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Essay/Term paper: Was the 5th century bce a "golden age" for athens?

Essay, term paper, research paper:  History

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5th century BCE was a period of great development in Ancient Greece, and specifically

in Athens. The development of so many cultural achievements within Athens

and the Athenian Empire has led scholars to deem this period a "Golden Age."

It is true that his period had many achievements, but in the light of the

Athenians treatment of women, metics (non-Athenians living in Athens), and

slaves it is given to question whether or not the period can truly be called


The 5th century and the Athenian Empire gave birth to an amazing

amount of accomplishments. One such accomplishment was the minting of standard

Athenian coins that were used throughout the Athenian holdings as valid for

trade. The use of standard Athenian-minted coins helped the Athenians establish

and maintain control over their empire by helping to control trade and the

economy of the area to the Athenians" benefit.

Since Athens regularly received

tribute from the states it controlled, Pericles, the leader of Athens, began

a building project in Athens that was legendary. Athens had been sacked by

the Persians during the Persian Wars and Pericles set out to rebuild the city.

The city"s walls had already been rebuilt right after the end of the second

Persian War so Pericles rebuilt temples, public grounds, and other impressive

structures. One of the most famous structures to result from Pericles" building

project was the Parthenon. The Parthenon and other such structures re-established

Athens"s glory and while some Athenians criticized the projects as too lavish,

most Athenians enjoyed the benefits of the program. A major benefit to the

Athenian people was that there was an abundance of work in the polis.


5th century BCE was also an important time for Athenian thought. "Sophists,"

paid teachers, taught rhetoric amongst other subjects to wealthy Athenian citizens.

The Sophists were criticized by Athenians who thought that Sophists were destroying

Greek tradition by emphasizing rationalism over a belief in superstition, however

it was this rationalism that became so important to Greek philosophers such

as Socrates and Plato, both who belonged to the 5th century BCE. The Sophists

high regard for rhetoric was later of great use to citizen addressing the Assembly

in the developing Athenian democracy.

Athenian democracy is perhaps considered

the crowning achievement of the 5th century BCE. Democracy grew out of the

status that poorer Athenians were gaining as rowers for the ships of the large

Athenian fleet. Since these poorer Athenians now played a large part in the

Athenian military, they ga8ined more say in the Athenian government. This

led to a democratic government where "every male citizen over 18 years was

eligible to attend and vote in the Assembly, which made all the important decisions

of Athens in the 5th century BC…" (Demand 223). This democratic government

is considered by some scholars to show the full enlightenment of the Athenians

in the 5th century BCE.

This glorious enlightenment seems somehow less enlightening,

however, when one views this period from other than a male Athenian"s eyes.

Athenian enlightenment and democracy was by and for male citizens. The underprivileged

of Athens included women, metics and slaves.

The position of Athenian wives

in Athenian society is clearly stated by Xenephon in his Oeconomicus. Ischomacus,

a young husband, is conversing with Socrates about the duties of husband and

wife. Ischomacus relates how he explained to his wife that the duties needed

to support a household consisted of "indoor" and "outdoor" activities. He

then explains to his wife, "And since labor and diligence are required both

indoors and outdoors…it seems to me that the god prepared the woman"s nature

especially for indoor jobs and cares and the man"s nature for outdoor jobs

and concerns." (Spyridakis 206). This is the general attitude that Athenians

held toward their wives. The Athenian wife was expected to marry and bring

a dowry into her husband"s house. Although this dowry was attached to the

woman, she was in no way allowed to control the lands and moneys she might

bring to her husband.. Similarly, women were not allowed to vote or take any

part in the Assembly, being seen as unfit for this privilege. The


function of a citizen"s wife was to take care of domestic affairs and provide

the citizen with an heir. Athenian wives were rarely seen outside of their

houses, for respectable wives had at least one slave who would purchase needed

items at market. Poorer Athenian women were seen at market because they lacked

slaves to run their errands. Women were considered intellectual non-entities

and were treated as such in the Athenian Empire.

Metics also had a low status

in Athenian society. Metics were not allowed voting privileges in the Athenian

democracy, but were compulsed to serve a specified time in the Athenian military

and were taxed by the Athenians. Metics usually were lower-class tradesmen

or craftsmen. Although some metics families eventually gained wealth, the

vast majority of the metics remained second-class inhabitants of Athens, even

though they performed some of the polis" most activities, such as military

service and trade.

Slavery was also matter-of -fact in 5th century Athenian

life. Slaves were the property of specific owners and subject to the wishes

of their owners. Like women and metics, slaves had no citizenship rights.

It was possible for a slave to save enough money to buy his freedom, but a

freed slave had only as much status as a metic. Aristotle defended slavery

as necessary and a law of nature, saying in his Politics, "That some should

rule and others should be ruled is not only necessary but expedient; indeed,

from the very moment of birth some are set apart to obey and others to command."

(Spyridakis 62) and also stating that, "He is by nature a slave who is capable

of belonging to another (and therefore does belong to another) and who has

access to reason in that he senses it and understands it but does not possess

it." (Spyridakis 63). Many Athenians viewed slavery as necessary to society

in order to give a citizen more time to participate in government affairs and

other matters that were viewed as m

ore important than a slave"s work. Although

some lower-class Athenians may have been forced to share labor with slaves,

most Athenians did not participate in slave"s work. Male slaves did harder

labor such as construction and agriculture. Female slaves ran their mistress"

errands and generally took care of domestic affairs under the watchful eye

of their mistress. Slaves also acted as State scribes. In short, slaves did

much of the work that allowed Athens to prosper in a period of "enlightenment."


light of the unrecognized people who helped to build the foundations for the

Athenian Empire, this "Golden Age" seem far less golden. However, many major

accomplishments grew out of this period as well. Before one can or cannot

place a "Golden Age" label on 5th century Athens, one must consider other times

when the ends of man"s accomplishments may not have justified the means. Athens

could be compared to post- Revolutionary America, where a "democratic" government

was only available to white male citizens. Yet Americans tend to view this

time with much patriotism and pride. Likewise the Industrial Revolution is

said to be a great accomplishment of mankind, but little recognition is given

to the horrible factory conditions that employees, many women and children,

endured. I would say that the 5th century BCE was as much a "Golden Age" for

man as either of the above mentioned time periods. I think that most of our

accomplishments as humans rest on the shoulders of invisible and overlooked


Works Cited

Demand, Nancy. A History of Ancient Greece. New

York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

Spyridakis, Stylianos V. and Bradley P. Nystrom,

eds., trans. Ancient Greece: Documantary Perspectives.

Dubuque: Kendall-Hunt,



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