The Athenian Aristocracy

Before democracy, from the 8th to the 6th century B.C., Athens was prosperous economically but no more significant than many other city-states in Greece. Silver deposits south of Athens, quarries of fine white marble, and extensive clay beds that skilled potters used to good advantage made the city wealthy but otherwise unremarkable. As in other Greek cities, political power was in the hands of several large aristocratic families or clans (genei) which controlled large areas of Attica, the territory around Athens. Social prestige and political office were linked to property and military prowess, and most of the population had virtually no role in the political life of the city. Aristotle describes the situation in the 7th century B.C. as follows:

Appointment to the supreme offices of state went by birth and wealth; and they were held at first for life, and afterwards for a term of ten years. (Athenian Constitution 3.1)

At times these aristocratic families ruled in relative harmony; on occasion competition and strife between them was severe. Until the 6th century, Athens and her aristocratic political system were typical of many Greek city-states.

These aristocratic families enjoyed considerable wealth and contacts with aristocrats elsewhere. Painted pottery and surviving fragments of poetry depict the aristocracy at play, usually reclining comfortably at a drinking party or symposion.

Athenian (Attic) black-figure olpe Oug), 540-530 B.C. Attributed to the Amasis Painter. H.: 0.26 m. Athens, Agora Museum P 24673. This fragmentary day jug shows a symposion with banqueters reclining on a couch, a typically aristocratic activity. On the left a girl plays the double pipes (auloi), providing music for the occasion, and on the right stands a youth. A low table spread with fruit and meat has been placed in front of the couch. The vase is decorated in the black-figure technique in which the figures are rendered in black on the natural red clay surface of the vase; details are done by incision through the black, or with red and white colors.

Material wealth was displayed in the form of costly dedications made in sanctuaries such as the Acropolis of Athens or at Brauron, Eleusis, and Sounion. Cemeteries also provide rich material from this period: lavish burials contained intricately worked gold jewelry and unusual glass objects, along with specially made funerary vases.

Pair of gold earrings. L.: 0.065 m. Athens, Agora Museum J 148. The jewelry was found in the Athenian Agora in a cremation burial of the mid-9th century B.C. Gold jewelry was unusual in 9th-century Greece. Each earring consists of a shaft made of fine wires to which is attached a trapezoidal plaque decorated with filigree and granulation. Three pomegranate finials hang from the bottom of the plaque. The earrings would have been suspended from a thin gold wire or hook passed through the ears.
Necklace of glass and Jaience beads. Max. L. of the largest bead: 0.047 m.; min. L.: 0.004 m. Athens, Agora Museum G 587-S91, J 149. The elements of the necklace include glass and faience beads that were found together in the burial. They have been restrung to recreate the original appearance of the necklace.
Photograph of vases from the cremation burial of a wealthy woman, including the chest with model granaries shown, Athens, Agora excavations.
Drawing of the cremation burial of a wealthy woman. Drawing by W B. Dinsmoor, Jr. The bones and ashes were found in the large pot along with the gold jewelry and faience necklace displayed above. The other vessels, including the chest with model granaries, were placed around the large pot as grave offerings. The drawing shows side and top views of the burial.
Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).