Lecture 4: Us and Them

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her fourth of six Gifford lecturesThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version is also available at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Bianca Mazzinghi Gori will offer her initial reflections on the lecture. Bianca is a first-year PhD student in Classics at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Dame Mary Beard opened her fourth lecture by speaking positively about classical Athenian democracy. She mentioned that widespread admiration of Athenian democracy in the West has only been the case for the past couple centuries. As she stated, “before that, you wouldn’t have found many admirers of universal male suffrage anywhere in the West.”  However, she noted that popular admiration of Athenian democracy has somewhat reductively focused on the notion of “voting” without paying adequate attention to other dimensions (good and bad) that made Athenian democracy what it was. As she stated, “as the Athenian debates remind us there’s a lot more to democracy than voting” and as she continued to explain “Athenians rightly focused just as strongly on how people make up their minds on what to vote, what information they have, who persuades them, and by what means.” Furthermore, she noted that Athenians had no problem voting on the same issue twice (a point worth acknowledging in our current political discussions).

After acknowledging the positive aspects of Athenian democracy Beard then moved on to speak about some of the issues that are often overlooked in our modern admiration of Athenian democracy. First, she noted that it is not quite accurate to say that democracy was born in Athens. Calling this egalitarian form of governance “democracy” was first done in Athens, but as she noted “there may well have been proto political systems of a similar kind operating in other parts of the west before the age of Athenian democracy; we don’t know. But we do know that there were very early egalitarian and participatory political traditions in some parts of the East.” As she went on to say, “inventing the word democracy is a very different thing from inventing democratic practice.” Second, she noted that it is important to recognize that only a small percentage of Greek cities were democratic, and that democracy was not without its critics even during the supposed glory days in fifth century Athens. She noted that the majority of writings we have on Athenian democracy come from those who opposed it and that “we really have no intellectual manifesto for ancient Athenian democratic politics at all; we have to reconstruct it from its opponents.” Third, she noted the relatively small population of Athenian citizens ( in the 30-40,000 range) and noted that even back then they had to deal with low voter turnout where they resorted to paying the citizens as a reward for voting. She then noted that “in terms of social mobility, it was very rare for any ordinary bloke ever to reach a real position of influence in the city. It was overwhelmingly rich men from elite families who competed for the few elected offices there still were (rather than those selected by lot) and they looked down their nose at those they saw as interlopers.” Democracy in ancient Greece, and Athens in particular, was “a bit less glorious than the common rosy tinted image” that we often have of it.


Along that line of thought Beard at this point turned to focus on the essential relationship between Athenian democracy and various exclusions; particularly that of women and slaves. She noted that in Athens at this time, as it is widely known, women were not allowed to vote. As she went on to say, “it seems to me essential that we should always try to understand the politics of Athens against a background of this cultural masculinity, but I am not sure . . . that a constant return to the absence of women helps much in getting to grips with the nature of Athenian democracy.” The relationship between slavery and Athenian democracy, she argued, however, does help us get to grips with it. As she said, “slavery went ideologically hand in hand, joined at the hip, with the democratic polity of the free citizens.” She went on to explain that she was talking most specifically about chattel slavery and that “in Athens the origins of democracy and definition of the freedom of the Athenian citizen are part of the same process as the exclusion and exploitation of slaves and foreigners.” This necessary relationship was more than merely practical (in the sense that slaves allowed the time for free men to practice democracy). As she noted, Athenian democracy’s “whole ideological rationale rested on a division between free Athenians and enslaved (or potentially enslaved) foreigners.”

After granting the many differences between the Roman context and the Athenian context (e.g. Rome was much larger and they also had a practice of granting slaves Roman citizenship) Beard stated that slavery too was embedded “at the heart of Roman society in a complicated way.” Roman citizenship and slavery were likewise seen in an ‘us and them’ manner. Romans citizens were those who could not be slaves. Enslavement was defined ‘as something that happened to Others: so, even if at Rome slaves could become citizens, citizens by definition could not become slaves.”

At this point in her lecture Beard began to reflect on the possible mindset that enabled ancient Athenians and Romans to effectively treat large groups of people as if they were sub-human. In order to begin doing this she suggested that we needed to reflect on what we know about slavery during these time periods. She noted that even though we have some vivid and horrible glimpses of slavery in the ancient world but overall the evidence we have for understanding the big picture of slavery in detail is rather elusive. As she noted, “in some ways, we can see ancient slavery as a unitary phenomenon, as the anti-type to freedom, but beyond that even chattel slavery came in many different varieties, and different conditions – from the utter degradation of those working in the mines or some mass agricultural operations to more domestic settings (whether in private houses or family workshops) to such relatively powerful positions as the skilled assistants of Roman aristocrats and emperors.” She also noted that the number of slaves is debated but that one guess places as many as 1.5 million slaves in Italy during the first and second centuries AD. A bigger obstacle for understanding ancient slavery, beyond the variety of conditions and the unknown quantity of slaves, however, is the lack of accounts from the slaves themselves. Beard mentioned that there are a few ancient authors who are speculated to have been slaves “but for the most part we are always one removed from the voice of the slave.” This absence of availability to the slaves’ viewpoint is what pushes Beard to focus her inquiry on the slave owners’ perspective.

She asked again, “how could they do it?” The first and main answer she proposed was that the ancient Athenians and Romans (akin to how the Romans viewed gladiators) did not see the enslaved to be human. She referenced her previous example where slaves were seen to be “machines [or robots] with a voice.” At this point in her lecture she also referenced Aristotle’s position that slaves are slaves by nature. However, even though they did not see the slaves as human they did see their own human identity as closely constituted by their relationship to their slaves. As she noted, “the civic, citizenly and personal identity of the freeborn man was forged in his relationship to the enslaved, dehumanized ‘machine with a voice.’” Furthermore, unlike in the case of the spectators’ relationship to the gladiators in the Colosseum, in the case of the Roman citizens’ relationship to the slave “it was in practice impossible to sustain that image of the robot in everyday life at Rome.” Slaves shared life with their citizen masters in ways that citizen spectators did not with the gladiators. Because of the many paradoxes that arose around these issues “Roman discourse and literature is full of attempts to repackage slave status, anxiously to debate and re-debate the hierarchies between slave and free, or to cloak it in false consciousness,” which is evidenced in artwork where slaves are painted as smaller than their masters, in various Roman and Greek comedies where a clever slave outwits his master, or in “a whole series of anecdotes that focus on the moral, even if not legal, illegitimacy of the master’s physical power over the slave, and in a sense the moral triumph of the slave.”

At this point Beard began to conclude her lecture by reiterating that what she has been “wanting to stress is that this black spot of institutionalized unfreedom and exploitation is absolutely embedded in the culture of the ancient world and at the same time was almost impossible for the ancient themselves to handle. They lived with it, but of course they failed to make sense of it.” And, as Beard went on to note, we often “turn a blind eye to the centrality of this form of human exploitation in ancient political culture” in our unqualified admiration of Athenian democracy. In doing so we perhaps not only fail to see the darker aspects of an ancient political culture that we admire but also set ourselves up to fail to recognize the darker aspects of our own.

6 thoughts on “Lecture 4: Us and Them

  1. For this fourth lecture, Professor Mary Beard has again chosen to focus on a group of people that our infatuation with the Ancient World might prevent us from acknowledging. After shedding light on the de-humanisation of gladiators as puppets in a show and underscoring the misogynistic basis of our mythical and political past, this evening Beard has given full recognition to the lowest category of ancient societies, namely slaves.

    As a first-year PhD student in Classics here at the University of Edinburgh, I have found today’s lecture particularly relevant not only to my studies, but also to my reflections on our world. I am part of the ERC project on Honour in Classical Greece, directed by Prof. Cairns and Prof. Canevaro. My research focuses on honour in domestic contexts and I am currently investigating the honour of the slaves. Beard’s insights are greatly helping me to connect my research to my experience as a young European citizen.

    Before bringing up the theme of slavery, Beard spent some though-provoking as well as pointed words about Athenian democracy, our admiration for it, and the now neglected willingness on the Athenians’ part to repeat a deliberative process as soon as they understood that the first results were not particularly sound. But issues of politics and deliberative legitimacy will probably be the focus of the next lectures. Today’s main topic came up very soon, when Beard explained that Athenian democracy was run only by male adult citizens, excluding the two quantitatively major groups of women and slaves.

    Of the two, Beard regards the latter as particularly revealing, in that the opposition between free and slaves has a paramount ideological and political value. The very emergence of Athenian democracy is actually connected to this distinction: Solon’s reforms in 594/3 b.C. declared that no Athenian citizen could be made slave. From that point onwards, the opposition between free and slave became one of the ideological pillar of Athenian democracy.

    Beard then went on to define the role of slavery in the Ancient World, both in Greece and in Rome, as a “vast gaping moral paradox”, and this is the point which resonated most with me. For, as Beard aptly underlined, some slaves could have a particularly close relationship with their masters. They helped them in their daily life, talked with them, lived with them. A direct and daily interpersonal relationship seems the area where common humanity could more easily be perceived, irrespective of social and legal differences. And yet, slaves could always be treated and disposed of as mere commodities. How could the Greeks and the Romans overlook the bonds that might arise especially in domestic contexts?

    This question is one of the questions to which we usually answer by postulating some sort of moral inferiority of the Greeks and Romans in comparison with our moral refinement. As a young Italian citizen, I feel that we could find a practical, albeit crude, answer in our attitude to migrants. Our contemporary culture relies on the assumption that every human being has an intrinsic dignity and a whole range of rights. Nonetheless, this assumption is being more and more challenged by our indifference to the hundreds of people dying trying to reach a safe home. I am afraid that we are becoming used of the same double standard that helped the Greeks and the Romans cope with their own attitude to slavery.

    In addition to that, we also speak of migrants more in terms of economic usefulness than in terms of intrinsic dignity. In Italy at least, the debate on migration often revolves around themes of economic convenience; migrants – just as slaves – are then seen as mere commodities to exploit. Moreover, the ‘Us vs. Them’ language is nowhere stronger than in discussions about migration, with striking similarities also in term of alleged ‘natural’ differences. I believe that Beard’s suggestion about the relevance of anxieties on the masters’ part about their relationship with slaves could be fruitfully applied in this case as well. For the main issue at stake have an ideological rather than economic or political nature. The need for an opposition stems especially from uncertainties about one’s very own status.

    As Beard is constantly suggesting, then, we should be wary of celebrating both the perfection of Antiquity and our alleged moral superiority when the former’s shortcomings are revealed. Rather, as Beard is teaching all of us to do, the study of Antiquity is to be carried out always with a critical eye. In particular, by looking into the blind spots we may often find ourselves mirrored in those atrocities by which free citizens constituted as such their identities.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good analysis. Interesting analogy/parallel comparing Athenian slavery with todays attitudes to migrants both economic and political Cheap labour is what keeps elites in power and comfort. This is extending to middle class and therefore most of us. Thank you Ms Mazzinghi


  2. May I add my thanks, too.

    The point about how slavery structurally informed the sense of being free, and therefore the sense of who you were in the ancient world, was well made and I wondered if it could be understood in this way.

    In antiquity, the sense of who you were was located socially more than it is today because today, although the social clearly matters, the sense of being a person is felt to be inherent in the individual, in principle at least.

    To put it another way, the ancient individual experienced their personhood more from the outside in, whereas modern people can do so more from a relatively autonomous interiority.

    This might explain the efficacy of Domitian’s dinner party humiliation you mentioned (I think it was Domitian) as by swapping slaves it says, “I can mess with your sense of yourself.”

    It might also help to illuminate what Christianity gradually helped to spread, namely a new sense of individuality located inside. Personally, I don’t think this was just Christianity’s creation but had been emerging in the Hellenistic world. Perhaps what Christianity was able to do, in time, was make the experience more pervasive. The early Christian/late Roman period was, therefore, a transitional period (hence perhaps some of the ambivalences you discussed).

    Maybe, too, this is why Paul can declare there is no slave or free and yet not be an abolitionist: he was trying to capture an emerging sense of personhood located internally though, back then, it was unclear what this might mean socially (as it in effect meant remaking the world). Hence his advice to Philemon, which seems compromised to us but was trying to feel into a new sense of being a person located inside, via a sense of relationship to Christ.

    I’m drawing, in part, on Kyle Harper’s book From Shame to Sin (shame being the ancient and collective approach to morality, sin being the subsequent individual approach). And also the idea that Christianity’s biggest contribution was providing a new experiential grounding for the individual (Inventing The Individual by Larry Siedentop and Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield being two examples).


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