Free were the Ancient Greeks to Live their Lives as they Chose?
The period covered by the term 'Ancient Greece' is a long one, encompassing the Mycenaean period and the subsequent so-called 'Dark Age' (c.1600-900 B.C.), the Archaic Period (c.900-480 B.C.), the Classical period (c.480-323 B.C.) and the Hellenistic period (c. 323-146 B.C.). This essay will discuss the Mycenaean, Archaic and Classical periods, using the literature of some of the richest cultural epochs in Ancient Greek history to illuminate questions of freedom in the society of Greece during that time.
The Iliad of Homer is set in the twelfth century B.C., the Mycenaean period of ancient Greek history. The society of the Iliad is a society at war. Agamemnon, king of the Greeks, who 'ruled his many islands and lorded mainland Argos' (Iliad, bk. II, line 126), is able to muster and retain the cohesion of a great army over a period of ten years and successfully exerts his authority: 'Obey the commands of others, your superiors ... Too many kings can ruin an army -- mob rule! Let there be one commander, one master only' (Iliad, bk. II, lines 201, 205-6). This is an image of a society in which subordination and authority are essential elements of social structure, in which consultation between leaders is accepted, with Agamemnon taking the counsel of the Greek leaders, but in which hierarchy and authority are unquestioned. Such a society would seem incompatible with a developed notion of freedom. Yet there is no doubt that among the characters of the Iliad freedom, in the sense of individual liberty, is valued. The Trojan warrior Hector, comforting his wife Andromache before going forward to fight, tells her he is not fearful for himself, since in the event of the Greeks being victorious all the men of Troy will be killed, but for her, since it will be her fate as a woman to be enslaved by the victors, carried away
... In tears, wrenching away your day of light and freedom! Then far off in the land of Argos you must live, laboring at a loom, at another woman's beck and call ... The rough yoke of necessity at your neck. (Iliad, book VI, lines 540-6)
In a warrior society, men fought for their city, their companions, their leader and their honour rather than for freedom, but freedom clearly mattered, as a state for men to defend and for which women -- faced, as men were not, with the possibility of capture, rape, and slavery -- could yearn on a very personal, individual level. The words put into the mouth of the goddess Demeter, speaking in the guise of an old woman in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, telling of how she had been carried 'over the wide stretches of sea against my will. Without my consent, by bia, by duress, I was abducted by pirates' tell of this deprival of freedom, and of how she nevertheless yearned for her liberty above all things: when the pirates holding her prepared their food, she 'did not yearn for food, that delight of the mind' but 'stole away ... fleeing my arrogant captors' (Hymn to Demeter, lines 123-5, 129-30). One of the girls listening to her tale tells her 'we humans endure the gifts the gods give us, even when we are grieving over what has to be' (Hymn to Demeter, line 147), but personal freedom is nonetheless clearly understood has something that all should yearn for, defend, and which everyone has a right to protect.
Mycenaean society knew slavery, and that society was divided into the slaves and the free was a fundamental trait of Greek life for a millennium. A passage in the Iliad describes the taking of slaves by conquest and military victory (Iliad, bk. XXI, lines 518-19). To be a slave was to be the possession of another human being -- no clearer limit on freedom could be imagined. Slaves were able to rise to some extent in Greek society in later periods (evidence is lacking for the Mycenaean and Archaic eras), but they were entirely dependent on their owners for the opportunity to, for example, manage commercial concerns such as banks, inherit money or own land, or even to marry (Westermann, 3). Slavery was essential to the Athenian economy and to the lifestyles of her politically active class: 'It is important always to keep in mind the enormous extent to which the Athenian economy depended on slave labour whenever we are tempted to become "starry-eyed" about her democracy', observes one modern scholar (Stockton, 17-18).
Ancient Greek society is honored as the birthplace of modern intellectual freedom and political democracy; yet an analysis of Ancient Greek society suggests how limited both these characteristics were for the Greeks themselves. Throughout the classical period of Greek civilization, relatively few Greek states practiced democracy in any form, and those that did restricted political power to a very limited group of their inhabitants. Foreigners, slaves, the poor and women were all without any form of enfranchisement or political voice in Athens, foremost of the city states. The only section of society with the freedom to debate political issues and decide on courses of action on behalf of the community was a restricted male political caste defined according to a property qualification (Stockton, 6). The property qualification developed over time, but remained the essential characteristic of political participation, and had the effect of restricting the active political class to men of wealth and status. However, there is reason to claim that the average citizen -- or at least the average free male citizen -- of Athens did feel that he had freedoms and that they were protected by the political system, in which courts and assemblies were not restricted to the elite but dispersed throughout the life of the city and open to a wide range of participation (Stockton, 55-6). The Athenian system ensured a sufficient degree of 'political equality and that freedom from exploitation and injustice which only democratic institutions can engender and preserve' (Stockton, 55).
That is not to say that intellectual freedom was unquestioned. The philosopher Socrates was placed on trial, and ultimately condemned to death, because of his quest for intellectual freedom and the ultimate freedom that comes from knowing the truth. Accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and preaching disregard of the gods, he observes: 'What has caused my [alleged bad] reputation is none other than a certain kind of wisdom. What kind of wisdom? Human wisdom, perhaps' (Apology, para. 24). For Socrates freedom lies in wisdom -- ultimately, freedom from social structures that are based upon restricting knowledge and denying truth. Socrates argues that everyone has an absolute duty to pursue truth, however much that pursuit might bring conflict with the established authorities or contemporary beliefs and customs: 'You are wrong, sir, if you think that a man who is any good at all should take into account the risk of life or death; he should look to this only in his actions, whether what he does is right or wrong, whether he is acting like a good or a bad man' (Apology, para. 31). Socrates was viewed as dangerous precisely because he took the idea of freedom seriously and pursued it to its ultimate conclusions; the fear of those who prosecuted him and secured his death was that by exercising the freedom to question all things, men would undermine all things, including the freedom they valued.
Socrates was a man; no woman could have been brought before a court to face the charges he faced because no woman had the freedom to travel, to question, and to speak in public. Women were perhaps the largest class of the Ancient Greek population to be excluded from the exercise of many of the freedoms we would recognize as important today: political participation, ownership of property and wealth, pursuit of education and careers. Women in the classical period were restricted in their free choice of marriage partners; any dowry was effectively the property of the husband, denying the woman financial independence (Sealey, 67, 77); these restrictions were less evident by the later Hellenistic period, in which women possessed more freedom in their personal lives and control of their own financial affairs (Sealey, 94).
In the modern world the freedom to love is held up as one of the foremost human freedoms; love itself is envisaged as embodying an uncompromising form of freedom. In Ancient Greek society the formal relationships of marriage and family left no scope for the pursuing of such passions in freedom, but that does not mean they were unknown. Indeed, one of the most intensely passionate and immediate expressions of the conflict between the pressures of society and the desire to pursue feelings of love in freedom comes from Ancient Greece of the archaic period: the poetry of Sappho. Born on the island of Lesbos, Sappho grew up in exile in Sicily because of political troubles of her…