Social Order of the Classical World

Historical Academic Analysis Written By Christian J. Ashliman

The Classical World was an era that put extensive emphasis on social order, social class, and community principles[1]. During this time, there were three main societies that were of great importance; these included the Roman Republic, Han China, and the Gupta Empire[2]. While each of these civilizations maintained different social order characteristics and rules, they all had similarities as well. Through these differences and commonalities, we are able to derive what was important to these empires, how they were governed, and ultimately, what role social order played throughout the duration of the Classical World. Within this examination of these three cultural giants, I plan to prove how social order and class status played massive roles in the forming of laws, regulations, land use, and civil positioning of their peoples. 

To begin with, the Roman Republic maintained strict, and detailed accounts on the ins and outs of inheritance and marriage within their borders. These documents provide a useful look into what, and whom, Romans held at high standards, and inversely, what they did not. To lay out the Romans ideals in regards to inheritance, woman, particularly those that were unmarried, operated under specific circumstances in order to successfully receive a full estate[3]. For example, a free-born Roman woman with a larger residence was required to pay a hefty tax every year that she remained unmarried, and the same went for those Roman women who were freed[4]. Alongside this ideology, woman that were over 50 years old would never inherit, and if they were younger, it was required that she have at least three children in order to inherit[5]. Furthermore, it was customary that when a Roman man or woman married any citizen of Alexandria or Egypt, and there was no previous knowledge of their status, then the children of these couples would follow the lower class[6]. Through these few examples, and the many others discussed in the Marriage and Inheritance document, it becomes apparent what values the Roman Republic placed on their people. Woman were second to men, having children was of utmost importance for women, and citizens from other countries were often seen as lower classed than the Romans themselves. These social statuses not only contributed to the forming of new laws for the Romans, but also created the circumstances under which Romans perpetuated their empire; placing high significance on woman making their first priority to marry and birth children.

The second Classical World society under the microscope moves to Han, China. Having distinct, set-apart “levels” within their society resulted in a difference in the treatment, pay, and attitudes of their people. On top, Han placed the Nobles, Bureaucrats, and Scholars, while farmers were considered “second class”[7]. On the third level, China placed skilled artisans, servants, merchants, and slaves[8]. The ideology that was harbored by the Chinese people for these placements comes back to their Confucian principles; who produced the most, and who brought the biggest benefit for their society as whole[9]. An important aspect of China during the classical era, was their use of land, and the trade of slaves. While it was popular for nobles to have copious amounts of land, wealth, and slaves, resulting in the lower classes suffering, some leaders viewed this as evil under the sights God[10]. One such emperor, Wang Mang, tried, and later failed, to put bars on those that would prey on the people of Han, selling them into slavery, as well as those who would illegally sell land under the nose of the Chinese government[11]. The failure of Wang Mang spells out an important lesson in relation to social order in Han, China; nationalizing land, banning slavery, and attempting to blend together the three separate class levels was similar to completely restructuring a society that had been churning for centuries. These aspects of the Han class order were not only guidelines for how you should act, they affected the ways that everyone in this culture lived their everyday lives.

Finally, the last society that proves how important Classical World social structure was, involves the Gupta Empire, and the Hindu caste system that they used[12]. Gupta employed a similar leveled class structure as discussed above, instead calling it “The Four Varnas”[13]. At the top, were priests and scholars, then warriors and administrators,  thirdly, were farmers, herdsmen, and householders, and finally, there were servants[14]. The attitude of those within this system was quite simple, and best understood through the tale of “The Dog Who Would Be Lion”. In this story, it is told how a dog is transformed by his master into each animal it encounters and is afraid of[15]. The metaphor used by the Guptas through this story is likened unto their own class system; effectively underlining the fact that whatever level you are at in Gupta society, is where you belong. This level of acceptance was fostered by their Vedic tradition and Hindu beliefs, seeing righteousness, wealth, pleasure, and liberation as the four main objectives of life on earth[16]. Their view that everyone had a role to play within their culture really shaped the way that each person behaved, and going against the grain of this ideology could only result in bad karma, and unfortunate circumstances[17].

The Classical world was an era that was built upon the backs of people that were put into various social levels, and subsequently, expected to behave appropriately. The role that this aspect of society had was enormous; dictating how laws were written and handled, in what ways land was to be used or given, and how the people themselves were to act and feel about their civil positioning. Through the eyes of social classes in the Classical World, we begin to understand why this type of order was so important to the success of these vast empires.

Article Sources

[1] Danielle Ross, The Roots of Social Order in the Classical World (Logan, Utah: Powerpoint, 2018).

[2] Ross, The Roots of Social Order in the Classical World.

[3] Tr. J.G. Winter. G., Marriage and Inheritance. Alexandria, 2nd Cent. A.D. (Berlin Papyrus, 1210), 1.

[4] Winter, Marriage and Inheritance. Alexandria, 2nd Cent. A.D., 1.

[5] Winter, Marriage and Inheritance. Alexandria, 2nd Cent. A.D., 1.

[6] Winter, Marriage and Inheritance. Alexandria, 2nd Cent. A.D., 2.

[7] Ross, The Roots of Social Order in the Classical World.

[8] Ross, The Roots of Social Order in the Classical World.

[9] Ross, The Roots of Social Order in the Classical World.

[10] Wm. Theodore de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, Burton Watson, “Wang Mang,” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 240.

[11] Bary, Chan, Watson, “Wang Mang,” 241.

[12] Wendy Doniger, “The Dog Who Would Be Lion,” in The Norton Anthology of World Religions, ed. Jack Miles (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015), 158.

[13] Ross, The Roots of Social Order in the Classical World.

[14] Danielle Ross, The Roots of Social Order in the Classical World (Logan, Utah: Powerpoint, 2018), notes, pg. 4.

[15] Doniger, “The Dog Who Would Be Lion,” 158-160.

[16] Ross, The Roots of Social Order in the Classical World.

[17] Doniger, “The Dog Who Would Be Lion,” 158-160.

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