Social classes have existed since the beginning of human history. Some cultures see social classes as concrete and unchangeable, while others see them as fluid and able to change. In this lesson, we’ll examine the basic social class system of Ancient Greece.
What Is a Social Class?
Social class is a ranking based upon one’s status in society. Similar individuals with similar incomes, property, and jobs are often grouped into the same social class. For example, in the U.S. there are approximately five social classes that most people can agree on: the upper class, the upper middle class, the lower middle class, the working class, and the poor class. Each of these classes is characterized by ownership, or lack thereof, of material things, standing in life, and/or influence and power.
Greek Social Classes
In ancient Greece, the social system started off fairly simple. You were either a free man, a foreigner, or a slave. In the Greek city-state of Sparta, we see this clearly with three distinct social classes: the native Spartans, who controlled politics and the military; the free foreigners, who controlled trade and communication with other cities; and the Helots, who were the slaves of Spartan society. However, as Greek society, especially in Athens, continued to evolve, so did the social classes and the structure of society as a whole. Although other city-states in ancient Greece had slightly different social systems that changed at different rates and in somewhat different ways, we’ll focus on Athenian society for the rest of this lesson.
Athenian society was ultimately divided into four main social classes: the upper class; the metics, or middle class; the lower class, or freedmen; and the slave class.
The upper class consisted of those born to Athenian parents. They were considered the citizens of Athens. These were the rich and powerful of Athenian society, holding all political and militaristic power. This group can be further divided into three subclasses:
- The aristocracy, including politicians, top military officials, and the landed elite
- Villagers, who owned less productive land
- The merchants, who controlled much of the manufacturing and trade of Athens
The middle class, or metics, though born free, received less of the benefits of Athenian society. Since they were foreigners, they were not granted the rights of citizens and couldn’t hold titles to land or serve in politics, but were still required to pay taxes and serve in the military.
Below the metics were the freedmen or commoners of society. This group was made up of former slaves who had won their freedom and gained some basic legal and social privileges.
At the very bottom of society were the slaves. Slaves most often came from prisoners of war, victims of kidnapping, and other unfortunate circumstance. They held no legal rights whatsoever; not even the right to their own life.
That status of women in this social system was automatically determined by the status of their husbands or fathers. However, they couldn’t take part in public life. Therefore, while a woman might be of the upper class because of her husband or father, she couldn’t hold land or serve in politics.
Basic Impact of this System
However, this system wasn’t necessarily anything radical for the time period. It was a classic example of a social system of the ancients, with slaves at the bottom and upper class citizens at the top.
Pericles, considered by many historians to be one of the greatest Athenian leaders, helped shape the government of Athens by having more paid positions within the government, among many other things. This allowed more citizens that weren’t as wealthy to have access to positions that weren’t previously attainable. This idea was novel at the time, but eventually became the norm in free societies across the world today.
Let’s review. Ancient Greek society consisted of a social class breakdown that started off very simplistically. You were either a slave, a foreigner, or a freeman. Slaves had no rights and were owned, foreigners had some legal rights and were respected, and the freeman class was just that: free men and women who had legal and political rights and privileges. As society progressed, this became a little more complex, especially in Athens, where there were four main social classes: the upper class, which included landed elites, citizen villagers, and merchants; the medics, or middle class, which was made up of free foreigners; the lower class, or freedmen who were former slaves; and the slave class, who had no rights whatsoever.
We see this system used in a number of other cultures later on, and see some of the effects reaching as far as the current United States. Much like Athens, the United States pays citizens a salary for becoming politicians, something that wasn’t always assured before the influence of one of Athens’ greatest leaders, Pericles.