Like most human societies, the ancient Greeks were divided into several social classes, based primarily on heredity, wealth, or citizenship status. Although Greek class structure evolved over time, Greek society generally was split between a large group of people who owned little or no land and a small group of wealthy landowners who possessed most of the political power.
Class Structure in Early Greece. As described in the poems of Homer and Hesiod, membership in the Greek community in the 800s B.C. meant belonging to an oikos, or household. An oikos consisted of an adult male and his relatives and slaves. Each oikos was expected to be a self-sufficient unit—able to take care of all of its own needs—and was largely devoted to farming and herding. Nonagricultural activities, such as trade and craftmaking, were performed by outsiders or thetes, the lowest members of the community. Thetes owned little or no land and survived by attaching themselves to larger households or by working in return for food and shelter. At the top of Greek society was a small, elite class of warriors called basileis, or chieftains. These warriors ruled one or more villages and measured their wealth by the size of their landholdings, herds, and flocks. Movement from a lower class to a higher one was extremely limited.
Class Structure in the Archaic Period. The Archaic period (750-500 B.C.) was an age of great social change and conflict. The Greek population increased rapidly, and the society as a whole grew wealthier. Those who inherited their aristocratic* status became more powerful, ruling over the new city-states* that arose during the period. Although some non-noble Greeks also became rich through such activities as slave trading and fighting as mercenaries*, they were denied political power. The increased population made it difficult for most Greeks to own enough land to make a living by farming, and many fell into debt. Some became craftsmen, making pottery or working on the temples that were funded by rich citizens. Others emigrated to one of the new Greek colonies in Italy or Asia Minor, where they could own more land and accumulate wealth. In general, however, tensions remained high between the aristocrats, the wealthy non-nobles, and poorer citizens. The Greeks resolved these crises in a variety of ways, including the formation of tyrannies* in some city-states.
Like other Greek city-states in the early Archaic period, Athens was ruled by an aristocracy that held all political power. The rest of society was divided into farmers and demiourgoi, who were craftsmen and other nonagricultural workers. The aristocracy owned most of the land and charged high rents, forcing many of the farmers into debt. By the late 600s B.C., many Athenians were close to rebelling against the aristocracy. In 594 B.C., the statesman Solon was appointed sole archon* to resolve the crisis. He reorganized Athenian society into four new groups based on wealth instead of birth. Solon’s reforms helped some people who were not aristocrats gain some political power. Athenian society remained unequal, however. The right to hold office was limited to the two wealthier groups.
The Spartans solved the conflict between rich and poor by conquest. Faced with a lack of farmland and a growing population, the Spartans conquered Laconia, in the southeastern part of the Peloponnese*, and Messenia, the region to the west. The conquered territories were divided among Spartan warriors, and the native inhabitants were enslaved by the state. By the late 600s B.C., the Spartans developed a stable social structure. The conquered peoples of Laconia and Messenia, called helots, were required to supply the Spartans with food. A class of free people, called perioikoi, handled trade, crafts, and other economic functions. Freed from economic concerns, the Spartans devoted themselves solely to military and civil affairs. Although there was still a Spartan aristocracy, all citizens were considered equals. This structure remained in place for 300 years and helped Sparta maintain internal stability and military power.
* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* mercenary soldier; usually a foreigner; who fights for payment rather than out of loyalty to a nation
* tyranny rule by one person, usually obtained through unlawful means
* archon in ancient Greece, the highest office of state
* Peloponnese peninsula forming the southern part of the mainland of Greece
Free foreign workers, called metoikoi or metics, were important members of Athenian society. Although most metics came from the Greek city-states in Asia Minor, some were Syrian, Egyptian, or Phoenician. Metics did not have the rights of Athenian citizens. Unable to own land in Athens, they turned to commerce, manufacturing, banking, and skilled crafts. Some educated metics became writers. Herodotus, the great historian of the Persian Wars, was a metic from Halicarnassus in Asia Minor.
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
* oligarchy rule by a few people
Class Structure in the Classical Period. During much of the classical* period, the city of Athens experienced a high level of peace and economic growth. Due to the reforms that began with Solon and Cleisthenes in the 500s B.C., all male citizens participated in the city government for the first time. However, the leaders of Athens still came from the aristocracy. The great wealth of the city, collected from its empire, made possible extensive construction projects requiring large numbers of artisans and laborers. Many Athenians continued to take advantage of overseas colonies. Foreign workers in Athens, called metics, were prohibited from owning land, but they could still earn money in trade and commerce. Much of the hard labor was performed by the many thousands of slaves owned by Athenians.
Since other city-states did not have the financial resources of Athens, poor Greeks did not have as many financial opportunities, and relations between classes remained tense. Even in Sparta, which had the same social structure for centuries, the gap between rich and poor increased, especially after the Helots of Messenia were freed in 369 B.C.
Class Structure in the Hellenistic Period. After the reign of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, who conquered much of the world known to the Greeks in the late 300s B.C., new opportunities for advancement arose for Greeks outside of Greece. The ruling elite in Egypt and Asia consisted entirely of Greek citizens, many of whom emigrated to cities where they became the leaders of economic and political life. On the other hand, the native populations in these areas were treated as serfs. During the Hellenistic* period, the native people frequently rebelled against the Greek leaders as they attempted to restore their own governments, while conflict among the Greeks themselves was much rarer.
In Greece itself, the gap between the rich and poor grew during the Hellenistic period and created ever greater tension between classes. Most city-states were ruled by oligarchies*. As the rich grew richer, the poor became poorer, inspiring proposals to redivide land among the poor and to cancel debts. The Spartan situation was especially desperate: of the 700 remaining Spartan citizens, only 100 owned land, and most of them were in debt. During the 200s B.C., the Spartan kings Agis IV, Kleomenes III, and Nabis canceled all debts, gave land to the landless, and extended citizenship to some of the lowest classes. Reforms such as these served only to outrage Greek aristocrats, who were interested in preserving their privileges and wealth. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Citizenship; Democracy, Greek; Government, Greek; Greece, History of; Land: Ownership, Reform, and Use; Slavery.)