How to Get a Job in Classical Athens: A Time-traveller’s Guide

Edmund Stewart

So you’re interested in obtaining work in Classical Athens? Athens is a welcoming state to foreigners: there are around 10,000 resident adult male expats (censuses do not generally count women and children), as against around 30,000 adult male citizens, so you will be in good company. There are lots of opportunities to explore, but some pitfalls as well. Here are a few pointers, tips and issues to consider.

Women kneading dough whilst a flute player sets the work pace: Boeotian terracotta figurine, 525–475 BC (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Immigration and the Law

The good news is that you will not require a visa or a work permit to work in Athens. There is also no income tax (yay! Income tax will only be invented in AD 1799 in the UK as a ‘temporary’ measure to fund the Napoleonic Wars). But there are some important issues you need to be aware about.

As a non-citizen, if you wish to work during a short-term visit, that is fine and there are no particular restrictions. You will only need to pay the standard harbour dues and customs taxes if you wish to bring merchandise to market.

If you want to obtain long-term leave to remain and work in Athens, you will need to find someone called a prostatēs. This is an Athenian citizen who will assist you with legal matters and enable you to pay a special tax called the metoikion. You should also be aware that as a metoikos (that is a resident non-citizen) you will also be liable for regular military service and you will not be permitted to purchase land. The same regulations incidentally go for freed slaves, who are also automatically regarded as metics.

The philosopher Socrates, not actively looking for work: sculpture by Mark Antokolski, 1875 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia).

Please note, however: failure to register with a prostatēs or pay this tax, or indeed to claim citizen status falsely, are all serious offenses. If prosecuted and found guilty, the punishment is enslavement.

Just in case you were wondering, there is no clear path to citizenship for non-citizens. The criteria for citizenship (in the law proposed by Pericles of 451 BC) are defined as two citizen parents. Long-term residency does not qualify you for citizenship. The only way to become a citizen is to be recognised as a state benefactor in some respect (which requires a lot of money and influential connections among the Athenian orators). The Assembly may also grant non-citizens the status of isoteleia as an alternative to citizenship, which entitles you to pay only those taxes levied on Athenian citizens.

Athena visits the workshop of a sculptor working on a marble horse (Epeius on a model of the Trojan horse?): side A of an Attic red-figure kylix by the ‘Foundry Painter’, c.480 BC (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany).

What exactly do we mean by “job”?

If you are looking for permanent salaried employment by a firm or individual, Classical Athens is not the best place to look. This kind of work tends to be associated with one group of workers – slaves – and free people tend to avoid it as a result. There are some long-term salaried jobs that are state positions, such as state architect or secretary, but these tend to be closed to non-citizens. So basically, a job in Classical Athens (if you are not, thankfully, a slave) means short-term contracts for goods or services or work as a market trader.

There are no pension schemes (a state pension will only be introduced in Germany in 1889 and in the UK in 1908) and very little on offer in terms of welfare (though citizens who are incapacitated due to illness may apply for a stipend). If you do not work, you generally do not earn.

A potter’s workshop: Side B from a Corinthian black-figure pinax, c.575–550 BC (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

There are also no weekends (or even weeks!). The good thing, though, is that there are lots of public holidays. Athens can boast more festivals than any other Greek state. These festivals are held both by the city itself and by the local municipalities (demes). As a central element of these festivals is an animal sacrifice, there is generally plenty of free food available. So while you will not get any holiday pay, the holidays generally pay for themselves. There is also state subsidy for theatre tickets for the Dionysia festival in around March every year. Many Athenians generally get by on a mix of paid work, state subsidies (such as payment for jury service, public sacrifices, etc.) and patronage from the great orators and generals, who regularly hold public feasts for the local community.

Three sea-perch and three limpets on an Apulian (south-Italian) red-figured fish-plate, c.340–320 BC (British Museum, London).

What kinds of opportunities are there for work?

There are plenty. Athens is a really busy market and trading centre. Just to give you an idea, look at what is on sale: you can buy wine from Mende, Chios, Naxos, Thasos, Lesbos, Sciathos or Peparethos; salted fish from the Black Sea and Cadiz, tunny from Sicily, or scallops from Mytilene on Lesbos; Thessalian horses; Molossian hounds; Thracian cups; perfume from Egypt; frankincense from the Red Sea; pillows and bedding from Carthage; and slaves from Phrygia, Thrace, Caria or Paphlagonia. There are a lot of people coming to and fro (at festival time alone, the city’s population swells with around 30,000 visitors and allied delegates). This makes Athens the place in Greece to trade and find work.

There is work for all kinds of skill-sets. At a basic level, you could earn money as a labourer or an amphora-carrier (everyone needs water and, although there are numerous springs supplied by aqueducts, it is hard work getting that water home). Transport is an easy line of work to get into: all you need is to buy some good sturdy donkeys, mules or a team of oxen. There are many opportunities for work at the harbours, especially at the Piraeus.

Pericles of Athens hard at work spending the people’s tax revenues for the benefit of citizens, as the plans for the Propylaea are revealed: an illustration by William Sharp (after James “Athenian” Stuart) for Ralph Willett’s A Description of the Library at Merly (London, 1785). 

Public construction works are a big employer too. From the 440s BC, the Athenians embarked on a massive building programme on the Acropolis, which employed architects, stone-masons, carpenters, sculptors, painters, goldsmiths and transporters of goods. There is a regular need for stonemasons to inscribe public and private documents (the Athenians put a lot of stuff in stone). Statues for private dedications or funerary monuments are big business too. Athens also has an important pottery industry, producing all kinds of tableware for local use or export.

Funerary monument for Dionysios, Athenian citizen of the deme of Kollytos, c. 340 BC: a good example of the kind of monumental grave markers for which there was substantial demand in the 4th century (Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece).

Skilled workers are always in demand. Doctors and midwives can be assured of regular business; there is no regulation or any requirement for qualifications, though you may be expected to provide testimonials from your teacher and former patients, especially if you apply for the post of state-physician.

Athens has the most famous philosophical schools in the Mediterranean, especially those that meet regularly at the sacred grove of the Academia or at the gymnasium of the Lyceum, respectively to the north and south east of the city. Training here will enable you to work as a teacher almost anywhere. Similarly, Athens (with so many important festivals, especially at the Dionysia, Lenaea and Rural Dionysia festivals in the demes) is the place to develop a reputation as a musician, tragic or comic poet or actor.

If you possess culinary talents, then there is always a need for gifted cooks and waiters to provide catering for private sacrifices for weddings and other family events. You may also wish to open your own stall or shop in the market. And there is naturally always work for barbers and hairdressers, tailors, shoe-makers, manufacturers of weapons, shields and armour (men liable for military service as hoplites can be expected to pay a premium if you can help them stay alive), etc., etc.

An Athenian helmet manufacturer: detail from a red-figure kylix, c. 480 BC (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK).

There are plenty of jobs also to be done in the countryside. This is mostly seasonal work for farm labourers, but there are also opportunities for experienced hands to land a long-term job as an estate manager. If you are an experienced agriculturalist, you could also consider setting up as a tenant farmer on the property of an Athenian citizen. Attica produces substantial quantities of olive oil and also some wine for local consumption, so work as a specialist vine-dresser is a possible option. Woodcutters and charcoal burners are other specialist jobs, providing the city with the fuel and timber it needs for cooking, industry and construction. 

Harvesting the grapes, with the aid of satyrs and maenads: detail from an Attic black-figure kylix by the ‘Chiusi Painter’, late 6th century BC (Museum of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris).

The level for pay on state projects is usually 1 or 2 drachmas a day. Of course, you may well earn more working privately, and depending on how quickly you are able to work.

A quick note on currency: there are six obols in a drachma, 100 drachmas in a mina, and 60 minae (or 6,000 drachmas) in a talent. The Athenian ‘owl’ currency is the gold-standard (or one should probably say ‘silver-standard’) for trade in the Mediterranean. Coins minted by other states may be accepted in Athens as payment. There is a state slave appointed to sit in the market to judge disputes on coinage and accusations of counterfeit currency.

A silver tetradrachm (4 drachma) coin from Athens, 5th cent. BC.

Where can I find work?

The best place to look for work is in the agorā, or market place, either in Athens itself or in the Piraeus. In the city, try going first to the hill called the kolōnos misthios, this is the site of a hiring market where people looking for day-workers generally call. This area is situated near the Temple of Hephaestus on the hill of the kolōnos agoraios, just above the agora. Opportunities for work (for example, foreign building projects) are regularly announced by heralds in the agorā. Barber shops and taverns (kapēleia) are good places to listen out for news.

Certain occupations have their own particular areas where workers congregate. There is a special meeting place where you can hire cooks and waiters, for example. Transport workers tend to congregate around the city gates. Potters generally work in the deme of the Kerameikos, to the north-west of the city. The market is likewise divided up according to the goods that are on sale. There are also specialist markets, such as the one for cheese at the time of the new moon.

The Athenian agora in the present day: note the Temple of Hephaestus on the left.

If you want to set up your own business, you would be best advised to rent a house in one of the urban demes, such as Melite, Kollytos or Kydathenaion or in the Piraeus, which are a short commute to market. Houses can regularly be leased with workshops attached: essentially any room can be converted for whatever kind of work you need (even industrial processes such as metal working).

 Funerary stele for an Athenian shoemarker named Xanthippos, 430–420 BC (British Museum, London).

A note on slave-ownership

It is a delicate subject, but while you are here you will find that many Athenians invest in slaves. Naturally many visitors to Athens where you come from tend to have strong moral objections. This is only right and proper. Slavery is brutal: you can legally treat your slave in any way you wish. Those who step out of line tend to be sent to the mills to grind grain, where they work in conditions little better than animals. Life in the silver mines in the south in Laurium can be equally hard and it is generally assumed that injured or dead slaves will have to be replaced on a regular basis. Free people don’t do those jobs, and with good reason.

Life here in pre-industrial Europe is hard. Nothing gets done (no fires are lit in the morning or lamps at night, no water is brought for washing, no clothes or dishes are cleaned, etc.) unless a human being does it from scratch. For those who can afford it, unpaid slaves are the most convenient solution. Slaves can be trained to work in a given trade, with their earnings being pocketed by their owner – minus of course the cost of keeping them fed and clothed. Perhaps this arrangement would bring 2 obols of profit a day. Slaves can also be hired out to third parties, or allowed to work independently in return for rent (the Greeks call it apophorā). Those with the capital to purchase numerous slaves, can also set up an entire factory, run by an overseer.

Slaves are relatively cheap, at an average price of around 200 drachmas (a bit more than half an average annual salary, perhaps equivalent to the cost of a car where you come from). Female slaves and children generally come cheaper; skilled adults are more expensive. Slave owners can generally recoup their investment by allowing slaves to buy their freedom at a later date.

Women making woollen cloth: detail of a terracotta lekythos attributed to the ‘Amasis painter’, 550–530 BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

What if I am a woman? Can I find work too?

Yes, there are plenty of opportunities for women to work. Society generally frowns upon women working outside the house, but there are plenty of paid jobs to be done at home. Textile production is the biggest employer of women. The cleaning and carding of wool, for example, is a low-skilled job that can easily be performed among other household work.

Women are often to be found working in the more skilled task of weaving at the loom as well. Many women also work as shop or stall keepers (kapēlides) selling a wide range of produce. Playing the aulos or kitharā (wind or string instruments) for festivals and dinner parties is good business, but you must beware of drunk and lecherous men (though there is of course much money to be made from them too, if you have the need or inclination).

A female dancer at an Athenian drinking party, or symposium: detail of an Attic red-figure kylix, early 5th century BC (British Museum, London).

Well that should cover most bases to start with. Good luck!

Edmund Stewart is Assistant Professor in Ancient Greek History at the University of Nottingham. He has written for Antigone on how to build a Greek temple, and his other essays can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Further Reading

Much of the sources and research underpinning this article can be found in E. Stewart, E.M. Harris, and D.M. Lewis (edd.), Skilled Labour and Professionalism in Ancient Greece and Rome (Cambridge UP, 2020). See especially the chapter by David Lewis, which lists around 200 possible specialist occupations known from Athens. See also E.M. Harris, D.M. Lewis, and M. Woolmer (edd.), The Ancient Greek Economy: Markets Households and City-States (Cambridge UP, 2019), especially pp.381–98 for a complete list of commodities known from Attic comedy.