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Editor: John T. Kirby
Date: 2001
From: World Eras(Vol. 6: Classical Greek Civilization, 800-323 B.C.E. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Geographic overview
Length: 3,692 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1110L

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Archaic Period. In Athens during the Archaic Period (700-480 B.C.E.), Solon divided the Athenians according to their income, while at the end of the sixth century another legislator, Cleisthenes, divided them according to their places of residence. Villages and hamlets became the basic unit of the state, and Cleisthenes created ten separate bodies of people, or “tribes.” In the course of the sixth century some rules were established as to which Solonian income class could hold what public office, while the new Cleisthenic system made the selection of individuals orderly. As might be expected, the most important offices were reserved for the highest income class; lesser offices were filled by the next two income classes. No office carried pay. The lowest class could only sit in the assembly and serve as jurors in the courts. All four classes had the right to appeal to a court of last resort instituted by Solon. These measures affected only the citizens.

Classical Period. The social classes into which the residents of Athens and Attica were divided in the Classical Period (480—323 B.C.E.) were three: citizens, metics, and slaves. The political and legal rights and the social status of these groups did not coincide. Only the citizens, who throughout the Classical Period constituted a homogenous group, had full rights, including the right to own land. It is estimated that at the end of the fifth century, three-fourths of the citizens of Athens owned land in some form or another. Until the beginning of the Second Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C.E., the political leaders of Athens were landowners. During the war men who had made money in trade and manufacture began to rise to power, but owning land continued to carry prestige, and commercial nouveaux riches met with criticism and ridicule, examples of which are found in the comedies of the era.

Land Ownership. As at Sparta, the question of the inalienability of land is difficult to decide. It probably could be bought and sold in the fifth century; certainly it was possible to do so in the fourth century. However, real estate was not commercialized as it is in the modern world. Mortgage was regarded as a bad thing and was used only in emergencies. It does not seem to have been Page 135  |  Top of Articleused to raise money for other purposes; for example, to invest in business.

Agriculture. The basis of the Athenian economy in the fifth and fourth century remained farming. Much of it was subsistence farming rather than market farming, since only the farmers in the neighborhood of Athens could bring their produce to market in the city; even there most of the activity was exchanges in kind, rather than for cash. Some “heavy industry” in the form of mining also existed. The state leased the silver mines at Laurium to private entrepreneurs, who were generally citizens, for exploitation. Other citizens are known to have owned factories. The father of the orator and politician Demosthenes owned two enterprises, which might be described as “large-scale industry,” one manufacturing beds and employing twenty slave carpenters, and another, a cutlery, employing thirty workers. Citizens also worked in such professions as lawyers, architects, and sculptors; the citizens at the bottom of the social scale were employed in various trades, such as carpenters, painters, sawyers, masons, blacksmiths, and sailors.

Metics. Resident aliens residing in Athens were known as metics, which means “those who have changed their place of residence.” Solon encouraged the immigration to Athens of citizens of other Greek states as a way to increase trade and manufacture. The foreigners who established themselves as tradesmen and craftsmen in Athens in the course of the sixth and fifth centuries certainly did invigorate the Athenian economy with their skills and talents. The metics in the fifth century were mostly Greeks; in the fourth century a great variety of nationalities was represented among them: Thracians, Lydians, Carians, Phoenicians, and Egyptians lived and worked in Athens. Toward the end of the fourth century the metic population was probably about one-half that of the citizens. The institution was not peculiar to Athens; metics lived in many other Greek cities.

Origins. The attitude toward land and farming no doubt had something to do with the origins of this class. Historically, agriculture was the earlier economic activity; custom and tradition kept it in the hands of citizens. Along with this attitude went the low opinion that citizens had of what they regarded as demeaning work, which included almost all occupations except agriculture. Once the metic system was established, it was found to provide in the persons of the foreigners a reliable class of people who would do what the full citizens refused to do. The metic system, in other words, ensured the presence of a population that could take care of the economic life of the state.

Occupations. Since they could not own land, the metics naturally turned to those economic activities that were open to them: manufacture, commerce, and banking. Most of the small businessmen in Athens and Attica were metics. Many metics also worked as skilled journeymen and artisans, and some were extremely successful. In the largest manufacturing enterprise known to have existed in Classical Athens, the metic family of Cephalus owned an arms factory employing 120 slave workmen, who made shields.

Political Rights. The metics had no political rights and no voice in the government of the state. They were not eligible to sit in the popular assembly, or the senate, of Athens, or hold any public office. They did enjoy the passive protection of the laws, but at first could not sue or defend themselves in person before the court. All metics were required to have a guardian or patron who was a citizen, and they depended on this patron to represent them in court. The inability to appear personally in court fell into abeyance early; already in the fifth century there were instances of foreign residents engaged in litigation without the interjection of a patron. The restriction, too, on metic ownership of land was gradually eased until it became merely theoretical.

Taxes. A metic’s obligations were the payment of a special tax, which, at twelve drachmas for men and six drachmas for women, was low; another tax was imposed on them for the privilege of trading in the marketplace. Deserving metics could be granted an exemption from the annual metic tax and so be put on the same level as the citizens, who did not pay a tax on their persons, but only on their property. In addition to these obligations, the metics were also liable to the taxes and duties incumbent upon the citizens. They had to undertake the so-called liturgies, that is, the financing and supervision of certain public activities, such as paying the expenses for a warship and its crew, and if qualified to do so, serving as the ship’s captain. Like the citizens, the metics served in the army and navy and were subject to the payment of a special tax that was raised in time of war or great emergencies.

Wealth. The basis of the metics’ social position was wealth; some were poor, while others were extremely rich. Apart from some rare prejudice toward them motivated by snobbery or xenophobia, the rich metics were accepted by the citizens, and even by the aristocrats among them, as their social equals. The sons of Cephalus were counted among the wealthiest Athenians, belonging to the social and intellectual elite.

Contributions. Although they were resented occasionally as upstarts, the metics were not regarded as economic rivals of the citizens. On the contrary, their contributions to the economic life and well-being of the state were welcomed by the citizens. The metics, for their part, accepted the order under which they lived, for it enabled them to live in peace and enjoy the material prosperity, power, and prestige of Athens. Many of them became fully assimilated, and, as a whole, the metics never formed a separate, much less a hostile, group against the citizens. In times of internal conflict they favored the democracy against the party of the oligarchs.

Slaves. A third legal class at Athens comprised the slaves, both public and private. Although they were legally property, like inanimate objects, slaves were granted a certain protection of the laws. They could not be beaten, wounded, or killed. Apart from that, slaves had no legal personality; they could not go to law, and it was up to their owners to protect them from injury. They

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A view of the northwestern side of the agora of ancient Athens (Photo: Ekdotike Athenon SA, Athens) A view of the northwestern side of the agora of ancient Athens (Photo: Ekdotike Athenon SA, Athens)

could testify in court, but their testimony was valid only if given under torture. Like the metics, the slaves belonged to different nationalities from various parts of the eastern and northern neighbors of Greece such as Asia Minor, Thrace, and Scythia, in present-day southern Russia. There were also Greeks among them. Men became slaves through war or through piracy, as prisoners who were then sold into slavery. Women and children of towns and cities captured by the enemy were regularly enslaved. Given the frequency of warfare and the unsafe sea lanes, anyone could become a slave. In fourth-century Athens non-Greek slaves predominated.

Mining. Slaves did the same sort of work as the members of the free workforce and were to be found in every sector of economic life: in farming, commerce, manufacture, domestic service, and in the navy, as oarsmen on the warships. Only mining was regarded as specifically slavish work, although occasionally freemen worked in the silver and lead mines located at Laurium, a district in southern Attica.

Working Conditions. The conditions in which slaves lived and worked varied considerably. The type of work that a slave did determined his social status and his standard of living, in a manner similar to that of the metics. At the bottom of the scale were the slaves working in the mines under harsh conditions in narrow tunnels, without much hope of gaining their freedom and with a short life expectancy. As far as the rest of the slaves were concerned, the differences between free and slave labor were few. One difference was that the free worked for themselves, while the slaves worked for someone else, although here, too, there were exceptions. A second difference was that slave labor was more likely to be employed in the larger “factories,” and free labor in the smaller, family businesses. On top of the slave hierarchy stood the public slaves—scribes, secretaries, and assistants working in the political, administrative, fiscal, and other committees that constituted the large bureaucracy of democratic Athens. Another group of public slaves formed the police force of Athens. The public slaves enjoyed a privileged position and considerable personal freedom.

Pasion. Another privileged group consisted of slaves who lived apart from their owners, with the consent of the latter. These “separately domiciled” slaves worked in all sorts of occupations as independent operators, but on condition that they turned over a portion of their earnings to their masters; by saving up some of the rest of their income they could buy their freedom and rise to the status of metics. The independently working slaves did not differ much from the free artisans and craftsmen; there is even some reason for thinking that they had some legal standing that allowed them to seek the protection of the courts. A slave could advance himself considerably. The banker Pasion, for example, began his career as a slave in a banking firm, then became a freedman, and eventually an Athenian citizen. Pasion was the wealthiest banker and manufacturer of his time, and at his death was a multimillionaire in modern terms.

Erechtheum. Inscriptions on marble show that citizens, metics, and slaves worked side by side as craftsmen and laborers. In one instance an inscription records the trades, social class, and pay of the workers completing the construction of the temple of Athena, known as the Erechtheum in the last decade of the fifth century. Much of the temple still stands today on the Athenian Acropolis. Many professions and trades are listed; among them are 2 architects and their secretary, 44 masons, 19 carpenters, 9 sculptors, 7 wood-carvers, 3 painters, a pair each of sawyers and wax modellers, 1 joiner, lathe worker and gilder, and 7 men whose trade is unknown. Of the total 107 workers, 24 were Page 137  |  Top of Articlecitizens, including the architects and their secretary, 42 were metics, and 20 were slaves. Sixteen slaves worked in the specialized trades of masonry and carpentry; no slave worked as a common laborer, while six freemen did. Later sources add coppersmiths, engravers, wagon masters, drivers, ropemakers, weavers, and leather workers to the work force on the Acropolis. On the whole these men did the same kind of work and were paid the same wage. The only distinctions made were that the architects and their secretary were under contract for one year and received a salary, two distinct advantages. The rest of the workers, depending on the type of work they did, were paid either by the day or by their production rate. Slaves also regularly served in the navy of Athens as oarsmen, side by side with citizen and metic shipmates; in fact, the majority of the rowers in the warships were slaves.

Assimilation. Through the work that they did the slaves of Athens became assimilated with the lower classes of the free population. They did not constitute a separate social class, nor did they compete with the citizens for employment. The modern view that slave labor made worse the economic position of the free workers is mistaken. Nowhere in the ancient sources is there any indication of antagonism against slave workers; on the contrary, free workers regarded the slaves as “working companions,” rather than as economic rivals.

Slave Revolts. At the height of the Peloponnesian War in 413 B.C.E., the Spartans blockaded Athens, and twenty thousand slaves ran away. Many of them were probably miners escaping their harsh working conditions. They fell into the hands of the Boeotians, who sold them for a good price. The deserters did not intend to start a slave war against Athens. Apart from a few revolts by the helots at Sparta, there were no slave uprisings of the kind that occurred later in Roman Italy. The differences in nationality and in their social and economic circumstances prevented slaves in Greece from developing a class consciousness and so from uniting to form a program of common action.

Imperialism. For fifty years after the Persian Wars, Athens was the most prosperous Greek state, mainly because it was now an imperial power. The old belief that war was a legitimate means of enriching oneself remained alive, but in the Classical Period it took on the more subtle form of imperialism, which may be defined as the imposition by a superior power of demands on others, in this case demands for the payment of tribute. It had been agreed originally that the moneys paid into the treasury on Delos were to be used in prosecuting the war against Persia; however, it was probably inevitable that some of the tribute from the dozens of city-states should eventually come to be used for the benefit of Athens alone. The increase of Ath-ens’s wealth from this source explains how that country, having only mediocre farmland and few natural resources except silver, could become the wealthiest city-state in the Greek world, building public buildings on a magnificent scale, maintaining large war fleets, and waging war, all at the same time.

Plot Holders. No voice was raised in Athens to defend the interests of the states subjected to Athenian rule. One politician, Thucydides, the son of Milesias, raised the question of the tribute paid by the states for the construction of new public buildings, but he did not really champion the cause of the subject states. The Athenians were fully satisfied with the benefits from their empire; besides the financial benefit from the tribute, they held control of foreign sources of various commodities. As virtual dictators over their vassal states, the Athenians could confiscate allied lands and settle on them as so-called plot holders. Having such holdings in the Aegean region was not enough for them; in 415 B.C.E. they began a war against Sicily for more such free land.

Rivals. The Athenians were not the only imperialists. Other states also built empires, not for financial gain, but for political and military reasons. The Spartans, for instance, did not force the members of the Peloponnesian League, of which they were the leaders, to pay tribute. Nevertheless, the members of the League did contribute some of their wealth by paying for the maintenance of the military forces of the League. Corinth also practiced a form of imperialism. She maintained links with her colonies, requiring some of them to grant special privileges to the mother city.

Imports. In the Classical Era the chief concern of Athenian authorities was feeding the population, which was large for its time, probably numbering around 250,000 people. During this period Athens regularly had to import two-thirds of its grain from abroad. Its leaders accordingly followed a policy of keeping the sea lanes open to grain cargoes bound for Athens and of controlling the Dardanelles, the vital passage to the grain regions along the Black Sea. Sicily, too, was a source; early in the Second Peloponnesian War the Athenians sent warships to Sicily to intercept grain transports sailing for the Peloponnese.

Timber. Athens kept control of the sea with her powerful navy, but the navy in turn stood in constant need of raw materials with which to build new ships and maintain the old. The greatest need was timber, the main sources of which were the hinterlands of the Thracian coasts, southern Italy, and Sicily. In 465 B.C.E. Athens made an attempt to establish a settlement in Thrace, with a view to obtaining timber there, but attacks upon the settlers by the native tribes and opposition from the kings of Macedon frustrated the operation. After another unsuccessful venture in 445 the Athenians turned to the west, making treaties with various Sicilian and south Italian towns. Two years later a colony was established at Thurii in south Italy. In 437 Athens finally gained a foothold in Thrace with the foundation of Amphipolis, but it lost the town in 424 to the Spartans.

Self-Sufficiency. Other commodities needed for both military and civilian purposes also had to be imported throughout the Classical Period. They included various Page 138  |  Top of Articlemetals, flax for sails, and pitch and ruddle (vermillion or cinnabar) for the hulls. For these commodities, as well as papyrus and leather, Athens had to rely entirely on imports. Athens was self-sufficient only in honey, wine, and olive oil; it also had natural resources of silver, marble, and potting clay.

Profits. The Athenians could not pay for all these imports with money earned by export. Neither the export of olive oil, Attic wine, nor manufactured goods was able to generate substantial profits. In the fifth century Athens was rich from the tribute paid by the subject states and could pay for its imports. In the fourth century it had to rely on the export of silver, taxation, and the revenue from duties and tolls levied on the maritime traffic in its ports. Increasingly Athens also attracted visitors eager to participate in her intellectual life, and also ordinary tourists, whose money was beneficial to the economy.

Second Peloponnesian War. The major changes in the wake of the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.) were political. Sparta replaced Athens as the dominant power and was itself replaced by Thebes. Intermittent warfare continued down to 338, devastating fields and dislocating farmers. Farmers and veterans of the war sought employment as mercenaries. The collapse of the Athenian empire at the end of the fifth century added to the unemployment: the craftsmen, artists, and builders whom Athens had employed with the money extracted from the empire sought work in more stable states in Asia or in Sicily and Italy. Colonization like that in the Archaic Period could no longer provide a safety valve for overpopulation.

Lean Times. In Athens itself there was a certain physical recovery from the devastation of the countryside during the long Peloponnesian War. Nonetheless, the early fourth century was a period of lean times financially, and for the remainder of the century the Athenians were less prosperous than they had been during the days of their great empire. The problems of the preceding era remained, but in a more acute form, the overriding among them being the need to feed a population that had decreased somewhat but was poorer. A declining capacity to import grain and other vital commodities, despite the organization of a new maritime league, meant that Athens no longer had the same control of the sea as in the preceding century.

Survival. Despite these problems, there was no permanent crisis of the kind alleged by Marxist historians, either in the farmlands or in urban society. No landgrab-bing by big capitalist proprietors took place, either in Attica or in Greece in general. Attica continued to be a land of small estates, which on the whole managed to sustain themselves. On the “industrial” side there is some evidence of an increase in entrepreneurial activity, chiefly in the mining of silver.


Antony Andrewes, The Greeks (New York: Knopf, 1967).

M. M. Austin and P. Vidal Naquet, Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction, translated by Austin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

Moses I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).

Simon Hornblower, The Greek World 479-323 BC (London & New York: Methuen, 1983).

Nicholas F. Jones, Ancient Greece: State and Society (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997).

Russell Meiggs, Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).

J. Perlin and Borimir Jordan, “Running Out: 4,200 Years of Wood Shortages,” Co-Evolution Quarterly, 37 (1983): 18-25.

Anthony M. Snodgrass, Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment (London: Dent, 1980).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3035100079