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Idealism and Realism in Classical Athenian Society


Athens was considered one of the most significant sources of western values during the 5th century B.C. Europeans and Americans would later emulate it as the originators of democracy, philosophy, presentation, and realistic art, science, history, and drama. This raises the fundamental question of whether their writings were accurate representations of Athenian classical history or they just gave their idealized views. Discussions of the eight sources provided present various ways in which the historical Athens either lived by the concepts of realism or idealism or blended both. I hold that some sources present idealistic positions while others are realistic.

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Source 1

In Pericles’ Funeral Speech, the author depicts Athens as a democratic society. This is because of its constitution, which was written for the good of the masses. He states that the Athenian laws were meant to provide justice for all, regardless of an individual’s social standing in society. Comparing Athens to its neighbors, Pericles sees Athens as an advanced and vibrant society owing to its open-door policy that welcomes and provides all foreigners with opportunities to learn. Athens is also a society that expects its women to live by certain character standards of excellence. They should not act in ways that will make them subjects of good or bad debates by men.

This speech elevates Athens and its people to a position of imagination. Thus, it cannot be a realistic representation of the country and its citizens. Pericles talks of a city worthy of admiration, a city that cultivates refinement without extravagance and employs more wealth for use rather than to show off. He states that poverty in Athens is by choice and only affects those who willingly refuse to struggle hard to beat it. Knowledge in Athens is possessed without effeminacy, and people are industrious and act as fair judges when they are involved in public discourse. The author notes, “We cultivate refinement without extravagance… wealth we employ more for use than for show” (Thucydides, 2018, p. 111).

Source 2

The Melians have been described by Pericles as peaceful people who will try all means necessary to go into war with their invaders. When Athens invited them to surrender their city or face war, they persuaded their invaders and advised them on the disadvantages of going into a war with them. The Melians lived by the virtues of tolerance and refraining from hostilities. They believed that their land was bequeathed to them by the gods, and it was in their best interests to defy the invaders.

While the Melians were trying to avoid a conquest with Athens because of the fear of being enslaved, it is apparent that they were a weaker force and knew appropriately well that they could not match their enemies (Taylor, 2019). From the debate presented, it emerges that the Melians were being idealistic, while Athens was realistic. The Melians used the gods, the laws, and the fact that they have stayed on their island for 700 years to justify their actions or actions against them.

Source 3

The important qualities in the ideal head of the house include the possession of self-respect, courage, and justice. The ideal head of the house is a natural ruler, and Aristotle describes him to be a man. This is based on the fact that the soul of the female is inoperative while that of a child is underdeveloped. This implies that, although all participate in ethical virtues, they do so to different extents that are determined by their functions. However, the head of the house, being the rule, must have the whole ethical virtues. The wife and the child will each have their portions. This implies that ethical virtues have variations, just as self-respect and courage are demonstrated by a woman and a man differently (Varoufakis, 2016).

The rule and the slave indeed have different levels of courage. Compared to Athens in their contact with the Melians that put much emphasis on the mightiness of an empire, the qualities described by Aristotle give much credence to the soul (Spielvogel, 2019). Their actions towards the Melians were not guided by any ethical virtues or self-respect but by their ability to bully them into submission.

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Source 4

The unknown author of source 4 categorically states that democracy is missing in Athens. Athenians are governed by fear and want; it all depends on whether the empire is big or small. The author also states that Athens is related to its neighbors through trade across the seas. Incidentally, Athens seems to be holding the upper hand when it comes to this trade, a position that it uses to molest its trading partners and neighbors (Hogan, 2020).

He describes his fellow Athenians as either rich or poor and governed by fear or want. As Spielvogel puts it, “For the common people, dress as poorly as slaves or aliens and their general appearance is no better” (p. 117). From these descriptions, Athens is an unequal society where the commoner must bend to the whims of the nobility (Thucydides et al., 2019). This is in sharp contrast to Pericles’ Funeral Speech, which had described Athens as a near heaven society where equal justice for all reigns.

Source 5

According to the economist, the main role of a husband is to stay outdoors while the wife stays indoors guarding the household supplies. By staying outdoors, the husband fends for the family, whereas the wife manages the household chores at home. Xenophon notes that “it is more proper for a woman to stay in the house than out of doors” (p. 119). It has also come out that the husband teaches his wife how to run a house after he marries her.

Xenophon puts the husband above the wife, who is supposed to sit back at home and weave wools and maybe look after slaves. This idea agrees with Aristotle’s conclusion on the ideal qualities of husband and wife. Xenophon, however, suggests that to encourage ideal behavior in wives and slaves, the wives must be kept engaged at home, and part of this engagement is to encourage her to teach slaves some skills. Incidentally, Xenophon describes an actual marital relationship because he is narrating a real-life story. I would like to do away with words such as good-for-nothings as used to describe slaves.

Source 6

The guardians proposed by Plato must be older and independent-minded. They must be guided by the need to do what is right and to do good for their country. The guardians are not supposed to own property beyond what is necessary. Their houses must be open to anyone seeking to enter. Their provisions should be limited to those of trained soldiers. They should be men of great courage and temperance and must be willing to accept only a small amount from the public, only enough to meet their yearly expenses (Haarmann, 2016). They must live a modest life and refrain from touching or donning attires made of silver and gold.

Plato’s ideal female guardian somewhat agrees and contradicts Xenophon’s description of an ideal wife. While he agrees with Xenophon when he says that women are inferior to men, he maintains that a woman can do the duties preserved for the man if she obtains the same nurturing and education. The Athenian wife, on the other hand, is restricted to staying indoors and refraining from doing manly duties. The qualities advanced by Plato indeed match with those in my list. From these descriptions, it is evident that the description of Athens as done by Pericles in his Funeral speech is not a reality (Townsend, 2017). In my original list, Athens is described by such words as an unequal society and a totalitarian regime.

Source 7

This house plan does not correspond to the one described by Xenophon, which faces south to reap from the winter sun. This house plan lacks men’s quarters, as described by Xenophon as having bolted doors. Many other details described by Xenophon, such as a section for slaves and their families, are missing. However, the layout has separate women’s quarters, which reinforces the roles described for the ideal husband and wife.

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Source 8

The openness of the agora is to allow it to be accessed from all directions without restrictions. The agora is surrounded by business and office buildings, an indication that this was an enterprising society. The Athenians valued trade and religion, owing to the nature of the building encompassed in the layout. It also depicts the background of people who could mostly be found in the events held at the agora.


The above sources have provided various conceptualizations of idealism and realism of the classical Athenian society. Specifically, the Pericles’ Funeral Speech (source 1) is a classic example of idealism, while Xenophon’s The Economist (source 5) has illustrated a realistic situation. Thus, we must be able to discern idealism from realistic historical perspectives even as we choose to adopt some of these ancient arts, architecture, literature, and philosophy.


Haarmann, H. (2016). Plato on women: Revolutionary ideas for gender equality in an ideal society. Cambria Press.

Hogan, J. T. (2020). The tragedy of the Athenian ideal in Thucydides and Plato. Lexington Books.

Spielvogel, J. J. (2019). Western civilization. Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

Taylor, M. C. (2019). Thucydides’s Melian dialogue and Sicilian expedition: A student commentary. University of Oklahoma Press.

Thucydides, T., Hanink, J., & Smith, C. F. (2019). How to think about war: An ancient guide to foreign policy: Speeches from the history of the Peloponnesian war. Princeton University Press.

Thucydides, T. (2018). Histories. Creative Media Partners.

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Townsend, M. (2017). The woman question in Plato’s Republic. Lanham Lexington Books.

Varoufakis, Y. (2016). And the weak suffer what they must? Europe, austerity and the threat to global stability. Vintage Digital.

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