Presidential address delivered before the American Historical Association at Washington on December 28, 1939. American Historical Review 45, no. 2 (January 1940): 269-78.

Polis and Idia in Periclean Athens: The Relation between Public Service and Private Activities

Demosthenes ascribed the triumphs of Periclean Athens to the wholeheartedness with which its citizens responded to the calls of their country: rich and poor alike held their lives and property not as their own but in trust for the state, which in turn was simply the reflex of their will. Their will to serve was steeled in the fire of devotion to their fatherland. All classes and ages alike were lovers of the “divine city”. The warriors of Marathon and their children and their children’s children were great because they willed strongly and unquestioningly to do great things.

Viewing the achievements of imperial Athens in the longer retrospect of our own time and, accordingly, subordinating exploits in war on sea and land to the more enduring achievements in art, letters, and ideas, modern historians, while accepting gratefully Demosthenes’s testimony as to the marvelous spirit of self-sacrifice of his ancestors, are compelled to probe more deeply and to widen their field of vision. The moment they bring Sparta into the picture the inadequacy of Demosthenes’s ideology becomes apparent. The Spartans displayed an even stronger and more universal readiness to devote themselves to the commonwealth than did the Athenians, yet they have nothing to show for it remotely comparable to the contribution of Athens to the world’s culture.

Under the guidance of scholars like Grote, Wilamowitz, Beloch, Meyer, De Sanctis, and Jaeger, we have come to see what Athens owed to its great statesmen–to Solon thanks to whom it lacked helots, to Cleisthenes thanks to whom it lacked perioeci, to Themistocles but for whom it might have perished in its youth, to Pericles but for whom it might have disintegrated prematurely; what it owed to its aristocratic tradition, which, divorced from blood, provided an ideal of personal culture for the many and, as interpreted by great poet-teachers who lived imaginatively in the heroic age, realistically each in his own time (Homer, Solon, Aeschylus, Sophocles), elevated the mind of the nation and gave vitality and intellectual substance to religious problems, practices, and beliefs; what it owed to dominion of the seas and empire, in stimulus to “enterprises of great pitch and moment”, in multiplication of contacts with men of other lands and cultures, in increase of revenue, goods, and man power; and finally what it owed to the completeness of its democracy. For five generations, despite temporary reactions, Athens followed a political course which led to democracy. The equality of all the freeborn natives of Attica under the law was recognized early, but a long time elapsed before its implications were fully perceived. After partial removals, successively made, of checks on the popular power, the capacity of citizens for self-government was periodically appraised. The broadening of civic privileges and civic responsibilities, of political education and political activity, went hand in hand. By positive legislation the state was reordered to enable the demos to act effectively. It divested itself of purely local affairs by transferring them to municipalities organized for the purpose, and it applied the representative idea to link outlying and urban populations in a central bicameral deliberative body. The idea that one citizen was as much entitled as another to serve the state administratively became established, and in elections by lot and rotations in office it found powerful sanctions; but economic and geographical disabilities impaired its full realization until Pericles crowned the democratic structure by establishing state indemnities for all kinds of public service, excepting only attendance at the meetings of the ecclesia and the tenure of military commands. Thereafter every mature citizen, poor or rich, urbanite or countryman, could, if he wished, take his turn in judicial, political, and religious administration.

The age of Pericles was an age of idealization, of the state by Thucydides, of its citizens by Pericles, of humanity in the heroic characters of Sophocles, and of the human frame and features in the sculptures of Phidias. As we know, idealization may be revolt against distressful realities; and there were distressful realities in Athens: men were as violent in their hates as in their loves; in war they sometimes executed the innocent to intimidate others; with a Thersites for every Odysseus they resorted to vilification as an addition to, or a substitute for, argument; they laughed at obscenity, and their gods and goddesses laughed with them; they refrained from assassination, but they despoiled one another of life and property in the courts; they loved liberty for themselves, but they denied it to their subject-allies; they were the schoolmasters of Hellas, but they taught with a rod of iron. Yet for all this, idealization was in Athens rather a reflex of realities than a reaction against them. The typical citizen was a man of many qualities, “capable of adapting himself”, as Pericles said, “to the most varied forms of action with the utmost of versatility and grace”: he had to be a soldier or a sailor and not in name only; he had to be a politician–even Socrates, who eschewed politics, did not escape being a councilor; he had to be conversant with the laws since every man had to press or defend his own case in court, and in Athens suits flew like hailstones in a storm; he had to be a competent public speaker if he wanted to amount to anything; he had to know the content and style of the great dramas not merely because they were addressed to him but because he was the judge of their merits and a participant in their production. Of the Spartans it may be said: “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die.” The Athenians prefaced their every important action by collective discussion, and, according to Thucydides, “knowing, not that words and deeds go ill together, but that acts are foredoomed to failure when undertaken undiscussed”, they put their lives in jeopardy with minds clear as well as unified.1

Their city-state (polis) was an all-inclusive society. It was at once a state, a club (for men), and a church–with many cults and much diversified ritual but no clergy (in our sense) and no creed. All that pertained to the polis was politics; and it is in this comprehensive sense that this term and its derivative, political, are regularly used in this address. Contrasted with politics were idia, the private concerns of the individual. Included in these was household management (economics)–a tiny acorn from which has sprung a mighty oak. It was a commonplace at this time that when the polis was prosperous the individual citizen prospered also, and that when it suffered disaster he was ruined. A man’s first economic duty was, therefore, to work for the well-being of his polis. There can be no gainsaying the fact that Athens expected its citizens to do their primary duty. They were summoned to general assembly weekly; one seventh of them were enrolled as jurors and allotted daily for service as required; they were drafted for the army and the fleet–a goodly number regularly to man the garrisons and patrol squadron, entire age-classes, even all age-classes, as military operations, which were conducted for two out of every three years of Pericles’s regime, demanded; each of the 170 Attic municipalities (demes) furnished, annually as the lot determined, besides two or three local officials, its numerical proportion of the members of the Council of Five Hundred, which sat in the capital daily; and each of the ten tribes furnished, besides three tribal officials, its quota to the scores of boards of ten, which were filled by annual allotment for national administration. There were as many national holydays as there were days of assembly, and, apart from these occasions of general thanksgiving, or propitiation, and diversion (“relaxations for our weary spirits”, Pericles called them), every municipality had its local fetes, and numerous kin-groups with membership widely scattered throughout Attica united on specified days for worship and conviviality. One of the gene, of which there were at least fifty, had on its annual calendar eight days for reunion and sacrifice. Add together services, men, and days, and you can gauge the impact of politics on idia in Athens.

All this has been said to enable me to ask the question with which this address is primarily concerned: What scope was left for idia? A citizen’s idia embraced two spheres. In the first sphere we may place his personal conduct, which was largely his own affair, regulated mainly by a singularly tolerant public opinion; his private thoughts and feelings, which he might express freely in speech, in verse, in clay, bronze, or marble; and his techne or profession, as to which he had freedom of choice and use, as had his children, whose education was wholly his responsibility. In virtue of these liberties each citizen in Athens was said “to live as he himself wished”. In them were rooted the independence, diversity, and originality of Athenian culture.

Periclean Athens was emphatically not a totalitarian state. It is the essence of its greatness that it harmonized the self-abnegation judged necessary for political effectiveness with freedom of the human spirit.

In the second sphere of idia belongs household management, a name which had once been properly descriptive, but which in the fifth century remained current notwithstanding that in “houses”, enlarged by additional workbenches into factories (ergasteria), articles were produced for consumption not in the household alone, or even in Athens and Attica alone, but in all parts of the Mediterranean world. Nonetheless economics, as then conceived–as it was conceived by Aristotle–was not political economy. Despite the singular responsiveness of its government to public opinion, the state did little to promote the material welfare of its citizens. It never sought to reserve the home market to its farmers or industrialists by protective tariffs. It did not subsidize Athenian shipping. No restrictions were placed on the slave trade. It imposed Attic currency, weights, and measures on its subject allies, but in doing so it acted in the interest of international commerce whether this was transacted by citizens or noncitizens. It did take measures to assure the arrival in the Peiraeus of public necessities, chiefly foodstuffs, shipbuilding materials, and metals, but it did not care who brought them; and, in fact, resident aliens (metics) and foreigners carried on much of the foreign trade of Athens. Athens practiced laissez-faire in the economic sphere. Even her commercial treaties were concerned not with goods and their exchange but with the laws and procedure by which the rights and claims of traders were defined and settled. The citizens might be an aggregate of businessmen, as are the members of a modern club or congregation, yet, as this analogy shows, the political authorities could function unconcerned with the economic efforts and ambitions of individuals.

It would be absurd to suggest that the Athenians individually were indifferent to business, for there is ample evidence that, unlike the Spartans, they were employed generally in gainful occupations. They had a statute penalizing idleness. “The Athenians”, says Thucydides, “are engaged simultaneously in private and public activities while those who give attention chiefly to business have no lack of insight into public affairs. . . . Men who devote themselves exclusively to business are regarded not as staid and solid burgers but as useless members of society.” Pericles obtained full liberty for his political career by making no effort to increase his inherited wealth, and Socrates, who inherited little, neglected his profession in the interest of his philosophic mission; but neither was in this respect a representative Athenian.

As farmers, traders, seamen, contractors, manufacturers, artisans, laborers, the Athenians had to work for their living, but they took an amount of time off for public service and, we may add, for talk, sport, and conviviality, which would have wrecked our economic systems. Yet, though they lived in a poor country, inadequately watered, crisscrossed with mountains, redeemed only by a superb harbor and by deposits of pottery clay, marble, and silver, they were reputed a rich and prosperous nation.

The conflict between economics and politics so apparent to us seems not to have presented a problem either to them and their contemporaries or to the next generations of Greeks. The chances are, therefore, that its solution is to be sought in conditions of work and living which we do not share with them. We therefore proceed to follow this line of inquiry.

They had among their workers resident aliens, but so have we. We, accordingly, pass the metics by. Theirs, however, was a slave society; ours is not. Here is a differential which demands attention. It would, I think, have sufficed to solve the problem for men who thought like John C. Calhoun. Calhoun ignored the poor whites when he contended that slavery was “the best guarantee of equality among the whites”–“the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world”. In Periclean Athens the poor man was not a “poor white”, and he could not be, and was not, ignored by anybody. A large proportion, probably a majority, of citizens, were nonslaveholders. There were few, if any, plantations in Athens. The Attic farms were normally small holdings, too small to need or permit slave labor. There Adam delved and Eve span, and Adam was an Atheman citizen. He bred, be it observed, not isolated on his land but in Athens itself or in one of the numerous towns or villages of Attica, engrossed in the great society; and when he appeared on the Pnyx he was the shrewd, enterprising, fearless Dikaiopolis who plays the leading role in Aristophanes’s Acharnians. His fellow worker in trade and industry, and especially the manual laborer, was more vulnerable to slave competition than he was, but the evidence is that he too held his own, probably because of the truth of the Homeric maxim that “the day of slavery takes from a man the half of his virtue”. In Athens political equality was maintained despite slavery. The poor were neither socially outcast, politically dumb, nor mentally inert. They got their higher education fundamentally in the service of the state. In this great school for adults all citizens were students, and all students were holders of fellowships. They received from the state the wherewithal to meet their expenses and actualize their constitutional rights; but what of their loss in productive work in shop, factory, shipping, and agriculture?

It may be said that slaves made good this loss, to the profit of their owners; but they could make it good only in the areas of activity in which they were engaged. The strongholds of slave labor in Attica were first, domestic service, where slaves added to the amenities of life of the well-to-do; second, industry, particularly those industries like the manufacture of pottery, arms, and furniture, where the demand was so steady that the proprietors did not have to carry slaves during long periods of unemployment; and third, mining, where, as in large slave-manned industrial establishments, hard, uninterrupted labor was essential. In other words, slave labor in Attica was fitted into an economy which it did not dominate. It was rather supplementary to than severely competitive with free labor, and its bearing on our problem is that it staffed the mental and other liberty and leisure destroying services which citizens could not perform well or at all because of their political engagements.

Land and climate condition the ways of life of a people. They create a mold in which operations, particularly agricultural operations, are set, and once set, they seem to be as immutable as nature itself. The wineskins, Aristophanes’s wineskins, really goatskins turned inside out, their hairy tuner surfaces smeared with pine resin–these same wineskins, encountered in two-wheeled rustic carts on Greek roads today, are a symbol of the persistence throughout ages in Attica of agricultural techniques. Land and climate prescribe one regimen to the Attic farmer, ancient and modern, and a very different regimen to the New England farmer; and a comparison of the two will help to explain why the political distractions of the Attic countryman in ancient times were compatible with the work of the Athenian and would be incompatible with the work of the New Englander. The length and severity of our winters, the almost complete absence of precipitation during the Attic summer, and the paucity of cloudless days in the one case and the paucity of cloudy days in the other are perhaps the most agriculturally significant climatic differences.

An Attic panspermia, offering of all fruits, consisted of barley meal, olive oil, wine, honey, and cheese. Attic husbandry included beekeeping and herding, but its three staples were gram (mostly barley), wine, and olive oil. Herding was conditioned by the climate, which made stabling, and hence haymaking, superfluous, and by grazing which was suitable for goats and sheep but not for cows and horses. Since the flocks roamed the uncultivable mountain sides, they were unproductive of usable manure. The Attic husbandman was, accordingly, free from many of the tasks which beset and confine the New England farmer–the handling and hauling of manure, the raising and storage of fodder, and what Oliver Herford calls “chambermaiding the barnyard stock”. To make good his shortage of fertilizers the grain farmer had to let his land he fallow in alternate years, thus reducing his area of tillage by fifty per cent. He had really only two periods when he could work. In October-November after the autumnal rains had softened the parched earth, when he plowed or hoed and sowed, and at harvest time in May-June, when he plied the sickle, bound the sheaves, hauled them to the windswept stone-paved threshing floor, winnowed the grain, and carried it to bins in his house in town or village. His farm ordinarily comprised a vineyard and an olive grove, and his long vacations in winter and summer were shortened by their exigencies. September was the month for the vintage and November the month for picking the olives. In March he sheared his sheep, when he had any, and then too he pruned his vines. But even so, he had little imperative to do for six months (April, July, August, December, January, February) of every twelve, and, what is equally important for our problem, he was not rushed in summer by threat of bad weather or tied to his homestead in winter by ministering to the needs of livestock.

Attic farming was thus a seasonal occupation. So was seafaring. For four months of the year (November to March) the risks of navigation were so great that the Athenians let the sea alone. Then the ships–merchant vessels, fishing boats, and triremes–were docked, and their crews were free to join in the life and activities of the community. War, too, one of the most exigent forms of public service, was in large measure a seasonal occupation. Campaigning on land, a farmer’s obligation primarily, was adjusted nicely to the summer periods of agricultural inactivity; but naval operations, a more recent development which involved particularly the seafaring population, had to fall in the navigating season when the rowers might have been gainfully employed.

Work in trade and industry was not seasonal. The shopkeeper had to be at his counter at all times since buyers might arrive at any time, and, since buying was a matter of bargaining and the price of an article was, within limits, what the vendor could get for it, he had to spend much time in chaffering. Success in selling advantageously required knowledge of costs, tact in handling customers, and quick wits–in short vending was an art which yielded best returns when the proprietor was his own clerk. There was an intimate connection in ancient Athens between selling and making, and the maker of vases, kettles, and shoes was often their seller, and industry and trade in specific commodities were regularly concentrated in special quarters, squares, or streets. Articles of industry were all handmade; hence the man who worked by himself was at little or no disadvantage compared to the man who worked in association with others. His tools were more like a carpenter’s or plumber’s kit than the machinery of a modern factory. His investment in capital was small. Expansion might occur through the entrance of new men into the craft, through the retention of apprentices as partners, or by the purchase of slaves. Day labor was furnished by citizens, metics, and slaves, who, for example, participated in building the Erechtheion in 409 B.C. in the numbers respectively of 27, 40, and 15. Then contractor, foreman, and workman, citizen, metic, and slave worked side by side and for the same pay.

In summary, we may say that to understand trade and industry in Periclean Athens we must think away the effects of the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism. Appreciating this differential for our immediate purpose, we perceive that the Athenian shopkeeper, manufacturer, and laborer, unlike the personnel of merchandising and industry today, was commonly his own master and hence was able, if he chose, to respond to the demands of the state, time and energy consuming though they were, without doing irreparable damage to business. An economic society of small entrepreneurs, operating individually and collectively with a negligible overhead, could sustain suspensions of work which another, dominated by great corporations and companies with vast plants, huge stock, planned deliveries, and large aggregates of employees bound in a salary-wage nexus, could not. Nonetheless, the Athenian traders and artisans were so continuously absorbed in their work and in increasing their profits that they frequently forewent their political opportunities. On the occasion of meetings of the general assembly officials rounded the rabble in the market place into the Pnyx by means of a rope dripping with red ochre, but this device has sense only as an accelerator of the tardy. The shopkeeper and the artisan could easily dodge into their places of business if they were so minded. In fact, their class fell behind the rest so markedly in political education, a by-product of public service, that it could be and was seriously maintained (mainly by oligarchs and oligarchic political philosophers) that it ought not to have the citizenship at all; and to it particularly was applied the opprobrious epithet banausoi, in undergraduate parlance, “greasy grinds”.

Athenian economy, thus conditioned by slavery, land, and climate and by contemporary practices in making and exchanging goods, was flexible enough to bear the brunt of a polity in which each and every citizen was expected to be an active partner. It seems to me that in his time and circumstance the ordinary Athenian was not a bad businessman: he tilled land which is uncultivated today, and without his intelligent effort Athens could not have become, as it did, the chief emporium of the Eastern Mediterranean; but his whole heart was not in money-making; and when he acquired wealth, the social climate in which he lived favored his spending it “not”, to quote Thucydides, “for ostentation but where there was real need for it”. Love of honor was a stronger motive than love of ease and luxury. “For the love of honor alone”, to quote Thucydides again, “is not staled by age, and it is by honor, not as some say, by gold, that the helpless end of life is cheered.” There were many ways of attaining high distinction in Athens, but they led not through the market place but through the arenas of civic and military struggle. Periclean Athens equipped what we may call the citizens’ religious-social-political club which structures of great solidity and beauty but left, it seems, the residential districts of the city as they had been–as they arose higgledy-piggledy on the ashes of the Persian conflagration. Politics not only diminished economic effort; its ideal of equality encouraged simplicity of dress, table, and housing. Judged not by contemporary but by Hellenistic, Roman, or modern standards, the Periclean Athenians produced a low material civilization. But the way in which “their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth, but lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives” is (to complete a quotation from Thucydides by another from F. C. Burkitt) “a protest against the modern view that the really important thing is to be comfortable”.

W. S. Ferguson was professor of history at Harvard University.



  1. I owe the translations of Thucydides in the main to B. Jowett, A. E. Zimmern, and C. F. Smith. []