Ancient Greece and Rome: Democracy for the few, slavery for the many

May 29, 2008

Where did the word “democracy” originate? What did it mean to the people who first used the term?

Democracy” comes from the fusion of two Greek words, “demos” (the people) and “kratein” (to rule). Athens, the leading city-state of ancient Greece, was home to the first known “democratic” form of government in a class-based society.

Many of those who wrote the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution invoked early Greek and Roman civilizations as their inspiration. Greece and Rome are still idolized as the cultural birthplaces of what is known as “western civilization.”

Though probably not the one the “founding fathers” had in mind, there was indeed a close connection between ancient Greece and the pre-Civil War United States: Both were societies erected on a foundation of slavery. While there were differences in the form of slavery practiced in the different historical epochs, the similarity highlights that democracy has functioned in a manner that legalizes, justifies and even assumes the exploitation of some people by others.

Athenians used the term democracy—“people’s rule”—for their political system some 2,500 years ago. But who was included in the category “people?”

In reality, only a small percentage of the population was eligible to participate in Athens’ governing process. Women, foreign-born people known as “metics,” who made up a large percentage of the free population, and slaves were all excluded. In the fifth century B.C., there were an estimated 80,000-100,000 slaves—compared to 30,000-40,000 citizens who could take part in government.

Athenian democracy and social class

In his classic work, “Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism,” Perry Anderson describes the Athenian social and political system. At its height, after reforms credited to Solon in the sixth century B.C., the center of Athenian democracy was a popular assembly of the citizens which met 40 times per year. Issues were debated and decisions made by the vote of the citizens present—a form known as direct democracy. Important decisions required a quorum—a minimum number of 6,000 participants.

There was little in the way of a state bureaucracy. Councilors and jurors were selected by lottery. The only elected positions were 10 military generals, who generally came from the upper classes.

The free population of Athens was divided into four basic classes, two upper and two lower, according to land holdings and military service. At the top were 300 families with large agricultural holdings.

The two lower classes were known as the hoplites and thetes. Hoplites were farmers or city artisans who could afford to purchase their own heavy armor and constituted the infantry of the Athenian empire’s army.

Most thetes, the poorest class, gained citizen status by their role as rowers in the navy, the key to Athens’ success as an expansionist and early imperialist state. From 550 to 400 B.C., Athens defeated the powerful Persian fleet and conquered much of present-day Greece.

While there was relative equality among the citizens in the assembly, the upper classes exercised their political supremacy by economic and other means.

The most important division in Athenian society, however, was not the one between different classes of participating and property-owning citizens. Rather, it was the line between the free citizenry, on the one hand, and the enslaved, on the other. This latter group was composed mostly of war captives who were often brutally exploited.

At the height of Athenian military power, slaves were plentiful, inexpensive and commonly worked to death, especially those consigned to the mines and fields. This would be repeated during the rise of Rome.

In addition to performing the basic agricultural and mining labor that underlay Athenian democracy, slaves were also employed as artisans and teachers and as domestic labor in most Athenian citizens’ households.

A ‘golden age’—of slavery

Slave labor in agriculture was the primary basis of the wealth of Athens and its renowned cultural achievements. While the image of ancient Greece handed down in popular culture is of thriving urban “city-states,” the economic center of gravity was in the countryside. While artisan workshops existed in the cities, there was no industry as such. An estimated 90 to 95 percent of wealth was created by farming.

Slave labor in the silver mines paid for the expansion of Athens’ powerful navy. The conquest of neighboring city-states and outlying areas brought tribute and slaves from the subjugated regions.

Without slave labor, neither the powerful city-state of Athens nor Greece’s “golden age” could have existed.

As one historian put it, “In the broadest terms, slavery was basic to Greek civilization in the sense that, to abolish it and substitute free labor, if it had occurred to anyone to try this, would have dislocated the whole society and done away with the leisure of the upper classes.”1

None among the elite was proposing to try. Despite their divergences in the world of theory, Greek society’s two most renowned philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, were in full agreement on the necessity and desirability of slavery. For them, slavery was beyond question.

States are bound to contain slaves in large numbers,” wrote Aristotle. “Those who cultivate the land should ideally be slaves, not all recruited from one people nor spirited in temperament (so as to be industrious in work and immune to rebellion).”2

Both Plato and Aristotle wanted to bar from participation in political life not only slaves but all those who did any productive labor. “[L]abor remains alien to any human value and in certain respects seems even to be the antithesis of what is essential to man,” wrote Plato. Along the same lines, Aristotle stated: “The best State will not make a manual worker a citizen, for the bulk of manual labor today is slave or foreign.”3

Democracy and slavery in Rome

For close to 500 years, Rome was also a republic with certain democratic features, also restricted to narrowly defined citizens only. By the first century B.C., these institutions gave way to the Roman Empire, where politics was concentrated around the emperors and their courts.

The ruling elites of ancient Greece and Rome were able to live in leisure, pursuing art, culture, politics and war due to the surplus created by slave labor. They lived their entire lives without ever working. The wealthy viewed any work as beneath them and those who performed the work that they depended upon as less than human.

In the Roman empire that succeeded and conquered Greece and the entire Mediterranean basin, the elite had an equally disdainful attitude toward all work, causing them to promote “certain categories of slaves to responsible administrative or professional positions … an index of the radical abstention of the Roman ruling class from any form of productive labor whatever, even of the executive type.” 4

In his famous 1867 economic work Capital, Karl Marx recalled the words of Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, who described the slave as an “instrumentum vocale”—a speaking tool. Slaves were regarded not as human beings but as machines.

Those who had been enslaved demonstrated their rejection of this degradation and asserted their own humanity through countless uprisings and acts of sabotage. Why else would Aristotle give guidance in his classic text on the ideal society in how to prevent slave rebellions?

The most famous revolt was led by Spartacus against Rome in the Third Servile (Slave) War, which lasted from 73 to 71 B.C.

Spartacus was a gladiator and slave who, along with approximately 70 other gladiators, escaped in 73 B.C. They eventually built an army estimated by some sources to exceed 100,000 liberated slaves. Spartacus’s army crushed several Roman legions in a series of campaigns, before being defeated.

In retaliation for the revolt, which shook the expanding Roman state to its foundation, the victorious Roman general, Crassus, had 6,600 captured former slaves crucified along Rome’s main road, the Appian Way. Their bodies were left there indefinitely as a warning.

What was called “democracy” in ancient Greece and Rome was a system of class rule, based on the suppression and subjugation of the majority of the population by the wealthy minority. It was a system that served the interests of the slave-owning class, just as capitalist democracy today serves the interests of the capitalist class.

Revolutionary socialists seek to overturn the rule of the super-rich and establish a new system, a workers’ democracy. Proletarian democracy is also a form of class rule, but for the first time it is the rule of the majority. Work—scorned by the rulers of past and present class societies—becomes the requirement for participation in political life under socialism.


1. A. Andrewes, Greek Society, (Penguin, London, 1967), p. 133.

2. Aristotle, Politics, Book VII, Parts 4 and 10.

3. Quoted in P. Anderson, Passages From Antiquity to Feudalism, (Humanities Press, London, 1974), pp. 26-27.

4. Ibid., p. 24.

5. K. Marx, Capital, Vol. I, (Modern Library, New York, 1936), p. 219 (footnote).

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