The Ideal and the Reality of Classical Athens

Athenian Conceptions of the Individual Athenian, the Household and the Government

Essay, 2007

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


The Ideal and the Reality of Classical Athens - Athenian Conceptions of the Individual Athenian, the Household and the Government

19th century historians such as Edith Hamilton believed that Classical Athens was an ideal society of “law and freedom, truth and religion, beauty and goodness” (Wiesner et al. 127). However, not all historical evidence supports this opinion, and it has to be taken care about the intentions and contexts of each literary evidence. Some might be realistic approaches, others might convey idealized or even purely ideal viewpoints. This essay intends to examine the ideal conceptions which Pericles, Aristotle, and Xenophon set forth for the individual, the household and the government; also, these views will be compared and contrasted with more realistic descriptions such as The Melian Debate, the opinion of an unknown author about Athenian Democracy and the purely idealistic view that Plato argues for. Furthermore, it will be attempted to establish a connection between the written sources and depictions of archaeological findings.

To start with Pericles’ Funeral Speech from 430 B.C.E. is has to be mentioned that this speech is held in honor of the warriors that had died during the first year of the Peloponnesian War (cf. Wiesner et al. 108) and is intended as a consolation for the bereaved family members. Pericles reminds the audience - consisting of citizens and foreigners - on the greatness of Athens and its values; he indirectly maintains that it is worth dying in the defence of such an extraordinary city and for its people - and in general, for the ideals that Athens stands for. His speech constitutes a reflection upon and glorification of Athenian ideals and its citizens. In general, Pericles presents the Athenians as a strong community that sticks together; he, e.g. always uses the pronouns “we” and “our”, and thereby includes his audience and himself in his description of Athenian citizens and Athens. Athens is depicted as the “school of Hellas” (ibid. 112) from which all the other states can learn from. According to Pericles, the main ideals of the Athenians firstly are their military valor and their constitution/ democracy which is supposed to guarantee equal justice and equal opportunities for the (male and free) Athenians; secondly, he praises the Athenians for their obeisance of the laws and their “ease in private relations” (ibid.110); thirdly, Pericles mentions the city’s entertainment/ the pleasure provided by games and sacrifices, the beautiful, sophisticated city, and the nice homes. In particular, he states that Athens is a democracy which would offer “equal justice to all in their private differences” (ibid.). There would be equal opportunities for everybody:

if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition (ibid.)

There would be no jealousy or quarrels among neighbours, and the citizens would obey the magistrates and the common law (cf. ibid. 110/111). The city of Athens is said to offer games and sacrifices “all the year round” and is described as an attractive place. Products from all over the world would be traded in Athens, and all foreign and Athenian luxuries were available (cf. ibid.). The “city is worthy of admiration” and would be open for visitors who could learn from it. Athens is said to be filled with “cultivate refinement without extravagance”, and “knowledge without effeminacy” (ibid). Wealth would be “more for use than for show” and poverty would be fought against (cf. ibid. 111). Public as well as ordinary men would stand up for justice and be “fair judges of public matters” (ibid.). All these qualities contribute to the image of a wealthy, sophisticated and almost paradise-like Athens. Pericles mentions that it is a principle in Athens to discuss and talk about problems first as this would be “an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all” (ibid.). Moreover, Athenians are described as generous people who rather give favours than receive them, as the giving is more honourable than receiving (cf. ibid. 112). Concerning their households, Pericles mentions that the “elegance in [their] private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen” (ibid. 111). This gives an impression of luxurious houses which serve for recreation and entertainment. As opposed to Spartans, who have been the main enemy in the war (cf. Freeman 241 ff), the Athenians are depicted as people “with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature” (Wiesner et al. 111), which shall mean that the Athenians’ courage is natural and their military moves are achieved easily. In contrast, “[their] rivals from their very cradles seek for manliness” (ibid.); so the Spartans train to achieve that courage which the Athenians already have naturally. Pericles maintains that the Athenians are “the race of valour” which is willing to encounter danger and face it fearlessly, even without any allies (cf. ibid.). With regards to women, Pericles addresses them personally. This indicates that the rest of his speech rather might have been addressed to men. To the women he says that the widows should be well-behaved “and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among men whether for good or for bad” (ibid. 112). So, it can be concluded that Athenian women shall be modest and quiet, and rather let the men stand out in public. Moreover, it can be suggested that the public state and the faculties of administration in the government might have been held by men. Therefore, “Athenian Democracy” would mean a democracy merely for men. In his final passage, Pericles presents Athens and the Athenians as the best people in the world. He raises doubts that anyone could compete with the Athenians:

while I doubt if the world can produce a man, who where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility as the Athenian (112).

Athens has the “merit to rule” and the Athenians “have forced every sea and land [to be] the highway of [their] daring, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind [them]” (ibid. 112). Pericles states that the Athenians will be known forever “since [they] have not left [their] power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proves” (ibid.). He presents the Athenian Empire as the mightiest power, ruling over the whole Mediterranean.

In accordance to Pericles’ presentation of Athenian ideals, the Agora and the buildings surrounding it might as well indicate many of these values that Athenians considered as highly important for their lives. The Agora was the “political and commercial center of the city” (ibid. 109). It is a huge open place on the Akropolis that is bordered with fine buildings and temples. This fact by itself shows the wealth of the city, because Athens can use space of its town for merely creating a place where one can walk across. It can be stated that the ideal of freedom - which their constitution allows them - is displayed by the large space that the Agora takes. Furthermore, the buildings around the Agora contribute to the important meaning of the place, as they had decisive governmental, religious and commercial functions. For example, the council of the city met in the bouleuterion and the tholos, which can be found on the west side of the agora. All distances in Attica were measured from the Agora (cf. Freeman 179), and the route of the Panathenaic1 festival ran across the square (cf. ibid. 255). On a metaphoric level, the Agora might be the Athenian representation of freedom, democracy and equality. These values are then surrounded by the “embodiments” that support them: the government - securing equal rights for everybody -, trade - for making a good living, and religion

- for leading a good and moral life. Furthermore, the artful composition of the buildings reveals the striving for a “sophisticated city life” (Freeman 179) and again display the wealth that Athens has acquired. All in all, it can be assumed that the Agora was the (meeting-) place in Athens that represented the Athenian ideals of government combined with trade, religion, and a rather upper-class lifestyle.

Nonetheless, it has to be noted that Pericles’ Funeral Speech and the Agora might rather convey idealized views of Athens and Athenian life. In the Melian Debate, one can find similar statements about Athens high status in the Mediterranean, as it is called “the greatest city in Hellas” (Wiesner et al. 114) and the Athenians are regarded as the “masters of the sea” (ibid. 113).


1 Panathenaic festival: festival to Athena with a procession through the city (cf. Freeman 178).

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The Ideal and the Reality of Classical Athens
Athenian Conceptions of the Individual Athenian, the Household and the Government
Hawai'i Pacific University
Introduction to Greco-Roman Civilization
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Der 8-seitige wissenschaftliche Essay bezieht sich auf die Quellen wie dargestellt sind in: Wiesner, Merry E., Julius R. Ruff, Franklin M. Doeringer and William Bruce Wheeler. Discovering The Ancient Past: A Look At The Evidence. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Ideal, Reality, Classical, Athens, Athenian, Conceptions, Individual, Athenian, Household, Government
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Christina Gieseler (Author), 2007, The Ideal and the Reality of Classical Athens, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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