Life in the Classical Greek World

Men, Women and Children

As for most aspects of Greece in the classical period, we are better informed about Athens than about other states (though the ‘Gortyn code’, inscribed in a city of central Crete in the mid fifth century, is a substantial collection of laws concerned primarily with family matters: IC iv 72; for translation see Note on Further Reading, below), and we are better informed about the lives and living conditions of the upper than of the lower classes. This will be emphasised at some points below, and should be borne in mind throughout.

In classical Greece, as generally across the world until recent times, it was assumed that there were separate roles in life for men and for women. Public life was for men (except that women had a part to play in various religious observances, and there were some festivals specifically for women: cf. p. 211), as were fighting and outdoor activities such as farming, hunting and athletics, while the household and indoor work were the women’s domain (for an upper-class Athenian view of the duties of husband and wife see Xen.Oec. vii), and within a substantial house there were separate men’s and women’s quarters (e.g. Lys. I. Murder of Eratosthenes 9). Poorer women will have had to help on the land at busy times, and some had to take goods out to sell; and many of the poor will not have lived in houses with separate quarters for men and women.

Wives were commonly younger than their husbands: in the passage cited from Xenophon above, Ischomachus’ wife was under fifteen when they were married, whereas he is likely to have been twenty-five to thirty. A major duty of wives was to give birth to citizen sons (and one reason for keeping respectable women in seclusion was a desire to ensure that their husband was the father of their children). In Athens after 451/0 it was stipulated that the mother should herself be Athenian (cf. pp. 60, 296). It was common if not legally required for the wife to bring a dowry as a contribution to her maintenance, but, if the marriage ended in divorce or the husband died and there were no children, the wife would return to her own family and would take the dowry back with her (for an Athenian example see Isae. II. Menecles 6–9; for the rules at Gortyn see IC iv 72, ii. 45-iii. 44).

Spartan women had an unusual degree of freedom. Because to an exceptional extent the male citizens spent their lives in the company of their fellows, eating in messes (e.g. Plut. Lye. 10. i, 12), and until they were thirty, even if married, sleeping in barracks (implied by Plut. Lye. 16. xiii, 15. vii, 25. i), women there were less under the eye of their husbands than elsewhere (Plut. Lye. 14. ii). Also, as we shall see below, the state provided training for women as well as for men.

In Greece generally, property belonged to men, and though foreigners could be granted it as a privilege only citizens had the right to own land within a state’s territory. Property was inherited not solely or principally by the eldest son but equally by all the sons, who might take their separate shares or hold the property in common. If the heirs were minors, guardians had to be appointed (often a father who expected to die would himself name guardians). In Dem. XXVII-XXIX. Aphobus i-iii we have the speeches of Demosthenes after he had come of age against guardians whom he accused of misappropriating his property (cf. p. 333). In Athens, if a man left daughters but no sons and did not adopt a son to succeed him, the daughters, if they did not already have sons to whom the property could pass, became epikleroi: they could then be claimed by their nearest male relatives, even if they were already married, and their new husbands would act as trustees of the property until it could pass to their sons. However, in Gortyn, and probably in Sparta, when there were sons and daughters, a daughter inherited half as much as a son; when there were only daughters, in Gortyn as in Athens they had to marry within the family, but in Sparta they did not (for Gortyn see IC iv 72, iv. 23-vi. 2 on inheritance, vii. 15-ix. 24 on heiresses [patroiokoi]). Although it may well be true that on one or more occasions in the archaic period conquered land was distributed among the Spartan citizens, the view found in the late sources, that much of the citizens’ land in Sparta was public land entrusted to them and not fully-owned private property (e.g. Plut. Lye. 16. ii), appears now to be a mistaken later assumption about what early Sparta had been like.

As commonly in societies in which a significant proportion do not survive to adulthood, husbands and wives tended to have several children, with the risk that if too many did survive the property would have to be split into too many small portions. Sometimes foetuses were aborted, and it was acceptable for at any rate seriously deformed children to be exposed to die (cf. Arist. Pol. VII. 1335 B 19–26). In Sparta it was particularly expected that children should be strong, and there citizens’ children were inspected by members of the tribe, who decided whether an infant should be exposed or reared (Plut. Lye. 16. i-ii).

Education was not (except in Sparta, and also inThurii [Diod. Sic. XII. 12. iv]) a matter with which the state concerned itself; but even in smaller cities there were schools to which boys could be sent (Thuc. VII. 29. v; Dem. XVIII. Crown 258 describes the young Aeschines as an assistant to his schoolmaster father), and richer households would use a slave as paidagogos to take boys to and from school (e.g. Hdt. VIII. 75. i).The sons of Spartan citizens were taken from their homes at the age of seven, and progressed through a number of stages, with training which emphasised toughness and physical activity but did not exclude reading and writing or poetry and music (Plut. Lye. 16. vii-18, 21). This system seems to have been developed out of a series of age classes which had once been common in Greece but elsewhere had declined: a survival of it in Athens was the status of ephebos for young men between eighteen and twenty, which in the 330’s was reformed to provide a regular programme of military and patriotic training (cf. pp. 380–1). Believing that strong mothers would produce strong children, the Spartans provided athletic and musical training for girls as well as for boys; the girls continued to live at home, but were not taught spinning and weaving as girls elsewhere were (PI. Lg. VII. 805 E-806 B, Plut. Lye. 14. iii-viii). For what was available to young men in Athens above the level of elementary schooling, see p. 214.

Citizens, Metics and Slaves

In the Greek world full citizenship with political rights was restricted to adult males. The only men automatically qualified for citizenship were the sons of citizens (and in Athens after 451/0 they required an Athenian father as well as an Athenian mother: cf. above). Oligarchic states commonly imposed a property qualification for full citizenship (e.g. the Boeotian federation: Hell. Oxy 19. ii Chambers, cf. p. 281), and they would then have residents who were free men of native birth but who lacked the political rights of citizens because they did not satisfy that qualification; in states which were sometimes oligarchic and sometimes not the same men would sometimes be full citizens and sometimes not (and, when they were not, the rights which they enjoyed, e.g. in the law-courts, and the duties imposed on them, would be decided by those who were full citizens). Even in democratic Athens men in the lowest properly class were admitted to the assembly and to jury service but were legally debarred from holding offices, though for the smaller population after the Peloponnesian War that was no longer enforced (cf. pp. 59, 67, 296). A property qualification for citizenship was proposed but not adopted for the restored democracy of 403 (Lys. XXXrV. Traditional Constitution: cf. p. 296); qualifications were imposed briefly by the oligarchic regimes of 411–410 and 404–403 (pp. 168–75, 293–6), and for longer periods in 321–318 and 317–307.

It was possible for a state to grant citizenship to men not of citizen ancestry in return for particular good services, either as active citizenship for residents or as an honour for non-residents (for an Athenian example see M&L 85 = IG i3 102 ~ Fornara 155, 5–21); but there was never a right (as there is in many modern states) to apply for citizenship after a period of residence. In Sparta, despite the drastic decline in numbers between the early fifth century and the mid fourth (cf. pp. 32, 251–2), the citizens did not react by offering full citizenship either to their perioikoi or to anybody else. However, Aristotle remarks that states which were short of citizens were generous in defining and in extending their citizenship (Pol. III. 1278 A 26–34), and, for instance, a third-century decree of Dyme, in Achaea, offers citizenship to free-born resident foreigners on payment of 1 talent(SIG3 531).There could also be agreements between states on isopoliteia, ‘equal citizenship’, by which citizens of one state could exercise the rights of citizens in the other when they were there: this was perhaps the basis of the union between Argos and Corinth in the late 390’s (cf. pp. 227, 245).

In these circumstances many states had some free residents who because of their foreign origins were not citizens; and Athens as a major trading and cultural centre had a considerable number of them (perhaps 10,000-15,000 adult males in 431, when there were perhaps 60,000 adult male citizens: cf. p. 62). Sparta, on the other hand, from time to time indulged in xenelasiai, ‘expulsions of foreigners’ (e.g. Thuc. I. 144. ii). In Athens such foreigners, perhaps after a short period of residence, were registered as metics(metoikoi, ‘migrants’), and were given by the citizens specified rights (e.g. in the lawcourts) and obligations (e.g., if rich enough, to serve as hoplites in Athens’ army: cf. p. 101); other states will have had comparable arrangements (e.g. Dyme, where the term used was epoikoi, ‘immigrants’: SIG3 531, 1–2). Although democratic Athens did not limit citizenship to owners of land, owning land within a state’s territory was generally considered characteristic of citizenship, and Athens’ metics were not normally entitled to own land or houses, though that was sometimes granted as a privilege to metics whom the Athenians wished to honour but with something less than full citizenship (e.g. M&L 70 = IG i3 227 ~ Fornara 138, 17–20).

There were also in the Greek states, and in the ancient Mediterranean world more generally, people in various states of unfreedom. Most widespread were chattel slaves, who were the property of their owner to be used and disposed of as their owner saw fit, and who had little protection against ill treatment by their owner or by anybody else. Aristotle was aware that this was an institution open to challenge, and his defence was that men who lack the capacity to live as free men are natural slaves - though not all ‘natural’ free men would in fact be free and not all ‘natural’ slaves would in fact be slaves (Pol. I. 1253 B 1–1255 B 15). Some slaves were used as clerks by the Athenian state (e.g. Ath. Pol. 47. v-48. i), or worked independently for and made payments to their owners (e.g. Aeschin. I. Timarchus 97), and conditions for these were comparatively tolerable; at the other extreme, conditions were very harsh indeed for the large numbers of slaves used as workers in Athens’ silver mines (e.g. Xen. Poroi iv. 13–32). Athens used state slaves also for such tasks as removing corpses from the streets (Ath. Pol. 50. ii) and testing coins for their genuineness (R&O 25), and in the late fifth century had a force of Scythian archers to keep order in the council and assembly (e.g. Ar. Ach. 51–8 with scholium on 54). Privately-owned slaves often worked with their owners: the building accounts of Athens’ Erechtheum, in the late fifth century, show citizens, metics and their slaves working side by side (e.g. IG i3 476, 199–218). Of individual owners, only the rich would have large numbers of slaves, but even men of fairly modest means might have one or two, and (though we have no reliable statistics) in 431 there may altogether have been as many as 100,000 slaves in a total population of 300,000-400,000 in Attica (p. 62). Those who were not themselves born to slave parents often became slaves as a result of capture in war; in classical Greece most Greek prisoners of war were ransomed or otherwise freed, and most chattel slaves were of non-Greek origin. Slaves could be set free by their owners, often for a payment if they had worked in conditions which enabled them to acquire and save money: their public status was then comparable to that of metics, and in many cases they were in fact not totally freed but retained some obligations to their former owners.

In some places there were people in a serf-like condition, not outsiders removed from their homes and families and brought in as individuals but local people collectively subjected and required to work on the land or in other ways for the citizens who formed a privileged caste within the local population. In many ways they could be treated as badly as chattel slaves, but they lived in their own locality and had some family life, and they were not in danger of being sold outside their own locality. Sparta’s helots, in Laconia and Messenia, are the best-known but not the only instance (cf. p. 4). As a less extreme form of local dependence, Athens before the reforms of Solon at the beginning of the sixth century had had a class of dependent peasants called hektemoroi, ‘sixth-parters’, who probably had personal freedom, and were conditional owners of their land and could pass it to their heirs as long as they paid a sixth of their produce to an overlord (who in that sense had his own claim to the land), but who could be enslaved and deprived of their land if they failed to make those payments. Solon’s seisachtheia, ‘shaking of burdens’, described by himself as the liberation of the enslaved land by removal of the markers set up on it, and by our later sources as a cancellation of debts, was probably in fact the abolition of this obligation of the hektemoroi, as a result of which they became the absolute owners of their land (e.g. Ath. Pol. 2. ii, 6. i, 12. iv, the last passage quoting Solon fr. 36 West). Yet another form of unfreedom was debt bondage, by which a debtor did not become the absolute possession of his creditor, like a chattel slave, but was obliged to work for his creditor until the debt was discharged. In Athens Solon abolished outright enslavement for debt (Ath. Pol. 6. i), but he seems not to have abolished the more limited kind of bondage for debt.

Only the richest citizens of Greek states were parasitic on non-citizens to the extent that they had no need to work for their living. Because dangerous, unpleasant and menial work was particularly associated with slaves, there was a tendency to think that such work was not appropriate for free men: some poorer free men no doubt did have to do such work, but perhaps even they tried to avoid working all the year round for one master (cf. Xen. Mem. II. vii-viii). It does remain true that adult male citizens were only able to devote as much time as they did to public affairs because their communities were well supplied with other people, free and unfree, who were not involved in public affairs.

Farmers, Craftsmen and Traders

The man who owned his land and lived off the produce of his own land was the Greek ideal, or at any rate an upper-class Greek ideal (cf. Xen. Oec. iv. 2–4: farming and fighting). It probably was still true in classical Greece, even in Athens, whose economy was more diversified than that of most states, that a high proportion of the citizens did own some land and did live to some extent off the produce of it (Pericles is represented as unusual in selling all his produce and then buying what he needed in the market: Plut. Per.16. iii-v). In small states it was common for people to live in the city and go out to the fields day by day; in larger states a higher proportion would live outside the major city, in isolated farmsteads or in subsidiary communities such as the denies of Attica (cf. Thuc. II. 14, 16). A rich man was more likely to own a number of separate fields than a single large estate; and some farm land was owned not by individual farmers but by sacred or secular public bodies and then leased to farmers (for a particularly detailed fourth-century lease of sacred land in Arcesine, on the island of Amorgus, see IG xn. vii 62 = R&O 59). The difference between good years and bad years could be substantial; and within the farming year there were busy times, when casual labour might be employed and men would not want to be at war (cf. Thuc. III. 15), and quiet times, when there would be more leisure for other activities. In Athens Solon is credited with a ban on exports of natural products other than olive oil (Plut. Sol. 24. i), which seems to imply a decision to concentrate on a crop which did well in Attica rather than aim at overall self-sufficiency: certainly classical Athens relied to a significant (though disputed) extent on imported corn, particularly from the Black Sea.

It was already recognised by Solon that there were various other ways of gaining a livelihood: trade, labour on another man’s farm, crafts, poetry, divination, medicine (fr. 13. 41–62 West). Other Athenian measures attributed to Solon stipulated that Athenians who had not been taught a craft should not be obliged to support their fathers, and offered citizenship to immigrants coming to practise a craft (Plut. Sol. 22. i-iii, 24. iv). The minimal community first envisaged by Plato comprised a farmer and a few specialists to provide for the basic human needs - a builder, a weaver, a cobbler and a doctor (Resp. II. 369 C 9-E 1), while no fewer than 170 distinct occupation titles have been found in classical Athens. Because they were not normally allowed to own land, metics engaged in occupations other than farming.

In Athens, and in the Greek world generally, we should think of small-scale crafts rather than organised industry, often of a man and a few slaves working from his house (in a speech of Lysias a man claiming the grant paid to citizens who were poor and physically disabled pleaded that he had a craft from which he derived meagre support, and had not been able to acquire a slave who would work first with him and then for him: XXIV. Invalid’s Grant 6). The largest known workshop in the Greek world was that established in Athens by Lysias’ father, Cephalus of Syracuse, which employed 120 slaves (Lys. XII. Eratosthenes 8, 19); Demosthenes’ father employed thirty slaves making knives and twenty making beds (Dem. XXVII. Aphobus i 9–10); and it has been estimated that in the fifth century, when Athenian fine pottery dominated the Mediterranean markets, not more than 500 men were employed in its production at any one time. Major building projects did not use one or a few principal contractors, who might themselves employ men directly or use sub-contractors, but dealt directly with a large number of separate suppliers and workers (see, for instance, the accounts for Athens’ Erechtheum cited above, or the accounts for the fourth-century temple of Apollo at Delphi, of which R&O 66 gives an extract).

The right to mine silver in Attica was leased by the state, to particular contractors to work a particular tract of land for a specified period (Ath. Pol. 47. ii; for surviving inscribed leases, from 367/6 to the end of the fourth century, see Agora xix). The physical work was done mostly by slaves, sometimes hired by the contractors from rich slave-owners, and Xenophon suggested that the state might profit more from the mines by itself owning a body of slaves who could be hired (Poroi iv. 13–32). Various disputes could arise in connection with mining and could lead to litigation, and Athens’ fourth-century law code included a set of provisions which could be referred to as ‘the mining law’ (e.g. Dem. XXXVII. Pantaenetus 35–6).

Money to pay for major building projects came from public funds and/or private benefactions. The Alcmaeonids of Athens were responsible for the sixth-century temple of Apollo at Delphi (e.g. Hdt. V 62. ii-iii). In Athens in the early fifth century one aspect of the rivalry of Cimon and Themistocles was their sponsoring of buildings (cf. p. 37), while the buildings of the Periclean period were erected from public funds (assisted, directly or indirectly, by the funds of the Delian League) under the supervision of publicly appointed boards (cf. pp. 67–70); in the fourth century the building programme of the Lycurgan period was at any rate assisted by donations to which the state responded with honours (cf. p. 380). For the fourth-century temple of Apollo at Delphi the Amphictyony raised money by imposing levies on the states belonging to the Amphictyony; in addition, voluntary contributions were made by states outside the Amphictyony and by individuals, and the city of Delphi made a susbtantial credit available (cf. pp. 290, 340–2, and R&O 45 with commentary).

The first of Solon’s other sources of livelihood (above) was trade, and from the eighth century onwards Greeks were travelling around the Mediterranean and Black Sea in search of goods which were not available locally, in sufficient quantities or at all. Particular places had a reputation for particular raw materials and products: for instance, Thrace and Macedon for timber (an alliance of the early fourth century guarantees the right of the Chalcidians to export timber from Macedon: SIG3 135 = R&O 12), Thasos for wine (with fifth-century laws about its production and trade: SEGxviii 347, IG xn Supp. 347), Miletus for wool, Amorgus for flax. Trade overland did take place, but most long-distance trade was conducted by sea. As with crafts we should not think of large-scale organisation, or of trade conducted by states, but of individual ships and their owners/captains(naukleroi), and of merchants (emporoi) who took a passage for themselves and their cargoes on other men’s ships (one of Xenophon’s suggestions for reviving Athens’ success as a trading centre in the mid fourth century was that there should be state-owned merchant ships available for hire:Poroi iii. 14, cf. p. 371). Apart from ensuring fair dealing and levying taxes, a particular concern of states with trade was to ensure that essential imports - especially foodstuffs; also metals and timber - were obtained. In Athens we find evidence of various measures to control the corn trade: a speech of Lysias was written for the prosecution of retailers accused of using dishonest practices to increase their profits (XXIV. Corn-Dealers); Ath. Pol. reports that there used to be ten but were now thirty-five sitophylakes, ‘corn-guardians’, to control the retail trade in corn and bread, and there was another board of ten officials to ensure that two thirds of the corn imported went to the city (Ath. Pol. 51. iii-v: for shortages of corn at the time of Ath. Pol. cf. pp. 382–3), and we know of a law forbidding the transport of corn to destinations outside Attica ([Dem.] XXXV. Lacritus50–1, LVIII. Theocrines 8–9 with hypothesis). A decree of 347/6 honours the rulers of the Bosporan kingdom (Crimea) for continuing the favourable treatment with regard to the corn trade which Athens had enjoyed under their father (IG ii2 212 = R&O 64 ~ Harding 82).

Athens’ dominant position in the Aegean in the fifth and fourth centuries made it a magnet for traders, and bothThucydides (in Pericles’ funeral speech) and the Old Oligarch remark that goods of all kinds from all places could be obtained there (Thuc. II. 38. ii, [Xen.] Ath. Pol. ii. 7). The Athenians learned that their dominant position enabled them to guarantee imports to themselves and their friends and to deny them to enemies (cf. p. 188, on favourable treatment for Methone; pp. 91–2, on sanctions against Megara).

Trade was endangered by brigands on land and pirates at sea: at the beginning of the period covered by this book we find the Athenians capturing the island of Scyros, on the route from the Hellespont to Athens, whose inhabitants were pirates (Plut. Cim. 8. iii-v: cf. p. 21), and at the end we find them sending a colony to the Adriatic to protect imports from the west against pirates (pp. 382–3). Maritime trade was also endangered by the weather, and there were opportunities not only for handsome profits but also for disastrous losses, and for cheating of various kinds. Naukleroi andemporoi often had to borrow money to finance their ventures, and because of the opportunities and risks maritime loans attracted exceptionally high rates of interest (for a loan contract see [Dem.] XXXV Lacritus 10–13). Another of the suggestions made by Xenophon was that Athens should institute special lawsuits for the rapid settlement of traders’ disputes, and in the 340’s that was done (Xen. Poroi iii. 3, cf. pp. 371, 374).

Not all commercial transactions in the Greek world were monetary, but from its introduction in the sixth century coinage was widely used: classical Athens, where the oarsmen of the navy’s ships and men performing various civilian services were paid, was perhaps the first state in which large numbers of citizens handled coins on a regular basis. Payments regularly had to be made in cash, and in a state which issued its own coins normally in local currency. Inter-state transactions therefore required money-changers, and we also encounter bankers, who accepted deposits and made loans. The Athenian bank of Pasion and Phormio, each of whom began as a slave but ended as a citizen, features in a number of lawcourt speeches (first Isoc. XVII. Trapeziticus).


For another survey similar in scope to this chapter see O. Murray in Boardman et al. (eds.), The Oxford History of the Classical World, 204–33 ch. 9; and there are chapters on the topics covered in this chapter in Kinzl (ed.), A Companion to the Classical Greek World.

On families in Greece see Lacey, The Family in Classical Greece; Patterson, The Family in Greek History. On the ‘Gortyn code’ (JC iv 72) see Willetts, The Law Code of Gortyn, with Greek text, facing English translation and commentary. For an up-to-date study of Spartan questions see Hodkinson, Property andWealth in Classical Sparta.

On Athenian metics see Whitehead, The Ideology of the Athenian Metic. The many studies of slavery include Wiedemann, Slavery, Garlan, Slavery in Ancient Greece; Finley (ed.), Slavery in Classical Antiquity:Views and Controversies, is a collection of articles by various authors. On enslavement and bondage for debt in Athens see E. M. Harris, ‘Did Solon Abolish Debt-Bondage?’ CQj Hi 2002, 415–30 = his Democracy and the Rule of Law in Classical Athens, 249–69.

On the various sources of livelihood see Hopper, Trade and Industry in Classical Greece, and on many Athenian matters see Isager and Hansen, Aspects of Athenian Society in the Fourth CenturyBC. For recent surveys see Scheidel et al. (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World, esp. chs. 12–14. There are chapters on various topics in Cartledge et al. (eds.), Money, Labour and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece (in which, for the occupations attested in Athens, see E. M. Harris, ‘Workshop, Marketplace and Household: The Nature of Technical Specialization in Classical Athens and Its Influence on Economy and Society’, pp. 67–99 at 68–71, 88–99). Articles on various aspects of interpretation are collected by Scheidel and von Reden (eds.), The Ancient Economy. For the men employed in producing fine pottery see R. M. Cook, ‘Die Bedeutung der bemalten Keramik fur den griechischen Handel’, JDAI lxxiv 1959, 114–23 at 118–19.

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