Athens Essay, Research Paper


A “Golden Age” for Athens?

The 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 “Golden.”

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 city’s 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 Athens’s 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.

The 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 Athenian’s 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 outdoors_it seems to me that the god prepared

the woman’s nature especially for indoor jobs and cares and

the man’s 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 husband’s 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 primary function of a citizen’s 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


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 more important than a slave’s work. Although

some lower-class Athenians may have been forced to share

labor with slaves, most Athenians did not participate in

slave’s 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


In 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 man’s 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 peoples.

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.

Dubuque: Kendall-Hunt,


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