Ancient Greek Class System and Social Structure

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Date: 2017
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 1,564 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1270L

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From the very beginning, Ancient Greece (800 b.c.e.-600 c.e.) proceeded on a course of urbanization, evidenced in particular by the rise of the polis (plural, poleis), or the city-state. City-states in the context of Ancient Greece were self-governing bodies of citizens, operating independently of any higher government. These city-states were formed during the latter years of the previous era, when Greece was divided into several independent regions--a precursor to the poleis of the ancient period. The people living in these city-states identified themselves by their respective poleis; for instance, they considered themselves as Athenians, Spartans, Thebans, and so on, rather than as Greeks in general. City-states were also defined by their patron gods; the polis of Athens, for example, was named after its patron deity, the goddess Athena.

Urbanization in Greece also came about due to its increasing reliance on commercial trade networks to supplement the Greek economy. With Greece's strategic location in the eastern Mediterranean, and its market access to other parts of Europe as well as Asia and Africa, the Greeks' commercial ventures quickly became successful and profitable, and their mercantile class grew more influential. This economic prosperity signaled new changes in the Greek social order and ushered in the beginnings of a democratic form of government.

There is limited historical evidence regarding how society within the poleis was structured. Most of the historical information relates to Athens, and, therefore, it is often treated as the primary example of a Polis in modern historical accounts. However, many city-states had unique social structures, and generalizations based on Athens tend to overlook them. For instance, Sparta--the second-most famous city-state after Athens--seems to have challenged Athenian notions of how society works. Nonetheless, with the bulk of available historical information relating to Athens, it is the city-state of choice on which to base an overview of the ancient Greek class system and social structure.


Previously, Greece had been an agrarian, land-based economy, in which the aristocracy held the best lands and the best positions in society. (The term "aristocracy" was derived from the Greek word aristoi, meaning the "best people.") For a time, the aristocracy ruled parts of Greece as oligarchies, in which a small group of people held the most political power. However, by the time the Greek trade routes began to thrive, the newfound fortunes of a rising middle class improved the overall standard of living among the Greek population. This new class could now afford the luxuries that were once exclusive to the aristocracy, such as weapons and armor. As a result, the merchant class began to undermine the power of the landed nobility, in turn encouraging competition among the aristocracy to win the favor of the newly influential commoners. This competition would result in greater civic rights for the middle and lower classes, empowering them to make the first shift into a government defined by democracy, where the people--rather than a select few--would rule. From that point on, the average Greek citizen could participate more actively in the governance of his Polis.

The distinction of "citizen" is important in this regard, as it defines the social structure of the poleis in general. Though men traditionally held the highest social positions in any given city-state, not all men were necessarily considered citizens. Citizenship was often reserved for native-born Greeks of a certain socioeconomic class.

In terms of wealth, the aristocracy still sat on the highest rung of the social ladder. Next was the merchant class, which was composed of citizens who had attained their wealth through trade, commerce, and manufacturing, and not through landownership. The political influence of these merchant-class citizens was limited, however, as the aristocracy often tried to keep them from rising to positions of power. A third group of citizens had even less political privilege than the business class--the so-called perioikoi ("dwellers-round-about") or the "dusty-feet." These were the poor farmers and landowners who did not own the choice plots of land and who lived in the margins of society.


Native-born women were also considered citizens, although most were not expected to participate in civic activities. Ideally, women were to remain at home and take care of their children and their households. They were not allowed to own property or to be involved in the economy and politics of their city-state. However, in practice, female citizens in Athens were able to hold some authority within their families as well as own property and draw legal documentation. Their activities, however, were not formally recognized by law.

Women were also educated in the same subjects as men, such as literature, mathematics, music, and athletics. However, the educational goals for men and women varied; there was a greater emphasis on improving a young girl's musical ability, for example, to make her a more eligible bride. Education for women was meant to prepare them for the domestic sphere. In addition, a woman's economic and social life was often dictated by male relatives, and women and girls had to be supervised by legal guardians when making important transactions. Husbands were often chosen by a woman's father, and women were discouraged from seeking out the companionship of males who were not their relatives. Furthermore, women were more likely to be socially disgraced if they stepped out of line, such as when they tried to legally separate from their husbands.

The women of the Greek city-state Sparta were the most well-known exceptions to many of these social perceptions in the ancient world. They could own and inherit property, while their status as the child bearers of the Polis, far from limiting their roles in society, gave them greater freedom in Sparta's martial environment. Spartan women received an education more on par with the men, and were encouraged to hone their athletic skills alongside the opposite sex. They were also considered more sexually deviant compared to other Greek women, as they freely mixed with male company, even as the citizens of most other poleis would consider it improper of them to do so.


Many people living in Ancient Greece did not have full citizenship status, although they enjoyed some of the same rights as citizens. The laborer class, for example, occupied a sort of intermediary position between the full citizens and the slaves, although their social positions more closely resembled the latter. Laborers could not be bought or sold as property, but they were dependent on their employers for their livelihoods. On the other hand, in some poleis the laborers were required to render military service in times of war. Though they enjoyed some privileges because of their semi-free status, they could also be killed or mistreated without repercussions.

Foreign immigrants and businessmen who were natives of other city-states, and who lived in the host Polis to practice a trade, constituted another non-citizen class that held a higher position than the laborers. Called the metics, their status was lower than that of full citizens, although they occupied the middle class for the most part. Their relationship with the people of their host states was often strained, especially during times of war; however, they enjoyed more opportunities for social mobility than the laborer class. The metics held an official legal status as "guest citizens," as long as they made sure to register with the local government. They were also required to pay taxes and participate in the military whenever necessary.

Slaves occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder, as they were considered property. They were also not officially recognized as a class within the poleis' hierarchy. The slaves were often obtained as captives of war, or were bought from slave traders, and only a small number of them were Greeks. They held a variety of occupations--according to their masters' needs--and some of them were even skilled craftsmen. However, they were usually treated worse than the laborers, although some citizens advocated for better slave management through more humane treatment. Moreover, slaves could earn their freedom by buying it, or by performing in an outstanding manner in military campaigns.

On a level as low as the slaves--also not considered full citizens--were the prostitutes, who came in two categories: the brothel prostitutes, or porne; and the more cultured and educated hetaera, who were performers as well as sexual partners.

An Ideal Society

Despite the strictly defined roles of Ancient Greek society, movement between the social classes was possible to some extent. In particular, momentous life events such as war could drastically alter one's social standing. In general, however, there was only minimal contact between the social classes, which, for the most part, was considered illicit.

Modern understanding of most aspects of Ancient Greek society is based mostly on conjecture, and on the writings of such philosophers as Plato (who lived between 423 BCE and 347 BCE) and Aristotle (385 BCE-323 BCE). However, these sources had their biases, and often spoke of what was ideal for Greek society at the time, rather than indicating what was practiced in truth.

During its long process of urbanization, Ancient Greece encountered many different cultures through colonization, immigration, wars, and trade, and the Greeks had to adapt accordingly. Today, Ancient Greece is considered the foundation of Western civilization, but during its time, it was constantly struggling with questions of what citizenship truly meant, and how individuals were supposed to act and interact within the context of a greater society.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2359070806