Ancient Greece, democracy and slavery

This video says about itself:

5 July 2015

If contemporary views of ancient Athens, Greece emphasize the peaceful and harmonious nature of that polis’s democratic system, historian Bettany Hughes begs to differ. Hughes asserts that the West’s establishment of Athens as the platonic ideal of democracy is hugely ironic, for that classical society in fact employed rules, regulations and traditions deemed unthinkable, even barbaric, in our modern age – from the widespread practice of black magic; to the view of women as demonic, fourth or fifth-class citizens forced to wear public veils; to the proliferation of slavery.

Most incredibly, Athens relied on inner bloodshed, tumult and strife to perpetuate its existence and strength, declaring war every two years or so. Such practices were commonplace, even as the community soared to new intellectual heights and created wondrous sociopolitical ideals for itself that it strove to live up to and that would later form the basis of contemporary political thought.

By Jean Turner in Britain:

New light on the democratic deficit in ancient Athens

Monday 11th January 2016

Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy
by Ellen Meiksins Wood
(Verso, £14.99)

HISTORICAL materialists have always looked at the class and social structure of great civilisations of the past in order to map the growth of human development.

In doing so, they have paid great attention to the period of the growth of democracy and science in the Greco-Roman states from the 6th century BC to the collapse of the Roman Empire in 200 AD.

These societies were based on slavery. Because of this their collapse, according to Marxist writers, was considered to be the result of the slow growth of technology and production.

Wealthy rulers and landowners could live luxuriously on the free labour of others, so there was no need to create or use existing technology to lessen manual labour and increase production.

Paradoxically, these “idle societies” developed art, architecture, music, drama and philosophy to a peak of perfection. So science and skills existed and could not be the work of free labour only.

First published in 1988, Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book sets out to contradict this assumption in the case of agriculture. In a closely argued thesis, based on the available Greek literature and records of the time, she points out that Athenian democracy included the right of citizenship to peasants whose agricultural smallholdings fed the people of Attica.

This gave them the right to attend law courts and to vote and petition against rich citizens and landlords who were overcharging rent or threatening their land in any way. They could even sell their votes or labour to increase their income.

Referencing the writings of Xenophon, Homer, Demosthenes and the comedies of Aristophanes, she finds that peasants could own slaves but, depending on their wealth or success, either worked alone or alongside them. Of course, women and children were classified as chattels in the household so even here … labour could be either family or slaves. The edges are blurred but the argument, that Athens was a slave society per se, is cast in doubt.

This is an important correction to Marxist thought.

Plato and Aristotle regarded slavery as necessary to allow the development of the ideal society which, of course, excluded any intellectual role for women. They opposed the concept of peasant-citizens in a democracy since they were involved in what they regarded as menial work such as agriculture, building, crafts and other forms of labour.

Meiksins Wood criticises the dependence of Platonic philosophy on the rejection of human labour and experience and honours those ancient Greek philosophers whose scientific thinking was returned to in Europe in the 15th century AD, leading to technological advances which overcame feudalism and opened the door to capitalism.

A thought-provoking book which fully merits its reprint.

5 thoughts on “Ancient Greece, democracy and slavery

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