The Unenfranchised II - Slaves and Resident Aliens

Also excluded from political participation were two other large segments of the population: slaves and metics (resident aliens).

Slavery was common in antiquity, and the Athenians used thousands of slaves in their private homes, factories, and mines, and also as civil servants. Slaves were usually captured in war and came from all over the Mediterranean, including other Greek cities. Surviving auction records indicate that the prices of slaves varied tremendously, depending on their skills. Despite their unfortunate lot, slaves in democratic Athens were apparently somewhat better off than in other cities, according to one writer of the 5th century B.C.:

Slaves and metics at Athens lead a singularly undisciplined life; one may not strike them there, nor will a slave step aside for you. Let me explain the reason for this situation: if it were legal for a free man to strike a slave, a metic, or a freedman, an Athenian would often have been struck under the mistaken impression that he was a slave, for the clothing of the common people there is in no way superior to that of the slaves and metics, nor is their appearance. There is also good sense behind the apparently surprising fact that they allow slaves there to live in luxury and some of them in considerable magnificence. ("Xenophon," Constitution of the Athenians 1.10-11).
Athenian (Attic) red-figure kylix (drinking cup), about 480 B.C., attributed to the painter Onesimos. H.: 0.09 m. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Africans, like the peoples of many other races captured in battle, might become slaves in the Athenian state. Many slaves worked in the fields or silver mines, but others became domestic servants. Here, an African groom is shown sighting along his curry comb for hairs after currying the horse.

Metics were citizens of other Greek or foreign cities, drawn by the extraordinary opportunities Athens offered to skilled artisans and intelligent businessmen. As in the United States, much of the vitality and energy came from immigrants. They were welcome in Athens, but it was very rare to become a naturalized citizen. Many of the great contributors to Athenian cultural preeminence, such as the philosopher Aristotle and the painter Polygnotos, were not Athenian citizens.

Many of the craftsmen who built the great temples of the city are known to have been foreigners, and some of the wealthiest businessmen and even businesswomen of the city were not Athenian citizens. Whole foreign communities of Egyptians, Cypriots, and Phoenicians sprang up, especially at the port of Piraeus, and they were permitted to establish sanctuaries to their own gods. With foreigners as with slaves, the Athenians were said to be more open than elsewhere:

This, then, is why in the matter of free speech we have put slaves and free men on equal terms; we have also done the same for metics and citizens because the city needs metics because of the multiplicity of her industries and her fleet; that is why we were right to establish freedom of speech for metics as well. ("Xenophon," Constitution Of the Athenians 1.12).
Athenian (Attic) red-figure plate, 520-510 B.C. Attributed to the painter Faseas. D.: 0.184 m. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum 1879.175 (V.310). An archer, carrying a bow, with a combined quiver and bowcase strapped to his waist, rides a horse bareback. His costume may be that of a Skythian, who were a nomadic people inhabiting the shores of the Black Sea. Skythians sometimes signed on as mercenaries in the pay of the Athenian state and so became resident aliens in Athens. The costume consists of embroidered leggings and short jacket, with a soft, animal-skin hat. The inscription on the plate praises Miltiades as beautiful but probably refers to a different Miltiades than the hero of Marathon.

Neither slave nor metic played any direct role in the political life of the city; such activity was reserved only for male citizens. Exact figures are hard to come by; however, on any reckoning well under half the total adult population of the city participated in the Athenian democracy.

Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).