Is it wrong to talk of ‘rights’ in ancient Greece?

Have a look at the following quotation from Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War (book 6 chapter 92). The original Greek words are written underneath the English words.

And as to love of my own country – I have it not when I am wronged,

to te philopoli ouk en hōi adikoumai echō

but had it when I possessed my civil rights in security.

all’ en hōi asphalōs epoliteuthēn

(Background: it is the year 415 BC. A charismatic and influential Athenian politician called Alcibiades has defected from Athens to Sparta. He has done so in order to avoid prosecution for alleged sacrilegious acts. Thucydides 6.92 tells us what he is supposed to have said to the Spartans on arrival. Among other things, he has to explain why they should trust someone who is demonstrating such disloyalty to his old city. Aclibiades’ explanation here is that he was perfectly loyal to Athens as long as Athens was loyal to him.)

The translation I have printed here is the Penguin version by Rex Warner, first published in 1954 and still very much in use today. He revised his translation in 1972, and changed this passage to read:


The Athens I love is not the one which is wronging me now, but that one in which I used to have secure enjoyment of my rights as a citizen.


but his original was a little closer to Thucydides’ Greek. The first thing you will notice is the number of English words (twenty-seven, rising to thirty in the revised version) that Warner uses to translate thirteen Greek ones: Thucydides as a writer makes a virtue of being brief. What interests me here is the word epoliteuthēn, part of the Greek verb politeuein. This is a very Greek word indeed.

Modern politics revolves around the idea of the nation state. Ancient Greece, at least before the Macedonian conquests of the fourth century, was arranged into many city-states. Each polis (the Greek word for city) was its own country, with its own laws and responsible for its own security. The modern English word ‘politics’ literally means ‘the affairs of the city’. The Greek word for citizen was politēs. One of the words Thucydides puts in Aclibiades’ lips – philopoli – must mean ‘love of one’s city’ (we might say ‘patriotism’). The verb politeuein, therefore, means to be a member of a polis, a politēs, with all the privileges and duties that that involved. The privileges included the safety and protection of the city’s laws. The duties included participation in both the defence and the government of the city. The peculiarity of Athens under democracy was that these privileges and duties were fully extended to every politēs, not just the ones with money.

So it takes quite a few English words give the full meaning of politeuein. Warner’s rendering of this word is particularly interesting. His translation is ‘to possess one’s civil rights’ (1954) or ‘to have enjoyment of one’s rights as a citizen’ (1972). But if politeuein was a special word to the Greeks, then ‘rights’ is an equally special piece of political vocabulary in the modern world. The Greeks had no one word equivalent to our word ‘right’ in this sense (the Romans came close with the Latin ius). Is Warner giving Thucydides’ language an ideological sense that it simply did not have in the original?


The question, ‘did the Greeks have a concept of human rights’ is an old one, around which there is still much controversy. Scholars at the one extreme (including a number of ancient historians) point out that a large part of the Greek legacy to the modern world is a concept of citizenship; as citizenship in the modern world is closely connected to an idea of human rights, they assume that this was also the case in ancient Greece. Still others make the assumption that democracy is the champion of human rights; the Athenians invented democracy, therefore they must have had a concept of rights (on this misconception, see below). Scholars at the other extreme (many of them distinguished political philosophers) point out that the modern concept of rights, as developed by philosophers in the 17th century, owes little to ancient Greek political thought, and that in any case the Greeks did not even have a word for ‘rights’ in their vocabulary.

This last argument does not really stand up to analysis. Just because a language does not have a name for something, doesn’t mean that its speakers do not know what it is. For example, there is no single word in ancient Greek for ‘incest’, but nobody reading or watching Sophocles’ Oedipus the King will be left in any doubt that marrying your mother was as much a taboo in Greece as it is today. The real problem, in fact, is not that the Greeks did not know the concept of rights, but that this concept is so much more important and prevalent today.

In order to illustrate this last point, it might help very briefly to chart the history of the concept. The idea of ‘natural rights’ was important to seventeenth-century philosophers including Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. In the following century, the leaders of the American and French revolutions (influenced by Locke, among others) justified their revolutionary actions in terms of rights. Consider the following famous words from the Declaration of Independence, signed on 4th July 1776:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.


The revolutionaries followed through on these ideas: to this day, a Bill of Rights forms a central part of both the United States and French constitutions. On 10th December 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the concept of human rights was now seen to be applicable the world over. In 1961, Amnesty International was established as an organisation committed to the protection of human rights. Human rights are now a central part of the legal systems of many countries, including the United Kingdom, which in 1998 incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into law. Lawyers and philosophers continue to argue over the details, but the simple concept of human rights is now taken for granted. The language of rights is everywhere: ‘I have every right to speak my mind’, ‘you have no right to park there’ – statements like this can be heard in many everyday situations.

How close did the Greeks come to this idea? We can clarify two points immediately. First of all, 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. The Greeks, let us remember, kept slaves. The only good example of human rights thinking that I know of comes from a philosopher called Alcidamas of Elis. His words are preserved by chance by a scholiast to (someone scribbling in the margins of) Aristotle’s Rhetoric:


God has left all men free; nature has made none a slave.


Alcidamas does not have the language of rights at his disposal, but his words otherwise seem to anticipate the US Declaration of Independence: the clear view is that human beings are by their nature free. Aristotle himself engages with this view in book 1 of the Politics, and in doing so engages with a concept of natural justice:


others however maintain that for one man to be another man’s master is contrary to nature, because it is only human custom that makes the one a slave and the other a free man and there is no difference between them by nature, and that therefore it is unjust, for it is based on force.


Aristotle goes on to refute this argument. His defence of slavery does not these days seem to be his most distinguished moment as a philosopher.

Secondly, the idea of democracy that we associate closely with the agenda of human rights is very different from the ancient Greek model. Both the USA and the French Republic were founded on a written constitution: a set of rules for running the country. Part of the purpose of such a constitution is to protect the rights of citizens. Modern democracies, therefore, tend to protect rights not because they are democracies, but because of the rules under which the state is run. Athenian democracy (somewhat like British democracy) had no written constitution. Although some laws were passed to prevent ‘unconstitutional’ decisions being taken, the Athenian assembly was in many ways free to do what it liked, 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: an example is the philosopher Socrates, who was tried and executed in 399 BC for allegedly believing in the wrong gods and corrupting the young.


Where does this leave the chance of an ancient Greek concept of rights? Any such concept will have been severely limited by modern standards, as I hope to have shown already. On the other hand, Aristotle showed himself capable of engaging with a rights-based argument if he had to. Was the idea of rights more widespread than that? Ask yourself this question: can we really understand every aspect of Greek culture without ever importing the modern concept of rights? The answer, I think, is no. Many concepts and values of central importance to the Greeks make no sense without an underlying concept of rights.

To take just one example: tyranny. The Greeks had a very strong concept of tyranny, formed during the 7th and 6th centuries BC, when many Greek cities were ruled by tyrants. The English word ‘tyrant’ (from the Greek tyrannos) conjures up images of a harsh, oppressive ruler. In reality, some (not all) Greek tyrants were quite benign. The major qualification to be a Greek tyrant was not that you ruled oppressively, but that you had not inherited your position through an established line of kings. If a tyranny could be seen as unjust (as it could be in Greek literature), it was because a tyrant had usurped the throne and perhaps ruled without popular consent – in other words, he had no ‘right’ to rule. To us at any rate, this Greek concept of tyranny makes no sense without some sense of the ‘rights’ of the ruler and ruled.

In the fifth century, there were no remaining tyrannies on mainland Greece, but that was not the end of the concept. Athens, although a democracy at home, was an imperial power, controlling most of the Aegean coastline and islands. The Corinthians, chief allies of the Spartans, characterised Athens as a polis tyrannos, a ‘tyrant city’ (Thucydides 1.124). Thucydides appears to characterise the Athenians in these terms himself in book 5, in a passage known as the ‘Melian Dialogue’. It was the winter of 416/5 BC, and the Athenians were in the process of adding the island of Melos to their empire. The Melians resisted and the Athenians (in as perfect a demonstration of oppression as you are likely to see) killed the men of the island and enslaved the women and children.

Thucydides uses this episode as an opportunity to demonstrate what he sees as Athenian imperial thinking. He includes a dialogue that was supposed to have occurred that winter between the Melians and some Athenian ambassadors. In the dialogue, the vastly superior Athenians try to persuade the Melians to give in without a fight. They adopt what was at the time a fashionable philosophical principle. The principle goes like this: stronger people naturally overcome the weak; as this is the most natural thing to happen, it is also the most just. (To put it another way, might is right.) The Athenians argue that both sides should seek what is most advantageous to themselves: for the Athenians, to add to their empire; for the Melians, to give in and avoid being destroyed. The Melians agree to argue on these terms, and therefore attempt to prove to the Athenians that in their own interests they should leave the island alone. Here is the moment at which the Melians agree to the terms of the debate (Thucydides 5.90):


We are constrained to speak of expediency, since you have in this way, ignoring the principle of justice, suggested we speak of what is advantageous.


So the Melians agree to the Athenian way of looking at things. But notice what they actually say. According to the Melians, there are two ways of looking at things: in terms of what is advantageous, and in terms of what is just. What would the Melians have said if they had decided to argue that the Athenians were acting unjustly? We shall never know, but this must have been a rights-based argument, an argument for what is in modern language called ‘national self-determination’. The Melians only hint that a rights-based argument can be made, but the hint is there. This actually comes close to an idea, not just of a right, but of an inalienable right: of a right to self-determination that cannot and must not be taken away.


So a Greek idea of rights is there in a very limited form: you just need to know where to look for it. Perhaps the idea comes naturally to all human societies. Perhaps ancient Greek concepts such as tyranny and justice make little sense to us without it. Either way, it is clear that the modern concept of human rights has been amplified and spread around to such an extent that we cannot escape it, even when we come to study ancient Greece.

What of my initial question, surrounding Warner’s translation of politeuein? Was citizenship a right, or merely a series of privileges? Alcibiades only held these privileges by virtues of having been born to Athenian parents, and the Athenian people had the power to take them away. On leaving Athens, he left behind the security of the city. We have seen tentative Greek arguments for the universality and inalienability of rights, but for the most part, it is hard to argue against the view of K.J. Dover in his book Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (Berkeley 1974), page 157: ‘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.’