Ancient Greek Surveillance

Unlike more modern societies, the political leaders in the city-states of the ancient Greek world lacked sophisticated methods of surveillance or security mechanisms to maintain themselves in power. The lack of effective surveillance systems helps explain why there were frequent changes in government in many city-states as one faction of the aristocracy replaced another with great regularity or as power shifted between more aristocratic types of government and the limited democratic forms of government that involved a somewhat wider group of citizens. Any understanding of these limited means of surveillance and other security measures that were available is complicated by the often fragmentary information in the historical records. It is generally known when changes occurred, but little is known about failed mechanisms for preventing change or even when such methods were successful.

Greek city-states lacked effective police and security forces. Ordinary crime in many cities appears to have been relatively low, but when crimes were committed, it was the victims themselves or voluntary assistance from neighbors or from others that was used to catch the criminals. The relatively small size of the populations in many cities no doubt limited the potential for ordinary crime since culprits were likely to be recognized. The small population size also limited the possibility of clandestine political violence. In addition, active political participation was limited to the citizens of the cities, which excluded foreign residents, slaves, and many lower class residents. Citizenship was often restricted to individuals who could afford the armor and weapons of the cavalry forces or heavy infantry.

While small size may have made clandestine efforts more difficult, the absence of security forces combined with the fact that citizen-soldiers typically kept their armor and arms with them at home meant that competing political and economic factions could engage each other in violent confrontations. There were street battles and skirmishes, and the victorious side would often take control of the government. Conflicts in the cities involved battles between the rich and the poor, battles between the aristocracy and those in favor of more democratic styles of government, struggles within the aristocratic ranks of the elite, and alliances with foreign powers. This last group of struggles for control of cities was especially pronounced during the Peloponnesian Wars. Athens and Sparta and their respective allies would frequently establish government forms similar to their own when they captured an enemy city or when they convinced an enemy city to defect from their alliance on the other side.

Political elites did have more rudimentary means of maintaining surveillance that were used, including reliance on armed dependents and followers and paid bodyguards. Such groups could also be used to intimidate potential opponents as well as to collect information. At least in some circumstances, there were individuals who provided information on plots against the existing political structure. Informants were often honored for their activities, and in some cases, a conspirator who informed on fellow plotters could escape punishment and even be rewarded. Such a practice actually provided an effective form of intelligence gathering and encouragement for conspirators to provide information on their colleagues when they were caught or if they changed their minds.

There were other methods for security and surveillance that were used in some cities. There were annual audits for the officials who were leaving office, which served as a financial check on them and undoubtedly at times as a political one as well. Public charges could be leveled in public assemblies with citizens serving as a mass jury. Such charges may often have lacked any basis in fact, but they were used to launch political attacks against opponents. In Athens, outraged assemblies could assess the death penalty for inappropriate actions, including military defeats. Sparta practiced a different form of preventive security in territories under its control. The Spartan military elite, few in number, used fear and intimidation to dominate the slave population (helots) and the free noncitizens. Violence against the helots by the warrior citizens was accepted and served to demonstrate the superiority of the elite. In the early days of the city, it is possible that the military caste actually purged those slaves and poorer members of society seen as dangerous to the existing political order. Instilling basic terror in a community so that it could not organize to protest or rebel is a security alternative that is possible, especially when there are insufficient methods of intelligence gathering and detection.

Surveillance and security techniques in ancient Greece were not well developed; moreover, the struggles between different aristocratic factions that led to mass banishments and later victorious returns suggest that those in power lacked the ability to detect many plots. Athens and Sparta during their long conflict could impose aristocratic or democratic forms on captured cities or those that changed sides, but they were usually unable to keep the new forms of government in place. They lacked the military forces to maintain garrisons and the security measures to prevent new uprisings by those unhappy with the changes.

James M. Lutz and Brenda J. Lutz

See also Greece ; Politics

Further Readings

Berger, Shlomo. Revolution and Society in Greek Sicily and Southern Italy, Historia Einsel-schriften 71. Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1992.

Canfora, Lucianao, “The Citizens.” In Jean-Pierre Vernant (ed.) & Charles Lambert and Teresa Lavender Fagan (trans.), The Greeks. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Forsdyke, Sara. “Exile, Ostracism and the Athenian Democracy.” Classical Antiquity, v.19/2 (2000).

Hammond, N. G. L. A History of Greece to 322 B.C. (3rd ed.). Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1986.