subject = History 209 (Ancient Greek History)
title = Was the 5th Century
BCE a “Golden Age” for Athens?
5th century BCE was a period of great development in Ancient Greece, and specifically
in Athens. The development of so many cultural achievements within Athens
and the Athenian Empire has led scholars to deem this period a “Golden Age.”
It is true that his period had many achievements, but in the light of the
Athenians treatment of women, metics (non-Athenians living in Athens), and
slaves it is given to question whether or not the period can truly be called
The 5th century and the Athenian Empire gave birth to an amazing
amount of accomplishments. One such accomplishment was the minting of standard
Athenian coins that were used throughout the Athenian holdings as valid for
trade. The use of standard Athenian-minted coins helped the Athenians establish
and maintain control over their empire by helping to control trade and the
economy of the area to the Athenians benefit.
Since Athens regularly received
tribute from the states it controlled, Pericles, the leader of Athens, began
a building project in Athens that was legendary. Athens had been sacked by
the Persians during the Persian Wars and Pericles set out to rebuild the city.
The citys walls had already been rebuilt right after the end of the second
Persian War so Pericles rebuilt temples, public grounds, and other impressive
structures. One of the most famous structures to result from Pericles building
project was the Parthenon. The Parthenon and other such structures re-established
Athenss glory and while some Athenians criticized the projects as too lavish,
most Athenians enjoyed the benefits of the program. A major benefit to the
Athenian people was that there was an abundance of work in the polis.
5th century BCE was also an important time for Athenian thought. “Sophists,”
paid teachers, taught rhetoric amongst other subjects to wealthy Athenian citizens.
The Sophists were criticized by Athenians who thought that Sophists were destroying
Greek tradition by emphasizing rationalism over a belief in superstition, however
it was this rationalism that became so important to Greek philosophers such
as Socrates and Plato, both who belonged to the 5th century BCE. The Sophists
high regard for rhetoric was later of great use to citizen addressing the Assembly
in the developing Athenian democracy.
Athenian democracy is perhaps considered
the crowning achievement of the 5th century BCE. Democracy grew out of the
status that poorer Athenians were gaining as rowers for the ships of the large
Athenian fleet. Since these poorer Athenians now played a large part in the
Athenian military, they ga8ined more say in the Athenian government. This
led to a democratic government where “every male citizen over 18 years was
eligible to attend and vote in the Assembly, which made all the important decisions
of Athens in the 5th century BC” (Demand 223). This democratic government
is considered by some scholars to show the full enlightenment of the Athenians
in the 5th century BCE.
This glorious enlightenment seems somehow less enlightening,
however, when one views this period from other than a male Athenians eyes.
Athenian enlightenment and democracy was by and for male citizens. The underprivileged
of Athens included women, metics and slaves.
The position of Athenian wives
in Athenian society is clearly stated by Xenephon in his Oeconomicus. Ischomacus,
a young husband, is conversing with Socrates about the duties of husband and
wife. Ischomacus relates how he explained to his wife that the duties needed
to support a household consisted of “indoor” and “outdoor” activities. He
then explains to his wife, “And since labor and diligence are required both
indoors and outdoorsit seems to me that the god prepared the womans nature
especially for indoor jobs and cares and the mans nature for outdoor jobs
and concerns.” (Spyridakis 206). This is the general attitude that Athenians
held toward their wives. The Athenian wife was expected to marry and bring
a dowry into her husbands house. Although this dowry was attached to the
woman, she was in no way allowed to control the lands and moneys she might
bring to her husband.. Similarly, women were not allowed to vote or take any
part in the Assembly, being seen as unfit for this privilege. The
function of a citizens wife was to take care of domestic affairs and provide
the citizen with an heir. Athenian wives were rarely seen outside of their
houses, for respectable wives had at least one slave who would purchase needed
items at market. Poorer Athenian women were seen at market because they lacked
slaves to run their errands. Women were considered intellectual non-entities
and were treated as such in the Athenian Empire.
Metics also had a low status
in Athenian society. Metics were not allowed voting privileges in the Athenian
democracy, but were compulsed to serve a specified time in the Athenian military
and were taxed by the Athenians. Metics usually were lower-class tradesmen
or craftsmen. Although some metics families eventually gained wealth, the
vast majority of the metics remained second-class inhabitants of Athens, even
though they performed some of the polis most activities, such as military
service and trade.
Slavery was also matter-of -fact in 5th century Athenian
life. Slaves were the property of specific owners and subject to the wishes
of their owners. Like women and metics, slaves had no citizenship rights.
It was possible for a slave to save enough money to buy his freedom, but a
freed slave had only as much status as a metic. Aristotle defended slavery
as necessary and a law of nature, saying in his Politics, “That some should
rule and others should be ruled is not only necessary but expedient; indeed,
from the very moment of birth some are set apart to obey and others to command.”
(Spyridakis 62) and also stating that, “He is by nature a slave who is capable
of belonging to another (and therefore does belong to another) and who has
access to reason in that he senses it and understands it but does not possess
it.” (Spyridakis 63). Many Athenians viewed slavery as necessary to society
in order to give a citizen more time to participate in government affairs and
other matters that were viewed as m
ore important than a slaves work. Although
some lower-class Athenians may have been forced to share labor with slaves,
most Athenians did not participate in slaves work. Male slaves did harder
labor such as construction and agriculture. Female slaves ran their mistress
errands and generally took care of domestic affairs under the watchful eye
of their mistress. Slaves also acted as State scribes. In short, slaves did
much of the work that allowed Athens to prosper in a period of “enlightenment.”
light of the unrecognized people who helped to build the foundations for the
Athenian Empire, this “Golden Age” seem far less golden. However, many major
accomplishments grew out of this period as well. Before one can or cannot
place a “Golden Age” label on 5th century Athens, one must consider other times
when the ends of mans accomplishments may not have justified the means. Athens
could be compared to post- Revolutionary America, where a “democratic” government
was only available to white male citizens. Yet Americans tend to view this
time with much patriotism and pride. Likewise the Industrial Revolution is
said to be a great accomplishment of mankind, but little recognition is given
to the horrible factory conditions that employees, many women and children,
endured. I would say that the 5th century BCE was as much a “Golden Age” for
man as either of the above mentioned time periods. I think that most of our
accomplishments as humans rest on the shoulders of invisible and overlooked
Demand, Nancy. A History of Ancient Greece. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.
Spyridakis, Stylianos V. and Bradley P. Nystrom,
eds., trans. Ancient Greece: Documantary Perspectives.