Greek Social Classes
The best information about the Greek social classes comes from a city called Athens. Athens had an upper class. Directly below this class were the Metics, or the middle class. The next class was the freemen, and at the very bottom were the slaves. I will show how the people of Athens were placed in these classes during the time period from 600 to about 300 BC.
The Upper Class
To be a member of the upper class in Athens you must be a citizen, and you can not have a job. A member of the upper class must be free from economic tasks such as trading. He must get slaves or others to attend to his material concerns such as his property and fortune; only by such liberation can he find time for government, war, literature, and philosophy. The Athenians believed there must be a leisure class, or there would be no standard for good taste, no encouragement of the arts, no civilization. The aristocrats of Athens felt that no man in a hurry is quite civilized. This elite class was very small. They numbered about 300 families. Ancient units of money during this time period were called talents. To be considered wealthy, a land owner needed about 20 talents.
The Middle Class
The middle class in Athens had a large number of non citizens. The free men (non-slaves) of foreign birth, though ineligible for citizenship, had spent their life in Athens. They were mostly professional men: merchants, contractors, manufacturers, managers, tradesmen, craftsmen, and artists. In the course of their wandering, they have found in Athens the economic liberty and opportunity which out-weighed the down side of not being able to vote. These men were willing to give up their right to vote because they could not make as good a living in neighboring cities.
The ceramic industry was owned entirely by the middle class. The non-citizens were forbidden to own land, or marry into a family of a citizen. Creating such a law allowed the citizens to buy land at a cheaper price, because outside competition for the land was eliminated. This working class made sure that the navy fleet was maintained, the empire was supported through heavy taxes, and the commercial supremacy of Athens was preserved. The upper class wanted to show the rest of the world how great they were, and used all the classes below them to do the dirty work. Men who owned between one talent and 20 minae, that is a third of a talent, were liable to service as hoplites (foot soldiers), and the wealthiest 1,000 of these 9,000 rode horses during battle.
The Lower Class
The lower class was partly made up of freedmen, who at one time in their lives had been slaves. Most of the time these people were not citizens of Athens, so the best they could ever be is middle class. There are different ways that a slave can gain his or her freedom. The slave may be freed by his or her ransom being paid off by a relative or friend. If a slave ever earns enough money he can buy his own freedom, which is difficult because slaves do not get paid for their services. He or she would have to work at a second job. If a slave fights in a war there is a chance that he will be released. And two of the more common ways to acquire freedom, are for the master to die, or if the master feels the job the slave was bought for has been completed. If a slave was bought in order to tutor a child through school, upon the child's graduation, it's more than likely that the slave will be set free.
The Greeks in general felt that all men were not created equal. To an Athenian, there was no greater disgrace than being stripped of his citizenship. Some families had lived in Greece for generations, but they still were not considered citizens. The middle and lower classes outnumbered the upper class by an enormous number, but in the 600's B.C. only the upper class citizens who owned land could vote. This meant that all the decisions were made by the few, even though the rules they made up (law) applied to all. This might look like an evil system, this oligarchy- which was the rule of the few- but it was an improvement over the traditional style of leadership, which consisted of only one person making the political decisions for everyone. By the 400's B.C., Athens had a democracy and all of the men in the three upper classes could vote (everyone but the slaves and the metics).
The slaves of Athens were unransomed prisoners of war, victims of slave raids, infants rescued from exposure, and criminals. Only a very small number of slaves were Greek, the rest were considered barbarians because they were from a different place. The cost of a slave ranged from 50 to 1,000 dollars. Even fairly poor citizens often had a slave or two, while a rich home could have as many as fifty. The Athenian government employed a number of public slaves as clerks, attendants, minor officials, or policemen. Many slaves were women who worked in the home. If a slave misbehaves he is whipped; when he is hit in the face by a person whose rank is higher than a slave, the slave must not defend himself. If a slave were going to testify in court, he or she could only testify legally under torture, to make sure the slave told the truth. In no case can a citizen legally go as far as to kill his slave. Owners were often kind to their slaves, but other slaves were very badly treated. In these earlier times slavery was legal, but not all people agreed with it. As one philosopher noted, "God has sent all men into the world free, and nature has made no man a slave, but slavery goes on."
For more about slaves click here.
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