Labor in Ancient Athens: Attitude to Work in Ancient Greece

How did the ancient Greeks perceive labor and work? What was the common attitude to work in Ancient Greece?

A French sociologist André Gorz wrote that work “was rather a criterion for exclusion in all pre-modern societies, those who performed it were considered inferior. They belonged to the realm of nature, not the human realm. They were slaves to necessity and therefore incapable of the high-mindedness and disinterestedness which would have rendered them capable of taking charge of the affairs of the city-state” (Gorz, Critique of economic reason).

Indeed, there is a popular notion that work was considered degrading in Ancient Greece. Historians and philosophers often refer to this period as the time when all work was left to slaves, and free citizens lived a life that allowed them to engage in cognitive leisure activities. 

Catharina Lys and Hugo Soly rejected the standard historical account of attitude to work in Ancient Greece. In their book “Worthy efforts: Attitudes to Work and Workers in Pre-Industrial Europe”, they challenged the common opinion that in those days work was generally despised and that free citizens did not work. 

Below, we follow the core ideas of the book’s chapter devoted to Greece. Since Antiquity was a rather long period, and ancient authors used various terms to designate the work concept, we’ll see that it was more complex than is generally believed.

Attitude to Work in Ancient Greece – The Archaic Period

In the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer described an idealized attitude to work. Agriculture and cattle breeding were considered as the main occupations for a person. The military aristocracy of Homer’s time had little in common with the feudal nobility of the Middle Ages and did not spend all its time in feasts, hunts, and military exercises. On the contrary, it did not differ much from the majority, thus the nobles were involved in agriculture, cattle breeding, and trade. “No matter how high their standing, men and women in Homeric epics performed a wide range of activities. Sons of kings acted as smiths, built their own homes, or chopped wood. Wives of kings wove, spun, and stitched clothes; their daughters did the laundry” (Lys, Soly, 18). 

In a kind of ideal world, depicted on the shield of Achilles forged by the god Hephaestus we see agricultural activities (Il., XVIII, 541-560):

“He wrought also a fair fallow field, large and thrice ploughed already. Many men were working at the plough within it, turning their oxen to and fro, furrow after furrow. Each time that they turned on reaching the headland a man would come up to them and give them a cup of wine, and they would go back to their furrows looking forward to the time when they should again reach the headland”. 

Another prominent poet Hesiod composed a poem called “The Works and Days“, where he glorified farming and agricultural labor. Hesiod viewed work as an asset and a source for profit for independent farmers who owned enough land to support a household. As Lys and Soly note, “large landowners used unfree labour, but slaves were never a majority of the rural population nor were they regarded as the most suitable workers; wage-earners and especially subsistence farmers in need of an additional source of income were preferred”. Therefore, free industrious peasants merited praise for being virtuous, and poverty was condemned as it was associated with idleness.

Attitude to Work in Ancient Greece – The Classical Period

With the advent of the Classical period, Ancient Greece became the country where Western philosophy was born. Due to improvement in economic conditions and using the unfree workforce, free citizens were able to stop doing physical work. That allowed them to spend more time on philosophy and political activities. Since there was no need for them to make ends meet, political and philosophical elite considered their status to be superior.

“Plato drafted his portrait of philosophers, whose contemplative lives he described as supreme goodness, in response to what he called the excesses of democracy. He believed that the ideal of contemplation was attainable only through total abstention from coercion, implying that no meaningful activity should arise from the need to earn a living.” (Lys, Soly, 22).

Plato also justified the division of labor. In the Republic, he argues: “… each individual should be put to the use for which nature intended him, one to one work, and then every man would do his own business, and be one and not many; and so the whole city would be one and not many”.

The existence of the state is ensured, according to Plato, because it is governed by the wisest class – the philosopher kings. He sees philosophers as rulers. Only philosophers, being thinkers by nature, with appropriate upbringing and education, can have the right to rule the state. Plato believed, that everybody should do what came naturally to them and should practice the occupation for which they best suited.

“Politics should be practised only by those involved exclusively in this field; after all, continuous self-mastery was required here through rhetoric and training passions”(Lys, Soly).

It is worth noting that contemptuous attitude towards artisans was common. Xenophon attributed the following phrase to Socrate: “In fact, the so-called ‘banausic‘ (mechanical) occupations are both denounced and, quite rightly, held in very low esteem by states. For they utterly ruin the bodies of those who work at them and those of their supervisors, by forcing them to lead a sedentary life and to stay indoors, and some of them even to spend the whole day by the fire. When their bodies become effeminate, their souls too become much weaker. Furthermore, the so-called ‘banausic’ occupations leave a man no spare time to be concerned about his friends and city” (Oeconomicus, IV. 2-3).

Exertion is Virtue, Virtue is Profit, Profit is Happiness

Can we consider the views of classical authors as representative of Greek society? Do they represent the opinion of non-elite citizens? Did Athenians despise all forms of work?

Unlike the nineteenth-century historians (August Boekh, Jacob Burckhardt), Lys and Soly show that popular opinion about Greek rejection of work represents the ideas of political elites, thus minority.

“The problem is that this view of Classical Antiquity is based on political philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and their kindred spirits, whose views informed Western ideas during the Middle Ages and/or the early modern period and remained deeply respected thereafter”(Lys, Soly, 16).

As stated in “Worthy efforts”, Plato’s beliefs were very atypical for his day, differed from the values embraced by the majority of Athenians.

Several concepts illustrated the concept of work at that time: ponos, epimeleia (diligence), techne (craftmanship). The term “ponos” denoted values and virtues characteristic of the ideal landowner, active and productive virtue. Analyzing drama, poetry, inscriptions the authors concluded that industriousness was highly esteemed in the Athenian society.

“For in the Athenian democracy work was considered not only in the sole legitimate foundation for wealth but also a suitable preparation for those aspiring to political offices” (Lys, Soly, 23).

In ‘Oeconomisus’, Xenophon emphasized the need to cultivate the land as agriculture was the most righteous occupation. Introducing an ideal image of a landowner, he likened estate management to other arts, such as medicine and shows respect to gentlemen farmers who are not afraid to get their hands dirty.

He regarded epimeleia as the most necessary attribute, representing it as typical of a superior breed of people. In his opinion, such characteristics as diligence and exertion were something that the elites naturally possess, especially because they toil voluntarily. Thus, the elite was far of greater use to the polis as they had special qualities than those compelled to work on farms. Material independence in their views was a prerequisite for virtue and happiness.

In this way, the Athenian upper class had no contempt for work as such but looked down on those who had to make a living as retailers or wage workers. Only self-sufficiency (autarchy) could guarantee true freedom.  

Free farmers (autourgoi) were held in high esteem. Aristotle noticed that despite the lack of time for political responsibilities they are respected and proved to be good soldiers. Artisans and those who engaged in non-agrarian activities (banausoi) even being legally free did not count as fully-fledged citizens, because they depended on others for the mean of subsistence. However, Plato acknowledged the artisans whose craftsmanship allowed them to train the intellect and acquire knowledge. Aristotle contrasted the experiences of simple wage earners with purposeful craftsmen, as the latter understand the reasons for their actions. Nonetheless, craftsmen were inferior to producers, serving a mediatory purpose: 

“… they were instruments for realizing tools and were the devices that enabled users to satisfy their respective needs. But they were far more superior to wage labourers thanks to their techne…” (Lys, Soly, 46).

Attitude to Work in Ancient Greece

Social Hierarchy

Lis and Soly noted that despite various appreciations of work, the discourses always gravitated around the concepts of ponos (exertion), freedom, and techne (craftsmanship). Ponos served as foundation of profit and power, and people were despised if they did not work. Exertion and virtue were interrelated. But no all who worked were appreciated equally. On the principle of ponos, merchants would be described both by the elite and other population groups as profiteers.

Probably, the ancient Greeks were the first to substantiate the dichotomy of physical-intellectual labor. As in any society, the lifestyle of the elite was preferred than the lifestyle of the rest of the population. However, it would be wrong to say that say the ancient workers disdained their occupation.

Koenraad Verboven suggested that “rural Athenians (a majority) despised and looked with suspicion upon city workers. Merchants looked down upon shopkeepers, who in turn looked down upon hawkers and retailers on the agora. This hierarchy of professions induced Athenians to pursue a career in politics or liberal arts instead of business. Those who could afford it became rentiers. It was the ambition to climb the social ladder, not contempt for work, that drove Athenians away from manual labour; much the same as why parents and adolescents today prefer university degrees to vocational careers, even when the latter offer better job prospects”. 

The authors showed us, that the work concept was above all more complex and polyphonic than we could assume. Ancient Greek society outlined and justified the separation of physical and mental labor, which is typical of modern societies now. The ruling class in every possible way approved the value of intellectual labor and substantiated the minor role of less important nature physical labor.

However, this point of view was inherent in more aristocratic layers of the population and was not universal. “The use of ponos as a standard of virtue enabled different social groups to fight with each other with the same arms. No universally straightforward answer was ever provided to the question as to who was to be regarded as a parasite” (Lys, Soly, 52). While Plato thought that only a minority of people could lead a life of contemplation, any other ordinary man could consider him as an idler and layabout.


Catharina Lis, Hugo Soly. Worthy Efforts, Attitudes to Work and Workers in Pre-Industrial Europe (Studies in Global Social History)

Koenraad Verboven. Reflections on Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly, Worthy efforts: attitudes towards work and workers in pre-industrial Europe TSEG 2014, VOL. 11, NO. 1 ‘WORTHY EFFORTS’ 67

You can read also – “Work in the Old Stone Age: The Zen Road to Affluence”

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