Thursday, February 20, 2014


Deborah Kamen, Status in Classical Athens. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013. Pp. xiv, 144. ISBN 9780691138138. $35.00.

Reviewed by Jeremy Trevett, York University (

Version at BMCR home site

In this book Deborah Kamen sets out to provide a taxonomy of status in classical Athens. In doing so she also seeks to illustrate the truth of Moses Finley's dictum that there was a spectrum of statuses in ancient Greece, ranging from chattel slaves to full (male) citizens. She argues that the familiar division of the population of Attica into three status groups—citizen, metic and slave—reflects the Athenians' own ideologically-driven view of their society, but is an over-simplification which obscures the complexity of how status worked in practice. In her view these three major groups should be augmented by a number of intermediate statuses. In total she identifies ten status-groups, whilst acknowledging that the spectrum could be further divided into narrower sub-categories. Each of these status-groups is the subject of a separate chapter.

In the Introduction Kamen sets out the terms of her enquiry. She follows Finley and other classicists in regarding status, defined broadly as a combination of juridical rights and social standing, as the most appropriate term for placing people in Athenian society. Her discussion eschews any overtly theoretical approach to status and social stratification: Marx and Weber are mentioned briefly, but Pierre Bourdieu (for instance) not at all.

The ten substantive chapters discuss the following groups, in order of ascending status: ordinary and privileged slaves (chapters 1 and 2 respectively); freedmen with conditional freedom (chapter 3); ordinary and privileged metics (chapters 4 and 5); bastards (nothoi) (chapter 6); disenfranchised citizens (atimoi) (chapter 7); naturalized citizens (chapter 8); and female and male citizens (chapters 9 and 10). The groups are mainly—but not entirely—distinguished by differences of juridical status, though Kamen is alert to other ways in which status differences can operate. There is no separate discussion of children.

Kamen advances reasoned arguments for identifying these ten as distinct status-groups within Athenian society. I find myself in disagreement with a couple of her choices. First, the division of slaves into a more and less privileged group strikes me as misleading. The privileges that certain slaves undeniably enjoyed were granted at the discretion of their owner, and could be withdrawn at any time. Were these really a distinct group, rather than slaves whom their owners decided for various reasons to treat relatively well? More substantially, the evidence for the existence of a separate category of freedmen with conditional freedom, to be distinguished from freedmen metics, is weak. Harpocration (s.v. apostasiou) refers to a civil action, the dikē apostasiou, which could be brought by former owners against their freed slaves 'if they [the freed slaves] stand apart from them, or enroll another as prostatēs, or fail to do the other things required by the laws'. What the law required is unknown, but it does appear that freed slaves had some residual obligation to their former owners, perhaps analogous to the Roman freedman's duty of obsequium to his patron. But this is hardly the same thing as conditional freedom. Kamen suggests that some Athenian slaves were freed conditionally, by analogy with the paramonē-agreements in the manumission documents from Hellenistic Delphi, but this is speculation. Likewise the will of the third-century Peripatetic philosopher Lykon (quoted at 38) is not good evidence for classical Athenian practice. Kamen refers (41 n. 43) to the argument of Hans Klees that 'only the unconditionally freed slave was assimilated to metic status', 1 but I would want to see this important point argued for directly. In short, I am not persuaded that freed slaves at Athens were not immediately eligible, indeed obligated, to pay the metoikion and register as metics.

Kamen covers a lot of ground in just 115 pages of text. Overall the book works well as a compendium of information relating to different status groups in classical Athens. The main issues are all covered, and the bibliographical references are up-to-date and helpful. Kamen is attentive to the question of how far rights were enjoyed in practice, and to the possibility of mobility, both upwards and downwards, between status-groups. Many of her discussions of specific matters of controversy are necessarily brief, and the reader is referred to fuller treatments via the footnotes. For example, Elizabeth Meyer's radical reinterpretation of the phialai exeleutherikai is dealt with in a sentence (20 n. 8). Kamen does a good job of compression, but the book would in my view have benefitted from more space to discuss some of the material in greater detail. In a number of places Kamen makes general statements that are debatable, and stand in need of qualification or substantiation, or both. For example, she writes (10) that among chattel slaves 'Thracians and Anatolians generally performed manual labor'. This may be true, and probably is insofar as most slaves did such work (broadly defined), but no evidence is provided. Elsewhere she states (106) that 'all citizens were subject to the eisphora', whereas in fact it was only ever the rich who were liable to pay it. In short, this books offers clear orientation to the issues that it discusses, but is not really a substitute for more in-depth treatments, such as Ogden on nothoi or Whitehead on metics.2

Kamen's central contention, that there were a number of different statuses at Athens arrayed along a spectrum, is persuasively argued, and in one sense obviously correct. Indeed, since an individual's status depended on a large number of variables, including but not limited to legally defined rights, privileges and obligations, one could argue for a much larger number of statuses, or positions on the social spectrum. Kamen notes, for example, the existence of considerable differences of wealth within the group of full citizens, but one could add many other criteria (age, occupation, noble birth, political activity, the holding of priesthoods, etc.) by which a person's status would have been determined.

At the same time, the argument for a spectrum of statuses should not be pushed too far. Kamen acknowledges that the different groups were not of equal size or importance: privileged slaves and metics made up a small proportion of the non-citizen population, and the number of acknowledged nothoi and atimoi must have been small by comparison with the number of full citizens. In other words, slaves, metics and citizens (male and female) were indeed the main groups, as the Athenians themselves saw the matter. Moreover, the intervals between different groups on the spectrum may have varied considerably. Are we to imagine a broadly uniform scale, or a set of clusters around three main nodes (slaves, metics and citizens)? In my view the latter model is preferable.

The division of the population into discrete groups works better for juridical than for social status, which is a more complex matter to which the book does not really do full justice. There is no sustained discussion of what status is and how it works; of how status is negotiated and open to challenge; of the role of the individual in creating his or her status; of status dissonance, whereby a person's status can be high by some criteria but low by others; and so on. Kamen writes in the Introduction that her aim 'is to provide a thick description of Athenian status' (1), but despite some brief case-studies (for example, of Apollodorus as an example of the naturalized citizen) the book does not contain the in-depth examination of status in action that the term thick description might lead one to expect. The discussions of non-juridical status differences are often too brief to be helpful. For example, the section on citizens' involvement in the political life of the city (103-105) summarizes the relevant sections of the Aristotelian Athenaiōn Politeia, to which there are nineteen references in just two pages, but offers only very general reflections about the extent of non-elite participation, concluding that thetes and countrymen were probably underrepresented. As a work of social history, the book is rather thin.

Kamen writes in an admirably clear and engaging style. The text is generally free of errors, though Eudemos of Plataea was surely honoured by the Athenians for providing pairs of oxen, not carriages, to help rebuild the Panathenaic Stadium (59). The index locorum has a number of omissions: in particular several references to Aristotle's Politics have gone astray.

My overall assessment of Status in Classical Athens is mixed. It is very useful to have so much information about different status groups collected between a single pair of covers. Kamen also successfully demonstrates her central contentions: that status is more than a matter of juridical rights and obligations, and that there existed a range of different statuses at Athens. At the same time, the subject is too large and complex to be adequately discussed in such a short compass. It is not often that one wishes that an academic book had been longer, but this is one such case. One hopes that Kamen will go on to explore in more detail some of the issues raised in this thought-provoking book.


1.   H. Klees, 'Die rechtliche und gesellschaftige Stellung der Freigelassenen im klassischen Griechenland' Laverna 11 (2000) 1-43 (a work which I have not seen).
2.   D.Ogden, Greek Bastardy in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods. Oxford: 1996; D. Whitehead, The Ideology of the Athenian Metic. Cambridge: 1977.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.