Abstract–Public slaves, politics and expertise in classical Athens

Public slavery was an institution common to most Greek cities during the classical and hellenistic periods. From the Homeric dêmiourgos to the scribes of VIth-century Crete, the archaic period abounds with examples of skilled technicians who, as such, were excluded from the political community. Despite such antecedents, the advent of public slavery can not be dissociated from the introduction of chattel slavery in the late archaic period. In classical Athens, some 2000 dêmosioi were employed for up to 40,000 citizens. Whether they worked on the city’s major construction sites, performed minor duties in its civic administration services or filled the ranks of its police (the famous Scythian archers), public slaves may be said to have made up the first public servants known to Greek cities. In spite of this fact, no study other than Oscar Jacob’s work (Les esclaves publics à Athènes, Liège, 1928), which is now considerably outdated, has ever taken a closer look at this institution.

One aspect specifically of this institution will be developed. Dêmosioi were often gifted with uncommon, highly sought-after skills: such as Eukles, book keeper and account officer in the Acropolis and Eleusis in IVth century, or the anonymous Athenian dêmosios, whose task it was to evaluate the authenticity of current monetary emissions, or again the archivists of the cities in hellenistic Asia Minor. Their fields of expertise were wholly dedicated to the city and, for this reason, were placed out of the reach of ordinary citizens, with the purpose of relegating the question of expertise outside of the civic sphere, and therefore out of the scope of political participation – a fact deplored by Plato, and which tells much about the ambiguous way the democratic regime considered expert knowledge. This eventually leads us to follow in the footsteps of Josiah Ober and question the nature of what one might call the “social epistemology” of the democratic city.