Property and Power in the Ancient Greek World

History 280A

Fall 2015
Day & Time: 
W 2-5

Property occupies a curious place in both the ideology and the practice of ancient Greek states. With a deep admiration for landed property that extended to an ideological opposition to the sale of land, the Greeks nevertheless had a thriving market for land in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. They distinguished sharply between public and private property, but the ways in which such properties were used suggests that the boundary between the two was in practice quite problematically blurry. Property rights were jealously guarded for citizens, and extended to foreigners only in cases of benefaction. While democratic regimes emphasized the political and legal equality of all citizens, regardless of their wealth, oligarchic cities retained property qualifications for many magistracies and for bouleutic service. Greek states committed themselves to protecting the property of their citizens, but the process by which that power was created is highly implicated in the protection of elite interests.

Two radically divergent conceptions of property linger beneath the surface of most modern discussions. The first, embraced primarily by economists and lawyers, is that property serves as the material basis of self-directed activity. The function of property on this view is that it gives people control over things, and with it both freedom and security. The second, embraced by sociologists, is that property is a form of social organization, defining relationships between people with regard to and through things. The function of property on this view is that it gives some people control over others, and with it social power.  This seminar will explore the radically divergent implications of adopting these two different views for our understanding of the significance of property in the ancient Greek world. Historians utilizing the insights of the new institutional economics, for instance, now argue that secure property rights were one of the cornerstones of the economic growth that is clearly visible in the Greek world from c. 800-400 BCE, and they develop a highly optimistic picture of the emergence of states that protected private property. Yet property in the ancient Greek world was actually rather more precarious than these models assume, and the way in which states privileged property owners yields a social picture that is much less attractive. Attempts to distribute land equally in colonial and cleruchic contexts, and periodic revolutionary calls for a radical redistribution of property (often tied with a call for the blanket cancellation of debts) suggest that property was closely bound up with power of all kinds in the Greek world—political, economic, and social—and it will be the task of this seminar to explore those interconnections and their implications.

We will, in the process, read major contributions in the theoretical literature on property from a variety of different perspectives, including the new institutional economics, political theory, anthropology, and law. We will also dig into the primary sources, epigraphic and literary, for property rights, property insecurity, property distribution and redistribution, mortgage, sale, and inheritance, alongside the modern historiography on these topics.