Collections: How to Polis, Part III: People and Gods Beyond the Politai

This is the third and last part of our three(ish) part series looking at the governing structures of the Greek polis (I, IIa, IIb, IIc, III). Over the last three sub-parts, we looked at the political structures created and manned by the politai. This week I want to look, briefly, beyond the politai themselves to the other residents of the polis: free non-citizens, enslaved people, women (of all status but especially women of citizen status) and the gods. All of these folks are in a way in the community, but not of the community; they are (with the exception of the gods) subject to the politai but are not part of the politai nor do they have any real way to become part of the politai.

One thing to note before we begin here is that there is going to be a lot of ‘this isn’t the place to get into’s in this post, since just about every subject heading here: metics, women, enslaved people, gods, priests and so on could be the subject of its own post or indeed post-series. But our goal here is an overview of how these people and institutions fit together to fill out the rest of the polis community and its governing structures. Also, fair warning that there are brief but significant references here to women and non-citizen’s marriage, sexual and reproductive rights (or more correctly, to notable lacks thereof), so this may not be an entirely ‘family friendly’ post. It is also going to be a bit shorter on images than usual, simply because we’re talking about people who aren’t so frequently depicted in Greek artwork (it is especially hard to identify metics in Greek artwork).

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Beyond the Politai

So far we’ve been confining our discussion primarily to the politai – enfranchised, free citizen males, but these aren’t the only fellows in the polis. Instead, polis society was structured in a three-level layer cake (with the top level then further divided). At the top were the politai, the citizens who had full participation and civic rights in the state. Then came resident foreigners and other free non-citizens who were free but lacked full civic rights and most also have at least some disabilities in terms of rights to property. In Athens, these were the metics (μέτοικοι, ‘resident foreigners,’ literally ‘those with moved/changed (μετα) houses (οἶκος)’), while Sparta had a bewildering range of free non-citizens we’ve discussed before (the largest group being the perioikoi). We generally suppose Athens and Sparta to have had unusually large populations of free non-citizens, though higher calculations of ancient Greek population (e.g. M.H. Hansen, The Shotgun Method (2006)) would suppose their large non-citizen populations more typical than we might otherwise have thought.1

‘Then finally at the bottom are the non-free: enslaved workers. The Greeks have some different terms here; the most common is douloi (δουλοῖ), which is both the standard word for an enslaved person but might also mean specifically a slave born enslaved, as distinct from andrapoda (ἀνδράποδα, ‘man-footed ones,’ a term that pretty explicitly reduces people to human-shaped cattle), who are people taken in war and enslaved (ἀνδραποδίζειν, andrapodizein, ‘to enslave, to make into andrapoda,’ often rendered into English as ‘andrapodized’) or particular classes of enslaved persons like the helots.

From our treatment of Sparta, our diagram of the demographics of social class in Ancient Athens.
Now, really, we should speak in ranges, but it’s hard to convey that graphically. Estimates for the number of citizens range from 60,000 to 140,000 – but Thucydides’ figure (Thuc. 2.13.6-8) argues strongly for a number around 100,000, consistent with the c. 30,000 hoplites Athens was to have had. The number of metics is largely guesswork, but most estimates assume they are significantly outnumbered by the citizenry in the fifth century. It is also often assumed that the metic population was male-shifted, given who was likely to go abroad to do business in ancient Greece (but note also many metics were multi-generational residents of Athens).
The number of slaves is an unknown – the two ancient figures cited seem to be impossible on a population-density-basis. Probably the number of slaves equaled or even slightly exceeded the size of the citizen body.
The overall size of the population in Attica (the territory of Athens) should be somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000. I’ve gone with M. H.Hansen’s 1986 figures here – unfortunately, a lot of the newer work on Greek demography, like M. H. Hansen’s The Shotgun Method (2006) or J.-N. Corvisier La population de l’Antiquité classique (2000) are more focused on estimating total population, rather than population breakdown by social class.
I should also stress that estimates for the population of individual Greek poleis are deep guesswork. In many cases, Beloch (1886) – no, that is not a typo, 1886 – remains a standard reference.

Both of these groups, the resident foreigners and enslaved people sit outside of the politai and thus while they are members of the community to a significant degree they are not understood as members of the polis itself. Crucially, in most poleis there is no way for them to become members of the politai either.

At Athens, metics faced a range of political disabilities. They weren’t able to own land in Attika and in some periods couldn’t legally marry Athenian women. Metics had to pay an annual head tax, the metoikion: 12 drachmae for a man and 6 for a woman (that’s 72 and 36 obols, if you want to compare something like jury pay, a substantial amount); a metic who couldn’t or didn’t pay was enslaved by the state and sold as a slave. Metics were liable for conscription into either the Athenian army or the fleet, but obviously enjoyed none of the benefits of political participation usually tied to such service. Metics could use the court system as either a witness or a litigant, though some cases could only be brought by Athenian citizens and they were at least protected by the law.

The perioikoi are a similar category in Sparta. Though the perioikoi get something of a better deal than metics do, it is worth noting that while metics were notionally resident foreigners, the perioikoi were indigenous to their lands, subjugated communities rather than visitors. The perioikoi could own land in their own communities (which were self-governing internally and the ancient sources understand them as poleis – albeit subordinated and subjugated – in their own right), but couldn’t marry into the spartiates. Like metics they had to serve in Sparta’s armies, but were denied any form of political participation. They paid a special tax, though it went to the two hereditary Spartan kings rather than the Spartan state; the magnitude of this tribute is unclear.2

Also from the Sparta series, social classes in Sparta, roughly estimated. This chart assumes a relatively high number of helots, for more on the estimates and their implications, see the retrospective for the Sparta series.

Of course conditions were worse for enslaved persons; once again, we haven’t the space for a full discussion of the conditions of ancient slavery.3 Slaves in Greek society had almost no legal protections at all; it was legal for slave owners to beat, abuse or mistreat their slaves, though it seems to have been illegal for a slave owner to murder their enslaved person. Of course the immediate problem here is, as you may recall, the Greek court structure, because it isn’t quite clear who would have cause of action in that event (though someone ought, since the issue here is the ritual pollution from the murder). The lack of bodily autonomy extended to sexual access; enslaved persons could be prostituted or raped by their enslavers without legal consequence.

Via Wikipedia, a fourth century loutrophoros (bathwater vessel), showing an enslaved man (smaller figure to the right) carrying his owner’s shield and helmet. It is fairly common in ancient artwork, including Greek artwork, to depict enslaved people like this as smaller figures, literalizing their smaller status (they were, of course, not actually shorter) in the scene.

The one other protection slaves in Athens had is that they could flee to the Temple of Theseus and take refugee there and possibly negotiate another person to buy them from their original owner; the exact mechanics of this system are obscure. Similar systems, where enslaved persons could flee mistreatment to specific temples seem to have been at least somewhat common in other poleis,4 though these refuges offered no permanent escape from slavery, merely a pause in abuse and the possible change in abuser.

Moreover there seems to have been in most cases no way for non-citizens to become citizens, that is no formal naturalization process. A polis could, as an act of law enfranchise specific individuals, sometimes for particularly great service; alternately a polis in a situation of great urgency might open up the citizenship. Athens did the latter on at least a few occasions: Solon opened the citizenship up to foreign tradesman briefly as part of his reforms (Plut. Sol. 24.2), Cleisthenes after the expulsion of the Pisistratids (Arist. Pol. 3.1275b) and Athens extended citizenship to the refugees from the destroyed polis of Plataea during the Peloponnesian War (Dem. 59.104). Such grants were understood to be rare and exceptional; there was no normal pathway for metics or other free non-citizens to become citizens.

Instead, citizenship was in most poleis strictly hereditary. In some poleis (and in Athens at some points) it seems to have required only a citizen father, but Aristotle is explicit that the normal system was for citizenship to require a citizen father and a mother of citizen status (Arist. Pol. 3.1275b). Indeed, Aristotle is worth quoting on this point, “But in practice citizenship is limited to the child of citizens on both sides, not on one side only, that is, the child of a citizen father or of a citizen mother; and other people carry this requirement further back, for example to the second or the third preceding generation or further.”5 Such a strict definition prevents ‘marrying in’ to citizenship or naturalizing as a result of long residence. Consequently many of the ‘resident foreigners’ in a polis might have been ‘resident foreigners’ for generations.

Likewise the children of enslaved people were enslaved themselves, so a family line might remain in bondage over many generations as well. Manumission was not unknown in the Greek cultural sphere, but it seems to have been a bit less common than in the Roman cultural sphere (we don’t see a large, identifiable class of freedpersons with quite the same visibility in Archaic, Classical or Hellenistic Greece), but it clearly did happen. Freed slaves did not become citizens (even if freed by a citizen)6 but rather became resident foreigners. In Athens, where permanent metic-status (a sort of permanent residency) required an Athenian ‘sponsor’ (a prostates), a freedman could only have their former owner as a sponsor, meaning that the owner could effectively block their freed slave from metic status if they so chose. We know that freedpersons were liable to some additional duties towards their former owners, but the exact duties are unclear; failure to perform them could result in re-enslavement in a procedure known as apostasiou (‘departure’).

Estimating the size of these non-citizen classes, both free and non-free, outside of Athens and Sparta (where I’ve included my estimates as charts) is difficult to do with any precision; the evidence simply isn’t available to make much headway. Typically, we tend to assume that Greece in the Classical period might have been around 25% enslaved people, but the ratio of ‘metics’ and similar classes to politai is harder to assess, not the least because some of those metics will have been citizens of other poleis. Yet it is at the same time very clear that there were a lot of Greeks who were not politai anywhere yet were free; their exact number remains unclear. Still, it seems likely that in a great many poleis – indeed, perhaps most poleis – that even among adult males the politai will have been at most a plurality, rather than a majority (especially when you recall that in many oligarchic poleis, status as a full polites was limited by wealth as well).

This narrow, difficult to expand definition of citizenship, predicated on the Greek understanding of the politai as a collection of households which replicated themselves from generation to generation, largely marrying each other and remaining thus clearly distinct from other groups of politai (in other poleis) but also from their own underclasses goes some considerable way into explaining why the Greek states remained small and fragmented. It also kept them weak, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus points out,7 the exclusionary citizenship policies of Athens, Sparta and Thebes made their armies fragile and eventually resulted in the loss of their freedom and independence (he is contrasting them, of course, with the Romans).

Polis Women and Citizenship

The way that women in a polis interacted with this status ‘layer-cake’ renders it more complex. It’s necessary to note off the bat that we know that the legal status of women-of-citizen-status (the reason for that circumlocution will become clear in a moment) varied from one polis to the next. The roles and latitude of women of citizen status (much less non-citizen women) in all Greek poleis were restricted, but how restricted varies. Spartan women could hold property, for instance, while Athenian women generally could not. Now this isn’t really the place for a full discussion on the legal status of ancient Greek women, but I think a high speed overview here is valuable, particularly as it relates to women of citizen status.

Via Wikipedia, an Athenian funeral stele showing the deceased woman (Mnesarete) of citizen status seated, faced by her enslaved servant (name unknown), a reminder that while we are focused here on women of citizen status and the legal disabilities they faced, they nevertheless existed in a position of status which allowed them to exploit other women (and, indeed, other enslaved men as well).

And indeed, here our evidence becomes tricky. The two poleis we know the most about both seem to have been unusual. We know from our sources that the condition of Spartiate women in Sparta was seen by the other Greeks as strange (Arist. Pol. 2.1269b-1270b, Plut. Agis 7.3-4, note that neither author is an Athenian, which seems relevant; Aristotle was a Stagiran (though he spent a fair amount of time in Athens) and Plutarch a Boeotian). At the same time, the regime for Athenian women of citizen status is strikingly restrictive and it seems likely to have been one of the most restrictive configurations in a polis, though our sources (being predominantly Athenian) do not comment on it being strange. Consequently, we tend to reason more from the Athenian examples to understand the position of women in a normal polis and not entirely without justification.

But we have to start with a deceptively simple-sounding question: were women of citizen status in a polis citizens?

Now we return to that circumlocution: ‘women of citizen status.’ That’s because scholars have often (but not universally) held that women were understood to be excluded from the politai. The view has certainly been challenged (that link has a lot of good bibliography on this topic, though I am going to argue with it a touch), but it is not dead: M.H. Hansen, for instance, presents it quite explicitly in his Polis: An Introduction (2006). So this is where we have to begin: could women even be citizens in a Greek polis?

Aristotle’s definition of the politai (Arist. Pol. 3.1275b) is, for instance structured to exclude women, as it includes only those who take place in the civic life of the city. Really strikingly, Aristotle gives a very technical definition of an Athenian citizen after the reforms of Pericles blocking anyone from Athenian citizenship “ὃς ἂν μὴ ἐξ ἀμφοῖν ἀστοῖν ᾖ γεγονώς” (Arist. Ath. Pol. 26.3), “who are not born from astoi on both sides.” But why astoi and not politai? The fairly clear implication here is that Aristotle doesn’t think that the mothers of citizens are themselves politai, so a broader category, that of astoi, is necessary to encompass them (a point first made by Claudine Leduc). Now Aristotle does not apply that language everywhere, I should note; he says of other cities (Arist. Pol. 3.1275b) that citizenship might be limited to those with politai parentage on both sides, which might imply that in some poleis women were seen as under the umbrella of the politai, just not in Athens (on the other hand the passage can be read as using politai merely to set up cities that test out to more than one generation, e.g. verifying citizen grandfathers on both sides, but I think the former reading is more straight line here).

But the evidence is more complex than this. There is a feminine form of polites (πόλιτις, politis), but it is fairly rare; it appears in both Sophocles and Eurpides, but in both cases oddly said by Elektra (one wonders at that); Plato uses it in contrast to polites as two distinct groups (Plato, Laws 814C) and Aristotle uses it once (Arist. Pol. 3.1275b34) of the women who are valid citizen-mothers as a result of being part of the founding generation of a colony; that he uses it here and pointedly not elsewhere suggests to me the distinction is not accidental. That said, the word appears twice in the Demosthenic corpus (once by Demosthenes and once in a speech that is probably Apollodorus) the feminine at least twice to mean a woman of citizen status (Dem. 57.43 and Ps.Dem 59.107), which is I think, fairly strong evidence of an understood category, though even in these speeches, aste is far more common and indeed circumlocutions like ἐξ ἀστῆς γυναῖκες (‘women [born from] aste [mothers],’ Ps.Dem 50.106) are also more common than just saying polites.

Demonyms are more complicated. Arguing that other groupings, like ethnics, encompassed women is true but not necessarily helpful when thinking about citizenship; if women can be Attikai but aren’t usually Athenaioi (or that still tells us something. Take for instance Plut. Mor. 240E from the ‘Sayings of Spartan Women’ where Gorgo contrasts not Spartiates (σπᾰρτῐᾱ́ται) and Athenians (ἀθηναῖοι) but rather λάκαιναι (‘women from Laconia’) and ἀττικαί (‘women from Attika’); Plutarch’s Gorgo doesn’t reach for the feminine of those words, but for entirely different groupings, one that might, in the case of ‘Laconians,’ included non-citizens. Likewise in the Lysistrata, where we might reasonably expect some transgressive language, but when the women of Greece assemble they get their regional demonyms just like in Plutarch: Lampito (the Spartan woman) is a λάκαινα (‘woman from Laconia), another βοιωτία (‘woman from Boeotia) but not a civic identifier (Athenaioi, Spartiatai, Thebaioi, etc).

(Other arguments, observing changing norms in the second and first century BC are, I think, much weaker because of the presence of Roman influence; Latin leaves no questions of if Roman women are citizens and part of the populous Romanus, they clearly are (with very limited civic rights) and cives regularly takes feminine adjectives.)

For my own part, coming from the Roman world I find the complexity of this evidence immediately striking in comparison to the clarity of the Roman equivalents. Cives Romanae (‘Roman citizen’ in the feminine) or civis femina (‘citizen woman’) come out easily in Latin; no one is circumlocuting the idea. Indeed, even the super-narrow, super-specific quirites – for when you really want to say ‘full Roman citizen’ – can be applied to a woman, as seems to be the case in Pliny 10.6 (a grant of citizenship to freedwomen under the ius Quiritium). While Athenian citizen boys registered with their demes as a bureaucratic requirement of citizenship, Athenian women of citizen status did not (a fact that left them vulnerable to lawsuits claiming their citizenship was fraudulent); by contrast the Roman census seems clearly to have captured men and women, the latter either under their pater familias (as would be the case for their brothers or husbands if an even older member of the household yet lived) or apparently on their own if they became sui iuris (‘legally independent’ a status that women of citizen status at Athens or Sparta simply could not ever have). Aristotle doesn’t seem to even consider the possibility that a child might inherit their mother’s citizenship; by contrast the Roman jurist Gaius devotes several sections to the conditions under which this can happen in Roman law (Gaius, Institutes 68-70, 86-92).

All told the complexity of the question is, I think, telling in and of itself. The best we might say is that the question of if Greek women could be citizens of their poleis was up to interpretation.

Beyond this, the position of women of citizen status in Athens was remarkably constrained, even by ancient standards. Athenian women do not seem to have had a say in their marriage partners; once married they seem to have had little opportunity for divorce. While men could initiate divorce simply by sending their wife back to her father’s house, the one instance we have of an Athenian woman attempting to initiate a divorce requires her to go before one of the archons and the effort fails because her husband intervenes to stop it.8 A woman’s marriage might also be ruptured without her consent if the death of her father rendered her an ‘heiress’ (epikleros), which we’ll talk about in a second.

Athenian women also could not generally hold property; property could move through a woman in order to reach a valid (male) owner, but it usually could not reside with a woman, with the notable (but also arguable) exception of dowries and pherne (φερνή, which can mean ‘dowry’ but also ‘personal effects’ like clothing or jewelry; these personal effects seem to be treated like a dowry under Athenian law). We can deal with the exception first: it was common in ancient Greek culture for the family of the bride to supply an amount of money or property (along with the bride’s personal effects) as a dowry when a marriage occurred; that property entered into the oikos and legal control of the husband but if the marriage was broken off, the now-divorced-wife took that property with her when she left (generally back to her father’s oikos, where the property would fall back under his control). In that sense, while an Athenian woman never had full control over the property, it was at least actually attached to her and could be transmitted to her heirs.

What about if an Athenian woman inherited? Well, she doesn’t, really; an Athenian woman in the path of inheritance (because there was no immediate male heir) was called an epikleros. For a woman of citizen status the issue went before the eponymous archon, while for metic women the issue went before the polemarch (who had competence over foreigners; it makes some sense when you squint at it, but the implication that the ‘War-Leader’ is the fellow in charge of legal actions among resident foreigners is also quite a telling arrangement). In both cases the ideal goal was to have the woman epikleros marry a patrilateral male relative (ideally an paternal uncle or a paternal uncle’s son) so as to keep the inheritance within the male line; in essence an order of precedence was established among her patrilateral male relatives who each got an opportunity in turn to marry her and take the inheritance. If she was married, but the marriage had produced no son, those relatives could unilaterally force a divorce in order to marry her and preserve the inheritance. The woman ‘heiress’ is given no say in any of this; once she has a son and he comes of age, the inheritance immediately passes to the son.

Now Athenian law in this regard is more restrictive than what we know of how this was done in two other poleis, Sparta and Gortyn – but not wildly moreso. In Sparta, the issue went before the kings; if the woman (called a patrouchos, ‘patrimony-holder’) was married or betrothed than her inheritance passed to her (because women in Sparta can hold property) and from there to her children. If she wasn’t, the kings had competence, it seems, to compel the woman to marry; we don’t know precisely who they might pick or how, but it is reasonable suppose (as Hodkinson does) that they picked near male relatives. In Gortyn, we see more of the process: a series of male relatives in turn had the right to marry a patrouchos; if all valid candidates passed she could keep the property and marry who she chose. She also seems to have been able to essentially ‘buy out’ that right to marry her with a portion of the inheritance. And it is worth noting our Greek sources note more than one that the Spartan system is well understood to have been anomalously favorable to women and their holding of property (Plut. Agis. 5.1-3, 7.3-4, Arist.Pol. 1270a).

And finally our sources rarely treat women as meaningful political actors in the polis. In no Archaic or Classical polis could women run for office, hold office, vote, attend the assembly or speak before them; women’s competence to bring cases and stand trial was also sharply curtained to the point of near non-existence. This is not to say that women didn’t try to influence politics indirectly ; they clearly did (see e.g. Dem. 59.111 which assumes this), merely that their ability to do so was extremely constrained because they seem to have sat largely outside of the political community. Again as a comparison point, it is striking to me that the idea of a mass woman’s protest to force a policy change is, in Athenian thought, an absurd joke – literally the plot of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – whereas in Rome it was a thing that simply happened and succeeded (Livy 34.1-8). Not all poleis were so resistant to informal political power wielded by women; it seems to have been more significant in fourth century Sparta (Plut. Agis. 7.2-5; Arist. Pol. 1270a), but again this is treated as deeply unusual and Sparta-specific whereas the Athenian state of affairs is treated as typical.

Taken together, I think it is fair to say, at Athens at least (and presumably in many other poleis, though not all of them), that women were treated to a significant degree as resident non-members of the polis, a state of affairs implicitly recognized by the use of regional demonyms (Attike) over political ones (Athenaios). Again, this point is arguable – I am not saying it isn’t – but the very fact that it is arguable is a remarkable statement about the place (or lack thereof) of women in the polis. There was, however, one crucial arena of the polis in which women could and indeed had to be active as key members of the community and that was religion, which brings us at last to:

Priests, Priestesses and Temples

This isn’t the place, of course, for a full discussion of the general features of ancient polytheism (fortunately, we have already done that) or of Greek religious practice in particular. Nevertheless, the gods were important figures for the Greek polis community who requires special attention.9 As we discussed in our series on polytheism, polytheistic religious practice involved both personal cultivation of the gods (often of ‘small’ gods) as well as rituals performed on behalf of the whole community.

It is the latter term which are interested in and in the Greek sphere we generally discuss this in terms of what has come to be called (this being a modern term, coined by Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood), ‘polis religion.’10 Fundamentally, Sourvinou-Inwood argues that the polis was the fundamental unit of religious practice (at least, beyond the scale of the oikos), that one belonged to the religious community of one’s polis and that its religious functions were reserved for the citizenry, which is to say the politai. Even when religious functions stretched beyond the polis – Panhellenic institutions like the Oracle at Delphi or the Olympic Games, for instance – it was structured and mediated by the institution of the polis, in a sense more pan-poleis than pan-Hellenes (that is Greeks), if you take my meaning.

And I think this vision is largely right. Each Greek polis was its own religious system, with its own common sanctuaries and rituals. It isn’t that these systems were very different, mind you – we can absolutely chart a common sort of Greek religion across poleis. Rather, each polis had its own religion in the sense that I have my own Honda Civic; many other people also have Civics, but we do not all share one Honda Civic – we each have our own, slightly different but largely similar copy of the Civic (and the rest of you non-Honda-Civic drivers are barbarians, of course). The gods in question were understood to be the same, so a Greek abroad would have to respect the practices and sanctuaries of other poleis to avoid offending the gods, but at the same time an Athenian in Thebes does not become a member of the Theban religious system.

As noted in our series on Practical Polytheism, religion of this sort was fundamentally about practice which is to say it was about ritual and a ritual has a few key people or groups involved in it: there is the god to whom the ritual is performed (who may be expected to do something or send some omen in response), the priests (or priestesses) who manage the ritual and the ritual space, the participants who perform the ritual itself (whose number may extend beyond the priests) and finally often an audience of spectators from the community who celebrate and take part in the ritual more passively.

It is the priests and priestesses where our attention falls here. Aristotle understands priests (ἱερεῖς, hiereis, ‘priest’ the feminine form being ἱέρειαι, hiereiai, ‘priestess’) as a form of polis official (Arist. Pol. 6.1322b), a distinct part of the governing structures of the polis. Greek poleis did not have established, professional priesthoods, nor did they have formal training systems for priests.11 Instead, priests and priestesses were chosen from among men and women of citizen status; whether a cult required a priest or a priestess was particular to that cult but as a rule gods had priests and goddesses had priestesses (often in a stage of life to match the divinity, so Artemis’ priestesses would be unmarried while Hera’s might be married matrons; there was also a progression of religious positions, note for instance Aristophanes, Lysistrata 641-647 and Connelly, op. cit., 27ff). Priests and Priestesses seem in some cases to have been selected by sortition (that is, by lot), albeit probably among a limited candidate pool in many cases (limited to persons of citizen status in nearly all); there’s some good reason to suppose that in oligarchic poleis, these positions might have been dominated by ‘the few.’12 More important priesthoods seem to have been elective in many poleis.

Via the British Museum, a third century Puglian kantharos showing a priestess pouring out a libation (a liquid offering).

It is true that there was no formal, pre-appointment training process for Greek priests and priestesses and that these positions were generally ‘part time’ amateur positions, but at the same time the Greeks took their religion very seriously and there’s plenty of evidence for ‘on the job’ training. Most priesthoods functioned as colleges or hierarchies (with a head priest supervising more junior temple ‘staff,’ including both free, junior members of the cult and also enslaved religious workers owned by the temple), so more experienced or senior members had ample opportunity to train new members in their duties. In most poleis those duties are going to include the supervision and performance of key rituals as well as the maintenance of the temple and its grounds, though in very large poleis with big, important temples these jobs might be split with the latter performed by boards of magistrates (as was the case, for instance, in Athens), while the priests and priestesses’ work was confined mostly to rituals. As noted, these were generally part-time, amateur positions; duties rotated between members of the priesthood or individuals within the temple ‘staff.’

It is important to note that a priest or priestess was not some general representative of the god in question, rather they were tied very specifically to a given sanctuary or cult, over which they had responsibility. Nor were they necessarily singularly devoted to that god (a common misrepresentation of polytheistic systems in popular culture); indeed it was not uncommon to see an individual having moved up a ‘ladder’ of priesthoods to different gods over the course of a lifetime.13

Now on the one hand the Greeks understood the world to be full of gods and so the aspect of the divine permeated almost every activity in Greek life. On the other hand, the Greeks made a strong distinction between some people, spaces, events, and objects which were sacred and others (most of them) which were profane. Things which were sacred belonged in some sense to the gods (who, remember, are understood as individuals with their own agency and property). A temple and its grounds (and its property, including enslaved laborers as human property) belonged to the god (or goddess) more than it belonged to the polis (although of course it belonged to that polis more than it belonged to any other). This manifests in part in the role of temples as a place of refuge, into which even the authority of the magistrates could not penetrate. A supplicant taking refugee at the altar of a god or within a temple could not be safely removed by a magistrate; instead they had to be waited out.14

Via the British Museum, an early fifth century Attic oinochoe, showing what may be the dedication of the statue of a victorious athlete. On the left, a priest, wears a wreath on his head and carries a purificatory branch on his left hand.

At the same time, religious rituals were part of most polis activity, with almost any major official event – elections, meetings of the assembly, the mustering of an army, the commencement of a battle, and so on – being proceeded by a ritual (often including a sacrifice) which of course would have to be at least overseen when it was not performed by a priest (in some cases it might be performed by a magistrate or other representative of the community under the guidance of a priest). As you may well imagine, this made priests and priestesses of the most important cults quite prominent people and religious rituals were a rare spot where women (of citizen status) in particular could be very prominent in the public running of the polis.


What I hope is apparent from this whole discussion is how complex even a relatively small polis could be, it’s government a complicated interaction of magistrates, councils and assemblies, while its society is a status-conscious layer-cake of politai, free non-citizens (often of multiple legal categories) and enslaved people, along with women in the households of all three of those ‘classes,’ whose rights might differ substantially from men of the same status. It was never so simple as the ‘single town with a single mayor’ model of pre-modern civic governance that pervades popular culture.

At the same time there was a character to the way a polis was organized; fundamentally, a polis was a structure by and for the male politai, aggressive in its exclusion of nearly everyone else (save for women of citizen status in religious roles). Citizenship was a closed, carefully guarded privilege, extended only in exceptional circumstances. Likewise, most political and legal rights were the guarded possessions of the politai; there’s not much concept of universal rights or a ius gentium (‘law of nations’) here. Rather the polis is the clubhouse of the politai, so the politai get to set its rules and almost without exception they set the rules to favor the politai and to shut out new entrants to the clubhouse (and then in all but the most democratic poleis, set about limiting the politai as much as possible to exclude the poor and unconnected).

There is, to me at least, a pervading cliquishness about these tiny little hyper-exclusionary states (which somehow does not seem to have lent them any particular cohesion, given the frequency of stasis within poleis). We haven’t talked much about the foreign relations of poleis yet, but the language that emergences from Greek diplomacy is one of blunt realpolitik in most cases, “the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must” (Thuc. 5.89), even when directed at other Greeks.

At the same time, these were self-governing communities, understood to be governed by their citizenry which while not infinitely broad were nevertheless far broader than the hereditary monarchies or aristocracies that are far more common systems of social organization in the pre-modern world. There is, I think, a valuable lesson there, that democracy does not necessarily produce an open, welcoming society; a state can be ‘democratic’ amongst its citizens and at the same time closed and xenophobic, as most poleis seem to have been. Of course as a Romanist I would be remiss if I didn’t also note the other lesson: these small, closed poleis and their institutions were, in the end, incapable of resisting larger and more expansive societies, first Macedon and then the Roman Republic.

And it is with that latter example this series will pick up (though not right away), when we apply this same approach to looking at the Roman Republic (particularly the Middle Republic) and look at what happens when you try to take a system of civic governance not entirely dissimilar to a polis, but stretch it over a much, much, much larger citizenry and land area.

  1. The issue being that the size of the citizen body of some of these poleis is assumed to be fairly small based on reported military mobilizations. Alternately one might posit a lot more poor citizens, but then we know in most oligarchies, the poor are disenfranchised and so might not count under a narrow definition of the politai anyway.
  2. See Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (2000), 188.
  3. My own suggestion for those interested is T. Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery (1981), a book of primary sources in translation.
  4. See Wiedemann, op. cit., 195-7 for examples.
  5. Trans. H. Rackham, 1932
  6. Again, in contrast to the practice at Rome
  7. Ant. Rom. 2.16-17; cf. also Philip V of Macedon making this argument as well, IG 9.2.517; on this note also the Greek-Roman comparison E. Dench, Romulus’ Asylum: Roman Identities from the Age of Alexander to the Age of Hadrian, 2005
  8. On this, see L. Cohn-Haft, “Divorce in Classical AthensJHS 115 (1995). On marriage customs, laws and women, note also S. Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece (1995), 119-124.
  9. I am hardly unmoveable on this point, but in my own sense of ancient mentalités, the Greeks to me seem to regard the gods as figures external to the community with whom the community must remain in good relation, whereas the Romans tend to regard the gods as members of the community (albeit very special ones), whose special place within the community requires particular attention. The distinction is less a sharp divide than a subtle shift between the two world views, but significant nonetheless.
  10. C. Sourvinou-Inwood, “What is Polis Religion” in The Greek City from Homer to Alexander, eds. Murray and Price (1990). On this concept, its history and reception, see J. Kindt, “Polis Religion – A Critical Appreciation” Kernos 22 (2009), 9-34.
  11. On everything to do with priestesses in particular, see J.B. Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (2007).
  12. E.g. oligarchic control of religious or secular choral performances, Simonton, op. cit., 197-209
  13. Connelly, op. cit. 28 has a good example of a priestly ‘career’ to multiple gods at different sanctuaries.
  14. Of course the temple has no requirement to feed this individual, so the ability to wait out a magistrate or an angry business partner or an angry slave owner is going to depend on the willingness of either the temple staff or helpful friends to get food, water and other necessities to the supplicant (which in turn one might understand as a sort of protection-via-divine-providence).

96 thoughts on “Collections: How to Polis, Part III: People and Gods Beyond the Politai

  1. Somewhat tangential to the main thrust of the post, but how did the mechanics of conscription work in a classical Polis? None of the magistrates listed earlier seem to clearly be responsible, although I suppose the Polemarch or Strategoi might have had a role. But I know there wasn’t any standard state issuance of fighting gear, people went to war in what they could afford, which in turn implies some kind of system for assessing wealth, and none of the magistrates seemed responsible for that either. How did this all work?

    1. It doesn’t actually need that much mechanics, if you have a well-established culture of conscription. First of all, in a smallish community, the conscription happens by summoning the young men of certain age to a location. The main policing tool is the neighbours’ and peers’ disdain for those who are not there, and the few who are not coming can be later punished.

      I know that when it was the drafting day of the young men in my own community the year I turned 18, only one of my peers was not present, and his case caused more pity than anger: everyone knew the poor guy had a problem with drugs and his missing the summons had even the guys with criminal background shaking their heads, when he was fetched by the police from his home. (In Finland, you have your physical and meet the draft board on the drafting day. The actual service starts about 3-18 months later, but on the drafting day, you get your orders.)

      With a well-established system, the process of conscription is so consensual and routine that it requires very little policing and leaves very few marks into the historical sources.

      1. Yeah. And these are communities where all the able-bodied men who would be expected to show up for the muster/conscription are members of a very exclusive citizen class who all live within about a day’s walk of each other (or much less) and who are all members of intermarried families. Even without rigid policing, “just don’t show up and hope nobody notices” simply isn’t an option when you know damn well that belligerent old Uncle Nikomachos* is going to be there, probably before dawn, and he’ll be looking for you to show up, and even if he gets sick at the last minute, rumor-sharing Megaphonos** from across the street will tell everyone in the damn polis with no regard to how awkward it’d be for you.

        *(I gather this is a realistic ancient Greek name)
        **(I’m pretty sure this isn’t a realistic ancient Greek name, but it’s too good an image for me to pass up)

    2. On top of what other people have discussed about cultures of conscription, Dr. Devereaux actually speaks himself on this podcast about the cultures of communal conscription (speaking of Rome, in this case, but applicable to the Greeks as well).

      When an army that is composed of a citizen body is calling for muster, in a culture where this is the expectation and/or obligation, most people will show up of their own initiative. In this sort of situation, people’s neighbors and relations know who is obligated to be in attendance, and so failing to show would risk legal penalties (as a requirement of citizenship for example, draft-dodging could see it stripped) and also the disdain of their entire community.

      And as to your question about equipment, in addition to the same factors applying to equipping oneself still applying (the kit a man went to war with being a very specific and tangible demonstration of his wealth and success to literally everyone he knows), the quality of the equipment they can bring is also a major factor in determining how likely they, personally, are to bleed out on some foreign field. It’s a bit of a motivator to buy the best gear they could afford.

      As Dr. Devereaux says in the linked podcast, this is a method of raising an army that can be really effective way of drawing up an army with minimal administrative overhead or cost from the central state, who are motivated and invested in the outcome. What’s hard is getting this sort of arrangement to work at scale, when it stops being social networks going to war as part of the state they have personal stake and investment in.

  2. A good read!

    The only thing I have to note is that footnote 14 must have been part of the main text at some point, because it contains a 13 footnote hyperlink.

    13 itself is blank; unlucky, there!

    1. I suspect that the part before “[/efn_notes]” was probably part of a footnote, and I don’t just say that because of the end tag.

      Anyways, this looks like confirmation that you can probably nest footnotes on WordPress. Neat!

  3. Ad the system of protection for slaves and others described in footnote 14: this is also seen in First Temple Judaism, where holding the horns of the altar was understood to provide protection from being killed.

    1. I would point out that the system doesn’t show much actual teeth when tested. If you believe the book of Kings, some of Solomon’s first regnal acts are to drag Adonijah away from the altar, and later has him killed. Joab tries something similar and Solomon actually has him killed in the Mishkan; although I will note that Benaiah, his hatchetman, does hesitate at actually killing Joab in the tent.

      After that, I can’t recall anyone actually trying it again in the Tanach, although I am working from memory here.

      1. Well, there you are: none of them was killed while holding the horns of the altar.

        They were only manhandled until they were no longer holding the horns. That was exactly the degree of protection expected.

        1. It’s not 100% clear from the text if Joab was still clinging onto the altar when he’s killed. There’s no mention of him letting go or walking around the tent, but on the other hand, there’s enough time for Benaiah to send a messenger back to Solomon and get a response.

          Gibeon (the area where the tent was at this point in time) is about 5 miles from Jerusalem, so you figure it had to have been at least an hour, maybe longer if Solomon was busy with something else and couldn’t answer immediately. That’s a long time to be literally clinging to the horns of the altar.

      2. Jesus also mentions “Zechariah, son of Berechiah” (probably not the minor prophet of the book of the same name), “whom you [a collective “you”] murdered between the temple and the altar” in some incident not recorded elsewhere or which has not survived.

        1. That’d be the father of John the Baptist. He was killed by Herod the Great’s soldiers during the well-known biblical massacre of children because they couldn’t kill his son. The prophet Zachariah lived around the time when 2nd temple was being built.

          The naming could be intentional. An educated man from the priestly tribe (if not himself a priest) is picking a name for his son – he knows that he’s named the same as a prophet’s father, so he’s going to name his son after the prophet.

  4. I’m guessing this part is a Biblical allusion: “All of these folks are in a way in the community, but not of the community”

    When the gospels are using language about being “of the world” vs. “in the world”, are they deliberately drawing on the mental model of citizenship common at the time (albeit Roman, not Greek)? Or is the language overlap just coincidental? Paul’s citizenships is specifically called out in Acts, so perhaps the early church already viewed the antiquarian model of citizenship as a metaphor?

    1. I’ve seen it said in other places that christian writers did very much appropriate the terminology of Roman Imperialism to describe the Church, so it would certainly fit.

      Paul was trained in the greco-roman rhetorical tradition, and is fond of metaphor.

  5. Given what you say about the barriers to slaves and women actually getting their rights enforced, I’m curious how the efforts of Pythagoros to improve the lot of female slaves played out in Magna Graecia. Were the laws passed toothless? Did Magna Graecia have a different legal system? Did they not have as restrictive a citizenship system? Were the women who became Pythagorean scholars exercising a freedom that would be impossible without wealth?

    1. I have never heard of or read anything like this about Pythagoras, a figure who is shrouded in legend in any case. We have some statements about him being vaguely anti-oppression, but where are you getting the idea that he lobbied for laws protecting female slaves specifically? Even if there is actually an ancient source for this, it’s entirely possible it was made up long after Pythagoras’s lifetime, just like most of the other things people “know” about Pythagoras.

    2. I’m not sure what you’re talking about here. I’ve never heard or read about Pythagoras (a figure shrouded in legend in any case) doing any such thing, beyond a general reputation as being vaguely anti-oppression. What’s your source for him getting laws passed regarding the situation of female slaves?

      Even if there’s an actual ancient source for this, I would take it with a grain of salt. All sorts of things have been claimed about Pythagoras, often by people living centuries after his death.

  6. Coning from a country with a Lutheran established religion, I can well relate to your point about the state-cult: even when I grew up, there was sort of popular sense I learned from my teachers that even foreign Lutherans had a bit different religion from us Finnish Lutherans, and this was also practically reflected. For example, while there are multiple Lutheran, Swedish-speaking parishes in Helsinki, the Swedish Lutheran state church maintained a parish of its own for Swedish citizens in Helsinki, even though there are no doctrinal differences. (Nowadays, that parish is formally part of Finnish Lutheran Church but it still uses mainland Swedish books of worship instead of Swedish versions of Finnish books, like other Swedish-speaking parishes.)

    So, the idea of each city-state forming its own religious community even if there is little practical difference seems very understandable and familar to me.

  7. “some of those metics will have been citizens of other poleis”

    I found this a really interesting point – did being a citizen of one polis have any legal weight in the eyes of another polis? Say if a Spartan citizen was visiting Athens and accused an Athenian citizen of robbing him, was there any mechanism for that dispute to be resolved?

    1. Well, “citizen of an allied city” was a real status. There was a case once when they needed rowers and didn’t have them, so Athens rounded up some slaves, manumitted them, and told them that if they rowed hard enough to arrive in time, they would receive the status of “citizen of allied city.” Obviously this was enough to be an incentive.

  8. The link in footnote 7 appears to be broken.

    The link in 8 appears to go to the UNC-Chapel Hill Library search page rather than to the referenced article, possibly because I’m not a member of the UNC library.

  9. Can you comment briefly on how something became significant beyond a single city, like the Oracle at Delphi. Why did that Oracle get ascribed pan-hellenic status or authority? And aside from like “respect” did it actually have much practical authority?

  10. Were men allowed to have multiple wives in this time and place? What if the nearest male relative was already married? Would he have to divorce his wife so he could marry his niece or cousin to keep the property in the family? Or would he just have two wives?

    1. No, monogamous society, so the nearest patrilateral male relative, if married, has to make a choice of either divorcing his current wife or passing on the epikleros, at which point the question then moves to the next most closest patrilateral male relative, and on until one is available.

      1. What was likely to happen to the child of a citizen and his female slave? The child obviously wouldn’t have citizen status, but it seems like in the general case it wouldn’t be left in slavery either?

        Any social consequences for the father or the mother?

        1. > in the general case it wouldn’t be left in slavery either

          I applaud your optimism. What do you think happened to Sally Heming’s kids?

          1. Looking at this much later, I felt like Sally Hemings deserves enough historical mention that this is a good place to share her biography.

            Sally Hemings (c. 1773-1835) was the daughter of plantation owner John Wayles (1715-1773) and of Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Hemings (c. 1735-1807). Elizabeth was enslaved on Wayles’ plantation, and it is generally accepted that he took her as a concubine and fathered six children upon her during the last twelve years of his life. As the years of birth and death suggest, Sally was the youngest of the six. As they also suggest, getting exact birth dates for enslaved blacks in 18th century Virginia isn’t necessarily a precise science, so a margin of error of one or a few years is not out of the question, I suppose.

            Notably, Wayles was also the father of Martha Wayles (1748-1782). Martha married Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in 1772.

            When Mr. Wayles died, his estate was heavily in debt. The estate was broken up to help clear the debt. Being enslaved, Elizabeth Hemings, her six children, and various others on the estate were inherited by Thomas Jefferson (Wayles’ son-in-law, again) and had to move to Monticello. Sally, of course, would have been an infant or small child at the time.

            Elizabeth Hemings was herself mixed-race, and John Wayles was white, so it would be reasonable to describe Sally Hemings as “one quarter black.” She would have grown up at Monticello, of course, and at the age of about fourteen (1787) she accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Mary as a servant when Jefferson, then serving as envoy to Paris (he was in his mid-forties), sent for Mary to come live with him.

            It seems likely that it was around this time, or at most a year or two later, that Jefferson began having sexual relations with Sally Hemings. She would, thus, have been in her mid-teens, and was, in fact, his deceased wife’s half-sister. She remained enslaved at Monticello until Jefferson’s death in 1826, then moved in with some of her surviving children.

            Now, at the time that Jefferson took up with Hemings in France, she faced the choice of staying in France and being free (and, at the age of 15 or so, never seeing her family again and being without reliable support in a country she barely knew), or returning to Monticello and remaining Jefferson’s slave. Jefferson promised her special privileges and also promised her that he would free all her children when they turned twenty-one.

            Thomas Jefferson did not, in fact, keep this promise. He freed only two slaves during his entire life- two of Sally’s older brothers. Robert Hemings had to buy himself from Jefferson, and while Jefferson did eventually free James Hemings, he did so only after James spent three years training up one of his other brothers. Presumably, Jefferson didn’t want to be left without the services of a trained French chef; James had learned those skills in Paris, where he had been along with Sally.

            Monticello records confirm that Sally Hemings had six children. Jefferson kept these records himself. It was usually his practice to record the father of enslaved children born on his estate, but in the case of Hemings’ children, he did not do this.

            The first of Sally’s children to make it to the age of 21 was ‘Beverley’ Hemings (1798-1873 or later). Beverley was not freed at 21. He ran away from Monticello at the age of 24 and was not pursued. His sister, Harriet Hemings, born in 1801, ran away that same year and was likewise not pursued- but neither was formally freed at the time, 1822.

            Jefferson did, as I understand it, free Beverley and Harriet (and their two younger brothers Madison and Eston) posthumously, in his will, when he died in 1826. As Jefferson, like his father-in-law, died in debt, his daughter Martha sold off the estate and almost all those enslaved thereon, except those from the Hemings family who were freed. Or, in Sally Hemings’ case, informally allowed to leave and go live with two of her sons in the nearby town of Charlottesville, where the three of them appear on the 1833 Virginia census as “free people of color.”

            Unsurprisingly, given that they were (keeping count here) seven eighths European by ancestry, most of the Hemings children (and their descendants) were able to “pass” as white and participate in white society in the mid-to-late 19th century and thereafter.

            Of course, effectively every one of the scores of other slaves in Monticello was not so lucky. And legally, any number of appalling fates could have befallen the Hemings children, or their mother, at any time, with no consequences to any white for inflicting those fates on them.

            Nevertheless, their personal story didn’t happen to end as badly as implied by the post I’m replying to.

            So Sally Hemings’ children were, eventually, freed. Though not as early as Jefferson promised they would be, back in the 1780s, when he was trying to sweet-talk his dead wife’s teenage half-sister into coming back with him to Virginia to be his enslaved concubine for the rest of his life.

            There’s a reason I generally don’t say very nice things about Thomas Jefferson anymore.

  11. I guess it depends on the importance one attaches to “mentalites” or mental structures, but I’m not sure how meaningful is the distinction between being “a citizen, but with different (and by most reckonings inferior) rights than a male citizen” and being “not technically a citizen, but the daughter and wife of citizens, and therefore with more rights than other women.”

    1. In material terms it is probably not that much of a difference. But it feels like there is a real difference between recoginizing a woman as a (second class) citizen, and only seeing her as a appandage to the man on her side.

        1. Yes, but it’s not an uncommon perspective.

          Life in societies that don’t respect universal human rights is not as simple as “if you are not a maximally free sovereign citizen,* then you might as well be a slave, with no middle ground.”

          There’s many different degrees of social status, autonomy, power, and rights in there. There’s a big gap between “extremely free full citizen in a society with extremely liberal rules about what citizens are allowed to do” and “outright chattel slave who has no status under the law except as an item of property, and whose every move and utterance is dictated by a taskmaster who is fully within their rights to torture or kill the slave without consequence.”

          If women of citizen ancestry in a given misogynistic society simply have no legal existence apart from “property of that guy over there,” they’re fairly close to the ‘slave’ end of the spectrum. They’re certainly a lot closer than is a male “metic” who at least has some kind of right to be heard in court, inherit property, make basic life choices on their own, and so on. The “metic” may not be a full citizen, but even his meager second-class ‘citizenship’ is a lot better than the third or fourth class ‘citizenship’ of the woman.

          *(Term used advisedly)

          1. Eh, there’s “person with no ties in the city” which can be worse than the slave, since not only can you be injured or killed with impunity, you are of no value to anyone.

    2. In his ‘Against Neaera’ Demosthenes believes that Citizen women are sufficiently invested in their status as mothers of future citizens to give their menfolk hell if the jury let’s Neaera’ get away with posing as a citizen wife.

      1. Much later, I note that we can say this…

        Or we can at least say that Demosthenes chooses to advance the argument while trying to prosecute Neaera. Which is not quite the same thing in the context of ancient societies’ rhetoric and court proceedings.

        It should further be noted that men in misogynistic societies are often particularly jealous of the ‘status’ or ‘virtue’ of ‘their’ women, and deeply preoccupied with the idea of being ‘henpecked’ by those women. Even while giving those women very, very little opportunity to do so without being severely punished or simply beaten for being ‘uppity.’

        “The gentleman doth protest too much” plays a huge role in gender relations in a lot of patriarchal societies.

        “What will your wife say” is sometimes a statement of the amount of power the wife actually has. It is also, sometimes, an appeal to the man’s own culturally implanted neuroses about how a failure to uphold social custom threatens the “good order” of “his” household.

  12. I’m seeing a number of similarities between the structures you’ve laid out here and how many modern anarcho-communal societies work. The strong presence of both elected positions and compulsory service positions that are all meant to defer to the full community collective, the fact that governing work is a secondary duty held by community members and not a full-time thing, the strange interactions with outsiders even if they have a longer history with the community than full members, etc… Is this an area of comparison that’s been explored academically?

    1. This sounds like a very interesting question. A modern anarchist commune would have a lot of problems with a Greek polis, because anarchism is typically anti-hierarchy and not just anti-government as an ideology. And with slavery and very strict gender roles defining who has power, the polis is very hierarchical even if it doesn’t have a king or a clearly defined set of oligarchs.

      But the similiarities in basic structure of governance are interesting. And I think this does underline Dr. Devereaux’s point that you can have a theoretically ‘democratic’ political structure and still be doing stuff very wrong. Just widening the franchise doesn’t reform society if the widened franchise doesn’t alter the question of who has rights and who is being controlled.

  13. Orphaned parenthesis here:

    Arguing that other groupings, like ethnics, encompassed women is true but not necessarily helpful when thinking about citizenship; if women can be Attikai but aren’t usually Athenaioi (or that still tells us something.

  14. The details and practicalities of being a metic raise all sorts of ideas. Since Jack H already asked one of my questions, here’s the other set: there’s a brief allusion to being a member of the founding generation of a colony. If the citizens of a city like Athens established a colony elsewhere, did that colony retain a relationship of citizenship with Athens, or was it immediately its own separate thing? Could a metic in Athens convert their family into the citizenship class of a new city if they were part of the founding of a new city/colony, or was this also a road closed off to those who didn’t already have citizenship status?

    1. I imagine it would depend on the exact nature of the founding laws/charter of the colony, with different cases resulting in different rules.

    2. I’m surprised by how many positions were done by lot, many of which seem like skilled positions. Being a priest seems fairly complex, and some of the magistrates need solid financial judgement. And at a minimum a lot of them seem like they’d require literacy. Were the citizens universally well-educated?

      1. Literary among the politai remains a hotly debated topic. But a lot of the basic work here could be done verbally, the reading and writing outsources to the clerk. That said, literary would clearly be necessary for some of these posts (priesthoods!) and they may have been restricted to the fully literate.

        In my own view, I tend to suppose that among the politai literacy may have been a fair bit higher than is often supposed, but I confess the evidence here is *very* uncertain. At least the Athenian politai were expected to be able to carve a name into a potsherd as part of the process of Ostracism which implies some baseline literary (but we know that folks ‘campaigned’ for a specific target by distributing pre-marked sherds and we have at least one story of a man asking another for help writing the name of a target of an ostracism (he ends up asking the man he is voting to ostracize)). I think we’ll probably delve into the evidence for ancient literary here before too long.

  15. Are there any examples, even vaguely referenced, of a successful non-citizen “revolution” where the non-citizens rose up and took over by force? Or even unsuccessfully, where a would-be tyrant looked to the non-citizen class as a pool of support for his takeover?

    I recall from your series on Sparta that they took extreme measures against such things, but surely with the sheer number small polises there must have been a case where the citizens got careless and opened themselves up for a takeover?

    1. There is a fascinating passage in Herodotus that mentions something like this in Syracuse:
      “After this stroke of fortune Gelon restored those of the Syracusans who were called ‘land-holders,’ after they had been driven into exile by the common people and by their own slaves, who were called Kyllyrians, these, I say, he restored from the city of Casmene to Syracuse, and so got possession of this last city also, for the common people of Syracuse, when Gelon came against them, delivered up to him their city and themselves” (Histories 7.155)

      The ‘Kyllyrians’ are sometimes thought to have been a class similar to helots. Since Sicilian landowners were later known to be unusually cruel towards their slaves, I would not think things went to well for them. Still it is interesting they managed to find a common cause with (I presume) poor citizens

      1. Interesting point. It’s also worth noting that (although our sources are sketchy) Syracuse seems to have had a slightly different and more open policy towards integrating potential citizens than other poleis, at times at least. Under Dionysius I, I believe it engaged in a practice of uprooting the populations of conquered cities and requiring them to move to Syracuse, where they would ultimately receive citizen status, while their former lands were used to reward mercenaries. This kind of forcible assimilation helped to boost Syracuse’s pool of labour and skills for economic production (e.g. shipbuilding, pottery) and stifle regional competition, and may have been a factor in why it became so dominant in the western Greek world.

        However, I’m not an expert and I’m raising this point somewhat based on memory, so perhaps someone with more detailed knowledge can pick some holes in it. I’d also be interested to know if this (seemingly somewhat anomalous) approach to resident foreigners may have emerged as a response by the city’s earlier troubles in the time of Gelon?

    2. The Roman ‘Social War’ had something of this character. The ‘socii’ fought to gain full Roman citizenship and IIRC, won their case as part of the settlement.

    3. Not an ancient reference but a modern one: Shay’s Rebellion in late 1840’s Rhode Island. At the time only property (land) owners had the franchise. After multiple petitions to open up the eligibility to vote were ignored (because the state government was voted in by and served the interests of the land owners), Shay and others held an unsanctioned convention that drew up a new state constitution and declared itself the new government of Rhode Island. Although the effort was technically a failure, it convinced the state government of the wisdom of allowing people to pay a poll tax for the right to vote. Some years later there was a United States Supreme Court case over which had been the lawful government of the state and the court punted, declaring it a political question.

      1. I believe that is actually the Dorr Rebellion. Shay’s Rebellion was somewhat earlier and in Massachusetts.

  16. You mentioned that the metics could get conscripted into fighting. Was there any pervasive fear among the polis citizens that armed metics might mutiny or being particularly dangerous in revolt?

    There is, I think, a valuable lesson there, that democracy does not necessarily produce an open, welcoming society; a state can be ‘democratic’ amongst its citizens and at the same time closed and xenophobic, as most poleis seem to have been.

    I think that’s why most republics were small historically. There’s a perverse incentive there to avoid adding new people except as inferior status folks because they dilute the political power of the existing body of citizens and potentially upset coalitions among the existing elite among those folks.

    1. > There’s a perverse incentive there to avoid adding new people except as inferior status folks because they dilute the political power of the existing body of citizens and potentially upset coalitions among the existing elite among those folks.

      And there was reason to be mistrustful. If I remember correctly Caesar expanded access to citizenship, and to the senat, with the goal to stuff the ballots with his allies, and make it harder to form coalitions against him.

      1. Coming back to this much later:

        In Caesar’s youth, Sulla certainly did try to pack the Senate in his favor, both because his faction had killed many of the senators who would have been his enemies, and because he doubled the number of senators. Caesar did the same, in the same manner, though not quite doubling the size of the body.

        As to the citizenship, I’m not so sure who changed what rules. But Rome had a definite problem as far as citizenship went. It was essentially the same issue that caused the Social Wars during Caesar’s youth. Rome was a gigantic empire by this point, and having only residents of the actual city of Rome be citizens of that empire simply wasn’t politically sustainable. The Social Wars were exceptional in that they involved a coalition of Rome’s subjugated vassal cities within Italy more or less rebelling to demand Roman citizenship, and this was granted to them despite the fact that Rome won the war!

        But even Italy was only a small fraction of the territory ruled from Rome by the time Caesar reached mature years, so the problem still existed.

  17. I seem to remember you linking to a podcast talking about athenian women earlier, and one of the point they make is that there actually seem to have been some limited ways for women in Athens to hold properly, but among metics, not citizens ? (I seem to remeber it being a pair of metics, a mother and a duaghte,r running a shop, and getting involved in some kind of court case and the complications becuase they obviously couldn’t represent themselves)

    1. There are always ways around the rules and practice can be very different than theory. There is evidence of women engaging in business and bestowing gifts on temples in their own name implying control of property. Basically all a woman needed was a cooperative or uninterested Kyrios, or guardian, to effectively do as she liked.

      1. I forget exactly where, but one Greek writer was surprised that no Persian would offer sacrifice without a member of the priestly caste to preside. In Greece, anyone, even a woman, could offer sacrifice.

        1. Religion seems to have been an acceptable avocation for a woman. In addition to elite priestesses not elite women were free to visit temples and make dedications, sometimes quite costly ones. Dedication inscriptions indicate the kind of work women did outside the home and that sometimes it was quite lucrative.

  18. Here’s a fun quote! St. Augustine, City of God

    When an olive-tree suddenly appeared there, and water burst forth in another place, these prodigies moved the king to send to the Delphic Apollo to inquire what they meant and what he should do. He answered that the olive signified Minerva, the water Neptune, and that the citizens had it in their power to name their city as they chose, after either of these two gods whose signs these were. On receiving this oracle, Cecrops convoked all the citizens of either sex to give their vote, for it was then the custom in those parts for the women also to take part in public deliberations. When the multitude was consulted, the men gave their votes for Neptune, the women for Minerva; and as the women had a majority of one, Minerva conquered. Then Neptune, being enraged, laid waste the lands of the Athenians, by casting up the waves of the sea; for the demons have no difficulty in scattering any waters more widely. The same authority said, that to appease his wrath the women should be visited by the Athenians with the threefold punishment—that they should no longer have any vote; that none of their children should be named after their mothers; and that no one should call them Athenians. Thus that city, the mother and nurse of liberal doctrines, and of so many and so great philosophers, than whom Greece had nothing more famous and noble, by the mockery of demons about the strife of their gods, a male and female, and from the victory of the female one through the women, received the name of Athens; and, on being damaged by the vanquished god, was compelled to punish the very victory of the victress, fearing the waters of Neptune more than the arms of Minerva. For in the women who were thus punished, Minerva, who had conquered, was conquered too, and could not even help her voters so far that, although the right of voting was henceforth lost, and the mothers could not give their names to the children, they might at least be allowed to be called Athenians, and to merit the name of that goddess whom they had made victorious over a male god by giving her their votes.

    Apparently the Romans thought some kind of explanation was needed.

    1. But Roman women couldn’t vote either. And, if I understand Roman names correctly, Roman women had no personal names, only the family names inherited from the father.

      1. One thing about this kind of explanatory “just-so story” in mythology is that there’s no compelling reason to stop using it to explain things.

        If the story of “this is why our city is named after Athens” can be repurposed as “this is why you should reinforce the system of patriarchal power because the gods will curse us if women get enough independence to make relevant decisions or change things,” then sooner or later some storyteller who thinks he’s teaching a valuable lesson will.

        1. Or “This is why those admirable Athenians are so absurdly restrictive of their women.” We have Roman references where they explicitly said that no Roman would restrict his wife that way.

          Notice also that Saint Augustine expected his readers to find those restrictions oppressive.

          1. And furthermore, Augustine explicitly identifies Athena and Poseidon as demons – him being a Christian obviously alters his judgement of the founding myth of Athens and the tale of the olive tree and the saltwater spring.

            In fact, the story can also be read as “worship of false gods brings about calamity and misfortune, even to those who believed to be doing the right thing”.

          2. Then Neptune, being enraged, laid waste the lands of the Athenians, by casting up the waves of the sea; for the demons have no difficulty in scattering any waters more widely

            Looks like he’s referring to Neptune as a demon.

      2. It’s true that women officially bore the name of the gens, though nicknames were common. But men didn’t have individual names either. Families had two or three customary praenomens that were used generation after generation meaning there would be many Gaius Juliuses or whatever at the same time. Hence cognomens.

    2. You can honor whichever god you choose; but the loser will punish you. What a-holes the Greek gods were.

      1. Note that St. Augustine assumes, here, that the Greek gods are literally demons (a common way of reconciling pagan mythology with monotheism).

        Now, the original myth did feature Poseidon flooding the peninsula in a rage after the Athenians voted to be Athenians rather than Poseidonians, but that was one of those just-so stories you get that explains the local geography. I haven’t heard of Poseidon’s anger being tied to Athenian women’s disenfranchisement in any version of that myth I’ve read aside from St. Augustine’s. From what I’ve read of Athenian thought, literally none of the city’s men would have thought a reason beyond “because they’re women” would be needed.

        1. And yet this book is directly addressed to pagans. One suspects that the permutation was at least known.

          1. Eh, as a child I had a book depicting King Midas’s bargaining with Satan. Sometimes authors just make things up because they decide they make sense.

          2. I doubt that book was addressed to people who believed the original myth.

          3. “Eh, as a child I had a book depicting King Midas’s bargaining with Satan.”

            that sounds fascinating, when did that angle on the Midas myth develop?

          1. Certainly.

            “Many things that among the Greeks are considered improper and unfitting are permitted by our customs. Is there any chance a Roman who is ashamed to take his wife to a dinner away from home?” Cornelius Nepos

  19. I would be interested in seeing an example of a priestly “ladder” of gods.

    Would you be willing to post one for the benefit of those of us who don’t have J.B. Connelly’s book?

  20. For anyone wondering, the women’s protest in Livy 34.1-8 was about the repeal of the Oppian law, a wartime sumptuary act.

    “Marcus and Publius Iunius Brutus, who were plebeian tribunes, defended the Oppian law, stating that they would not permit its repeal, and many eminent men came forward to speak for or against its annulment. The Capitol thus was filled with hordes of supporters and opponents of the law. As for married women, there was no authority, no feelings of modesty, no order from their husbands that could keep them at home. They blocked all the roads in the city and the approaches to the Forum, and made earnest entreaties to their husbands when they went down to the Forum. The Republic was prospering and everybody’s private fortune was increasing day by day, they said, so married women, too, should be granted the restoration of the finery they once enjoyed. This large gathering of women kept growing every day, for they were even starting to come in from the country towns and administrative centres, and they were already presuming to accost consuls, praetors, and other magistrates with their appeals.”

    And so on. Most of the passages are speeches, largely Porcius Cato arguing against the precedent of repealing a law because women demanded it. Happily, he lost. Lucius Valerus, on the other side, cited past actions:

    “Right at the beginning, when Romulus was king, when the Capitol had been captured by the Sabines, and a pitched battle was going on in the middle of the Forum, was not the battle halted by the married women running between the two lines?* All right? After the expulsion of the kings, the legions of the Volsci, led by Marcius Coriolanus,* had encamped at a point five miles from Rome. Was not this army, which would have overwhelmed this city, turned away by our women? When the city had been taken by the Gauls,* how was it ransomed? The women, of course, with everybody’s consent, gathered together their gold for public use. In the last war*—to avoid going into ancient history—did not the widows help out the treasury with their money when there was a financial problem?”

    Per things Bret has written before, it was clearly a defense of the women to show that past women had also acted in the community, rather than it being an innovation.


    On the citizenship front, I’ve noted how the Swiss citizenship is the most politically powerful in the modern world, and among the most grudgingly given. Conversely, the Romans might have felt they could be generous because the political power of a poor freedman or poor ‘allies’ was minimal, while extending legal rights (of contract or marriage) didn’t dilute anything; Roman citizenships spread legal protection around more widely than practical political power.

    1. That is a really interesting passage and I am glad you shared it! Cato being opposed to the protest does seem very much in line with his character.

      As for freedmen’s power in Rome, some did become very wealthy but in turn their political rights were specifically restricted: they had never been allowed to become senators, Tiberius limited membership in the *ordo equester* to those with freeborn parents and grandparents, and Claudius both confiscated the property of freedmen claiming to be equites and re-enslaved those who were ‘ungrateful’ to their patrons

    2. You are only partially corrected when saying that extending the protections of Roman citizenship didn’t dilute anything: this was the case only as long as the citizenship was given to those whom its protections would be granted also socially. After the Social Wars, it was clear that a Roman magistrate would need to treat the citizens of allied Italian citizens like Romans: they looked like Romans, talked like Romans and behaved like Romans, and most importantly, had proved to be dangerous if maltreatment.

      The same went for leading citizens of Roman allied towns around Mediterranean: they had the sufficient social stature that a Roman magistrate would not be against one of his veterans marrying their daughters, nor be inclined to execute them in a fit of spite. That simply would not do.

      The problems with dilution started when the citizenship was given widely enough that poor people in the provinces, who would be normally dealt with summary proceedings, would start getting equal rights with Romans. Think of St. Paul: you might accept one educated, but crazed and heretical Jew having the chance to appeal to the emperor, but it would not work on large scale. And event in Rome, the common people no longer had political power. So, the new division between honestiores and humiliates developed.

    3. On the other hand, one Athenian court case — prosecuting a woman on charges of falsely claiming citizenship status — features the argument that if the jurors voted to acquit, their wives would hate them.

      Women had some influence, hard though it would be to measure.

      1. It has been observed that men secure in their patriarchal power don’t find it necessary to constantly reiterate that woman’s place in in the home and it’s just terrible for them to roam the streets. The comedies of Aristophanes reveal acute male anxiety about female agency and a certain sense of helplessness in combating it.

        1. Coming back to this much later, it is my own opinion that men are very rarely secure in the idea that “their” women are firmly subjugated, no matter how much is done to put this subjugation into place.

          The men who are most desirous that “their” women be subjugated and kept in the home tend also to be those who are the most suspicious, the most jealous, and the most resentful of any slight deviation from this pattern, and the most predisposed to find evidence of it. Few men can feel as “henpecked” as the man who constantly berates and controls his wife, but just once finds himself feeling unable to ignore her clearly expressed wishes.

          Some of the fiercest, frothiest outrage human beings are capable of comes from the offended shock of a bully. Even, or perhaps especailly, has suddenly been made to feel even a little bit of pain he routinely inflicts on others without a second thought.

          1. Ockham’s Razor, however, dictates that the least complicated reason why a man would urge on other men that their wives would give them hell for doing something is that their wives would give them hell, and they would mind.

            Your rigmarole of masculine reasoning not only is an unneeded hypothesis, it would make his appeal insane. Men that paranoid would be induced to vote to acquit by that logic, to show their wives who was master.

  21. For the link in the #7 footnote I get an error message. Is it just me?

    “Object not found!
    The requested URL was not found on this server. If you entered the URL manually please check your spelling and try again.

    If you think this is a server error, please contact the webmaster.

    Error 404
    Sat Apr 15 05:21:00 2023

  22. So you mentioned that Roman Republic was bigger than any polis.By the end, sure. But since when?
    Royal Rome was bigger than her neighbours – quoted around 800 square km. Conquering Veii added about 600 square km.
    This made Rome bigger than Rhodes and among the top 13 poleis, but still behind Athens.
    Rome got allies… but so did Athens (Delian League) and Sparta (Peloponnesian League).
    When you track specifically Ager Romanus, exclusive of socii, when did the territory of Rome surpass Syracuse?

  23. Bret, many fewer proofreading corrections for this post,although I assume I may have missed some as well. But here are a few points for you to consider correcting/changing:
    betrothed than her inheritance passed > then
    sharply curtained to the point > curtailed
    Fundamentally, Sourvinou-Inwoo argues…the fundamental unit…religion of this sort was fundamentally about > [Fundamentally-fundamental-fundamentally seems a bit too much, especially since the word is used yet again in a further paragraph?]

  24. (Got an error, apologies if this double posts)
    Hey Bret I noticed that when referring to poleis you often write eg “at Athens” or “at Sparta” where “in Athens” or “in Sparta” would be more idiomatic. Is there a difference in meaning or connotation that this is supposed to convey? Or is it just a quirk of the field?

  25. How did it happen that a large number (hundreds?) of independent revolutions that ended early Greek monarchies produced so similar systems of government? The revolutions of the last 3 centuries tend to result in widely different end-states (the US vs. France vs. the USSR, for example).

    1. Coming back to this question much later, contributing factors to this:

      1) We’re talking of early Greek monarchies. These are not heavily literate societies with rich bodies of abstract political philosophy to be spread around by printing presses. In, say, the 7th century BCE, there is no Greek equivalent of Locke or Rosseau or Marx whose writings can convince people distant from him in time or space to try a radical social experiment that no one else has ever attempted. The closest any one man could get in that situation would be to get appointed the “lawgiver” of a new Greek community or an old one that wanted a complete constitutional rewrite… and even that would usually only give him the opportunity to shape one community with his ideas. And to get into such a position to begin with, he’d have to be a widely respected man among the Greeks of that particular city, which is usually not a position held by ambitious super-radicals.

      2) These were already societies that had very similar property relationships imposed on them by the logistics of agricultural society. The bulk of the population was necessarily farmers. Barring extreme cases like Sparta, it was impractical to reduce the entire farming population to outright slavery. There was, in practice, always an upper class of landed “big men,” a middle class of tradesmen and small farmers, and a lower class of wage-workers and outright slaves. Given that kind of situation, there are only so many ways to put together a society with [i]sort of[/i] mass participation while not completely alienating the upper class whose weaponry, prestige, and resources are important in order to make the revolt succeed. A lot of those social systems would, naturally, wind up resembling each other a lot.

  26. I had a couple of thoughts while reading this (or thinking of related tangents) — one, that continual warfare among Greek poleis would keep knocking off male citizens at a high enough rate to prevent the politai from ever increasing substantially, esp. when the ability of non-citizens to achieve citizenship status was so constricted. (Thus later reformers like Cleomenes III in Sparta so often resort to radically expanding the franchise to create enough new citizens to reorganize the state and the armies.)

    And in the case of Sparta, where we have so few women’s names even known to us — most Spartan queens are complete ciphers, we don’t even know the name of Leonidas’ mother — we are told almost nothing about the female children of the monarchs, or the non-first-born sons — yet there must have been many of these. Did they constitute a sort of higher peerage within the Spartan state? The royal families should have had a significant impact within the Spartiates but we know very little about any of this. And likely never will, apart from speculation.

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