Did human rights exist in ancient Greece?


It is usually quite difficult to give a proper definition to “human rights”, especially when it comes to talking about their origins, people get confused and disoriented. Usually the birth of the concept of rights is commonly related to ancient greek’s world; firstly because the notion of citizenship in the modern world is closely connected to the idea of human rights, and so it is assumed that this was also the case in ancient Greek’s “poleis”, secondly because scholars make the assumption that democracy is the “best expression” of human rights; the Athenians invented democracy, therefore they must have had a concept of rights. The first step to do for comparing our concept of human rights and the greek’s one is starting from our vision; the idea of human rights (the one expressed through instruments like the Universal Declaration) assumes the most global of facts: that all human beings are essentially the same, and this equality entails a set of rights that are commonly recognised as inalienable. But did this inalienability born in Greece?

A good sample for claiming the contrary dates back to 415 BC., when a charismatic and influential Athenian politician, called Alcibiades, moved from Athens to Sparta to avoid prosecution for alleged sacrilegious acts. Thucydides 6.92 tells us what he is supposed to have said to the Spartans at the moment of his arrival. Among other things, he had to explain why they should have trusted someone who was demonstrating such disloyalty to his old city. “The Athens I love – he said- is not the one which is wronging me now, but that one in which I used to have secure enjoyment of my citizenship.”

In other words, Alcibiades only held these privileges because he was born from Athenian parents, and the Athenian people had the power to take them away. On leaving Athens, he left behind the security of the city, demonstrating how citizenship can’t be thought as an inalienable right and consequentially that there was no widespread concept of human rights – in other words, rights possessed by all of us by virtue of being members of the human race, but they were just confined to a limited city and to a limited number of people of that “polis”. This introduces us another concept that strengthens this thesis: “slavery”.

In Greek society, slaves were seen as a necessary and perfectly normal part of city-life. Acquired through war and conquest, slaves were simply amongst life’s losers. There were even intellectual arguments from philosophers like Aristotle, which propounded the belief that slaves were demonstrably inferior, a product of their environment and inherited characteristics. Greeks persuaded themselves that they were the ones having the best environment and characteristics and the purest bloodline and were, therefore, born to rule.

Quoting Aristotle himself, in his most famous book “Politeia”: “For that, some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule… And indeed the use made of slaves and tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.”.

There is also a historical explanation for claiming that democracy does not act as a guarantor of human rights, it dates back to 399 B.C when the philosopher Socrates was tried and executed in 399 BC for allegedly believing in the wrong gods and corrupting the young. Why is it so important? Because it shows how ancient greek democracies as well as moderns ones, tended to protect rights not because they were democracies, but because of the rules under which the state was run. Athenian democracy (somewhat like British democracy) had no written constitution. Athenian assembly was in many ways free to do what it preferred, including (as on two occasions in the fifth century BC) to vote democracy out of existence. As a result, individuals were notoriously vulnerable to the whim of the majority, as it happened to Socrates, who can be considered a “victim” of democracy.

In conclusion, we can state that there was no concept of human right in ancient Greece (actually there was not also a proper word that defined it). It is true that in the depth of ancient Greek thought we find the germination of human rights in the tradition of natural law, but the same Aristotel spoke about it, as we saw, and defended and justified slavery. This should remind us that there was not a greek right available by every human being for the simple fact of being human (something like that was introduced years after by Roman’s “ius gentium”) but, as Kenneth Dover claims in “Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle”: “The Greek did not regard himself as having more rights at any given time than the laws of the city into which he was born gave him at the time; these rights could be reduced, for the community was sovereign, and no rights were inalienable.”

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