Greek History – Class and Status
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Published: Thu, 10 May 2018
Are there any special insights to be had from analysing Greek history in terms of either class or status?
Greek history cannot be viewed as complete without analysing the class structure and status, as most of the historical evidence we have acquired from the classical period have come from inscriptions and sculptures made by one particular class of people, who had a high status in society.
Thusly it is not necessarily about gaining special insights as it is gaining as complete an insight into Greek Ancient history as possible, though special insights will inevitably present themselves.
This side of Greek history has only been focused on since these issues have come to the fore in modern times what with Marxism and communism rising in the 20th Century; these issues of class and status come under classical scrutiny because it is inevitable that they were as relevant then as they are now because human nature does not change and you will see clear comparisons.
Only men native to a particular city-state who were free and owned land were entitled to the full protection of the law in a city-state and be considered citizens. The Athenian social structure consisted of the population being divided up into four classes based on wealth.
This differs from Sparta where all male citizens who finished their education were considered equal. So it is clear that insights can be gained from analysing Greek history because both class and status are issues that classical historians must understand in order to have as complete as possible outlook on Greek history.
People who were not part of the free land owning citizens were known as metics. Foreigners who moved into the city were part of this group, so too were slaves who had been freed. It can certainly be argued that this is exploitation of and looking down on certain groups of people showing us a special insight into how the different classes saw each other and the status each acquired. This insight could not be attained without analysing the class or status.
Because they did not have the technology we have today in antiquity, G. E. M. de Ste. Croix argues in his book ‘The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World’ that the dominant wealthy classes continued to dominate by demanding a lot more than was actually necessary from the lower classes. Such things as slavery, serfs, debt bondsmen and many other methods were employed to stop the lower classes from rebelling by keeping them busy.
This is backed up by people such as Aristotle, who wrote in his ‘Politics’ that men (meaning citizens of the state) were rational animals but slaves and women were not capable of reason. He called slaves “animate tools” whose only use was to obey the commands of the rich masters. In his ‘Politics’ work he writes, “But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female. Wherefore the poets say,
It is meet that Hellenes should rule over barbarians; as if they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one.”
This gives us some clear insight into the mindset of the citizens of Greek city states.
There is a common misconception amongst people that “Greece” was a unified nation that thought as one. But, I have already displayed a difference between two different cities in Greece and their social structures were quite different and these differences do offer us special insights.
Greece was not one nation operating under the same thinking, but it contained many different identities, it is both a Mediterranean and a Balkan country. In fact, an official Greek state did not come into being until Rome united it as one. There were hundreds of different states across the area which contained the people who became known as the Greeks. Loyalty was held to their own city states, rather than ‘Greece’ as a whole.
We can also gain some insight into daily life when analysing Greek history in terms of class or status. Most of the population were forced to work on the soil by those that were free citizens who were a small number of wealthy landowners and owned a lot of land. The slaves would work on the wealthy landowners’ land, there was little alternative to this. So they were viewed as mere tools, as the aforementioned quote from Aristotle shows, describing them as “animate tools” as if they were modern day tractors or any other tool that makes agriculture easier, for the wealthy landowner at least.
There is also another area of study, apart from the relationship between the wealthy landowning citizens and the metics and slaves which is about how business in general was conducted in Ancient Greece that is opened to us once we study Ancient Greece from the perspective of status and class. Paul Millet suggests that patronage has had so little written about it that one might think it did not even exist in the Ancient Greek World.
However, it must be said, with what little evidence we have; Sparta is the city-state we have the most evidence for patronage, but below this is Athens. Athens was viewed as the most advanced democracy of the time, and the aforementioned Aristotle also viewed it as such, despite its inequalities.
This quote from Aristotle’s ‘Politics’ is relevant here as, remembering his previously quoted view on barbarians, here he is talking about the citizens of the perfect democracy, which does not include slaves, women, metics and others: “Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are alike free, therefore they claim that they are all equal absolutely.”
Athens has always been said to have been the first true “democracy” by mainstream classical historians, special insight can be gained here from studying Ancient Greek history from a class and status perspective to denounce that myth. Though all members of the citizenship of Athens could vote at the assembly, the vast majority of the people who actually lived in Athens, like the metics, women, slaves and others could not vote or have any say in political life.
Comparisons can be drawn to today here as, before Solon’s reforms slavery was given as a punishment for debt. This is comparable to today and offer special insight because today personal debt is at an all time high, particularly in America and Britain and if the debt becomes too high the banks send bailiffs to seize your property and your home effectively removing you from the ‘citizenship’ and making you a metic.
Using the Marxist ideology adopted by de Ste Croix in his aforementioned book, more comparisons can be drawn to today as a small minority of the people still maintain all the wealth. The means of production concept is also as relevant then as it is now and the owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie still control it thus forcing the common man or the proletariat into working in order to survive. This in effect is slavery as they have no other choice but to work and feed the means of production to keep the wheels of democracy and capitalism turning.
Analysing the status of women also offers special insights into Greek History that would otherwise have gone unnoticed by the male dominated classical period. The role of the female in Ancient Greece was one of purely being a housekeeper and a mother to any children she may have. As I have said, there was no way for them to get involved in political life. Plays like Aristophanes’ ‘Lysistrata’ shows that the very idea of women being in power was considered completely ludicrous and was only relevant when they wanted to make a joke.
Like slaves, women could hold no possessions as they belonged to her father and then once she is married to her husband. Their primary function of looking after the home included the use of many slaves, sorting out finances, spinning, bread making and of course weaving which is the epitomy of the feminine thing to do as in evidence from Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’. They lived and ate in separate quarters from the men, nor could they go out in public on their own.
Spartan women had it better as they were allowed to take part in athletic competitions and generally had more freedoms. Comparisons can be drawn here with modern times also as in the Islamic faith women are encouraged not to be seen in public and in the Christian faith women have always been vilified. This is clearly special insight being drawn from Greece’s Ancient history as studying the status or class both offer the opportunity to compare social issues from ancient times to today, as they are clearly still relevant.
We can also gain insight from this because Athens’ direct democracy may not have worked if it weren’t for it’s usage of such strict requirements to be allowed to participate. This creates insightful debate over this very reasoning meaning that it was not a democracy per se, but rather a democracy for the few where only a small section of society could participate and be elected. Comparisons can also be drawn to today with the long Bush-Clinton dynasty heading towards their fourth straight president, who comes from the same elite wealthy section of society. But the only difference is that the debt “slaves” of modern times actually choose not to participate instead of being forced not to as was the case in Ancient Athens.
A more obvious comparison to modern times and what we can learn from the Ancient Greeks is the modern examples of literal slavery as opposed to the economic enslavement I have spoken of. Slaves in near modern times are quite comparible to those of Ancient times and thus offer an interesting insight into Greek history and what we can learn from it in terms of their mistakes, before slavery was abolished in 1863 in America many people were taken from Africa and elsewhere to America to work as slaves.
This is quite reminiscent of the barbarians I quoted Aristotle speaking of earlier, saying how they were less than human. This was the kind of attitude that allowed slavery to continue for as long as it did, and as Western society takes it’s origins from classical history it is then easy to understand why it was so readily accepted. The same comparisons can be drawn about the treatment of women and minority groups whose racism they had to endure is similar to the treatment and opinions of barbarians at the time.
In conclusion, what constitutes “special insight” can be interpreted many different ways but I feel that it relates to the information we can gain that has previously been ignored by the classical history establishment, in favour of focusing solely on the elite wealthy landowners without considering the slaves and the people who did not necessarily have a voice. This is why I feel de Ste. Croix’s use of Marxist ideology in his book ‘The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World’ is extremely apt in portraying this special insight as it effectively shows the same system of control that is employed today as back in the Ancient Greek World in a different format to today, but still ultimately debt slavery.
It also offers special insight in the general goings on of Ancient Greek society with the question of status and class relating to patronage’s usage and if it was even used at all as the lack of it in history books would suggest. The biggest special insight I feel it offers in terms of either class or status is that it shows the lack of willingness to make the unheard voices heard, it clearly shows that Greek history is written by those that dominated it and it’s majority of people living there as slaves, metics, women will unfortunately remain an unheard voice in the trumpeting of the creators of democracy we apparently hold so dear today.
De Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, Duckworth Ed, 1997
Paul Millet, Patronage in Ancient Society, Routledge, 1989
Aristotle, The Politics, Jowett translation, revised by Jonathan Barnes, 1981
Homer, The Odyssey, E.V. Rieu translation, Penguin Books, 2003.
Arisophanes, Lysistrata and Other Plays, Alan H. Sommerstein translation, 2003
Professor Paul Cartledge, “Critics and Critiques of Athenian Democracy“, 1st January 2001, BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/greeks/greekcritics_01.shtml
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