Citation with persistent identifier:
Ismard, Paulin. “Public Slavery, Politics and Expertise in Classical Athens.” CHS Research Bulletin 1, no. 2 (2013). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:IsmardP.Public_Slavery_Politics_and_Expertise_in_Classical_Athens.2013
§1 Public slavery was an institution common to most of the Greek cities of the Classical and Hellenistic periods. From the Homeric dêmiourgos to the scribes of sixth-century Crete, the Archaic period abounds with examples of skilled technicians who, as such, were partially or fully excluded from the political community. Despite such antecedents, the advent of public slavery can not be dissociated from the introduction and growth of chattel slavery in the late archaic period. In the best known city of classical period, Athens, their presence was far from negligible: between one and two thousand dêmosioi were employed for up to 40,000 citizens. The sphere of activities of public slaves was indeed very large and it is probable that every day, an Athenian citizen had to deal in his different social activities with some dêmosioi.
§2 Four categories of public slaves can basically be distinguished. Some dêmosioi worked for the civic constructions or in some of the civic workshops. The accounts of construction in the sanctuary of Demeter in Eleusis in the fourth century BCE list twenty-eight public slaves working at the same time in the sanctuary. Some of them carried the stone to the sanctuary while some others controlled the expenses of the officials of the sanctuary. The workers of the argurokopeion, the workshop which made the coins of the civic money, would belong to the same category. All the dêmosioi assisting the magistrates in their administrative task would constitute a second category. These public slaves worked for most of the institutions of the cities like the courts, the council, and even the assembly in some cities of Asia Minor. Some of them managed the archives of the city, when others took part in the organization of trials and the sessions of the Council. The famous Scythian archers – the only police force that the classical Athens has ever known – would belong to the third category. Their main mission was to keep order in Assembly, in the courts, but also in the markets of the city. Nevertheless, those archers were not the only public slaves to embody the repressive function of the state in classical Athens. The public executioner in the city, called the koinos, as well as those who guarded the prison, in Athens and in Asia Minor, were recruited among the dêmosioi. Finally, many dêmosioi assisted some priests to manage the sanctuaries and sometimes do some sacrifices. But public slaves could also become in exceptional circumstances priests of some divinities for public cults, which means that the dêmosioi could be, like any other priest, in a position of intermediate (or medium) between the civic community and the god.
§3 More generally, the study of public slavery can shed a new light on several important issues of history of the Greek cities. The first one addresses the variety of servile status in ancient Greece. The legal status of public slaves may be considered as highly favorable when compared to that of most of the privately-owned slaves. Epigraphical testimonies show indeed that dêmosioi possessed goods, and some even had slaves of their own; they were allowed to take legal action; their filiation could be recognized as legitimate, some dêmosioi possessed a patronymic name, and their sons were often granted citizenship. It is not really surprising, therefore, to learn that the city granted honors to them, which is unknown for private slaves.
§4 A second issue deals with the institution of the city, interpreted as a a type of state or as a stateless society. Direct democracy in the classical Athenian sense implied that all political prerogatives be held by the citizens themselves, and not by any kind of effective state apparatus. These dêmosioi were precisely, on a small level, the bureaucracy of the Greek cities. And it may very well be that democratic civil society, through the relegation of administrative tasks to slaves, actually intended to resist the creation and the growth of such a state apparatus. The aim, I think, was in some ways to hide, or to make invisible the state and what was necessary in a direct democracy like the Athenian one.
§5 A third issue is the the topic of this paper, which adresses the expertise of some public slaves. According to a late scholiast of Demosthens, the Athenian dêmos was used to buying some literate slaves (grammata epistamenous). This brief remark is not unsignificant: in the classical city, dêmosioi were often gifted with uncommon, highly sought-after skills. Why did the Athenians entrust some public slaves to manage some experts and sometimes very difficult works? Placing out of the reach of ordinary citizens this works, the purpose was of relegating the question of expertise outside of the civic sphere, and therefore out of the scope of political participation – a fact deplored by Plato, who presents the democratic regime as intrinsically hostile to the knowledge. In that sense, the study of the expertise trusted to some public slaves raises the question of the “social epistemology” of the classical city and the relationship between knowledge and politics in democratic Athens.
Experts Dêmosioi in Democratic Athens
§6 Let’s first consider two cases of expert dêmosioi in the fourth century Athens. The first, unfortunately anonymous, appears in the well known Nicophon’s Law, the “Athenian Law on Silver Coinage” of 375 BCE, first published by Ronald Stroud in 1974. There are important discussions about the aim of the law, but I would like to focus on the role played by the dokimastês, the tester, who was a dêmosios.
§7 The law states that a public slave was responsible for judging the quality and authenticity of monetary coins in circulation. This dokimastes was circulating among the tables of the moneychangers and bankers of the Agora, and was able to determine in case of dispute, if the currency used in the transaction was genuine.
Let the public Tester, who sits among the tables, test in accordance with these provisions every day except whenever there is a cash payment; at that time let him test in [the Bouleuterion]. If anyone brings forward [foreign silver currency] which has the same device as the Attic, [if it is good,] let the Tester give it back to the one who brought it forward; but if it is [bronze at the core,] or lead at the core, or counterfeit, let him cut it across [immediately] and let it be sacred to the Mother of the Gods and let him [deposit] it with the Boule.
§8 This dokimastês had a colleague, dêmosios too, who worked at the Peiraieus, near the (unknown) stele of Poseidon. The law prescribes this time that merchants had to go to see the dokimâstês in the case of disagreement on the currency. As noticed by Robert Conn, this colleague had the mission to discourage “any foreign counterfeiters from bringing their creations coins into the city”.
§9 The authenticity of currency in circulation was obviously a crucial challenge for the Athenians. If they entrusted a task of such importance to a slave, it is certainly not because they considered it as a task of secondary importance. We can even assume the opposite. The dêmosios was indeed placed in a crucial position: he was the guarantor of the commercial transactions, because, given his legal status, he was excluded from the Athenian society, and consequently, was much less open to corruption than any citizen. But another reason explains why Athenians trusted this task to a slave: few citizens were certainly able to perform it. Every numismatist knows how difficult it can be to distinguish genuine coin from an imitation having less than the standard silver content, especially if a part of the currency was from private origin, and we do not know how the dokimastês tested the suspicious coins. This mission required indeed a real expertise, as Timalcion, in the Satyricon, will notice it some centuries later, by saying that the work of changer is, with the medicine, the most difficult job of all, because “he knows the bronze discover through the silver layer.” Rather than taking the risk of entrusting a citizen who would be competent, which would mean violating the rules of equal distribution of the archê within the political community and legitimizing the exercise of civic magistracy on basis of a specific expertise, it was preferable to entrust the task to a slave who was qualified to do it.
§10 The Nikophon’s Law confirms that the competence of the tester demosios, the public slave, should not be widely shared: “In order that there may also be a Tester in Peiraieus for [the] shipowners and the merchants and [all] the others, let the Boule appoint one from among the public slaves [—] or let it purchase one”. The sentence shows how difficult it could be to find a dêmosios qualified to perform the task and the cities could frequently recruit them from specialized markets.
§11 The dêmosios activity, of course, was under the supervision of magistrates, the syllogeis tou dêmou: “If the Tester does not sit at his post or if he does not test according to the law, let the syllogeis tou dêmou beat him fifty lashes with the whip.” But his authority was considerable, even over Athenian citizens. If a dispute arose, merchants could then go to the dokimastês, who alone, relying on its own belief, had to pronounce the final verdict about the authenticity of the coin. The law prescribes that any coin which the dêmosios considered as valid was to enjoy forced circulation and should be accepted by any merchants. But the dêmosios could also decide to confiscate the coins, which gave him a real power, over all the merchants and buyers, citizen or not.
§12 Another public slave of the classical Athens can be considered as a public expert. Contrary to the anonymous tester of 375 BCE, this dêmosios bears a name : Eukles. In three different inscriptions, spread over more than twenty years in the second part of the fourth century BCE, Eukles appears as a clerk or even an accounting officer in both the most important shrines of the city, the Acropolis and the sanctuary of Eleusis. In 353/2 BCE, the Athenians chose him to write an inventory (exetasmos) of all the gifts dedicated in the Chalkothek on the Acropolis. Specifying that the inventory should be compared with the published annual inventories graved on the stone, the decree prescribes that Eukles will do it under the control of the grammateus o kata prytaneian.
§13 We can assume that the magistrates were dependant on the work of Eukles to do the paradosis, the transmission of responsibility from the magistrate of a year to the following year. Between the magistrates working on the sanctuary and a dêmosios like Eukles lies nevertheless a great difference: chosen by lot, the magistrates changed each year, although a dêmosios could work several consecutive years in the same task. In a very fragmentary inscription of the Acropolis of three hundred fifty, Eukles is mentioned: he seems to have worked several consecutive years on the sanctuary and I would assume that he was in some ways a real specialist of the properties of the sanctuary. Twenty years later, we find the same Eukles in the sanctuary of Demeter in Eleusis. Among the twenty-eight dêmosioi working in Eleusis, Eukles had a special position. The accounts of the sanctuary in the year 330 BCE states that he had been designated in the Assembly by the cheirotonia procedure the Athenians to record the expenses for the constructions of the sanctuary, which supposes that the Athenians knew his skills. In a way, the dêmosios was a public figure in the Athens of the fourth century BCE. In the second century BCE, a dêmosios called Peritas seems to play a very similar role in the Athenian Delos, working several consecutive years in the sanctuary and managing the properties of the sanctuary on behalf of the priests. An inscription even mentions that the incomes of the sanctuary should be paid to the officials and to Peritas. Eukles, as Peritas, had a kind of financial expertise. Their inventories were also in some ways acts of accountability and thanks to them, the officials had a precise knowledge of sacred goods stored in the sanctuaries. Far from being only passive clerks, registering all the properties located in the sanctuaries, they tacitly played the role of accounting officers in the sanctuaries.
In Search of the Athenian Democratic Epistemology
§14 The anonymous tester of 375 BCE and Eucles: these two individuals of classical Athens are only a sample of all the expert public slaves working in the city. They are obviously not representatives of all the dêmosioi in the city. Beyond a common legal status, there was nothing in common between such experts and dêmosioi working in the argurokopeion or carrying stones to Eleusis. Furthermore, these experts often collaborated in their business with some citizens. Nevertheless, some specific tasks were entrusted to some public slaves because of the expertise they required, and this fact sheds a light on an fundamental component of the democratic ideology of the classical Athens: the deliberate exclusion of expert knowledge from the political field. To qualify individuals with the ability to speak in public and political ambition and to distinguish them from all the idiotiai, the Athenians of the fourth century sometimes used the term politeuomenoi. But the notion of “political class” is foreign to the world of classical city and these politeuomenoi never acquired the status of professional politicians. Above all, the democratic ideology refused to legitimize the holding of a magistracy on the basis of any expertise. In some circumstances, the Athenians could appeal to specialists so that they would put their expertise in the service of the city. In the 330’s BCE, the financial management of the city was entrusted to Lycurgus because of his (alleged) expertise in the financial field. But the civic ideology ignored the role played by these specialists: reading the speakers of the fourth century BCE or the decrees voted by the city, it is as if the democratic city never had a need for specialists to run an administration. When the Athenians voted to the late fourth century an honorary decree for Lycurgus, they praised his virtue (aretê) and his goodwill (eunoia) towards the city, not the singular technê he had put in its service.
§15 The Protagorian interpretation of the legend of Prometheus, and the controversy with Socrates about the political status of knowledge enlightens this fundamental aspect of the Athenian democratic ideology. One of the key point of the Protagorian interpretation addresses indeed the distribution of the political competency that Zeus would have offered to the human being. This capacity, tells Protagoras, would not have been unevenly distributed among the men (as could be with medical knowledge), but Zeus would have decided to distribute it in equal parts among all the men. Far from being a specialized knowledge, the political capacity is a gift from the gods which deserves to be regularly practiced.
§16 Such a conception of the political ability, which legitimises a key value of the Athenian democracy, the isonomia, has some echoes in the institutional organization of democratic Athens. An important feature of the democratic regime was the multiplicity of structures that organize all deliberative decision making. From the assemblies of demes and phratries, sometimes involving a dozen citizens to the civic Ecclesia in which all citizens could participate, through all the private associations or colleges of magistrates, the civic life was the subject of an intense deliberative practice. Josiah Ober showed in a very convincing way that this deliberative practice had been essential to the success of the democratic regime of the classical period. Ober focused specifically on the role of the Athenian deliberative institutions to aggregate and synthesize knowledge scattered throughout the population and convert it in a knowledge politically useful for the city. The success of the Athenian regime could be explained by its ability to organize through common institutions the heterogeneity of knowledge dispersed in all the city. One Athenian institution in particular would have played a key role in this virtuous circulation of knowledge: the Athenian Boulê. Composed of 500 randomly selected citizens coming from different parts of Attica, the institution would have been at the heart of a vast process of collecting the knowledge within the entire Athenian society. But the Athenian success does not only lie in the aggregation, on an large scale, of the diverse skills dispersed in the society. It offers not only a demonstration of the famous theorem of Condorcet, according to which the probability that the majority of a jury in favor of the fair proposal increases gradually as the number of jurors increases. To Condorcet, the development of the relevant decision ultimately depends on the level of expertise of each participant in the deliberative process : “Considérons des votants qui se prononcent à la majorité simple. S’il est plus probable que chacun des votants jugera conformément à la vérité, plus le nombre des votants augmentera, plus la probabilité de la vérité de la décision sera grande, en revanche, s’il est probable qu’il se trompera, la probabilité de la décision diminuera jusqu’à atteindre zéro“. It is only because, individually, each of the judges demonstrated competence and independence that, once they are gathered, the jury can produce the right decision. The theorem fails to enlighten the deliberative alchemy which gives rise to collective knowledge, which is at the heart of Athenian political model.
§17 To extend the propositions of Josiah Ober, and go back, with a new perspective, to the issue of public slavery, I would like to pay attention to two well-known moments of the platonician philosophy. After the narration of the myth of Prometheus, Protagoras is asked by Socrates to present his own conception of virtue and how it can be taught. The sophist explains that the teaching of virtue in the civic community meets conditions in all respects different from those which govern the dêmiourgikai technai. While the learning of the dêmiourgikai technai is based on a master who teaches his disciples, the virtue spreads in the civic community by a kind of co-teaching. Protagoras uses the analogy of the flute-players :
Suppose that there could be no state unless we were all flute-players, in such sort as each was able, and suppose that everyone were giving his neighbor both private and public lessons in the art, and rebuked him too, if he failed to do it well, without grudging him the trouble –even as no one now thinks of grudging or reserving his skill in what is just and lawful as he does in other expert knowledge ; for our neighbor’s justice and virtue, I take it, is to our advantage, and consequently well all tell and teach one another what is just and lawful – well, if we made the same zealous and ungrudging efforts to instruct each other in flute-playing, do you think Socrates, that the good flute-players would be more likely than the bad to have sons who were good flute-players? I do not think they would.
§18 The civic community would be like a group of flute-players, more or less skilled but playing together, each one learning from his co-player how to improve his play. As well as learning a language does not require the teaching of the best of linguists, the acquisition of virtue would consist in a socialized learning with all members of the community who have part, more or less, of this quality. Above all, to Protagoras, no absolute definition of virtue is a prerequisite for this intense exchange by which the virtue spreads in the civic community. The policy excellence is based on a co-teaching involving all the civic community: this is the heart of an epistemological model which promotes an associationist theory of the political competence.
§19 In that sense, what Socrates and Plato analyzed in the democracy as the reign of ignorance is actually a specific epistemological regime, which is a part of the democratic ideology of the fifth century BCE. But this Protagorian epistemology excludes from the process of circulation, and consequently relegates out of the political field, the dêmiourgikai technai that the dêmosioi have in some ways inherited. This kind of expertise that can not meet conditions of the social interactions has nothing to do in the political field.
Meno’s Slave and the Political Status of Knowledge
§20 Another well-known passage of the Platonician philosophy, which involves a slave figure, can be reinterpreted in the light of this democratic epistemology: the formulation of the anamnêsis theory by Socrates (or Plato) in Meno. My aim is not to comment the Platonician theory of anamnêsis, as it appears in this dialogue, but only to suggest that the passage must be read in the light of the controversy about the public status of knowledge in the city. In this perspective, the role played by the slave of Meno is obviously intriguing. The scene deserves first to be revisited by paying attention to its specific dramaturgy. Once again, the discussion with the young Meno is about the teaching of the virtue. Meno first introduces a paradox : “How are you going to search for this, Socrates, when you don’t have the faintest idea what it is? Which of the things that you don’t know will you suppose that it is, when you are searching for it? And even if you do come across it, how are you going to know that this is the thing you didn’t know?”.
§21 Most of the Platonicians consider that the origin of this paradox is of sophistic origin – according to some of them, Gorgias could even have been the first to give an explicit formulation of the paradox. The argument expresses obviously an empiricist philosophical point of view, according to which the experience is at the foundation of knowledge. But it contains also a specific conception of learning. Indirectly, Meno, following the statement of Protagoras, argues that the acquisition of virtue is a social process, which does not need an absolute or definitive knowledge of the essence of virtue. In a similar perspective, Paul Woodruff has explained that for the sophists a pessimistic view about the human knowledge was absolutely compatible with an optimistic view about the human teaching capacity.
§22 In that sense, the theory of the anamnesis must be understood as an answer to the paradox that presents Socrates as eristic, but which is deeply related to the sophistic and democratic epistemology. To resolve this sophistic paradox, Socrates proceeds in two stages. He first invokes the myth of metempsychosis, that he taught from some venerable specialized knowledge holders, priests and poets. Then comes the time of the demonstration: Socrates calls a young slave of Meno, who becomes in the dialogue, the actor and the subject of a geometric demonstration. By his own deductive abilities, this slave will show that he already knew what he was supposed to ignore. The intervention of the slave in this crucial moment of dialogue is often interpreted in terms of a controversy about the universalism of knowledge. Dominic Scott, for instance, has recently talked of a “socratic egalitarianism”: Socrates would demonstrate that every man, regardless of his status, has access to knowledge.
§23 In the light of the democratic epistemology I tried to highlight, the entire scene could receive another interpretation and the surprising intervention of a slave a new significance. The episode could be read not only through the prism of the universality of knowledge, but rather as a radical contestation to the epistemologic model promoted by the sophistic. The scene would indirectly oppose the idea of public knowledge resulting from deliberation among equals, in which the object of research is not prior to the deliberative process but built by it, contrasted with the question of what would be the authentic knowledge, resulting from an interior revelation and for which the truth is anterior to any dialogic process. In a such perspective, the figure of the slave makes sense because the knowledge he can acquire, proceeding “ex eautou”, as says Meno, owes nothing to the civic deliberation between equal citizen, which was at the heart of the democratic ideology. By taking as the subject of his demonstration a man excluded from the civic community and his deliberative practice, the aim of the Platonician demonstration is not so much to show that even a slave can acquire true knowledge than to condemn the social epistemology of the democratic regime.
§24 The scene suggests that the figure of the slave is at the center of a controversy about the political status of knowledge in the city. The well-known passage from the Meno sheds indirectly a light on the epistemological break of democratic Athens, opposing shared knowledge between citizens, deployed in the political sphere under a deliberative model to specific knowledge, relegated out of political field, and which could be put in the hands of some slaves.
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 The study of public slavery in classical and hellenistic cities has not been subject of an exhaustive study since the (still useful) book of Jacob 1928 ; on the dêmosioi of imperial period, see now Weiss 2004.
 Andocides fr. 5 (: schol. Aristophanes Wasps 1007) : “Hyperbolus I blush to mention. His father, a branded slave, still works at the public mint; while he himself, a foreign interloper, makes lamps for the living”.
 On the dêmosioi of the Metrôon in Athens : Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 47. 5, 48. 1 ; Demosthenes 19.129 ; IG II² 463, l. 28 ; 583, l. 4-7 ; 1492 B, l. 112. The dêmosioi working for the courts : Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 64.1, 65.1-4, 69.1, Plutarchus The Life of Demosthenes 5. 3. For the public slaves of the Boulê, see for instance Agora 15. 37, l. 4.
 The Athenian priests of Sarapis in Delos in the middle of the second century were two consecutive years two anonymous dêmosioi (ID 2610, see comments of Bricault 1996). It seems that the Athenians took the control of this delian sanctuary and gave to dêmosioi the priesthood. See also in hellenistic Rhodes : IG XII. 1, 31.
 Stroud 1974, ll. 4- 13: ὁ δὲ]/δοκιμαστὴς ὁ δημόσιος καθήμενος με[ταξὺ τῶν τρ]-/απεζῶν δοκιμαζέτω κατὰ ταῦτα ὅσαι ἡ̣[μέραι πλὴν]/ὅταν ἦ[ι] χρημάτωγ καταβολή, τότε δὲ ἐ[ν τῶι βολευτ]/ηρίωι. ἐὰν δέ τις προσενέγκηι ξ̣[ε]ν[ικὸν ἀργύριον?]/ἔχον τὸν αὐτὸγ χαρακτῆρα τῶι Ἀττι[κῶ]ι̣, ἐ[ὰν καλόν], / ἀποδιδότω τῶι προσενεγκόντι. ἐὰν δὲ ὑπ[όχαλκον]/ἢ ὑπομόλυβδον ἢ κίβδηλον, διακοπτέτ̣ω πα[ραυτίκ]/α καὶ ἔστω ἱερὸν τῆς Μητρὸς [τ]ῶν θεῶγ καὶ κ[αταβαλ]/λέτω ἐς τὴμ βολήν.
 Plato Protagoras 318-319. This is obviously not the aim of this short paper to go into the details of the Protagorian conception of the myth of Prometheus. For an important interpretation of the political philosophy of Protagoras : Cassin 1995:215-236.
 Plato, Protagoras, 327b (transl. Lamb) : Εἰ γὰρ δὴ ὃ λέγω οὕτως ἔχει – ἔχει δὲ μάλιστα πάντων οὕτως – ἐνθυμήθητι ἄλλο τῶν ἐπιτηδευμάτων ὁτιοῦν καὶ μαθημάτων προελόμενος. Εἰ μὴ οἷόν τ’ ἦν πόλιν εἶναι εἰ μὴ πάντες αὐληταὶ ἦμεν ὁποῖός τις ἐδύνατο ἕκαστος, καὶ τοῦτο καὶ ἰδίᾳ καὶ δημοσίᾳ πᾶς πάντα καὶ ἐδίδασκε καὶ ἐπέπληττε τὸν μὴ καλῶς αὐλοῦντα, καὶ μὴ ἐφθόνει τούτου, ὥσπερ νῦν τῶν δικαίων καὶ τῶν νομίμων οὐδεὶς φθονεῖ οὐδ’ἀποκρύπτεται ὥσπερ τῶν ἄλλων τεχνημάτων – λυσιτελεῖ γὰρ οἶμαι ἡμῖν ἡ ἀλλήλων δικαιοσύνη καὶ ἀρετή· διὰ ταῦτα πᾶς παντὶ προθύμως λέγει καὶ διδάσκει καὶ τὰ δίκαια καὶ τὰ νόμιμα – εἰ οὖν οὕτω καὶ ἐν αὐλήσει πᾶσαν προθυμίαν καὶ ἀφθονίαν εἴχομεν ἀλλήλους διδάσκειν, οἴει ἄν τι, ἔφη, μᾶλλον, ὦ Σώκρατες, τῶν ἀγαθῶν αὐλητῶν ἀγαθοὺς αὐλητὰς τοὺς ὑεῖς γίγνεσθαι ἢ τῶν φαύλων; Οἶμαι μὲν οὔ (…)
 For recent discussions about the platonician theory of anamnesis in Meno (and the comparison with the anamnêsis in Phedo and Phaedrus) : Erler and Brisson éds. 2004, and specifically, for a comprehensive conception of the recollection in Meno in light of Phedo : Brisson 2004.
 Plato Meno 80 d (R. W. Sharples transl.) : Καὶ τίνα τρόπον ζητήσεις, ὦ Σώκρατες, τοῦτο ὃ μὴ οἶσθα τὸ παράπαν ὅτι ἐστίν; Ποῖον γὰρ ὧν οὐκ οἶσθα προθέμενος ζητήσεις; Ἢ εἰ καὶ ὅτι μάλιστα ἐντύχοις αὐτῷ, πῶς εἴσῃ ὅτι τοῦτό ἐστιν ὃ σὺ οὐκ ᾔδησθα;
 Plato Meno 81a-b : Some of them were priests and priestesses, who had studied how they might be able to give a reason for their profession : there have been poets also, who spoke of these things by inspiration, like Pindar, and many others who were inspired (R. W. Sharples transl).