BMCR 2001.05.19

The Athenian Nation

, The Athenian nation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xx, 250 pages). ISBN 1400814200. $39.50.

This is a most interesting book and a thoroughly stimulating read—sometimes also stimulating objection—from the first to the last page. It is a highly welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion about ethnicity and multicultural societies in antiquity and an overdue challenge to some views which have become communis opinio long ago, although their foundations are rather weak, to say the least.

The introduction (4-10) summarizes the “paradox and contradiction” which Classical Athens presents for most of contemporary scholarship, in (supposedly) being a closed group society inaccessible to outsiders, but in which the—largely ignored—majority of the population consisted of non-Athenians. This conception led to what Cohen (hereafter C.) calls somewhat polemically, but convincingly, the “obsession with the polis that underlies the obsession with the male ‘citizen'”(9).

Keeping up the tone of the introduction, chap. 1 (11-48) bears the provoking title “Anomalous Athens” which is explained when C. focuses on the slippery definition of the term ” polis“,1 of which every modern scholar seems to know the meaning. But if we compare Athens with definitions given by contemporary authors, e.g. Aristotle, it was clearly not a polis (it was neither self-sufficient nor were all its members familiar with each other, to mention only two of the most important points, cf. 12; 14-16). Scholars usually stress one aspect or another of the polis, with the inevitable consequence that all the other supposedly characteristic features have to be silently dismissed (cf. esp.19f.). C. is aware that his own preferred term ethnos“has also defied modern analysis”, but its “chamaeleon-like nature reflects Greek cognitive reality” (25. 29).

In chap. 2 (49-78) C. argues that the real dichotomy was not between politai and immigrants, but rather between astoi and xenoi, also in legal contexts; it was from the group of astoi that the politai were to be chosen (58). He then draws a larger picture of the astonishing permeability of ancient Athenian society and its “striking social stability” (78), which was probably based on the fact that the categories of “citizen” and “non-citizen” were much more fluid than is often assumed. The existence of businesswomen or wealthy slaves, let alone their economic importance, has for a long time largely been ignored, but recent work about such social groups has often come to similar conclusions as C. does here.2 One reason for the “Manichaean” modern standard version of a “closed society of male free-born citizens” on one hand and non-autochthonous “outsiders” on the other might be that these outsiders (slaves, servants, metics, immigrants) are difficult to grasp. C. himself mentions the lack of archival records (68); moreover, there exist only very few statements by members of those groups about themselves (and what of the things others wrote about them can we take at face value?). While C. focuses mainly on legal texts and speeches, epigraphical and archaeological material can additionally provide important evidence.

In chap. 3 and 4, C. analyzes (and destroys) the ancient construct and the modern myth that lie behind the material for the standard modern concept of the Athenian society he is challenging. Nation-building tales were fabricated by the Athenians already when Attika moved from its earlier division into separate villages to the far more complex structure that C. fittingly calls “imagined society” (80); not surprisingly, many of the national heroes, above all the “earth-born” Erechtheus, became truly important only after the Persian wars (84f.). While the Athenians’ belief in their divine origin is—according to C.—scathingly mocked in Eur. Ion (85-87), Thucydides attempted a rationalization of those views (91f.).

The modern myth, on the other hand, often depicts Athens as a “village”, a “sealed society functioning as a face-to-face community” (104f). It is a real pleasure to read how C. demonstrates that there are no ancient sources to confirm this concept, and that many contemporary Western scholars and thinkers (“from so-called communitarians through Kuhnians”) have mainly transferred a model of English village life. I largely agree with C. when he writes that “in daily life, individuals would have had little or no knowledge of the “status” of the persons with whom they had contact…A society characterized by murky and complex multidimensional social affiliations and arrangements that were continually being modified by internal demographic mobility and by extensive immigration and emigration, Athens was not a “face-to-face” community…” (105f.). I would, however, add some question marks: I am not at all convinced that there was “virtually no way of determining to which of the three groups a person belonged”, and that there were no visible “markers” of personal status at Athens at all (105); above all, I disagree with this opinion regarding the non-Greek foreigners living in Athens.3 Moreover, the language (105) of foreigners is one of the most prominent features of non-Greeks in Old Comedy, where all kinds of “barbarians”, especially Scythians, Thracians, and Persians, are uttering unintelligible sounds which are meant to be a caricature of their native language (but on closer inspection usually resemble Greek). The gibberish of foreigners is one of the running gags on stage.4

Even if the physical appearance of foreigners was not different from that of the Athenians, they must often have been discernible by their attire, if they were slaves, since female slaves on grave-stelai are usually depicted wearing a characteristic long-sleeved dress or ” kandys“, which seems to have been a kind of “slave garment”.5

I also agree with C. that slaves as well as free Athenians worked in all kinds of professions and that slaves could even get rich with their trade; but nevertheless there were some parts of the Athenian economy which were almost exclusively occupied by slaves, above all the institution of “state-owned slaves” (e.g. the Scythian police-force), the nurses (where Thracian women were in high demand), and the workers in the silver mines of Laureion, who seem to have consisted mainly of people from Asia Minor.

Had the appearance of the residents of Attika really been “remarkably homogeneous”, the appearance of foreigners would not have been such a constant source of derision and amusement. Non-Greek foreigners must often have been a visible and discernible part of the populace, so that the theatre-going public immediately understood what Aristophanes was poking fun at. Moreover, Attic vase-painters must have found the models for their tattooed Thracian women and Ethiopians on the streets of Athens. In my opinion, therefore, the pseudo-Xenophontic Constitution of the Athenians is not necessarily a valuable proof for the “impossibility at Athens of distinguishing, by dress or physical appearance, free men from slaves, Athenians from aliens” (107), since it is a very polemical treatise (C. himself calls it “satiric”).6 I am willing to follow C. when he writes that unfree persons occupied positions of significance in many aspects of Athenian business (108);7 but I strongly disagree with him when he claims that “as in life, so in death” there were no differences at all between politai, resident aliens, foreigners, and that they “were commemorated, if at all, by a funerary epitaph that contained no demotic reference or other differentiation of status” (119). C. quite mistakenly stresses the “disparity between the relatively large number of aliens resident in Attika…and the extremely small number of tombstones explicitly identifying a decedent as a foreigner” (120 n. 91); in my 1998 book I have collected 146 marble grave-stelai which labelled the deceased as foreigner (and one can certainly suppose that there were many more of the same kind but made of cheaper, perishable material). In fact, foreigners tended to indicate their origin, and they often did it with pride;8 the most astonishing in this respect are the Phoenicians, who, if they could afford a more elaborate tombstone, decorated it with bilingual Greek and Phoenician inscriptions and even translated their names.

Chap. 5 (130-154) discusses the phenomenon of “wealthy slaves in a ‘slave society'”, especially their leading role in Athenian business, above all in finance and the crafts. Again one could here add epigraphical evidence to confirm this fact; above all, slaves who were highly qualified in various crafts had their skills pointed out on their epitaphs and thus tried to preserve the knowledge about it for posterity.9 A similar phenomenon is the fact (which has also long been denied) that there were also free employees and slaves maintaining independent households (a rare case where some kind of archival record provides further evidence consists in the accounts of official state buildings, e.g the Erechtheion, where slaves and free workers worked together).

A real pleasure for everyone who tends to take the ancient texts seriously is p. 138: here, C. analyzes the French nonsense of “lecture symptomale”, which is, in fact, nothing else than to dismiss everything that does not fit into modern preconceived theory and to read into the ancient text everything one wants.

In the 6th and last chapter (155-191), C. delightfully tears to pieces the academic fantasies of “sexual exploitation as political entitlement”, championed mainly by Dover and Foucault, and instead documents how at Athens both free persons and slaves were broadly and effectively protected against sexual abuse (156f. 165-169).

On p.186f. C. gives some specifications of Athenian antagonism against labor, which meant mostly abhorrence of work under a master and moral outrage against certain forms of labor, mainly “gainful emplyment”, “useful labor”—or what we would call “a job”. The tendency (noted by me) of non-Greeks (“barbarians”) to pride themselves on just this kind of “job” (which they held in life) in their epitaphs does not contradict C.’s interpretation, but is—in my opinion—a sign that non-Greeks tended in some way to keep themselves separate, to point out their special features, their otherness; even while at the same time trying to adapt and to assimilate to an Athenian way of life, they still wanted to show what they were proud of in life. Since this could not be a well-known family name or a famous ancestor, it had to be the profession they worked in. Even when trying to do it in Greek hexametric verses, slaves or freedmen sometimes celebrated their achievements in low, menial, “banausic” professions with a pride that to us seems often highly surprising.

My disagreements with some of C.’s statements mainly stem from my different approach to Athenian society (via my research into its non-Greek segments); this should not obscure the fact that I appreciate C.’s book highly. While he in superb style has discarded all the cobwebs of preconceived modern theories and models and gone back to the ancient literary sources, I tried to do something similar with epigraphical and archaeological evidence. From both perspectives, it is astonishing how much was formerly neglected or, worse, passed over in silence (even interpreted away) that did not fit in the overall conception of Athens as a homogeneous polis, consisting of its male citizen body. While I may differ in some points from C., focusing on that neglected ancient evidence in fact led me to similar conclusions, namely that the “Athenian civilisation…was far more complex and multifaceted than the prevailing tripartite oversimplification” and and that “modern theories of nationalism and ethnicity alone [cannot] establish anything concerning Athenian behavior” (xii). C.’s book is an invaluable contribution to the discussion of fringe groups and minorities in ancient societies, but also of the structure and conception of ancient society as a whole; it breathes fresh air into a discussion that has become more and more subtle in modern social theories but drifted further and further away from the ancient sources. The Athenian culture that emerges when we take into account surprising and contradictory sources, too, is not only not monolithic, but “fraught with ambivalence, ambiguity and conflict” (191), and will very probably not stop to defy modern theory.

The book is very carefully produced; it contains virtually no misprints; there is a general index (229-234) and an exhaustive index of passages cited (234-250) with which everything can be found, as well as an extensive bibliography (193-228). The Greek original of every text treated in the book is quoted in the footnotes.


1. The modern conceptualization of the ” polis“, unknown to the ancients, was introduced only in 1893 with Burckhardt’s Griechische Kulturgeschichte (9).

2. Cf. for example Beth Cohen (ed.), Not the Classical Ideal. Athens and the Construction of the Other in Greek Art (Leiden/Boston/Köln) 2000.

3. E.g., Ethiopians and Egyptians were probably often discernible by the color of their skin; the Greeks were confronted with their exotic appearance in the Greek colony of Naucratis. They inspired a great interest in negroid appearances in Greek art of the 6th cent. BC, visible above all in pictures on vases and in the famous vases with human heads. See B. Bäbler, Fleissige Thrakerinnen und wehrhafte Skythen. Nichtgriechen im klassischen Athen und ihre archäologische Hinterlassenschaft, Stuttgart/Leipzig 1998: 69-75 (with further lit.).

4. Bäbler 1998: 70 (Egyptians), 108 (Persians), 168f. (Scythians).

5. Bäbler 1998: 20-32.

6. Bäbler 1998: 20-22.

7. This is also confirmed by epigraphical and archaeological evidence; for the example of the banker Pasion see Cohen 40. 128f., Bäbler 1998, 120f.

8. E.g. Bäbler 1998, Kat. Nr. 35 (the Paphlagonian miner Atotas); Kat. Nr. 69 (the Phrygian wood-cutter Manes). For the results concerning the different nations see the summary 199-206; the Phoenicians are treated in 115-155. At the time the articles referred to by C. were published, no systematic collection and research concerning the tombstones of foreigners had yet been undertaken; classical archaeologists neglected them for a long time, since they were considered to be of poor artistic value.

9. Against C.’s somewhat sweeping complaint that “it is not the slaves of suffering, but the slaves of power and wealth who have endured scholarly oblivion” (137) I might immodestly reply that I mentioned the phenomenon in Bäbler 1998: 32-45 (professions of slaves in Athens in general); cf. also my treatment of the individual nations, with discussion of several grave-stelai of apparently highly successful slaves, who commemorate their skills in their epitaphs.