Did the massive inequalities in wealth and political capital lead to a system of patronage in classical Athens? This question has vexed scholars for many years. Although there seems to be general agreement on the definition of patronage proposed by Saller and tweaked by Millett, Millett’s argument for the “avoidance” of patronage has been hotly debated (Arnaoutoglou; Finley 1983*; Gallant; Jones; Mossé; Zelnick-Abramovitz).
The debate has reached an impasse because the question is flawed. To ask about “patronage” is to view the issue from a top-down, broadly-conceived theoretical perspective. We need to take an emic approach, to consider the issue of patronage from the perspective of the Athenian citizenry, which was concerned with present realities rather than complex, abstract models. Political reform flowed out of responses to the real, present needs of the people. Athenians were not worried so much about controlling elite patrons as about freeing the average citizen. They talked about the dangers of slavery, not the dangers of patronage. The perspective is consistently from the viewpoint of the poor citizen who could be oppressed. For this reason, hierarchical relationships that did not pose a threat to the fundamental values of the democracy were permitted to continue unopposed (for instance, the loose connections between an elite politician like Pericles and the electorate or the intra-elite network of Demosthenes and his circle). For this reason “avoidance,” which implies deliberate intent, is the wrong word to describe Athenian policies. Once the lower classes had been strengthened and the threat of elite domination removed, Athenians blithely allowed these non-threatening forms of patronage to persist.
Another problem with contemporary scholarship on patronage is its fixation on the economic dimension of such relationships (Millett; cf. Gallant and Jones). On the contrary, the first and most extensive attempts to secure the independence of the average citizen were in the realm of politics, and financial aid to the poor came later and only gradually. The revolution of 508/7 and the Cleisthenic reforms, which have been virtually ignored in discussions of patronage, were the decisive events that made emancipation of the lower classes possible.
This paper will demonstrate how the Athenian democratic apparatus severely, though unintentionally, limited patronage by undermining the means by which elites typically make the weak feel compelled to submit. The threat of force was prevented by trials for hubris and the Athenian prohibitions on physical assault. The threat of legal attack ran into difficulties because of the institutional setup of the court system (large juries, secret ballot, the discouraging of legal professionalism, and the suspicion of the jurors about elite rhetorical skills). The rewards systems of patronage societies were made problematic by the participatory system of governance, which was designed to counter individuals’ influence over the process through election by lot, term limits, and collegiality in office. In all these aspects, Rome provides a useful contrast with Athens.
Public pay for the performance of various civic duties contributed a further hedge against elite manipulation of politics. The purpose, however, was primarily political rather than economic (pace Millet, Burke, and many others). These payments, being small and of irregular recurrence, were insufficient to provide an alternative source of livelihood for those who might have been dependent on elites for their daily subsistence. Rather, they facilitated the participation of all classes of the demos and hence served an important function in keeping the masses in control of public ideology and practice.
In summary, the features of Athens’ constitution that protected the average citizen from the machinations of the wealthy and powerful also limited the purview of patronage by depriving would-be patrons of the most common means for keeping a clientele closely bound by personal ties of obligation. The impact on patronage networks was no less devastating for being largely unintentional.