(All class data about Greece, as can be seen from the short foregoing discussion, are likely to turn upon such matters as citizenship, civil rights, and civil ranks. The political functions, it is true, frequently influence class position, but not universally or absolutely. The free alien might, in terms of social contacts, rank quite high, in spite of his political disabilities, or quite low. A famous history at one place divides the population of Greek states "into three main classes -- the civic, the free alien and the servile." 7 These categories should not be confused with the social classes, although not all writers are careful to point this out. In reading social science, the mature student constantly guards himself against this and similar obliquity.)Next Page
Effect of the right to vote upon social inequality. In studies about Greece much importance was attached to the right to vote, because, as it came to be used, it profoundly affected the upper strata of Athenian society. A vote in fourth century Athens meant the right to help make or unmake a tyrant, or to add thousands to the public treasury at the expense of a rich resident. It was also a source of income from political graft, although Rome is better known for this form of corruption. This right, as exercised, resulted in grave consequences to social class relationships.
During and after the internecine strife on the Greek peninsula the populace, with it vote, began to do things to the highest social class. The feeling was widespread "that 'aristocrats' were at heart traitors . . . . " 8 Furthermore, the treasury of the city-state was incapable of paying allowances to jurors except by resorting to confiscation, and tribunals "gave ear to all kinds of charges against men of prominence and property." 9
The story of confiscation in Greece is a familiar one, and it does not need to be repeated in detail here. Its significance for this discussion is as follows: The confiscations of those fateful decades were not for the purpose of establishing sound social classes or of setting up an economy of distributive abundance. The age was one of great riches, ruthless aggregations of power, and of oppression. The public, as a pressure group and in the same spirit, voted itself bonus after bonus. Like Samson, Demos was blind and shook the temple down upon its head.
Nor was it equality that was sought after so much as quick cash and hearty revenge against those who had accumulated wealth. Equality is a rational concept (not a customary one) and, in terms of social life, a very idealistic one. The Greek people of that age were not utopian dreamers. They were "Townsendites" and "Legionnaires" in power. They did not pursue the "middle way," nor were they carrying on a revolution under conscious radical leadership. The result of their actions was a disruption of one set of exploiters after another, an increase in ruthlessness and brutality on all sides. No equality was achieved; the population was as stratified afterwards as before. The civilization crumbled, but the social classes remained intact. It was not a period in which poor men became rich. The era was not characterized by upward mobility, rather it was an age in which some families of the upper classes of Greece suffered the same fate as proscribed families of the Claudian era in Rome. Only where the landed estates were divided up (and this phase of passing events was insignificant) was there evidence of anything more than temporary relief from poverty at the bottom. "The upper classes among the ancients never had intelligence or ability enough to direct the poor towards labor, and thus help them to escape honorably from their misery and corruption." 10
One is reminded of the present era of trials and purges by Seeck's statement that "as long as freedom existed in Greece, revolution broke out and with them mass murders and exiling . . . . One thinks of the mental power (geistige Kraft) destroyed in these suicidal struggles!" 11
Greek and modern parallels and contrasts. Not only was there an utter absence of social equality among the Greeks, but also there was no movement in the direction of mitigating the rigors of extreme inequalities. There was no social class program of amelioration and adjustment.
7. J. B. Bury, et al., eds., Athens (478 - 401 BC.) vol. V, Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge, 1927) p. 3.
8. Ibid., p. 349.
9. Loc. cit.
10. Fustel de Coulagnes, op. cit., p. 453.
11. Otto Seeck, Geschichte des Untergangs der Antiken Welt, vol. I (Berlin, 1921) p. 279; translation ours.