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.
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