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5-08-2015, 22:53

Citizens and Slaves


In modern language, the word tyrant refers to a dictatorial, often cruel, leader. But in ancient Greece, a tyrant was simply someone who had seized power in a nontraditional way—that is, in a way other than inheriting it or being elected. In practical terms, this usually involved using force to overthrow the existing government. Tyranny in Greece, which reached its zenith from approximately 650 to 520 BCE, was a response to the Greek people rejecting the established oligarchies.

Although tyrants held their power alone, they were not necessarily evil or unfair. Many, but not all, were actually popular rulers. They often kept the social and economic structure in place so as not to disrupt daily living. They also typically passed their power down from father to son, though this rarely lasted longer than two or three generations. In this sense, tyranny was not so different from the rigid control of an aristocracy or oligarchy. However, it did represent a way of rejecting the old system, and it was an important step on the way to the rise of Greece’s most famous, ii legacy: democracy.


By the 600s BCE, there was evidence of a more democratic government taking hold, particularly in Athens. A typical day at the agora—a central meeting place—would feature traders conducting business and men discussing politics. Members of the aristocracy became archons, the leaders who governed the city. All of Athens’s male citizens were allowed to attend the Assembly, which elected the archons each year. This right was open to any citizen, rich or poor, although the archons still made all the decisions in the city’s operation.

In approximately 621 BCE, the Athenians decided to write down the city’s laws to prevent aristocrats from making thoughtless decisions. However, the Athenians’ choice, Draco, made strict and merciless laws that were unfavorable to poor people.

Vote Them Out

Athenians devised a way to remove unpopular politicians, exiling them from the city. Each year, they could decide whether to hold an ostracism. Shards of broken pottery called ostraka were distributed to the Assembly members, and each could write the name of the man he wanted to see ousted. The person with the most unfavorable votes—a minimum of 6,000—was ostracized by being sent into exile for ten years.1 Politicians who were thought to be pro-Persian or in favor of tyranny were often targeted.


Pericles, a popular leader in Athens in the 400s BCE, was a staunch advocate of everything Athenian. “Our city is an education to Greece,” he said in 431 BCE. “Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.”3 He began the practice of paying men to perform jury service, which gave poorer citizens an opportunity to participate. On the other hand, he also sponsored a law that made it more difficult to become an Athenian citizen and thus enjoy the democratic privileges only given to citizens. He was hailed as a great democrat, but he did not hesitate to use his power. When playwrights poked fun at him, he banned their plays. The historian Thucydides wrote that with Pericles in power, Athens was “ostensibly a democracy but actually ruled by one man.”4

These exclusions slashed the number of people with a voice in governance. Nevertheless, the democratic model in Athens vastly expanded the number of people who could participate in government from a few dozen to thousands. By the 450s BCE, democracy was well established.


The daily business of lawmaking in democracy takes a lot of time. One reason many ancient Greeks had the time to exercise this right was because there were other men and women who were not allowed to participate. Slaves were an integral part of Greek society and not just owned by rich families. Even middle-class families might have owned two or three slaves, whereas more affluent households might have had 15 or more.2

Aristotle justified the practice of slavery in his work Politics, writing “One that can foresee with his mind is naturally ruler and naturally master, and one that can do these things with his body is subject and naturally a slave.... The latter are strong for necessary service, the former erect and unserviceable for such occupations but serviceable for a life of citizenship.”5

In many ways, a slave’s life depended on where he or she lived. Different city-states had different standards for treating slaves. In Sparta, most slaves were treated harshly, and slaves in the silver mines outside of Athens worked long hours in horrific conditions. Inside the city of Athens, however, many slaves led comparatively easy lives. Household slaves were welcomed into the home with an official ceremony and often treated like family members. Slaves performed a variety of tasks. They tended crops and animals in the country and worked as artisans in the city. Even the city employed slaves to make arrests and run the prisons. Many slaves were paid.

The Spartan Government

The city-state of Sparta had a combination government: its oligarchy of 28 men was headed by two kings who inherited power through their families. Spartan kings commanded the army. Occasionally the two disagreed on military strategy, hindering the army’s effectiveness. Eventually the Spartans changed their policy so only one king was in charge at a time. The Spartan government also had a board of five overseers who had judicial powers and could keep the king in check if the need arose. The highly structured Spartan society prized personal responsibility and obedience, as evidenced by the proclamation issued by the overseers to the Spartan men: “Shave your mustache and obey the laws.”6 same work, though most of their money went to their owners. With time, some slaves saved enough money to buy their freedom.


Most surviving records from ancient Greece focus on the bustling city life and intellectual and political accomplishments of prominent citizens. However, for most Greeks, life did not revolve around philosophical questions or political ambitions. They were farmers, and they spent their days trying to support their households. The rugged terrain of Greece made farming challenging, but the region’s access to water helped the Greeks establish trade with other civilizations on the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Metics probably found their niche in manufacturing and trade because they could not legally own land.

Mining was another important industry. The silver mines near Athens gave the city the financial means to build its navy and political might. Other silver and gold mines throughout Greece produced even more. Many of these came under the control of the kingdom of Macedon, helping fund its rise in power during the 300s BCE.

The political and economic structures of Greece were connected. Throughout history, Greeks had to fight to protect their land, both from outside threats and from other Greek people who sought to take it over.

Political and military decisions were made in order to promote economic growth, but struggles arose over who would benefit: aristocrats, or the ordinary people who produced goods? Whether life was easy or hard depended on where someone stood in the social order. Some changes were quick and dramatic, but most changes took centuries to occur.


The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the 400s BCE of a bronze vessel so big it could hold hundreds of gallons of wine. He said the Spartans had made this jar, called a krater, for King Croesus of Lydia (in modern Turkey) in the middle of the 500s BCE. Modern historians dismissed Herodotus’s claim. Certainly the Greeks used kraters to mix their wine, but they were small and meant to go on the dinner table.

Then, in 1953 CE, a French archaeologist excavating a grave found an enormous bronze vessel. Whether it is the same one Herodotus described isn’t known, but the details matched. It is five feet (1.5 m) tall, weighs more than 450 pounds (500 kg), and has a capacity of 300 gallons (1,135 L).7 The decoration on the vessel matches the Spartan style, though some modern historians disagree whether the Spartans manufactured it. Giant handles are shaped as fierce Gorgons, a mythical beast, and the drawings around the mouth of the jar show warriors marching into battle.