Being a female and male citizen in classical Athens

Classic Athenian democracy (Vth-IVth century) and its citizens are quite often referred to in the current/contemporary media and political spheres. In the context of the current « democratic crisis », it serves to legitimate the demand for a new political practice or for a reform whose goal would be to set up a political system that would enable citizens to play their part and be fully committed, « just like in Athens ».

And yet, we are twenty-five centuries away from Périclès fellow citizens, which should call for a little more caution. In view of this observation, it may be worthwhile to examine what it was like to be a female and male citizen in ancient Greece and to what extent their actual practices could contribute to enlighten our contemporary debates.

Legal and institutional citizenship

As early as the XIXth century, most ancient historians/of Antiquity have supported the Aristotelian definition of citizenship (politeia) in his Politics:    « In the strictest sense of the word, nothing can better define the citizen than participating (météchein) to the judge’s powers and, more broadly, to those of a magistrate (archè) ». This legal and institutional definition restricted citizenship to over-18 adult males, i.e. to those who had completed their training as ephebes. Furthermore, they had to be descended from two Athenian parents – which excluded foreigners, slaves and women, that is the majority of the population. It also required that each citizen should participate to all assemblies – an idealistic and probably elite vision, while the poorest citizens did not all have enough time to go to Assembly every month, even after the implementation of misthos (pay for assembly attendance) in the IVth century

However, the Aristotelian definition suited the XIXth and XXth century historians all the more so as it deeply resonated with their contemporary concerns: participating in the life of the city meant being part of the legal system and expressing one’s vote, in a world where emerging States were relying on male suffrage. There was not far to go from Athens to modern democracy. The comparison has long permeated the vision modern societies had of ancient societies, and Athens regularly serves as a reference – for instance, when the notion of «participatory democracy” and « citizens’ juries » emerged during the 2007 French presidential campaign.

Cultural and mixed citizenship

Over the las thirty years, starting from scratch, the notion of citizenship has been re-examined by historians. The Aristotelian definition is now seen as a minimum common denominator among ancient Greek cities, and no longer as a universal-like affirmation. A number of recent articles and books attest of the dynamism of these questions and attempt to synthetize several research avenues.

The first milestone marked by anthropologist historians focused on religion: as early as the 1980s, François de Polignac and a few other historians highlighted the importance of religious practices in defining citizenship in the archaic period (VIIIth-VIth centuries). The civic community appeared to be first a community sharing religious practices. Community was founded on civic festivals, such as the Panathenaia dedicated to Athena, during which each citizen was expected to play her/his part. In the great Panathenaic procession, each knew her/his own place: male citizens in the lead, but female citizens would also be there serving different roles, so as to offer both gods and on-lookers the picture of a well organised city. The part played by religion in politics and in the definition of citizenship was indeed significant: the city could only be operational if harmony was achieved between humans and gods, but also among all inhabitants. You could only be a citizen if you honoured gods collectively and in the appropriate manner. As demonstrated in women’s history in the 1970s, and supported by gender history since the 1980s, women used to be very active in these religious occasions where they played a significant part. One of the most important city festivals, the Thesmophoria, held in honour of Demeter, was restricted to women.  Participating in religious celebrations appears to have been fundamental in defining citizenship – which inevitably acknowledged and granted women a status of citizen. It simply means that the definition of women’s citizenship included different responsibilities from men’s: each used to have rights and duties, similar or not, which varied according to places and times of the year.

  • Sebillotte-Cuchet V., 2016, « Ces citoyennes qui reconfigurent le politique. Trente ans de travaux sur l’Antiquité grecque », Clio, n°43-1, 185-215.

A citizenship made up of bricks, not of scraps.

This vision of citizens’ compound set of rights in different fields developed in the 1970s and was further explored by Vincent Azoulay and Paulin Ismard. They studied the case of citizens who were made atimos, that is suspended from some of their rights for cowardice during a battle, godless action, perjury, etc. Atimia was most often partial, which meant the convicted only lost some of their rights as citizens.

Studying partial atimia provides some insight into what Athenian citizenship was actually like. It was the case of Andocide, a late Vth-century famous Athenian orator, who was involved in a religious scandal in 415 (the so- called Hermocopides case and the parody of Eleusinian Mysteries). As a consequence, he was barred from sanctuaries, from the Agora, the very core of Athenian political life and from the courts being held in the Agora. He was not disenfranchised but being barred from the very places of political and legal powers, he was unable to bring action before the courts, to attend religious celebrations nor participate in political life. The large diversity of the rights suspended shows that citizenship was not limited to legal rights only or religious rights only: you could be a citizen without the right to vote or to participate into civic festivals.

Ancient citizenship may finally be envisioned as being built « in pieces » just like a Lego wall: it was a set of bricks, each standing for a right, a privilege, a right to access a space.  The status of citizen granted access to participating rights, but also to attendance rights in specific places at specific moments. In case of disgrace, the people was entitled to deprive the citizen of all or only part of her/his rights. Thus, you were (or remained) a citizen (whether male or female) in possession of all or only part of those social, economic, legal, religious and political rights.

  • Azoulay V., Ismard P., 2018, « Honneurs et déshonneurs. Autour des statuts juridiques dans l’Athènes classique », in Moatti C., Müller C., éd., Statuts personnels et espaces sociaux. Questions grecques et romaines, Paris : Presses Universitaires de Nanterre, 211-241.

Inherited citizenship

An extra condition was necessary to define citizenship: common ancestry. If some immigrants, foreigners could be granted the privilege of holding some citizen rights (such as owning some land), they could not claim to being an Athenian by lineage. The issue of lineage, recently brought to the fore by Josine Blok, stands out as central to the definition of citizenship. As early as 451/450 BCE in Athens, citizens (both women and men) had to be born to two citizen parents.

Citizenship in all its diversity is therefore a matter of legacy within families and within the city. If young male citizens were the only ones to inherit their father’s material possessions – since young women were not entitled to own anything – young people from both sexes equally inherited intangible possessions from their parents (a legal and social status). It was a matter of belonging to a lineage of native citizens – « born of the Earth » according to the myth of Athenian autochthony; belonging to cultural and religious values which founded a common identity shared within the family, but also at the level of the city. That intangible legacy was of primary importance as it aimed at perpetuating the civic community and the bond with the protective divinities of the city. It was definitely within the family and the city that capacities, rights and behaviours were handed over and that made up male and female citizens.

  • Blok J.,2017, Citizenship in Classical Athens, Cambridge et New York: Cambridge University Press.

This brief overview gives a differentiated approach of Athenian citizenship, far from the still very common cliché in school books or in public debates of the Athenian male citizen voting at Assembly. Not only were women citizens, but citizenship, handed over through blood within the legitimate family, mostly consisted in practices and capacities to access some spaces. When, for the sake of comparison in contemporary speeches, Athenian male citizens and their right of vote are mentioned, one actually refers to a mixed, compound, split up and yet coherent model highlighting a diversity of collective practices. Thus, this model provides us with a positive step to the side by reminding us that citizenship is to be developed in the context of a community and that it is an extremely malleable notion.  

Crédits images en CC : Pixabay OpenClipart-Vectors,, Pixabay OpenClipart-Vectors, Patrick Mignard pour Mondes Sociaux, Tous droits réservés Léo Caillard

Citer ce billet
Romain Guicharrousse (2020, 4 mai). Being a female and male citizen in classical Athens. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 29 mai 2024, à l’adresse

Romain Guicharrousse

Laboratoire ANHIMA (UMR 8210) Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne (

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