2.2.5- Classical Social Hierarchies

Two Diagrams: The top of social hierarchy in the first wave civilizations, and the bottom of our social hierarchy. Notice how today the bottom is not actually flat, and does not contain the largest population, as nowadays the lower middle, and working class contains most of the population.
Two Diagrams: The top of social hierarchy in the first wave civilizations, and the bottom of our social hierarchy. Notice how today the bottom is not actually flat, and does not contain the largest population, as nowadays the lower middle, and working class contains most of the population.

By: Andrew Hsu and Gabe Stroe


Overview


Social stratification is a defining feature of many civilizations with varying numbers of social levels and ability for social movement. A common similarity between styles of social
organization is the presence of a high class elite ruling over a large number of peasantry, all these levels are usually unified under a single centralized power such as a king or emperor, though there are exceptions in cultures such as in the Roman Republic where a single ruler was absent.








Comparison of Different Social Hierarchies

The Head of State

Comparing the various social structures that have appeared in notable classical civilizations, a vast number of similarities appear, at the head of most civilizations was a king or emperor, this is exemplified through the presence of Imperial Rome, Han China, and Ancient Persia's emperors, the kings who ruled the Guptan Empire, the multiple city states making up the Mayan culture. In Hellenistic Greece, the central power was Alexander the Great. Among all these civilizations, the most common form of leadership succession was through familial ties, the leaderships of Han China, the Guptan Empire, Persia and the Mayan city states would often be passed on from father to son with the exception of dynastic change. Contrary to this generalization is the leadership of Hellenistic Greece's city states which, after the death of Alexander the Great, exchanged hands among powerful military leaders similar to the way that Rome's leadership would often be disputed and taken through military force, though rarely would be passed from one relative to another through clever political maneuvering.

A carving of Roman Slaves doing house work.
A carving of Roman Slaves doing house work.

The laborers/peasants

All civilizations feature a social class lower than the others that is utilized for manual labor and conscription among other uses. This working class is commonly known as peasantry, though some specific names are the Plebeians in Rome, the Untouchables in Guptan India, the other civilizations do not have a unique designated name for this class. This level on the social ladder was often the backbone of the society and would provide all the important work that kept the empire running such as construction and farm work. Less common among these civilizations was the use of slaves who, if utilized, were the lowest in the hierarchy. Slaves were used in Rome, Greece, Persia, and the Mayan Empire. Treatment would often vary depending on the master and they had very few rights. Slaves would do the same work that the peasantry were responsible for as well as domestic duties when owned by the wealthier parts of the population.



The Merchants

A Chinese merchant selling cats. He appears to be wearing undergarments for pants and is portrayed as an wicked hunched back trader making dishonest money.
A Chinese merchant selling cats. He appears to be wearing undergarments for pants and is portrayed as an wicked hunched back trader making dishonest money.

In the middle of the social hierarchies would be the artisan and merchant classes who produced and sold the goods that made it easier to live. Each civilization had varying numbers of artisans depending on their level of sophistication, and merchants were not always a prominent part of the economy. Merchants did have an impact in Greece, Rome, and with the Maya and were treated fairly, if not well, however in Han China, the profession of mercantilism was highly frowned upon and merchants were seen as conniving and untrustworthy people who did not have an honest profession.

Changing Social Class

Social movement was another aspect of the social hierarchy which would be different depending on the civilization being studied. The Guptan Empire used a caste system where it was near impossible to advance in social standing as classes did not intermingle, and there was no way to be promoted to a higher position regardless of a person's actions or capabilities except through reincarnation after death. Han China allowed slightly more mobility, as a low class citizen could engage in rigorous studies and be tested in order to gain a position as a government official. The most social mobility was granted in Rome, Greece, and Persia, where a person such as a slave could earn their freedom, soldiers could work their way up through the ranks and gain higher standings, and people could learn different trades or become things such as merchants.

Summary


Social hierarchies throughout the classical civilizations had many similarities. The structure for each closely mirrored that of the other civilizations with a powerful ruler, a peasant class with varying titles, and a diverse middle class of artisans, merchants, and others of the population. Sometimes slaves would become a prominent part of the civilization's society and their roles often changed from region to region. Different hierarchies had different levels of social mobility, and in some cultures was more restricted than others such as in the Guptan Empire. When compared side by side, the social ladders largely lacked diversity and were all nearly identical.

Sources

Text

The Hellenistic Period - http://www.historians.org/pubs/Free/BURSTEIN.HTM
Roman Social Classes - http://www.vroma.org/~bmcmanus/socialclass.html
The Han Dynasty - http://home.earthlink.net/~mrstephenson_pcms/Unit-10/China_Web_Page_Example/Han.html
Mayan Social Classes - http://project-history.blogspot.com/2005/10/mayan-social-classes.html

Image

Hierarchy Charts - http://www.crystalinks.com/romeslavery.html
Roman Slaves - http://www.crystalinks.com/romeslavery.html
Chinese Cat Trader - http://617454366.blog.163.com/blog/static/56334536200891181429929/