Early Social Stratification
Even before the beginning of recorded history, humankind’s greed for power and domination seemed to be the essence of human nature. Especially when the first agricultural civilizations appeared, individuals with needed resources or skills could easily monopolize and inevitably attain significant control of their delicate communities. For instance, individuals who controlled the basic survival needs of a community invariably helped secure the stability of the community by sharing their resources and skills; while at the same time, these individuals would solidify the order of importance of each person in the community. As a result, social stratification was a fundamental part of early civilizations. Unfortunately for these early societies, the individuals that unfairly prevailed usually abused their power by establishing leaders among themselves and a hierarchy based on individual importance and wealth. Compounding the situation, these early social classes usually created laws strengthening social stratification and tended to be passed hereditarily to individuals who not necessarily merit them. This obviously could result in destructive forces to these fragile societies. It is because of this and other unstable situations, such as other hostile societies, that long lasting civilizations have disappeared form the face of the Earth. This is most easily seen during the beginning of early civilizations in the Ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome.
In this first group of civilizations in the Ancient Near East, mainly consisting of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Hebrews, domestication became the marker for a new era when social stratification for emerged as a was of like (Sherman 22). In Mesopotamia, near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the first civilization, called Sumer, was found on agriculture support and dependent on the flooding of these two rivers. Even though these rivers deposited rich nutrients into the soil, the Sumerians were relatively afraid of the violent and irregular floods the rivers brought. Likewise, the Sumerian culture was also based on violence, probably because they did not have any natural defenses against frequent attacks from outsiders. Even the these setbacks, the Sumerians were capable of creating a stable society with several city-states, such as the prominent city of Ur, and were competent enough, through their new ability to forge bronze tools, to build massive Ziggurats and extensive irrigation networks that partially controlled the flooding rivers (Sherman 3). Contrary, the Sumerian kings had practically complete political control over each city-state, because he distributed his power among several noble priests who records detailed archives using the first written language of cuneiform. These priests could easily govern over the willing and pessimistic commoners, peasants, and slaves. The main reason why the people’s morale was pessimistic was because they were uncertain about their gods who could be aggravated easily and who would destroy the people’s crops. As a result, their social stability was always on the edge of deterioration, and only the nobles had much of a chance to improve their lives (Sherman 24).
During the Sumer civilization, women’s social “status and freedoms” decreased sharply for several reasons. First, women needed to stay in the security of the homeland raising infants and children, this freeing the men to fight wars more effectively. Second, the men gained considerable power when they could use militarism to control politics. As a result, political control inevitably gave men more ability to control the economic aspects of their society. Finally, religious faith that the men controlled through politics only confirmed the patriarchy that they created (Sherman 29). Women lost social status because men continuously gained more and more power in accordance to man’s greedy nature. Even though the Sumer civilization had significant disadvantages, the Sumerian people had enough technological and agriculture developments to overcome their weaknesses; however, their social stratification was relatively undeveloped by today’s standards.
Like the Sumerians, the Babylonians largely consisted of an agricultural society with similar social stratification. But unlike the Sumer civilization, the Babylonian civilization has “The Laws of Hammurabi” that strictly defined social barriers between classes with unfair bias for the upper class. For instance, if a seignior killed, broke a bone of, “destroyed the eye” of, or just inflicted harm to property (including slaves) of a member from the same class, the person harmed could legally inflict the same harm to the abuser or collect compensation. Yet, if an aristocrat did a crime to a lower class member, the aristocrat could easily pay a small compensation below the value of the damage (Sherman 10). However, some laws were more severe in delivering sentences, no matter which class the culprit was form. For example, death was the punishment for giving “false testimony,” stealing “property of [the] church or state,” or keeping a “fugitive” slave (Sherman 8). Even though there were some fair laws (judged by today’s morals), they were not enough to withstand the strong influence that the upper class had over the lower classes. Unfortunately, women did not share the same rights as men either. For instance, women could not neglect “her house” or humiliate her husband, because her husband had the right to divorce her, marry another woman, and force her to live in the same house “like a maidservant” (Sherman 9). However, a woman from an upper class had significantly more status than a woman from a lower class (Sherman 10). As a result and similar to the Sumerian society, the Babylonian upper class maintained strongly in control, while women had almost negligible social status except among other women from different classes yet women were also accorded some legal protection.
The Egyptian civilization started completely opposite to the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations for several reasons. First, the Egyptians were relatively optimistic in their future afterlives, because they believed death as neither good nor bad (Sherman 4). Only the wealthy pharaohs carried their possessions with them into the afterlife in their elaborate tombs and pyramids. This represents how pharaohs, who were all make, were equivalent to gods and spiritually superior to everyone else (Sherman 7). Second, the Egyptians were also optimistic about their lives, because they lived in a stable environment. Unlike the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations, the Nile River flooded regularly and significantly less violently, thus enabling the river to be better controlled. Also, Egypt is geographically protected by mountain ranges and bodies of water; hence, the Egyptians did not need a large military for protection. This allowed women to have roughly equal rights compared to men until outside interactions started to influence Ancient Egypt (Sherman 3). Also, commerce was strongly controlled directly by the state that gave women somewhat equal rights as men; ergo, women also had more opportunity than their Sumerian and Babylonian counterparts. Even though the Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted almost three thousand years, it eventually collapsed under the pressure of various forces, but social discontinuity was not a major cause (Sherman 3).
The Hebrew civilization was relatively stable too, but for a different reason than the Egyptians. The main reason for social stability in Palestine was the beliefs of the world’s first monotheistic religion. This religion believed in spiritual equality thus giving hope for the entire populous including women and children. Nevertheless, the Hebrews continued to practice patriarchy that was influenced by every preceding western civilization. This, men were able to secure patriarchy by giving women hope for the future afterlife; however, neither men nor women were comparable to the omnipotence and “righteous[ness]” of Jehovah, the Hebrew God, or above his laws (Sherman 31). The laws, written in “The Old Testament, more closely represent modern ideas of religious justice, unlike “The Laws of Hammurabi” that unfairly had different laws for each social class (Sherman 11). Unluckily, the Hebrew civilization was not geographically protected as Egypt and was eventually conquered by the Assyrians. However, the Hebrew religion and hope of the afterlife was not squelched and was later able to form the roots of the Christian and Islamic religions (Sherman 4).
The stability of Greek civilization, unlike any previous society, could be attributed to the political cooperation between different city-states. In the Hellenic Era before Alexander the Great, Greece was separated by two “prominent” city-states of Sparta and Athens. In the agricultural Sparta, the Greek people developed a large disciplined military consisting of all males form the age of seven to sixty, except slaves. As a result, the Spartan society became militaristic with strict code of behavior and harsh laws with little chance of change. In the trading city-state of Athens and oppositely of Sparta, the Athenians believed in democracy with freedom of expression and had a limited military, a result from intellectual reasoning and not mythological speculation (Sherman 66). Because of this liberal and open society, education because an important source of political and social change. For example, Plato believed all people should be treated equally with no class restrictions (Sherman 67-68). This could be seen among the slaves of Athens who were treated equally in public and had laws protecting them. Similarly, women had more rights, even though the entire Greek civilization practiced patriarchy. As evidence, the story of Antigone by Sophocles represented how women had honor and could stand up against the tyranny of men, because the main character of the story believed that she had the right to stand up against the king and honorably bury her brother in accordance with the gods that the king believed to be superior of (Sherman 64-66). Unfortunately, many Greek men believed “women should be seen, but not heard” and considered women to be a different class than men. An example of this is Semonides’ attitude towards women and reference of a “perfect [but imaginary] woman” who is not interested in being social with other women and is only interested in helping her household (Sherman 38-39). As a result, patriarchy and sexism was apparently widespread throughout the Greek civilization. However, most Athenians enjoyed a just social lifestyle that was founded on their “individualistic” beliefs and contentment with some considerable diversity (Sherman 59).
As a result of Athens’ influence, “there was a trend in most city-states away from aristocratic political and social dominance” (Sherman 40). During the rule of Alexander the Great, Greece was united and formed a large militaristic fleet capable of conquering the Persians. As a result, Greek confidence and intellectual curiosity rose drastically. This Hellenistic Era began with Alexander’s conquest on the “known world,” economic interactions, and mixing of eastern and western cultures. For instance, Alexander adopted many eastern customs, such as having several wives. Consequently because of the political rivalry between Sparta and Athens during the Peloponnesian War, the Greek civilization was more vulnerable to outside attacks and ultimately collapsed.
The Roman Republic, like the Greek civilization, was based on political stability and somewhat fair social stratification. In the government of the Roman Republic, there consisted the Consul, Senate, Assembly of Centuries, and Assembly of Tribes. The Consuls, having the most power, were made up of military leaders and executives who controlled the administrative workings of the government (Sherman 92). The Senate, who were among the wealthy aristocrats and patricians of Rome, were second in power and ruled as policy makers, advisors, and the treasury (Sherman 93). The Assembly of Centuries were the commanders of the military, usually comprised of generals and were third in power. And finally, the Assembly of Tribes were elected officials of the common people and had very little jurisdiction but slowly gained more power as they became more popular (Sherman 94). The Roman government wisely made citizenship available to all conquered people and did not require much in return for protection except paying taxes and willing to serve in the Roman army. As a result, the Roman aristocrats gained considerable wealth and allowed more people into the middle class (Sherman 106-108). By this time, “the political, legal, and social restraints on women” reached an all time high in the Roman Republic (Sherman 108-109). Even though Rome won much land during the Punic and Macedonian Wars, Rome’s economy steadily declined. Military power and popularity increased, enabling Julius Caesar to invade Rome and proclaim himself the absolute ruler. Upon his death, the Roman civilization was split into three parts, specifically to these three rulers: Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus. Octavian, also known as Caesar Augustus, united Rome once again with Mark Antony’s help, thus forming the Roman Empire with Caesar Augustus as the first Roman Emperor. As a result, Caesar Augustus quickly reshaped the government, and Rome went through two hundred years of peace and economic social stability known as the Pax Romana (Sherman 129). With this, social stratification remained still as prominent as before, but the upper classes lacked significant political or military power as before. Yet, the citizens and entrepreneurs of the empire thrived with few social pressures and were able to build vast urban cities with aqueducts, public buildings, libraries, arenas, and trade centers. With the lack of a series of good strong emperors, the army regained considerable power. Germanic tribes started to raid almost undefended Roman cities. Christianity threatened the stability of the Roman polytheistic religion by promising women and slaves spiritual equality; thus giving the Christian religion sufficient power to cause religious unrest (Sherman 117). And an economic crisis appeared from technological stagnation, entrepreneurial absence, high taxation, little work done by the upper class, and over reliance on the slave system. Obviously, the widen gaps in social stratification crushed the economic stability of the Roman Empire. Even with a temporary renewal of the Roman Empire through the use of a tetrarchy, the empire collapsed because of political, economic, and social instability (Sherman 135).
In conclusion, each civilization in the Ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome had significant problems staying in existence. Even though early social stratification strongly affected these societies and helped determine their political and economic stability, too many internal and external forces squelched the existence of each of these civilizations. If these trends continue, the present world’s societies are in serious trouble; signs of economic, political, and social discontinuity must be continuously watched out for.
by Phil B.
- Sherman, Dennis, ed. Western Civilization: Images and Interpretations. Vol. I. 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill, 1991.