Democracy’s Slaves: A Political History of Ancient Greece 
by Paulin Ismard, translated by Jane Marie Todd.
Harvard, 188 pp., £25.95, January 2017, 978 0 674 66007 6
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At first sight​ – and indeed after careful investigation – ancient Athens looks anything but an ideal spot for the incubation and development of democracy, whether direct, representative, or the uneasy compromise that eventually emerged. Athens prided itself on having been the sole city not to fall to invaders during the general collapse of Mycenaean dynasties in Greece c.1200 BCE; and even if this claim, like that to autochthony, is questionable, it indicates, at least in the upper crust, a stubborn adherence to, and preference for, the type of rule that was vanishing: that of local royal aristocracies obsessed with blood and lineage, hunting, horsemanship, and the peculiar sense of honour contingent on successful warfare and the code of the warrior. To this culture both the gold funeral masks of Mycenae, with their terrifying impression of inbred contemptuous power, and the surviving traditions of that world in Homer’s Iliad – hugely popular in a society from which it could hardly have been more different – bear eloquent witness.

The tradition thus preserved became an extraordinarily persistent and pervasive legacy. It embodied all the social prejudices associated with a class of blue-blooded landowners, in particular their ingrained hierarchical outlook, rooted in agriculture and warfare, that nursed a withering contempt for those who soiled their hands with any kind of trade or commerce, not least when such people began to threaten their previously undisputed position of authority. Their ideal was a self-sufficient landed estate, with flocks, cattle and arable land, farmed by nameless workers who got protection in time of war as a quid pro quo. But from the seventh century BCE onwards, colonialism, with the consequent expansion of trade and horizons, led to new, competitive ways of making a good living. Among upper-class conservatives this was seen, rightly, as a threat to their unquestioned pre-eminence. Thersites, the Iliad’s one real radical, is an early symptom of coming change: but he is whipped for his presumption by Odysseus, and the rank and file applaud this as a fine joke.

When, in the early sixth century, a real effort to deal with Athenian economic distress is made, by the aristocratic politician Solon, it was almost entirely devoted to relieving the hardships incurred by unlucky small farmers. His seisachtheia, or ‘shaking off of burdens’, involved the cancellation of defaulted agricultural debts (a common result of bad harvests) and the abolition of enslavement for such defaults. Details are not clear, but the possible redistribution of land was a fiercely contested issue: it seems that the victims leased the land they were working, and failed to deliver a proportion of their crops to those who, in whatever sense, were financing them.

Solon reorganised Athenian citizens into four property classes, each determined, in theory, by the minimum amount of produce their land was held to yield annually. His categories, ranging from 500 to less than 200 medimnoi (a medimnos is somewhat more than a bushel), only minimally extended traditional social status in the face of economic change, and caused resentment at all levels. Small farmers thought the classes inadequate; the nobility objected to their very existence. Solon’s institutions made little real difference. Major offices of state could be held only by the two top categories, and minor ones by the third; members of the lowest group could attend the assembly but were ineligible for public office.

In Solonian Athens, in other words, as in so many later societies, a prime requirement for voting rights was the ownership of land, the possession of a physical stake in the community. Solon’s bottom category didn’t include those with no property at all. The large and various body of the landless, the plethos, was socially disregarded, and its members objects of particular contempt when they bettered themselves by way of commerce – as became increasingly possible from about 650 BCE onwards. The surprising requirement of a city like Thebes that such men remove themselves from trade for up to ten years before becoming eligible for public office is far more understandable if the first use they made of their acquired wealth was to buy the real estate that would admit them to the franchise. Solon made occasional grants of citizenship to immigrant technical specialists. These are generally interpreted as moves towards a more mercantile economy; but there may well have been a shortage of native talent as a result of alarmed opposition exercised by those in authority, who resented new paths to advancement that bypassed old landed values altogether. When the poet Theognis complained that money was now the root of all evil, it was because of the unrestricted upward mobility it offered.

Until Cleisthenes took the first step in the establishment of democratic rule in 508, a major component of Athenian society – though silent and politically powerless – continued to be the plethos, the landless masses: a variegated group embracing not only agricultural labourers and herdsmen, but also artisans of every sort, including skilled technicians: carpenters, shipwrights, builders, smiths, physicians, scribes, minstrels. As Paulin Ismard reminds us in Democracy’s Slaves, for ‘the Greeks of the archaic period, intellectual and manual activities did not belong to fundamentally different spheres of activity’. We are so used to privileging expertise that it is hard for us to realise that in ancient Athens (and not only there) technical skills had little or no relation to social status: contempt for the banausic remained endemic. (Before we pride ourselves on our progress, we would do well to remember that not so long ago, English doctors making a house call were shown in by the tradesmen’s entrance.) The mass of the archaic plethos was always there, and in many ways indispensable (it was, inter alia, the prime source of energy), but – in this not so different from the slave population – its low status was taken for granted, and any serious attempt to improve its social condition was liable to trigger among traditionalists a fear of revolution. That it had not previously been exploited as a promising source of social change is striking testimony both to ingrained class prejudice and to the still dominant authoritarianism of the aristocratic tradition.

Though great scholarly attention has been lavished on Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms once in power, both the way he obtained that power and his motive in doing so tend to be brushed over in a few quick generalities. This is not only because of the scarcity of good evidence. The truth is, until that crucial moment in 508, Cleisthenes and other members of the Alcmaeonid family had shown a lot of political ambition, no particular moral preference as to how that ambition should be achieved – Cleisthenes in 525 held the archonship, the chief civil office of state, under the Peisistratid tyrant Hippias – and, most important, very little popular appeal or success. Their record, up to 508, is that of yet another power-seeking aristocratic clan, and they weren’t all that good at it: indeed, in 508 itself, despite having taken part a year or two earlier in the expulsion of the Peisistratids, they were handily outvoted by rival conservatives, whose leader Isagoras was comfortably elected to the archonship. As a flag-bearer for democratic reform, Cleisthenes emerged out of the blue: there was nothing in his previous career, except a general vague objection to tyranny (and his 525 archonship made even that dubious), which could be seen as anticipating the extraordinary and innovative success he now achieved.

What, then, was the secret of his sudden, improbable shift from dismal failure to brilliant achievement? Not, certainly, public admiration for the vague and unsubstantiated notion of democracy as such: in hardscrabble politics, then as now, gratitude was a lively sense of real, tangible and specific favours to come, and nothing that he and the Alcmaeonids had offered held any noticeable attraction. Herodotus’ account is infuriatingly vague: he claims, in an ambiguous verb, that Cleisthenes took uncertain action for the benefit of the demos (a generic term for ‘people’, leaving their political status indeterminate). This action could mean forming any kind of association with oneself, from ‘take into partnership’ to ‘admit to one’s political faction’. The impression Herodotus gives is of distinct embarrassment. We discover why from a key sentence in the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, which states in blunt terms – often blurred in translation – just what it was, unthinkable to the upper crust, that Cleisthenes did: he conceded the franchise to the plethos. In other words, he extended the vote to the landless masses, though exactly how he managed this – it got him branded by conservatives as a traitor to his class, and radically altered Athenian demographics for over a century – remains a tantalising enigma. What is clear, however, and could well have embarrassed Herodotus, is that the first step towards democracy was taken, as a last desperate resort, by an unsuccessful politician in search of votes.

This should not in any way diminish the lustre of what Cleisthenes’ action subsequently achieved. The recognition, against rigid aristocratic conservatism, that the plethos had a right to the franchise – a recognition as fundamental as that enshrined in the Chartists’ ‘One man, one vote’ – had to be at the very centre of the initial democratic movement. But the history of classical Athens in the fifth century BCE shows in no uncertain terms not only the unexpected benefits – the naval war against Persia was largely won by the efforts of rowers and other newly enfranchised men who fought to keep their rights – but also the ease with which the resultant demographics could be exploited by ambitious radicals in the same spirit, and to much the same ends, as Cleisthenes had had in mind. It became virtually impossible, as time went on, for the old aristocracy to outvote the large new radical group. The radicals, moreover, had two fortuitous advantages. Their postwar naval allies, for the most part, were encouraged to pay Athens for protection against further aggression by Persia rather than contribute ships in their defence (large islands such as Lesbos or Samos, with independent fleets of their own, gave the Athenians most trouble); while a steady yield of good silver from the slave-worked Laurion mines in southern Attica provided a solid economic base for Athens’ activities – the four-drachma ‘Attic owl’ was a coin as widely valued as the Maria Theresa dollar.

In the circumstances, Athens’ rapid slide towards imperialism was perhaps inevitable. A new kind of profitable authoritarianism emerged, which offered attractive roles not only to frustrated aristocrats whose traditional principles proved highly adaptable when faced with unprecedented economic advantage, but also to the growing group of aggressive merchants and businessmen like Cleon, hungry for cash and power, who had no traditional principles to overcome in the first place. Their imperial ambitions were cannily developed, and kept on a tight leash, by Pericles and his associates; after Pericles’ death they ran wild, culminating in the disastrous Sicilian expedition that collapsed, with horrific losses, in 413.

But all through these years of political turmoil, the domestic picture remained virtually unchanged, with all its prejudices intact. Athens remained (as Aristophanes’ plays make all too clear) a hive of class prejudice (Euripides’ mother selling vegetables in the market was always good for a laugh); while the contempt among the upper crust for both trade and artisans (however highly skilled), and hence for economic thinking, was still alive and well in Socrates’ day. In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, the old gadfly relentlessly quizzes a young sprig of the nobility, Glaucon son of Ariston, who nurses political ambitions. Has he studied the grain supply? He has not. Has he investigated the city’s revenues, with a view to improving them? ‘No, by God,’ Glaucon explodes, ‘I most certainly have not given consideration to that!’ To be even suspected of such an interest in financial matters is clearly, for him, a class-based insult.

This is​ the world of which Ismard has chosen to explore one particular facet, his English readers now helped by the elegant and discreetly knowledgable translation of Jane Marie Todd. In Democracy’s Slaves, he investigates the men who carried out the general administrative business of the new democracy, including the supervision of elections, the maintenance of civic archives, and responsibility for assaying the proper weight, purity and content of the currency. These were the dēmosioi, Athens’ nearest equivalent to modern civil servants. They also happened to be slaves, a fact not often emphasised in discussions of the Cleisthenic regime, and, Ismard supposes, a cause for some surprise today – a tacit admission of the persistent idealism that clouds analysis of democracy’s much debated Athenian genesis. It also hints at the anachronistic habit (Ismard is not wholly immune) of crediting civic leaders of the time, Cleisthenes above all, with sophisticated abstract thinking, and motivation, of which they were almost certainly innocent, and seriously underestimating the degree to which they were driven by hard political realities. Ismard, obviously bothered by the modern conflict between democracy and technical efficiency, seems to regard the dēmosioi as having provided an essential buffer between the newly democratic citizen body and the claims to power of emergent technocrats; but the traditional class prejudice against the latter was so ingrained that no such buffer was needed, and any attempt to modify the status quo was widely regarded – not only by the aristocracy – as a dangerous social outrage.

Ismard’s book is welcome for both its careful factual survey of the too scanty evidence for the activities of the dēmosioi, and its comparison of their activities with those of similar administrators in other slave societies. He sees the Homeric dēmiourgoi – the public workers whom Eumaeus in the Odyssey describes as among the few immigrants who are always welcome: prophets, physicians, carpenters, minstrels – as in some sense forerunners of the dēmosioi, being differentiated in their activities from mere day labourers, but nevertheless marginal to a society centred on the household, the oikos, of aristocratic lords. Ismard finds relevant here the ambivalent mythical figure of Daedalus, brilliant inventor and artist, a solitary worker whose unusual skill is always at the mercy of his vulnerable social status. He also quotes a unique Cretan inscription of the late sixth century BCE, describing both the duties of one Spensithius on being hired as the town’s public scribe and archivist, and the benefits he was to receive in return. All the details – salary, appointment for life, exclusive rights, special guarantees of protection – indicate a position outside the political structure, potentially dangerous because of its scribal expertise (then beyond the average citizen), and therefore, Ismard argues, probably held by a slave.

Also ambiguous, both then and later, was the status, in the largely uncontrolled medical profession, of the public physician. Herodotus lists the increasing annual salary of one successful practitioner, a native of Croton in south Italy, as he moved – always upward – from position to position. His recompense climbed, in four years, from one to two talents: since a talent was the equivalent of 6000 drachmas, this was a considerable income. One of his appointments was in Peisistratid Athens, but unfortunately Herodotus is not concerned with the civic status of the applicant. We do know, though, that, like Solon, the Peisistratids encouraged the immigration of skilled workers; and it is plausible that the sharp rise in chattel slavery accompanying the expansion of trade and colonialism in the seventh and sixth centuries not only encouraged the emergence of tyrannies, such as those of the Peisistratids and of Polycrates on Samos, but led, through them, as Ismard argues, to ‘the political reorganisation of many civic communities at the dawn of the classical period’. The model for this new political concept was undoubtedly the one promoted, for whatever original motive, by Cleisthenes in Athens.

Thus, as Ismard recognises, a situation had arisen in which ‘the indigent artisan born in Athens was now endowed with political rights equal to those of the aristocrats, irrespective of the size of his fortune or the level of his activity.’

At the same time, the old social and class prejudices had survived undiminished, and were probably intensified among the upper classes by their increasing political frustration after the Persian Wars, caused by the new voting demographics. It is against this background that we need to consider the phenomenon of the dēmosioi, and, in particular, to search for the most convincing explanation of their servile status. What emerges is less the kind of intellectual theorising with which Ismard seems most comfortable, and more the ad hoc revamping of old traditions to innovative ends by practical politicians working, step by step, in unknown territory, and with little in common save personal ambition and an abiding distrust of one another’s motives.

This last factor offers a compelling reason for the resort to slave administrators. Athenian political factions were never notable for their belief in their opponents’ honesty, but with the mutual hostility engendered by Cleisthenes’ unprecedented breach of social norms, the general assumption of trickery on the part of one’s rivals must have become intense: it’s no accident that Cleisthenes himself was suspected – in all likelihood with justice – of gerrymandering the allocation of coastal, urban and rural deme divisions in such a way as to give special benefit to the Alcmaeonids. If such manoeuvres by competing civic groups were seen as inevitable in this new political world, those seeking non-political candidates to administer the business of the polis, political or other – the management of the mint comes to mind – will surely have remembered the special positions once filled by the dēmiourgoi and their successors. The ingrained contempt for this kind of expertise, not to mention the routine nature of a good deal of the more bureaucratic work, would effectively bar class-conscious citizens from seeking such positions. The use – or creation – of the dēmosioi seems inevitable.

‘A dēmosios,’ Ismard says, ‘in that he was outside the Athenian social arena, appeared less likely to succumb to corruption than the average citizen.’ But the remarkable rarity of evidence for any dishonesty on the part of the dēmosioi may have a simpler explanation: slaves, unlike citizens, could be flogged. This strongly suggests that Cleisthenes, or whoever established this remarkable bureaucracy, knew exactly how best to exploit the servile status of its administrators, and why slaves were chosen for the job in the first place. The expertise required – in particular for archival work and the assaying and general control of the currency – might have been expected to encourage the development of families in which such skills were passed down from father to son. But deliberate steps were taken to avoid such a trend. Dēmosioi were mostly bought in the slave market – not the most obvious source for literate experts – and anything liable to lead to the creation of a servile dynasty was carefully banned. It looks as though the cunning deal offered to such slaves was a strikingly privileged existence, but one without any possibility of emancipation or familial betterment. The first generation would have to learn on the job; replacements would be apprenticed to the old, unrelated experts early enough to acquire their knowledge before taking over. The life obtained was, by servile standards, one of quite extraordinary privilege: those granted it could own property (though technically property themselves), and in certain respects had control over citizens, not least as police or executioners. But any hint of corruption would expose them to a whipping and the loss of their position: they had little to gain by dishonesty and, literally, everything to lose. Their reputation for uprightness is hardly surprising.

For at least two centuries after the Cleisthenic revolution, they ran the daily business of the demokratia with silent efficiency; their basic motivation, like that of Cleisthenes himself, might have been essentially self-serving, yet it empowered and nurtured a concept of immense value, with a significance and lasting strength far beyond their knowing.

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