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Social Classes in the Roman Republic
Rome was a highly hierarchial and class-conscious society, but there was the possibility of mobility between
most classes because by the second century BCE class was no longer determined solely by birth. The classes
described below superseded the old patrician / plebeian distinction, though certain elements of dress and
religious positions and rituals were still reserved for patricians. There was a large gulf between the wealthy
upper classes (the senatorial and equestrian classes, shown on the pediment of the temple above), and the poorer
lower classes, though it was still possible—although quite difficult—to move upwards by acquiring sufficient
Upper Classes
Senatorial class (senatores): The basis for this class was political. It included all men who served in the
Senate, and by extension their families. This class was dominated by the nobles (nobiles), families
whose ancestors included at least one consul (earlier the qualification had been a curule magistracy, i.e.
curule aedile and up). The first man in his family to be elected consul, thus qualifying his family for
noble status, was called a “new man” (novus homo). Senators had to prove that they had property worth
at least 1,000,000 sesterces; there was no salary attached to service in the Senate, and senators were
prohibited from engaging personally in nonagricultural business, trade or public contracts. Men of the
senatorial class wore the tunic with broad stripes (laticlavi).
Equestrian class (equites): The basis for this class was economic. A man could be formally enrolled in
the equestrian order if he could prove that he possessed a stable minimum amount of wealth (property
worth at least 400,000 sesterces); by extension his family members were also considered equestrians.
However, if an equestrian was elected to a magistracy and entered the Senate, he moved up to the
senatorial class; this was not particularly easy or frequent. Equestrians were primarily involved in the
types of business prohibited to senators. Equestrians wore the tunic with narrow stripes (angusti clavi).
Women: Although membership in these classes was dominated by the same families over many generations,
the classes themselves were defined according to male activities rather than birth. Women's place in these
classes was therefore somewhat problematic. However, there came to be a customary acceptance that women
belonged to the social class of their fathers and then of their husbands, although the women had no special dress
that distinguished their status. This female participation in social status began to crystallize and formalize under
Augustus, who explicitly included the daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of senators in his
law prohibiting members of the senatorial class from contracting legal marriages with freed people.
Belonging to one of these upper classes had many significant consequences for Romans besides prestige, for
social class determined one's economic and political opportunities, as well as legal rights, benefits and penalties.
Rome had nothing comparable to our middle class; the gulf between these two upper classes and the much
larger lower classes was immense. However, as long as one was a freeborn Roman citizen there was at least a
slight possibility of moving into the equestrian class through the acquisition of wealth. Entry into the senatorial
class, even for wealthy equestrians, was extremely difficult, since for centuries a small number of elite families
had monopolized this class.
Lower Classes
Commons (plebs or vulgus): all other freeborn Roman citizens. The special mark of dress for citizen
males was the toga. All Roman citizens had conubium, the right to contract a legal marriage with
another Roman citizen and beget legitimate children who were themselves Roman citizens.
Latins (Latini): freeborn residents of Italy (until 89 BCE, when they were all granted full citizenship)
and of certain other Roman municipalities who had some legal rights but were not full Roman citizens.
Former slaves who had been informally freed by Roman citizens were a special category, “Junian
Foreigners (peregrini): all other freeborn men and women who lived in Roman territories. In 212 CE
most freeborn people living within the Roman empire were granted Roman citizenship.
Freedpeople (liberti or libertini): men and women who had been slaves but had bought their freedom
or been manumitted. They were not fully free because they had various restrictions on their rights and
owed certain duties to their former masters, who now became their patrons, but they could become
citizens if their former masters were citizens and they had been formally manumitted; they were not,
however, eligible for public office. This was the one class it was not possible to leave, though the class
encompassed only one generation. The next generation, their freeborn children, became full citizens
(i.e., members of the commons, though there was a social stigma attached to being a freedman's son) and
could even become equestrians if rich enough. Freedpeople had low social status, and most were
probably fairly poor, but it was possible for them to achieve some success in a trade, and a few might
even become wealthy. They had no special distinction of dress, though their names indicated their status
as freedpeople.
Slaves (servi): system of chattel slavery where human beings were born into slavery or sold into slavery
through war or piracy. Slaves were the property of their owners by law, but by custom some slaves
(especially urban, domestic slaves) might be allowed their own savings (peculium) with which they
might later buy their freedom, or their masters could manumit them, so some mobility into the previous
class was possible. . Roman slavery was not racially based, and slaves had no special distinction of
dress, though slaves who had run away were sometimes made to wear metal collars with inscriptions
such as the following: “I have run away. Capture me. When you have returned me to my master,
Zoninus, you will receive a reward.”
Women: Since the lower classes were not defined by male activities, there was no problem with including
women; female and male children were automatically members of the social class of their parents (except for
freedpeople, since only one generation could be “freed”). If the parents were Roman citizens and had contracted
a legal Roman marriage, the children followed the social status of their father (i.e., they were Roman citizens).
However, in the case of Latins, foreigners, and slaves, children took the social status of their mother, even if
their father was a freeborn Roman citizen.
Social Classes in the Empire
During the Empire, most of these social classes continued, although after the grants of full citizenship in 212 CE
the foreigner and Latin classes (except for Junian Latins) virtually disappeared. There was a new and tiny class
at the very top of the social pyramid, comprising the emperors and their families. From the time of Augustus,
the state was identified with the imperial household (domus), and the women belonging to that household
naturally became associated with imperial status, imperial titles such as Augusta and mater castrorum (“mother
of the military camps”), and even some forms of power, although these women (like all Roman women) were
formally excluded from political offices and the emperors consistently stressed their domestic roles. There was
also a new category in the class of freedpeople, since freedmen of the emperor were frequently given important
bureaucratic posts, garnered a great deal of wealth, and exercised considerable influence. Even imperial slaves
had a certain status. Thus the imperial household created status anomalies in several of the social classes.
The nature of the senatorial class also changed during the Empire. Although the Senate and magistrates
continued to exist, they no longer had any real political power, and their membership in this class depended
ultimately on the favor of the emperor. Nevertheless rank retained its importance and became even more
clearly marked and formalized. In fact, elite women during the Empire also openly laid claim to the social status
associated with rank. By the end of the second century CE, the word clarissimi and the feminine clarissimae
(“most distinguished”) became a kind of title denoting male and female members of the senatorial class. In the
third century CE, the law explicitly divided Romans into two groups, the honestiores (“more honorable people,”
including senators, equestrians, municipal officials, and soldiers) and the humiliores (“more insignificant
people,” including all other groups). Legal penalties were significantly more harsh for the latter group, and
women as well as men were included in this division.
Public Display: Patronage
Public display of status was a very important feature of Roman society. It was not enough to belong to one of
the upper classes—status and rank had to be seen, to be publicly recognized, in order to be meaningful. Hence
the clothing of upper-class Roman males had distinctive features which made their rank immediately visible to
all around them.
The patron-client relationship was also a major instrument for the public display of status. The Romans called
mutual support between upper-class men of relative—though competitive—equality amicitia, “friendship.”
However, nearly every aspect of Roman life was affected by the widespread system of patronage, based on
publicly acknowledged inequality between patron (patronus) and client (cliens); the prevalence of patronage
in Roman society was both a result and a cause of its hierarchical, status-conscious nature, as well as of the
wide gulf between the upper and lower classes.
There were two types of patronage:
public—in which a patron became the protector and benefactor of a group (e.g., a craftsman's guild, a
religious association, even an entire city); such patronage usually involved large gifts of money for
public buildings, alimentary schemes, public entertainment, etc., but could also involve various forms of
protection and advocacy.
personal—in which a patron aided an individual of lower status through money, gifts, dinner invitations,
help with lawsuits or business affairs, and other forms of advice and protection. Patronage relationships
might be maintained through several generations of the same families.
Personal patronage extended to a man's or woman's freed people as well as to freeborn individuals of a lower
status, but the former involved legally binding duties and services that the freed person owed his or her patron
in exchange for manumission. Public patrons expected to receive public acknowledgment from their client
groups in the form of statues and inscriptions; personal patrons expected various forms of public displays of
deference such as the morning greeting (see below), accompanying the patron to the Forum, etc. During the
Republic, both types of patrons demanded political support from their clients; this type of support became much
less significant in the Empire, though social support and deference remained very important. The patronage
system made possible the rich legacy of Roman literature, since wealthy patrons provided authors with a
livelihood and expected in return commemoration in the literature or at least enhanced status as intellectuals.
For example, Maecenas, a wealthy and influential equestrian associated with the court of Augustus, was the
patron of the poets Horace and Vergil.
An important daily public ritual associated with patronage was the salutatio, or morning greeting, when clients
flocked to the homes of their wealthy patrons. This was a formal occasion, requiring both patron and client to
wear togas; thus the difference in their clothing would be another visual reminder of their difference in status.
Clients clustered in the atrium, the vestibule, and even the streets outside the patron's house, waiting to be
summoned individually to greet the patron in his tablinum; after the greeting they might be required to
accompany the patron to the Forum or law courts if he needed a public entourage. Certainly there could be a
paternalistic benevolence on the part of the patron and loyalty on the part of the client, but nevertheless public
display was at the heart of the system. Patronage was the grease that kept the wheels of the Roman economy,
society, and politics turning.
Like other public aspects of Roman society, the rituals of patronage derived from the male lifestyle. However,
because upper-class women participated in the Roman status structure and could manage their own wealth
(including freeing slaves), they could serve as both public and personal patrons. Inscriptions throughout Italy
and the provinces commemorate women as public patrons. The image at right, for example, shows a statue of
Eumachia, a priestess and wealthy woman who put up a large public building in the Forum of Pompeii and was
a public patron of the guild of the fullers, who erected this statue in her building. The inscription reads, “The
fullers [dedicated this statue] to Eumachia, daughter of Lucius, public priestess.” In fact, participation in public
patronage seems to have been considered an honorable activity for a woman throughout Roman history.
Personal patronage was more problematic, however, especially if a woman's clients were men, since it seemed
to undermine the concept of natural male superiority and created opportunities for sexual innuendo.
Nevertheless, elite Roman women certainly did serve as patrons for men, especially during the Empire, when
connections to the imperial family gave women access and influence in the court.
Women’s Status
The Roman Republic was a patriarchy in the strictest sense of the word. Private life rested upon patria potestas,
paternal power over the subordinate women, children, slaves, and clients who formed the Roman Familia. The
Roman matron was highly respected within limits established by a strong gender system that defined her role as
the supporter of the patriarch's power. Public life was conducted in the name of the Senate and People of Rome,
institutionally defined as exclusively male. In the last days of the Republic, the power of these institutions was
destroyed by civil war at the same time that the army, led by its emperors (originally only a military title),
carried the standards of Rome to victory over the many civilizations of the Mediterranean world and ultimately
took power over the city of Rome itself.
Under the Empire, the boundaries between public and private lives became porous and women began to use
their familial roles as instruments of public power. Religion, in particular, offered women a bridge across class
and gender differences, from private to public life. Roman women experimented widely with a variety of pagan
cults, but increasingly Christianity attracted women with a vision of a community where in Christ "There is
neither Jew nor Greek, ... neither bond nor free, ... neither male nor female." (Galatians 3:28)
Christianity was founded at about the same time as the Roman Empire was established, and for the next three
centuries the imperial government and the Christian religion developed on separate but converging tracks. As an
outlawed sect, the new religion was peculiarly susceptible to the influence of wealthy and noble women. Their
participation was so energetic and prominent that critics often labeled Christianity a religion of women and
slaves. In the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Empire had become Christian, it consolidated new political
and religious hierarchies which reinforced one another. The synthesis was basically a restructured patriarchy
with Christian men firmly in control of both government and church. But Roman Law and Roman Christianity
contained a wider range of choices for women regarding marriage and property which passed into the hands of
Rome's European successors.
Social Classes in Ancient Greece
The vast majority of Greeks from Homer to Aristotle regarded slavery as an indisputable fact of life. Its
existence at the heart of the Classical world is thus a source of considerable disquiet to those who admire Greek
culture for its supposedly enlightened humanism. It is important to appreciate, however, that slavery was not an
absolute condition but one that admitted many different statuses. It included at one end of the scale chattel
slaves, those who in Aristotle's telling phrase had the same (6,000 drachmas) for a slave to manage his silver
mines. A slave in good health probably cost the equivalent of half a year's salary. Though most Athenian slaves
were purchased from abroad, some were bred in captivity, as indicated by the following remark made by
Ischomachos in Xenophon's, Household Management: "As a general rule, if good slaves are permitted to breed,
their loyalty increases, whereas when bad slaves live together as husband and wife they are more liable to cause
trouble" (9.5).
Domestic Slaves
Domestic slaves served in practically every capacity, including that of washerwoman, cook, porter, cleaner,
tutor, Domestic escort, messenger, nurse, and companion. No doubt in the Slaves larger households there was
some division of labor, as for instance among the female slaves in the palace of the Homeric king Alkinoös,
"some of whom grind the yellow grain on the millstone, while others weave the web and turn the spindle"
(Odyssey 7.104f.). Whether slaves were also employed in large numbers as agricultural laborers is unclear.
On becoming a member of an Athenian household, a slave underwent an initiation ceremony similar to that
which a bride underwent on first entering her new home. This was intended to place the slave under the
protection of Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. The poems of Homer suggest that close ties arose between
master and slave. Scenes of mistress and maid figure prominently on Athenian grave monuments, testimony to
the fact that the two spent much time together in the gynaikeion, or women's quarters. In Classical Athens
slaves were occasionally buried in family plots beside their masters and mistresses.
Overall the treatment of slaves varied greatly from one household to the next. Though Athenian slaves were
protected by the law against violent abuse, in practice it was virtually impossible for them to lodge a complaint
against their masters, since they-could not represent themselves in court. Starvation and flogging were regular
punishments for bad behavior. A runaway slave was branded with a hot iron upon capture. If a slave was
required to be a witness in a lawsuit, his or her testimony could be accepted only under torture.
Publicly Owned Slaves
The most privileged Athenian slaves were owned by the state. They included the notaries, jury clerks, coin
testers, and exe cutioner. In addition, a large number of publicly owned slaves toiled as road menders. As
building accounts make clear, slaves sometimes worked on building projects alongside Athenian citizens.
Athens' force of Skythian archers, who kept the peace, was also the property of the state.
Living Separately
Because Athenian citizens refused to satisfy the demand for Living wage labor in the second half of the fifth
century B.C., conditions and opportunities for a limited number of slaves improved dramatically. Such slaves,
who paid a commission to their owners, were described as "living separately" (ch6ris oikountes). They included
the managers of shops and factories; bankers, captains of trading vessels, bailiffs, and artisans. One was a
certain Pasion, who rose to be one of the wealthiest men in Athens. Pasion, who worked as a banker, was
eventually granted Athenian citizenship because he gave generously to the state at a time of crisis. Overall,
however, the Athenians were niggardly in freeing their slaves, even when they had served them dutifully all
their life.
Industrial Slaves
The most dangerous and exhausting work performed by Industrial Athenian slaves was in the silver mines of
Lavrion in south-east Attica. Inscriptions reveal that the vast majority of industrial slaves were barbarians.
Xenophon (Memorabilia 2.5.2) informs us that the price of slaves who served in this capacity could be as low as
50 drachmas. Work in the mines continued uninterruptedly for twenty-four hours a day. From the discovery of
miners' lamps containing oil, it has been estimated that shifts were ten hours in length.
When the Spartans conquered Messina, they reduced the entire population to servile status. Known as heilôtai,
Helots or helots, a word that is probably connected with a verb meaning "to capture," Spartan slaves were
required to till the land and pay half their produce to their masters, who were thus freed to discharge their
military duties. We have no means of estimating the size of the helot population, but it almost certainly
outnumbered that of the citizen body. Helots had no political or legal rights and could be executed without trial.
They could be freed only by a decision of the Spartan assembly. Their condition was so wretched that the poet
Tyrtaios describes them as "asses worn down with great burdens." They were the property of the state and
assigned by it to individual citizens, who did not have the right to dispose of them. Since, perhaps uniquely
among slave populations, they were allowed to propagate without restriction, helots were racially homogeneous.
For this reason the Spartans were constantly fearful of helot revolts and took extreme measures to safeguard
against them, as this chilling incident reported by Thukydides indicates.
The status of being a foreigner, as the Greeks understood the term does not permit any easy definition. Primarily
it signified such peoples as the Persians and Egyptians, whose languages were unintelligible to the Greeks, but
it could also be used of Greeks who spoke in a different dialect and with a different accent. Notable among this
latter category were the Macedonians, whom many Greeks regarded as semi-barbaric, as the following
judgement upon Philip II of Macedon by the Athenian politician Demosthenes indicates: He's so far from being
a Greek or having the remotest connection with us Greeks that he doesn't even come from a country with a
name that's respected. He's a rotten Macedonian and it wasn't long ago that you couldn't even buy a decent
slave from Macedon. (Third Philippic 31) Prejudice toward Greeks on the part of Greeks was not limited to
those who lived on the fringes of the Greek world.
"Metic," which comes from the Greek word metoikos meaning Metics "one who dwells among," denoted a
foreigner with the right to live permanently in the host country of his or her choice. Classical Athens, because of
her empire, wealth, and commercial importance, attracted a vast number of metics. In the fifth century B.C.,
metics perhaps accounted for as much as 10 percent of Athens' entire population, or about from 20,000 to
30,000. It should be emphasized, however, that their numbers fluctuated in line with Athens' changing fortunes
and prosperity. Very likely many left before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 i3.c. Athens was not
the only Greek state that encouraged the immigration of foreigners, but it was undoubtedly the one that attracted
them in greatest numbers. The Spartans were notoriously xenophobic and actively discouraged foreigners from
residing in their territory even on a short-term basis.
It was due to the large influx of metics around the middle of the fifth century i3.c. that Athens introduced a law
debarring the offspring of a union between an Athenian citizen and a metic woman from claiming citizenship.
The state also revised her citizen register at this time and struck off a number of suspected metics who were
believed to be claiming citizenship under false pretenses. Though Athenians could marry metic women, metic
men were subject to a fine of 1,000 drachmas-the equivalent of about three years' salary-for cohabiting with an
Athenian woman. Each metic had to have an Athenian sponsor, called a prostatês ,and be registered in a deme.
He or she was required to pay an annual poll tax called a metoikion. Men were liable to service in the military
but in the navy only in times of emergency. They were also required to undertake liturgies. Metics were not
permitted to own land unless they had obtained a special grant called an enktêsis. This entitled them either to
purchase a home or establish a sanctuary for the worship of a foreign deity.
It is sometimes suggested that the Greeks more or less invented racism single-handedly by holding up their
culture Barbarians as a shining example of everything that was noble and praiseworthy, while at the same time
rubbishing everybody else, particularly the Persians. The truth, however, is rather more complex. Even if the
Greeks considered their culture to be superior to others, that does not mean that they were out-and-out racists.
Precisely what the category barbarian amounted to in practical terms is difficult to determine. The most
plausible origin of the word is "the people who mutter ba-ba-ba." Barbarians, in other words, were people who
could not speak Greek. Non-Greek speakers were excluded from participation in the Olympic Games and from
certain other religious ceremonies, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries. In time, however, barbarian also came to
acquire the pejorative meaning of "ignorant, brutal, and savage."
"Typical" barbarian behavior included drinking neat wine, beer, and milk; wearing effeminate clothing; and
practicing circumcision. Thukydides (1.6.1-3) was of the belief that contemporary barbarians behaved similarly
to the earliest inhabitants of Greece, in that they carried weapons around with them and wore loincloths when
exercising. The most despised feature of barbarian society, however, was the subjugation of its population to
one man or ruler. Despite the highly negative view of barbarian culture that many Greeks held, there is no
evidence to suggest that barbarians were unwelcome or subjected to mistreatment if they traveled to Greece. On
the contrary, they figure prominently among Athens' metic population in the fourth century. The Phoenicians,
considered barbarians by most Greeks, actually enjoyed a privileged status that was not extended to other
metics: they were exempted from the metic tax and other financial burdens.
At the age of twenty a youth's education came to an end and he graduated to the eirênes, a word of uncertain
etymology. He was now liable for military service, though he did not yet possess full rights of citizenship. On
reaching thirty a Greek finally became a full citizen, or homoios, which means "Peer." Qualification for Spartan
citizenship, unlike that in Athens, depended on membership in a syssition, or dining club. Each syssitos, or
member of a syssition, made a monthly contribution to his dining club. He would not only regularly dine and
relax in the company of his fellow syssitoi, but also fight alongside them in time of war. The age of Only when
he attained sixty was a Spartan finally released from military obligations, though, like many other retired
servicemen, he probably continued to feel as much at home in the army as he did at home. Athens also drew a
sharp distinction between citizen and resident alien, between legitimate born and the illegitimate, and between
the woman who was a wife and the one who was not wife.
Although Spartan home life was extremely restricted, women actually enjoyed more freedom than their
counterparts in many other parts of the Greek world. Girls were allowed to mix freely with boys. They also
underwent an intensive physical training program, which included discus and javelin throwing, and wrestling.
The purpose of this training program was to ensure that they became fit breeders of Spartan babies. The extreme
value that was put on child rearing in Spartan society is indicated by the fact that wives could be "loaned" to an
interested third party with the agreement of the husband, presumably in order to exploit their fecundit y in cases
where the husband was elderly or infertile. Another unique feature of Spartan society is that women were
permitted to own their own property. Traditionally, other Greek women were not allowed to own their own
With the notable exception of Plato, Athenian philosophers believed that women had strong emotions and weak
minds. For this reason they had to be protected from themselves and they had to be prevented from doing
damage to others. Guardianship was the system developed to deal with this perceived quality in women.
Every woman in Athens had a kyrios (guardian) who was either her closest male birth-relative or her husband.
Although she could own her clothing, jewelry, and personal slave and purchase inexpensive items, she was
otherwise unable to buy anything, own property or enter into any contract. Her kyrios controlled everything
about her life. (Compare this with the Pater familias in Ancient Rome.) Citizenship for a woman entitled her to
marry a male citizen and it enabled her to join certain religious cults closed to men and non-citizens, but it
offered no political or economic benefits.
Athenians divided all women into two groups: wives and potential wives in the first, and all others in the
second. It was almost impossible to move from the second group to the first. Girls in Athens were normally
married soon after puberty to men who were typically in their late twenties or early thirties. Her father or other
guardian provided the dowry and arranged the match. The betrothal symbolized the groom's acceptance of the
qualities of the dowry as well as the qualities of the bride.
Social Classes and Castes in Ancient India
The Rig-Veda (a holy book), divides ancient Indian society into four separate but interdependent castes or
classes of people. According to the Puranas (another holy book of Hindu religion), the Brahmins or priests were
born of the mouth of Lord Brahma and can speak with and pray to the gods on behalf of mankind. The
Kshatriyas or rulers and warriors were born of Lord Brahma's arms and were given the task of protecting
society and using weapons. The Vaishyas (business people and originally farmers) were born of his thighs and
took care of trade, business activities, and farming. The Shudras (or common laborers) were born of Brahma's
feet and their only purpose was to serve the other three castes. They became almost like slaves. This group
became the farmers and herders as the business class became richer and more powerful. In addition to the four
named castes, another category was later made. This category of people called the Chandalas. They were the
outcastes or "untouchables" that were considered outside of the system. They did not live within the cities or
villages, nor were they allowed to enter, except to scavenge and collect night soil (manure).
Caste based on race?
The three upper castes became known as 'svarna jati' or castes of 'good color' or 'golden color'. According to one
theory (of "Aryan Invaders") the lighter skinned Aryans created a system of privilege for themselves. Caste
itself devolved into a racial differentiation between the conquerors and the conquered, with color as the most
visible distinction. From another point of view, the Aryans entered India that already had a class system. Darker
skinned people were found in Southern India (with their skin color as a protection against the sun).
Reincarnation - Can one be reborn into a higher caste?
The Hindus believe that the caste that one is born into is based on the karma and dharma of one's previous birth.
A good karma and dharma will ensure that one is born into a higher caste in one's next life. Otherwise, one
could be punished by being born into a lower caste, or even as an animal!
Brahmin Class
Brahmins were "created from the mouth of Brahma" (the chief god), so that they might instruct mankind. Since
knowledge is the only thing that remains with a person throughout life, Brahmins, as teachers, were highly
respected. The Brahmins conducted the daily rites, the purification ceremonies, sacrifices, and taught the Vedas.
Brahmins also spoke Sanskrit, the language of the holy books.
Since they were the teachers, preachers and priests they had to be skilled in sacred knowledge of the Vedas, or
holy texts. They had to maintain a strict code of conduct and exemplify ideal behavior. They were to be kind
and gentle. For this, they earned certain privileges and were treated almost like gods by commoners and kings
alike. Only a priest could partake of the sacrifices and eat the remains of the sacrifices, for no one else was
thought to be holy enough to eat the divine leftovers.
At first, a person became a Brahmin because he knew the Vedas. In time, the Brahmins began interpreting laws
to their own advantage to maintain their privileges. Because of their moral authority, they were unchecked. So
only the Brahmins were allowed to read and teach the Vedas. They monopolized the privilege of priesthood in
the later Vedic period. They also established that one was born into a caste, which could not be changed except
to be outcaste, the lowest of the castes.
Women of the Brahmin class could marry the Brahmin men, and after raising the family, they might join the
Brahmin men who went into the forest to withdraw from society. Marriage was compulsory for all the girls
except for those opted for asceticism. Brahman girls were married between ages 8 and 10 from the sixth century
onwards up to modern times.
Rulers and Warriors Class - "Kshatriya" or "protectors of gentle people"
The Kshatriyas were kings and warriors. They were said to have come from the arms of Brahma, meaning that
their role in society was the protection of people and livestock. They were supposed to be brave and fearless,
and to live and die by a code of honor and loyalty. They could eat meat and drink liquor. Their most exalted
death was to die in battle.
Young men of this caste also studied with a guru (teacher) to learn the holy texts and become "twice born", but
their training included the use of weapons. Only men of this class could have such training. Certain weapons
were also forbidden to the other classes. Men of this class also spoke Sanskrit, while the lower classes spoke
the common language of the area.
Women of this caste had little political power. Their families would often arrange their marriages to build
alliances or to achieve other political or economic goals for the family. Polygamy (having more than one wife)
was permitted to all who could afford and it was especially popular among Kshatriaysa for political reasons.
Girls were married between ages 8 and 10. This class also included the landowners of Ancient Indian society.
Vaishya - Traders and Merchants
Third in the caste system, the Vaishya's duty was to ensure the community's prosperity through agriculture,
cattle raising and trade. Later, the Shudras (or lower working class) took over agriculture and cattle rearing
while the Vaishyas became traders and merchants. The Vaishya were said to have come from Braham's thighs.
Young men of this caste also studied with a guru (teacher) to learn the holy texts and become "twice born".
From the end of the 4th century BC, as the country became politically stable, trade routes to previously
uncharted areas developed. The merchant community was the first to benefit. Artisans formed guilds (like a
"trade union") and co-operatives in the urban areas. Guild leaders became important figures in society. Guilds
also provided technical education, though formal education remained the monopoly of the Brahmins. As their
economic power increased, they were expected to give alms (food and money) to Brahmins, throw feasts for
them, and donate generously towards the building of temples and shrines. Even though they were educated
about the holy texts and economically strong because they controlled commerce, Vaishyas were denied a high
social status, for which they resented the upper castes.
The Shudras (or laborers)
The Shudras took over the jobs of farming, herding, and manual labor for the higher classes. At times they were
treated like slaves. Young men of this caste could not study with a guru (teacher) to learn the holy texts nor
could they become "twice born". They could not get a formal education at all. Most of their lives were spent in
hard labor. Both men and women were part of this caste.
The Chandalas or "untouchables"
The Chandalas were considered outside of the system of the other castes. They did not live within the cities or
villages, nor were they allowed to enter during the day. At night they could enter to scavenge and collect night
soil (manure). They had to move off the path if someone from a higher class approached because contact with
such people was "contaminating". Hindu texts were interpreted as describing a class of people as foul and
loathsome, and any physical contact with them was regarded as polluting. Indeed, the Untouchables' very
shadows were considered polluting, and they were required to beat drums and make loud noises to announce
their approach. Untouchables had to attach brooms to their backs to erase any evidence of their presence. Cups
were tied around their necks to capture any spittle that might escape their lips and contaminate roads and streets.
Their meals were taken from broken dishes. Their clothing was taken from corpses.
They performed the jobs that no one else wanted to perform. The primary work of Untouchables included
scavenging and street sweeping, emptying toilets, the public execution of criminals, the disposal of dead
animals and human corpses, and the clean-up of cremation grounds. Surprisingly, musicians belonged to this
class, too, but music was listened to by members of other castes. They were forbidden to learn to read and write,
and were prohibited from listening to any of the traditional Hindu texts. Untouchables were denied access to
public wells. They could not use ornaments and were not allowed to enter Hindu temples. The daily life of the
Untouchable was filled with degradation, deprivation and humiliation.
Very little is known about slavery in ancient India. The first documented evidence of slavery coincides with the
Aryan invasion of the Indus Valley region about 1500 BC. Ancient Indian literature indicates that slavery was
sanctioned throughout India from the 6th century BC to the beginning of the Christian era. However, since
Indian society has throughout been subject to the strictly-enforced caste system, the differences between those
in the lowest caste and the lot of the slaves are not very great and, in some cases, it may have been better to be a
slave. For example, a low caste person had to work constantly to obtain food and water while slaves
occasionally (although not very often) could have time off from work. Laws also existed as to what sort of
treatment it was permitted to use with slaves: they could be beaten on the back but not the head, for example,
while a woman who was made pregnant by her master would, at the moment of birth, be freed together with her
child. Of course, no one can minimize the misery of being enslaved and it is almost certain that many masters
were able to disregard these kinds of rules but, nevertheless, at least some structure of protection were provided.
These were supplemented by both Hindu and Buddhist precepts, which were also influential in affecting the
behavior of some people.
A large number of slaves appear to have been sourced from Greece and Greek colony cities. This is shown both
by written records and by illustrations of the people involved. The female slave armies that protected the king’s
harem were frequently known as Ionians and fought hard to maintain the traditions, names and language of their
homelands. Other slaves were bought by traders from the west, bringing people from Africa, Arabia and from
time to time, no doubt, the European mainland as well. Traders in eastern waters surely did the same, with
slaves brought from Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. It was also possible for free-born Indians to become slaves,
perhaps through a court decision after having committed a serious crime. Others might be enslaved as a result of
war or trafficking but it was also possible for people to put themselves up for enslavement. They could put their
freedom at stake as surety for a cash loan or for a gambling stake. However, enslavement need not be
permanent. A financial arrangement could be made in these cases but, if worst came to worst, slaves were
allowed one chance to try to escape and, if they managed to get away, they were permitted to claim their
freedom permanently.
Women held very important position in ancient Indian society. It was a position superior to men. There are
literary evidences to suggest that woman power destroyed kingdoms and mighty rulers. Women were allowed to
have multiple husbands. Widows could remarry. They could leave their husbands. In the Vedic society women
participated in religious ceremonies and tribal assemblies (sabha and vidata).There is no evidence of seclusion
of women from domestic and social affairs but they were dependent on their male relations throughout their
Women could choose their husbands through a type of marriage called Swayamvara. In this type of marriage,
potential grooms assembled at the bride's house and the bride selected her spouse. Instances of Swayamvara
ceremony can be found in epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. This continued even in the later period in
high class families. As the time passed the position of women underwent changes in all spheres of life.
In the later Vedic period, women lost their political rights of attending assemblies. This period shows the
growing tendency to stratify society along gender lines. The position of women gradually deteriorated as the
golden Vedic ideals of unity and equality began to fade off through the passage of time. During the period of
smritis women were bracketed with the sudras and were denied the right to study the Vedas to utter Vedic
mantras and to perform Vedic rites. Marriage and domestic life became compulsory for women and
unquestioning devotion to husband their only duty. In Mauryan period brahamanical literature was particularly
severe in the treatment of women and assigned them a very low status in the society. Buddhist texts on the other
hand were much more considerate in treating them. Megasthenes testifies to the growing practice of polygamy;
employment of women as palace guards, bodyguards to the kings, spies etc; permission of widow remarriage
and divorce. Thus the position of women though inferior was not as bad as it came to be in the later periods
such as the Gupta period.
Since women and property are bracketed together in several references in the epics, Smritis and Puranas,
women came to be regarded as a sort of property. She could be given away or loaned as any item of property.
This was like the attitude of a typical patriarchal society based on private property. Because of this the
Brahmanical law did not allow any proprietary rights to women; the provision for stridhana is of a very limited
character and does not extend beyond the wife's rights to jewels, ornaments and presents made to her. This took
strong roots in Gupta and Post Gupta periods. Remarriage of widows was generally not favoured. Their position
was very bad as they had to cut off their hair, discard all their ornaments and eat only plain food. Some wives
preferred to die with their husbands.
Social Classes in Ancient China
Ancient Chinese society was divided into two distinct classes, the upper and the lower class. Within each class,
there was also a hierarchy of social status. Throughout the Shang and Zhou dynasties, Chinese society was
vertically divided between a ruling class of hereditary aristocrats with extensive landholdings, a small class of
free artisans and craftsmen who lived fairly comfortable lives because of the aristocratic patronage, and a much
larger and poorer class of peasants who populated the countryside, provided agricultural, military and labor
services in exchange for protection and plots of land (which they did not own) to cultivate. There was also a
sizable class of slaves, most of whom were enemy warriors captured in battle, who performed hard labor on
major public works such as the building of city walls and clearing of new fields.
An individual was generally confined to the social class into which they were born. However, for a limited few,
there were several ways to achieve mobility throughout the social categories. This included upgrading class by
education and service as a public servant or scholar; being castrated before puberty to become a eunuch; and for
women the option of becoming a concubine, in addition to having her feet bound. Mobility through classes was
available to the minority, which left the mass of the population to remain in the social class into which they
were born. As a result, the social classes of Ancient China were generally restricted. The high class citizens
remained noble, and the commoners remained in the masses. The great numbers of peasants proved useful when
Han Emperor Wu Di (141-84 BC) put a great emphasis on agriculture, the main form of employment for the
poorer people (Cavendish, 2004, p.175). He recognized the great need to become more advanced in irrigation,
and made all peasants work on projects on their own fields.
The commoners usually had no means or purpose to change their social class, as the workers learnt their trade
from their fathers. “Traditional crafts such as jade working, with its highly sophisticated techniques [were]
handed down through generations.” Other examples of inherited trades for artisans were bronze working,
farming, weapon and tool manufacturing, musicianship, weaving, and the sacred art and script of calligraphy).
An individual with the talent of skillfully producing pottery was considered of great value, as many ceramic
gifts were given to the emperor. By teaching the techniques for crafting and farming to their children, parents
ensured the continuation of the practice and maintain a similar social class.
The Upper Class:
Imperial family:
The emperor and his family were at the top of the social scale in ancient China. The emperor ruled from a
palace in the capital city. Emperors believed that they were appointed by heaven and therefore did not need to
obey humans. An emperor expected his subjects to be loyal and obedient. It was common for an emperor to
have many wives to increase his chance of having a son. Once the emperor chose the son that he wanted to
succeed him, the mother of the son would become the empress. She was then able to grant favors to her family often in the form of posts in the royal household and plots of land.
Nobility: The noble class in ancient China was very privileged. Nobles were typically the extended family of
the emperor and empress and those people that excelled in their fields, particularly in the military. The status of
nobles, however, changed frequently depending on who gained or fell out of favor with the emperor. When a
new emperor came to power, it was common for him to favor a new set of nobles. Nobles often became
landowners and collected taxes from those that lived on their land, meaning that they would become wealthier.
They were required to give some of their income to the emperor and in return received privileges and were
afforded some protection.
The nobles usually wore elaborate gowns of silk that helped signify their position in society and lived in large,
brick homes with tiled roofs. Some of the lower levels of noblity lived in large homes and palaces made of mud
and wood. They were lavishly decorated and furnished. Jugs of wine lined the walkways. The air was scented
with flowers in the gardens and spices from pots of food steaming on stoves. They loved to hunt and carried
bronze weapons that were decorated with elaborate designs representing their family lineage. Horseback riding
was very popular, both as a sport and as a method of war.
If nobles committed a crime for which they were sentenced to death, the emperor could grant them a special
favor that would allow them to commit suicide, which was considered a much more honorable death. They
were buried in lavish tombs. Unlike the ancient Egyptians, the nobles of ancient Chinese dynasties were buried
with living people. In their tombs, archaeologists have found entire chariots, objects of art, and the remains of
guards and dogs who accompanied kings to their graves.
Bureaucrats: Administrative activities were removed from the feudal nobles and put into the hands of a
professional bureaucracy during the later Han period. The bureaucrats could come from any class and entry was
to be based upon ability rather than birth. However, Government officials had to pass 3 amazingly hard tests
known as civil service exams. These exams were open to anyone, yet few passed. They were based largely on the
teachings of Confucius and Legalism and one required a profound education and money to enter. It was common for a
village to sponsor one man to enlist. If the man passed, he then became a public servant. This could have been either an
official or a magistrate. His tasks could range from anything from being a law enforcer, to school inspector, and registrar
of deaths to judge court cases. These positions were much higher than his initial class of a merchant, therefore mobility
throughout the classes is possible. Education was a necessary factor to become a public servant, but it also was important
for becoming a scholar. Lots of times, there were limited posts for government officials, so many who qualified
but did not get a post were made into scholars.
Scholars: Scholars were never very rich, but were respected because of their knowledge. These intellectuals
sought answers to all philosophical and political questions in society by looking into Confucian Classics. This
renewed interest in the Confucian ideals and society of ancient times coincided with the decline of Buddhism,
which the ancient Chinese regarded as foreign and offering few practical guidelines for the solution of political
and other mundane problems. The new developments of philosophy evolved into a rigid official creed, which
stressed the one-sided obligations of obedience and compliance of subject to ruler, child to father, wife to
husband, and younger brother to elder brother. The effect was to inhibit the societal development of pre-modern
China, resulting both in many generations of political, social, and spiritual stability and in a slowness of cultural
and institutional change up to the nineteenth century.
Gentry: The gentry, who didn't exactly have a lot of knowledge, but were businesspeople, usually rented out
parts of their vast amount of land they owned to poorer people, like peasants. These landed scholar-officials
lived in the provincial centers alongside the shopkeepers, artisans, and merchants. They had their own militia,
which they used , to defend themselves, thus giving them enough power to become warlords.
In addition, gentry or bureaucrats were entitled to tax breaks and legal privileges. In view of the status of
bureaucrats as administrators, tax collectors, and legal arbiters, this system generated enormous incentives - or
rather distortions
The Lower Class:
Warriors and Soldiers: The leaders of different clans were continually waging war with each other. Warriors
were knights in bronze armor who went to battle in horse-drawn chariots made of wood and bronze. They wore
bronze helmets, and carried daggers, spears, and axes. Each chariot had a driver, a spearman, and an archer.
Behind them, came the foot soldiers, who were usually peasants, forced to leave their fields. Foot soldiers wore
tunics and trousers. Men between the ages of 23 and 56 were required to serve in the army for a period of two
years. Men were also called on to fight in the case of a large-scale attack. Although warriors and soldiers were
essential to the defense of the empire, they were considered lower class because they were only sent out to fight
- and most likely to die. Only the generals earned respect (usually because they had attained a level of nobility
through years of dedicated service to their emperor).
Scientists: Although the scientists had helped the society with their 'inventions' such as gunpowder, paper etc.,
they were not considered of the Upper Class because they did not prove themselves by taking any test or
anything. They just fooled around with tools and objects and eventually something "magical" happened, thanks
to happy accidents, and they had an invention.
Peasants: Their life was very hard. They owned very little land, usually rented the gentry's land, and were
generally living in poverty. They farmed small plots of land with primitive stone and wood tools. They usually
worked the land that was either leased or assigned to them by the royals and the nobles. In return, they had to
give the nobleman a percentage of the food they grew. They were also expected to give gifts to the nobleman of
wine or silk. Most peasants also worked on the noble's house, roads, and bridges without pay. They pretty much
worked all the time and even if they worked very hard, they stayed as peasants because of the high taxes
imposed by the Emperor.
Most peasant farmers lived in nearby villages. Their homes were very simple. In the summer, peasants lived on
the land near their fields in homes that were made of bamboo branches. In the winter, they moved to their
permanent homes in the villages. Winter homes were drafty, one room houses with thatched or tile roofs, dirt
floors and no furniture. The walls were made of mud. Doors faced south. Each family usually , but had their
own winter home, but sometimes there might be multiple generations of the same family living together in the
same small house.
Eunuchs: Some peasant families castrated their sons before they reached puberty, with the hope they would
become powerful and acknowledged men of society as eunuchs. Eunuchs were employed by the emperor as
function officials and harem supervisors. They were considered more powerful than ordinary court officials
because they could be trusted with the senior females of the empire, mostly the concubines. History has
revealed too many instances of the concubines being impregnated by guards and other workers, and the emperor
mistook the resulting son as an heir. Eunuchs were used because they were physically incapable of
reproduction, but also because they were presumed to have no sexual desire at all. Being castrated before
puberty meant that the man’s voice could not deepen, and the testosterone supply would be low. A eunuch was
generally smart with high abilities. They used their position to “advance their own interests”. Most sought
fortune through commerce. With their small fortunes, came power. On average, a eunuch owned 32 houses and
2500 acres of tilled land. They would be the rulers of their estate, and be in charge of all the people lodging
there. Therefore, a simple peasant boy could become a powerful eunuch of society.
Merchants: The wealthy commoners--the mercantile class--arose as printing and education spread, private
trade grew, and a market economy began to link the coastal provinces and the interior. Unfortunately,
merchants were looked down on, mainly because they sold things that other people had made. Although they
were a big part of China's economic growth, they were often considered no better than thieves. Yet, the fate and
fortune of Chinese merchant groups were also intimately linked with another distinctively Chinese political
system: the relatively open and formal access to the political power structure through the taking of the highly
competitive, arduous, and impartial Civil Service Examination based on Confucian classics. Successful
examinees who actually change their social status by becoming members of gentry or bureaucrats were entitled
to tax breaks and legal privileges. As a result, merchant groups accumulated wealth. With money came power,
so the Han emperor, scared that the merchants would take over, stripped them of many rights. They were not
allowed to wear silk clothes, ride horses or carry weapons. However, a really successful merchant might still
be able to ride in a cart with a coachman, buy a title from an emperor, and built a mansion surrounded by pools
and gardens. This absolutely infuriated officials and often made them vulnerable to the damages of arbitrary
power yielded by the upper class nobility.
Artisans and Craftsmen: Artisans were also part of the commoner class and included painters, carpenters,
potters and jewelry makers. Artisans earned more than farmers but less than merchants. They did not have a
high social status but were respected for their skills. Metalworkers became very important during the Han
period. They learned how to work with metal moulds rather than shaping the metal while it was still very hot.
Metalworkers produced weapons and many useful everyday objects, such as cooking pots. Weavers worked
with silk, which was a very valuable product. Since this group did not produce food and were not part of the
nobility, they were almost outside the traditional social class structure. Like slaves, they were hardly considered
men. Craftsmen often worked in teams and did not take individual credit for their work. In times of war, when
the city was attacked, they were not taken inside the protective walls, but were left to fend for themselves as
best they could.
Slaves: Slaves did exist in ancient China but they made up a very small percentage of the population. The lives
of slaves were the hardest of all Chinese. Many rich Chinese families had slaves to do the menial work for
them, both in the fields and at home. The Emperor and his court usually owned hundreds or even thousands of
slaves. Most people were born slaves because their mothers were slaves and other people were sold into slavery
to pay debts. Some slaves were the relatives of criminals while other people sold themselves or their children as
slaves because they were very poor. Yet, still others were slaves because they were prisoners of war that had
been captured in raids or battle. Although most slaves had little to no opportunity of charging their social
status, some slaveowners appointed their male slaves as their heirs if they had no natural offspring.
For both the rich and the poor, the family was all important. The oldest male was the head of the family. If one
member of a family did something wrong, the entire family was in disgrace. In the nobles, marriages were
arranged to strength or to create a union between two clans or families. The young obeyed their parents without
a fuss. This was important part of ancestor worship. Even a wealthy noble with many servants might patch his
father's robe with his own hands. Children looked forward to the day when they would be parents, and their
children would honor them. The role of the woman was to be gentle, calm, respectful, and to obey her husband.
In ancient China, home and family were so important that they were nearly sacred.
Some peasant women actually worked in the fields but most women were confined to the household. It became
common for women to sew and weave at home. By weaving and sewing cloth, women could provide clothes for
the family and sell any surplus to earn more money.
A way to upgrade a woman’s social status was to become one of the emperor’s concubines. This gave the
woman the option of becoming very powerful, by producing an heir to the king. An example of this was with
Emperor Gao Zu. His wife, Empress Lu, wanted their son Liu Ying to be the successor to the throne. However,
Gao Zu had been enchanted by a common concubine, and wanted his son the courtesan bore, to be the next in
line. This shows that it is possible for a lower class citizen to move around the classes, and even become
Women could also achieve a higher social acceptance through foot binding. It was a very popular trend amongst
women, because males liked the idea that the woman could not run away because her feet were in too much
pain and her shoes were too uncomfortable. Small feet were a sign the woman was weak, powerless and
uneducated. Women with bound feet became totally disabled in old age, and were much more prone to
osteoporosis. It was the duty of the groom’s mother to inspect the proposed bride’s feet to ensure her feet her
properly bound and petit. Therefore, it was very important for a woman, who had a desire to promote her social
class through marriage, to have her feet bound.