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5.9: Athenian Society

  • Page ID
    253480
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    Learning Objective

    • Understand the structures of Athenian society in the classical period

    Key Points

    • The citizens of Athens decided matters of state in the Assembly of the People, the principle organ of Athen’s democracy.
    • The Athenian democracy provided a number of governmental resources to its population in order to encourage participation in the democratic process.
    • Many governmental posts in classical Athens were chosen by lot, in an attempt to discourage corruption and patronage.
    • The Athenian elite lived relatively modestly, and wealth and land were not concentrated in the hands of the few, but rather distributed fairly evenly across the upper classes.
    • Thetes occupied the lowest rung of Athenian society, but were granted the right to hold public office during the reforms of Ephialtes and Pericles.
    • Athenian society was a patriarchy; men held all rights and advantages, such as access to education and power.
    • Athenian women were dedicated to the care and upkeep of the family home.

    Terms

    thetes

    The lowest social class of citizens in ancient Athens.

    Assembly of the People

    The democratic congregation of classical Athens, which, in theory, brought together all citizens to decide upon proposed laws and decrees.

    Structure of the Athenian Government

    In the Assembly of the People, Athenian citizens decided matters of state. In theory, it was composed of all the citizens of Athens; however, it is estimated that the maximum number of participants it included was 6,000. Since many citizens were incapable of exercising political rights, due to their poverty or ignorance, a number of governmental resources existed to encourage inclusivity. For example, the Athenian democracy provided the following to its population:

    • Concession of salaries to public functionaries
    • Help finding work for the poor
    • Land grants for dispossessed villagers
    • Public assistance for war widows, invalids, orphans, and indigents

    In order to discourage corruption and patronage, most public offices that did not require specialized expertise were appointed by lot rather than by election. Offices were also rotated so that members could serve in all capacities in turn, in order to ensure that political functions were instituted as smoothly as possible regardless of each individual official’s capacity.

    When the Assembly of the People reached decisions on laws and decrees, the issue was raised to a body called the Council, or Boule, to provide definitive approval. The Council consisted of 500 members, 50 from each tribe, and functioned as an extension of the Assembly. Council members, who were chosen by lot, supervised the work of other government officials, legal projects, and other administrative details. They also oversaw the city-state’s external affairs.

    image
    The Acropolis. View of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. 

    Athenians in the Age of Pericles

    The Athenian elite lived modestly and without great luxuries compared to the elites of other ancient societies. Wealth and land ownership was not typically concentrated in the hands of a few people. In fact, 71-73% of the citizen population owned 60-65% of the land. By contrast, thetes occupied the lowest social class of citizens in Athens. Thetes worked for wages or had less than 200 medimnoi as yearly income. Many held crucial roles in the Athenian navy as rowers, due to the preference of many ancient navies to rely on free men to row their galleys. During the reforms of Ephialtes and Pericles around 460-450 BCE, thetes were granted the right to hold public office.

    Boys were educated at home until the age of seven, at which time they began formal schooling. Subjects included reading, writing, mathematics, and music, as well as physical education classes that were intended to prepare students for future military service. At the age of 18, service in the army was compulsory.

    Athenian women were dedicated to the care and upkeep of the family home. Athenian society was a patriarchy; men held all rights and advantages, such as access to education and power. Nonetheless, some women, known as hetaeras, did receive an education with the specific purpose of entertaining men, similar to the Japanese geisha tradition. Hetaeras were considered higher in status than other women, but lower in status than men. One famous example of a hetaera is Pericles’ mistress, Aspasia of Miletus, who is said to have debated with prominent writers and thinkers, including Socrates.

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