Ancient History

The Distinctions between the four Social Classes of Ancient Athens Greece



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Our modern democratic societies give thanks to one of the earliest known democratic societies in the world. The City-State of ancient Athens is often given credit for being the first democracy in the world. While our society certainly possesses many of the same qualities of the ancient Athenians, there are certainly as many differences.

One of the biggest differences can be found in the social structure of the two societies. In the United States today, we hold a belief that any individual can hold office. Certainly, any boundaries to social mobility are not endorsed by the state. The class structure in our modern society is much less stratified and noticeable than it was in ancient Greece.

In ancient Athenian society there existed 4 separate social classes. Those classes included the Pentacosiomedimni, the Knights, the Zeugitae, and the Thetes. Which social class an Athenian citizen belonged to was dependent upon their worth in property. What social class you belonged to also determined how active of a citizen you could become.

Ancient Athens was still a tribal society. There were four different Athenian tribes. Each tribe was divided into thirds. Each of these had their own governing officers. Each also possessed members of the various social classes of Athenian society. It was from these sub-groups that individuals were chosen to be governing officials of Athens.

The Pentacosiomedimni were the members of the upper class. These individuals possessed the greatest wealth. They had the greatest amount of disposable income as well. Members of this class were required to make at least 500 measures annually. Members of this class could serve in the highest offices of Athenian government. They could become the Magistrates, the Archons, the Treasurers, the Poletae, the Eleven, or the Clerks. Most often individuals from this group held the most powerful positions within Athens's government.

The Knights were the next lowest class. These individuals possessed great wealth and disposable income but they were not nearly as wealthy as the Pentacosiomedimni. Members of this particular class were required to make at least 300 measures annually. Members of this class could also serve in the highest offices of the Athenian government. They could hold the same offices as members of the highest class. They held positions of great importance and power within Athenian society.

The Zeugitae were the class of individuals below that of Knight. These individuals possessed enough wealth to warrant a higher class in society. Members of this class were required to make at least 200 measures annually. Members of this class could also serve in the highest offices of Athenian government. They could hold the same offices as members of the two highest classes. They also could hold positions of great importance and power but most often were probably given positions as clerks or the Polatae.

The Thetes were the class of individuals that held all other members of Athenian society that were above the rank of slave. These individuals were most often poorer city dwellers or small land-holding farmers. They could even be destitute individuals who had managed to escape serfdom or slavery. Their yearly income was less than 200 measures. Members of this class were prohibited from serving in the highest offices of Athenian society - however, they could still hold office. Government positions reserved for these individuals were those of Assembly member or Juror.

Each tribe elected officials to office by choosing from their eligible members by lot - drawing a name out of the hat, in essence. These numbers would be narrowed, and then the drawing would occur again. In this way the elections of officials was more democratic in nature. Each individual had to remain educated about the issues because there was a possibility that any person could become an official by the "luck of the draw." Each individual would put aside their vocation for their term of office, they would perform their civic duty, and then they would return home to their vocation after their term had expired.

Each individual of Athenian society could become involved in the political process. The exact role that each individual could perform was based on their position within Athenian society. Their position was determined by their economic status. However, all positions were of importance to the political process of ancient Athens. Be the person of high or low status, they all had a role to play in the governing of ancient Athens.

Reference

Aristotle, "The Athenian Constitution, Section 1, Part 7 and 8," Ancient History Sourcebook, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/asbook07.html#Everyday%20Life, (360BCE).

 

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