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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
- See Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (2000), 188.
- My own suggestion for those interested is T. Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery (1981), a book of primary sources in translation.
- See Wiedemann, op. cit., 195-7 for examples.
- Trans. H. Rackham, 1932
- Again, in contrast to the practice at Rome
- 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
- On this, see L. Cohn-Haft, “Divorce in Classical Athens” JHS 115 (1995). On marriage customs, laws and women, note also S. Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece (1995), 119-124.
- 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.
- 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.
- On everything to do with priestesses in particular, see J.B. Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (2007).
- E.g. oligarchic control of religious or secular choral performances, Simonton, op. cit., 197-209
- Connelly, op. cit. 28 has a good example of a priestly ‘career’ to multiple gods at different sanctuaries.
- 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).