Unit 2: Ancient Greece / Athens and Sparta
Was Athens in the Age of Pericles Aristocratic?
From Van Hook, LaRue. "Was Athens in the Age of Pericles Aristocratic?" As reproduced in The Classical Journal, vol. 14 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918-1919), 472-479.
Classicist and translator LaRue Van Hook held that Athens in the fifth century was indeed a democracy. In support of this view, he relied heavily upon the views of illustrious (and aristocratic) fifth-century Athenians, such as Pericles and the historian Thucydides. Van Hook maintained that because Athens exhibited so many of the characteristics--political and social--associated with democracy, Athens was indeed a democracy.
The majority of the numerous books which deal with Athenian political and social life in the latter part of the fifth century B.C. convey to student and to reader the general, but emphatic impression, that polis Athens, while theoretically a democracy, was generally speaking, an aristocracy. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the composite picture of Athens under Pericles, as represented in the traditional view of the handbooks, reveals a society brilliant in its achievements, but quite selfishly constituted, and gravely defective, save from the viewpoint of the favored few. Profound social distinctions, even among the citizens themselves, are insisted upon. The conception still is widely prevalent that the elite of Athenian society, few but fit, led a life of glorious but intensely selfish leisure, which was their lordly prerogative as a result of the ruthless exploitation of all professional men, artists, producers, traders, artisans, workers, resident aliens, and slaves... The free man is supposed to have done little or no work, for surely the aristocratic citizen must have had a completely independent and carefree existence for his manifold political, social, and religious duties.


Before a consideration of the subject proper it may well be asked, why is it that this view of Athenian society as aristocratic, if erroneous, is generally held? The reasons are, I believe, as follows: (1) Athens, like other Greek states, at an early period in its history, in fact, until after Solon and Cleisthenes, was, in large measure, oligarchic and aristocratic both politically and socially. Modern writers mistakenly assume that these early conditions, particularly in social life, continued. (2) Certain Greek states, e.g., Sparta, Thebes, and Crete never suffered democratization. The strictly aristocratic conditions which were permanently characteristic of these states are sometimes thought of as necessarily existing also in Athens. (3) Modern writers have the tendency implicitly to follow Plato and Aristotle as authorities and imagine that actual fifth-century Athenian conditions are accurately reflected in the pages of these philosophers even when the latter are discussing theoretical polities and imaginary and ideal societies. Caution must always be observed surely in the case of these “Laconizing” theorizers, who, furthermore, were intense aristocrats and distrusted democracy. (4) It is true that Athens was conservative in the granting of full and technically legal citizenship to foreigners and slaves. (5) Slavery was, of course, a recognized institution from time immemorial throughout the ancient world and Athens as well. (6) Physical drudgery was not relished by the Athenians. The ground is now cleared for our discussion.

Was Athens in the Age of Pericles really a political democracy? We are fortunate in having no less an authority than Pericles himself to testify for us; Pericles, the aristocrat, as reported by Thucydides, the aristocrat. “Our government is not copied from those of our neighbors; we are an example to them rather than they to us. Our constitution is named a democracy, because it is in the hands not of the few, but of the many. Our laws secure equal justice for all in their private disputes, and our public opinion welcomes and honors talent in every branch of achievement, not for any sectional reason, but on grounds of excellence alone. And as we give free play to all in our public life, so we carry the same spirit into our daily relations with one another. We are obedient to whomsoever is set in authority, and to the laws, more especially to those which offer protection to the oppressed and those unwritten ordinances whose transgression brings admitted shame. Wealth to us is not mere material for vainglory but an opportunity for achievement; and poverty we think is no disgrace to acknowledge but a real degradation to make no effort to overcome. Our citizens attend both to public and private duties, and do not allow absorption in their own various affairs to interfere with their knowledge of the city’s. We differ from other states in regarding the man who holds aloof from public life not as quiet but as useless. [...]”

In Athens then, if not in Sparta and Plato’s Republic, the state existed for the individual and not the individual for the state. It is unnecessary to do more than cite the facts which reveal Athens as a political democracy. All citizens over eighteen years of age were members of the Assembly; all citizens over thirty were eligible to membership in the Council of Five Hundred, the members of which were elected annually by lot; all citizens over thirty were eligible to election by lot to serve as jurymen in the Heliastic law courts.


We know that the power of the early Athenian aristocracy had been seriously curtailed by the legislation of Solon and Cleisthenes. After the Persian Wars its influence as an organized party became extremely small because of the democratic reforms of Ephialtes and Pericles through the blows dealt to the prestige of the Aeropagus, the exile of Cimon, and the complete ascendancy of Pericles. There was, then, in Athens in the Age of Pericles complete political equality among the citizens; poverty, wealth, station, family, occupation, and prestige all were of no consequence.

This website was produced by
Octagon Multimedia