to meet their own capital value. Rihill notes that slaves often achieved manumission late in life when they had saved up sufficiently to purchase their own freedom or at the point when it was advantageous for an owner to cash in on an older slave of declining worth. Slaves also incurred the additional cost of an extensive legal procedure, the dike apostasiou, which essentially obligated a slave to maintain a certain degree of service to the former owner post-manumission. The monetary cost of achieving manumission meant that only slaves in commercial occupations—for example, artisans and fishmongers but not domestic servants—could build up the necessary funds by saving whatever remained after the bulk of their profits were turned over to their masters. Furthermore, manumitted slaves in most cases were merely registered as non-citizen residents with lesser or equal status to metics and lacked the full privileges of Athenian citizens.
Nevertheless, the door between the enslaved identity space and the free identity space was official, legal, and apparent to all members of classical Athenian society. Slaves and their masters underwent manumission procedures in full public view. The epigraphic record contains public documentation of slaves paying the silver phialai dedication (worth about 100 drachmas) for the dike apostasiou. Literary evidence also indicates that Athenian citizens were aware of their slave contemporaries’ desire to seek freedom. In his Oeconomicus, Xenophon writes that slave owners understood how to motivate their slaves using not only punishment but also rewards, stimulating slave productivity by providing opportunities for slaves to improve themselves socioeconomically toward manumission. Athenian citizens also lived and worked alongside the choris oikountes (“living apart”), or individuals who were full slaves, in the sense that they were the property of their owners but enjoyed a degree of autonomy because they lived in their own residences and operated independent businesses. The existence of these entrepreneurial slaves who possessed some degree of economic freedom further challenged the distinctions between slaves and Athenian citizens, especially working-class citizens. Moreover, Rihill notes that the skilled slave “could earn a living much as a free worker did.” Thus some Athenian slaves had access to two privileges often considered among the hallmarks of freedom and citizenship: social mobility and socioeconomic status. Through manumission, they and their descendants could potentially gain citizens’ rights. This characteristic of Athenian slavery had the potential to generate anxiety among Athenian citizens over the changing demographic makeup of Athenian society.
V. Athenian Identity in Question: Manifestations of Anxiety
Together, the inter-class interactions between slaves and citizens in free spaces and the remarkable fluidity (relative to other contemporary slave societies) of slavehood and citizenship caused a chronic anxiety among the Athenian citizenry over the nature of Athenian identity. This unease is visible in classical Athenian legal and literary records.
A key element of Athenian slavery was that slaves were seldom easy to distinguish phenotypically. Athenian slaves came from a variety of regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, and the Adriatic Sea at a time when the Greek world itself was a collection of regional entities with hardly a unifying ethnic identity. This contrasted with other Greek states where servile populations corresponded with ethnic groupings, most apparently in Sparta where the Messenians and Laconians constituted the helot class. Analogous to the helots in Sparta were the penestai, gymnetai, klarotai, korynephoroi, and konipodes of Thessaly, Argos, Crete, Sicyon, and Epidaurus respectively. Athens never made such ethnic denotations, and as the center of a slave trade that drew from all over the Aegean and beyond the periphery of the Greek world, Athenian slavery developed a multiethnic composition. Considering the existence of high-status metics, this multiethnic aspect could have made visual distinctions between non-citizens and citizens, and furthermore the distinction between slaves and other Athenians, less readily apparent—in fact, Athenian citizens frequently complained about the difficulty in distinguishing between citizens and slaves in free spaces. Pseudo-Xenophon remarks that because slaves lacked a particular dress code, it was necessary for Athenian law to generally ban assault in case a “citizen was struck by someone mistaking him for a slave.”
Anxiety over Athenian identity arising from the role of slaves in society is perhaps most dramatically embodied by Apollodorus of Acharnae. Deene remarks that Apollodorus was hyper aware of his own foreign and servile origins; his father, Pasion, was a foreign-born freed slave who had become wealthy enough as a banker to acquire citizenship for himself and his sons through monetary “benefactions to the Athenians.” Apollodorus sought to distance himself from his foreign and servile roots in a definitively Athenian way: by exercising his political rights. Works from the Demosthenic corpus report that Apollodorus took it upon himself to prosecute slaves for minor crimes on the basis of being un-Athenian, characterizing his targets as “those who despise you [Athenian citizens] and the laws, and refuse to obey the laws.” In his legal case against Neaira, a hetaera (a courtesan or sex worker) who had married a free Athenian citizen and possibly misrepresented her daughter as a citizen, Apollodorus focuses on the socially conservative values which he associates with Athenian citizenship and multi-generational Athenian citizens. Furthermore, Apollodorus’ legal cases against former slaves seem to be an overtly patriotic defense of Athens’ civic values. Considering the fact that only full Athenian citizens had the legal right to initiate court hearings, and given the circumstances of Apollodorus’ descent, some scholars have suggested that Apollodorus’ philodikia, or litigiousness, underscores his desire to clearly demarcate his new citizen status from his servile family origin. Apollodorus’ actions reflect an anxiety over the increasingly blurred lines distinguishing slaves from higher-status Athenians present among Athenian citizens—including people who had only become citizens thanks to the weakening of those boundaries.
VI. Concluding Thoughts
Manumission and the occupancy of free spaces by slaves perhaps would not have been possible without the phenotypic resemblance between slaves and non-slaves. There is less of a mental barrier to permitting slave/non-slave interactions in free spaces and providing opportunities for manumission in a society’s legal code when the slave population resembles the citizenry. Cultural assimilation and physiological likeness helped Athenian slaves gain access to opportunities for socioeconomic ascension, to the resources required to take care of loved ones, and to opportunities to influence society. The anxiety around identity experienced and documented by classical Athenian citizens indicates that there were slaves who were potentially perceived as social threats, and therefore must have approached a level of comparable social status to an uncomfortable degree. While examples of classical Athenian slaves and their descendants who successfully climbed to citizenship or to other such degrees of freedom and socioeconomic status are sparse, the documented examples we do have show that reactions of hyper-patriotism or urges to assimilate are not just limited to modern societies. People in the past also attempted to climb the social ladder by appealing to xenophobia or by emphasizing class differences.
The author is grateful to Kyle West and Professor Jeremy McInerney for their guidance and encouragement.
Figure 1a — The ancient theater at Delphi with the Temple of Apollo in the background. Religious sanctuaries such as Delphi were free spaces where people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, from slaves to celebrated athletes, interacted. June 27, 2018. Image credit: the author.
Figure 1b — The polygonal wall on the southern side of the Temple of Apollo. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi itself eventually came to symbolize freedom as the venue for thousands of manumissions documented on the polygonal wall. June 27, 2018. Image credit: the author.
Figure 2a — Landmark features of the Athenian Agora where slaves and free people interacted foreground the modern city, photographed at dawn from the Acropolis. June 25, 2018. Image credit: the author.
Figure 2b — A view of the Acropolis from the Athenian Agora. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Figure 3a — Fragment of a manumission with dedications of silver phialai. Image credit: Center for Epigraphical and Palaeographical Studies, The Ohio State University
Elizabeth Vo-Phami (College ’22) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies (Classical Civilizations) and Cognitive Science.
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