A Short Introduction: Citizenship as a Concept in Ancient History I – Athens: Politēs, Isēgora and Parrhēsia. (Part 1)

“Who is the citizen and what is the meaning of the term? For here again there may be a difference of opinion. He who is a citizen in a democracy will often not be a citizen in an oligarchy”

(Aristotle, Pol. 3.1274a, trans. Everson)

CITIZENSHIP in the ancient world is a complex issue – in many ways simpler, in many others much more complicated than our concept of that term today. Indeed, it is the first caveat in this, that we do not attempt to impose our understanding of citizenship on the societies of millennia ago. Today, for example, we have international concepts such as Human Rights declarations to which most, though not all nations, are signatories. Such an idea would have been totally inconceivable to an ancient. An individual’s protection came from being an included part of the community around him, be that as present in that community, or through treaty offering protection, to a more limited level, outside of that community, but knowing that citizenship of a given community offered the highest level of protection and support as was possible under any given circumstances.

The concept of citizenship was one which went through many processes of change and development over the time from Archaic Greece to Imperial Rome. Furthermore, here I concentrate on the Athenian and in the next post Roman ideas of citizenship – they are the best recorded, and outside of Hellas and Rome, the term ‘citizenship’ tends to give way rather to the idea of ‘subject’ of an all powerful monarch, something which is a totally different question. Where other ideas are mentioned, it is as comparison to the two main areas rather than an individual study of these.

‘‘Who (or what) is a citizen (politēs) is therefore clear from these arguments: we can now state that he who possesses the right to share in political (archē) and judicial office (krisis) is a citizen of that polis, and a polis is a group of such people that is sufficient to maintain independence of life, speaking generally’’ (Arist. Pol. 1275b17–24). This was the definition given by Aristotle, but it was a long, drawn out and often painful process to reach the point where this could be viewed as one credible definition of the citizen in Hellas. Indeed, despite its modern sounding connotations of the definition of a citizen, this single extant definition from Classical Greece is rather the epitome of a political-philosophical ideal of the citizen as opposed to any defining description of any contemporary polis structure. This is the point where the two aspects of polis (as the actual physical city and secondly as the citizen body) truly merge two become one entity, the one needing the other to exist.

What then were the first steps along this path?

In the Greek world, going back to the end of the eighth century BC, any concept of a citizen body was exceptionally hard to find. The rule still lay in the hands of the small number of powerful citizens (eg at Athens, the Eupatridai (‘well-born’)) and law-codes, constitutions and the intrinsically important concept of eunomia (good or right living) were almost nowhere to be found. The first nation which made steps towards eunomia was Sparta. In the mid seventh century, the Spartan supreme monarchy evolved into a constitutional diarchy. With this came the necessity of a concept of citizenship – the decision had to be made as to what allowed one man to belong to the Spartiates and yet excluded another. As the Spartans were expanding, it was those who would best serve in the heavy phalanx on the battlefield who were to be the constituent parts of the citizen body in order that the polis be able to defend the fertile plains it needed to feed the developing citizen body. That a man be asked to train and fight on the battlefield for the polis required in return that he be given certain statutory civil rights, such as a grant of that land, a position to vote on major decisions in the assembly. The earliest citizen body with civic rights was based upon the premise that those who fought and died in the phalanx had the right to be stated as belonging to a body of like men and that they had by definition certain (somewhat restricted by our definition) rights under a codified law system accepted by the rulers and the adult male populace as a whole. The development of heavily armed hoplite armies throughout the Hellenic poleis required similar levels of rights being granted to those who fought. The rights in themselves varied from one state to another, depending upon the systems of government which subsequently became the dominant, but the idea of written and published rights accepted and agreed by all members of that citizen body were the common ground in the evolving idea of the citizen body, however much they differed from neighbouring states. The further questions were soon to raise their heads – What about women? What about foreigners from outside the citizen body, but resident in the polis? What about those who were too poor to provide armour to fight in the phalanx? What rights were to be allowed to those who had fought but were now too old? Not to mention the large numbers of slaves to be found in any Greek city. On the broader stage, as many poleis were setting colonies, what level of citizen rights were to be granted to the colonial citizens when in the mother city? And likewise the citizens of the mother city in an expanded or powerful colony? These were questions which gradually offered a large number of solutions depending on the governmental system of each polis. (see ML13)

The citizenship was, as the social structure was based on the oikos, or household, and a family structure, generally something which was acquired by birth, though not necessarily at birth. A new born babe cannot be granted full citizen rights (today we have the same – a citizen may not vote before 16 or 18 depending on the country they inhabit). The idea of a full citizenship was granted solely to adult males is the first thing of note. The oikos structure had been the basis of the society since the so called Homeric times (Austin & Vidal-Naquet,1977, 40), though by the time of the polis as a political entity, that term had changed somewhat (the idea of the noble oikos in Homer is very different to ‘…roughly a man, his children and his grandchildren – this at all levels in society except the slave’ (Forrest, WG The Emergence of Greek Democracy, World University Library, 1966, 51) for the oikia of the Archaic period.

The large group of the poor was, in Archaic times, a relatively easy question to deal with from what very scant evidence we have. At Thessaly, this subjugated populace was termed the penestai (‘poor toilers’). The evidence points to their being peasant farmers who contributed  a fraction of their produce to the state, in return for which they were granted the least amount of political rights. In time of trial, they were looked upon to serve in the army, but were in a state of almost perpetual revolt against their overlords (Aris. Pol. 1269a36). Whether they were simply a section of underclass of the Thessalian populace, or were an indigenous populace which were subjugated by an invading Thessalian horde is not as yet known.

At Athens, the stasis between the eupatridai and hoi polloi was solved through the reforms of Solon which classified the citizens according to wealth as opposed to birth. It can be argued that these were in themselves questionable – would the eupatridai not be the most likely to fill the two top classes which also dominated the archonships? What were the rights and position for the poorest, the thetes? The fairness on an economic level and on a level of to whom the ruling magistracies were open may seem a key part in OUR interpretation, but the fact that birth meant citizenship, and citizenship meant the participation in the Ekklesia – eventually with the right of parrhêsia – the right of free speech and to address the Ekklesia when it gathered was the key factor for the Athenians of the time (presumably after the seisachtheia and the removal of the debt bondage). It was the fact that they were politēs of Athens and belonged to that group who were also Athenian. It is this sense of the belonging to a specific polis which was the meaningful idea to a Greek citizen of the Classical period, be that Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Argos inter alia.

There was one inalienable right for all Athenian citizens: that of addressing the Ekklesia (isēgora). This right was arguably the one solid continuum throughout the democratic period at Athens. Even in the late 5th century when the actual true effectiveness of the democracy can in some ways be questioned, (Thuc. 2.65 ‘what in name was a democracy became in actuality rule by the first man’) the right to speak before the assembled citizen body was never challenged nor denied in as far as the sources tell us:

“He [ie a lawgiver] does not exclude from the bema the man who lacks ancestors who served as strategoi, nor indeed the man who works at some craft in order to earn his daily sustenance. Rather these men are most particularly welcomed and for this reason he [the prytaneis] asks repeatedly. :Whi would address this Ekklesia?” (Aeskhines, 1.27)

Despite this, however, there are very few instances where the records give any indication as to the frequency of its use other than by the leading political orators of their day such as Perikles and Kleon. Thucydides, our main source for the 5th century, records few occasions where the Ekklesia was addressed by any other than these great politicians and influence of any other than these latter seems to be minimal, even at its highest level, though it can also be argued that, as the speeches which remain extant and available to us, are to do with major points in politics or warfare, would there be the expectation that an average citizen would address the Ekklesia, whereas the mundane daily matters on which common folk may have spoken are not recorded by the historians and orators of the day, thus explaining the lack of apparent speaking by those outside the main political circles? The reason for this has been called to question by certain historians: as Cornford has stated in his 1907 work Thucydides Mythistoricus:

‘…the speakers [in Thucydides] are, almost always, the leaders of parties or the representatives of states; there is no room in the plan [ie Thucydides’ plan in writing] for any statement of the views and aims of minorities, or of the non official sections of a majority. It may be that our secret lies in those dark places which the restrictions of this method compel Thucydides to leave in darkness.’ (Cornford, FM, Thucydides Mythistoricus, Routledge Revival, 2013, Kindle ed.) (My italics)

The second question, besides the apparent rarity of lesser citizens addressing the Ekklesia (though as Dikaiopolis in the “Akharnians” shows, it must have happened as his addressing the Ekklesia represented by the chorus of Akharnians is nothing of a surprise), must rest in the reliability of what those who actually addressed the masses on the Pnyx said. Whilst, as we have seen, knowledge of any situation was expected in order that the vote might be a reasoned one, evidently we must ask who, in this period prior to the internet, blogs, 24 hour news and media sound bites, actually decided what that knowledge required by the citizens was. Inevitably, our supposition must be that it was those who in actuality addressed the meetings of the Ekklesia and hence we must treat the information we have from the sources with an even greater level of scepticism than at other times. The ancient writers did not claim to record verbatim what was actually said by their speakers, but rather that what they wrote captured the essence of what was said, or even what they were sure must have been said in order for the subsequent actions and votes to have occurred (“As to the various speeches made on the eve of the war, or in its course, I have found it difficult to retain a memory of the precise words which I had heard spoken; and so it was with those who brought me reports. But I have made the persons say what it seemed to me most opportune for them to say in view of each situation; at the same time, I have adhered as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said. As to the deeds done in the war, I have not thought myself at liberty to record them on hearsay from the first informant, or on arbitrary conjecture. My account rests either on personal knowledge, or on the closest possible scrutiny of each statement made by others. The process of research was laborious, because conflicting accounts were given by those who had witnessed the several events, as partiality swayed or memory served them.” Thuc. I.22). Whilst we may look on such with disdain amongst historians of the modern period, it must be borne in mind that in the ancient world there was no expectation that speeches would be recorded as verbatim documents, hence we must question whether they realised that there would be a level of bias from a writer, that they were cognisant of the likelihood of a level of deception, or simply that they realised the improbability of any writer being able to record exact transcriptions of these speeches. That any form of interruption or heckling is absent from the records (listen to any recordings of a session from the United Kingdom House of Commons and multiply that one hundred fold), no matter how contentious the issue being debated, must lead us to question the veracity and accuracy of the recorded meetings which are available to us.

Furthermore, we must again be careful in our expectation of the veracity of the information given to the Ekklesia. As early as the Odyssey, we see that Odysseus’ use of cunning, deception, trickery and even downright overt lies in order to achieve his ultimate goal of returning to Ithaka and his wife Penelope are not viewed with horror or disgust. His use of mētis is simply a weapon in the arsenal available to him to achieve that goal; his kleos, the reputation which all heroes had sustained through poetry and song, is in no way tarnished by the use of falsehoods; indeed it can be argued that it is enhanced by such as, without it, he would not have achieved the results which rendered him the great hero; in an obtuse way, in one of the two great Greek epics, the ultimate truths are revealed and sustained by the protagonist’s lies! Such being the case for the major heroes who underlined and supported the Hellenic mind set, the question arises whether this was to be something which was continued throughout the democratic period, not only as a reality but also as an accepted expectation on the part of the citizen body. This idea of using ‘lies told as truth’ in the archaic period is not confined to Homer. As Hesk has pointed out,

‘Theognis advises his audience not to trust the outward appearance of fellow citizens and friends [73-74]’  (Deception and Democracy in Classical Athens, Kindle ed)

The frequent reference to this as a concept in the earlier lyric poetry of the seventh century does seem to indicate that such an attitude was well known, accepted, but something of which Athenians knew they should be wary. It was to continue well into the time of the Athenian heyday, as can be clearly seen in the comedies of Aristophanes, in which such attacks and depictions are clearly evidently understood by the audience; an audience which would consist of citizens from all social groups, but who yet could understand the ideas behind the comedic interplay with no difficulty, seen in the number of plays which won accolades at the great dramatic festivals. This is one of the key demonstrations of the major differences which underlie the difficulties in truly understanding the Hellenes of the Classical period; if the Romans, who were in many ways contemporaries of the Hellenes, could not truly understand their neighbours over the Aegean and Tyrrhenian Seas, how then can we? We may read their words, we may use the interpretive skills of the historian to examine the words which they have left us, but the simple truth is that we are so far removed from the realities of life, political, social, economic and religious, that we must seriously question whether we truly can understand what we have available, though inevitably we must continue to try.

Further to this was the right of parrhêsia; the right of freedom of speech, either before the Ekklesia or outside of it. The implication in the Greek term is not just the freedom to speak one’s mind, but the right to be rather blunt in the way one did it. This did not have any minimal effect in the eyes of the Athenians themselves:

Parrhêsia is not toleration of diversity. No wall of separation divided a protected public speech in the Assembly from a potentially unprotected private speech – or the reverse.’ (Saxonhouse, A W, Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens, Cambridge, 2006 (Kindle ed))

Parrhêsia was the right which allowed Aristophanes to be so damningly critical of the politicians of his day, and of the demos itself in his comedies, using terminology which today would in no way be deemed acceptable with our laws of slander and liable; indeed it was carried to extremes which many readers today find shocking, and which, when decided as being subversive and corrupting in ancient Athens led to the execution of Sokrates. Again, the main caveat – it did not imply the concept which we put on the idea on ‘freedom of speech’ nowadays; as Finlay has stated:

‘[there was no activity] in which the state could not legitimately intervene provided the decision was taken properly…Freedom meant the rule of law and participation in the decision making process, not the possession of inalienable rights.’ (Democracy: Ancient and Modern, 1988, 116)

The references which we have to the use of parrhēsia are rather its role in ensuring the benefit of the community in its entirety rather than an individual or a small group of individuals. If the apparent idea were accepted at face value, it could almost be perceived that the Athenians desired a ‘hive mind’ where all played a part, but the good of all was the only intrinsically important outcome, though such would be at best massively over simplistic and at worst truly wrong on all levels. The use of rhetoric to sway, to express an opinion and to conceal the truth on many occasions is the evident proof.

The lead players in this were, if Aristophanes’ caricatures as comedic heroes are to be believed, those men who made up the hoplite class. As there were apparently no difficulties for the audiences in taking this idea on, we can quite safely accept that this is most likely true. As the numbers of those who qualified for the hoplite phalanx and were thus able to pay for their own armour and equipment (Stockton, D, The Classical Athenian Democracy, Oxford, 1990, 15 estimates c. 9,000 at Marathon in 490 to some 13,000 by 431; Thuc (2.13.6-8) refers to a further 16,000 guardian hoplites made up of those under or over military age and metics who manned the forts) grew there must have been a major increase in those who had shifted from the lower economic classes to be able to qualify.

As Ober has pointed out (Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, 1989, 296-7) the right of isēgoria and the right of parrhēsia can be seen as almost diametrically opposed. If the citizen as an individual exercises his right to parrhēsia through isēgoria, he is an individual and hence becomes a subject to the suspicion of the collective citizen body as he might well be attempting to use his parrhēsia for self interest and aggrandisement as opposed to the common good felt by all good citizens (hence Isokrates extolling homonoia (like thinking) over parrhēsia for the good of the democracy).

To be continued when I get the time.


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