Ancient Egypt: Social Class


Figure 1.--Interpreting Egyptian art iis an art in itself. Scholars can not discern a difference in the depiction of peasants and country slaves. One observer believes that here we have slaves because the image shows also the master (the owner) and a supervisor. The image also suggests a high degree of compulsdion. Free peasants would seemingly be unlikely to work in gangs as suggested here. This could also be stilized art. Free peasants had to deliver a portion of the harvest, but they may have been free to determine the times of their work. We do not know if they could even decided for themselves what gctops to grow. Such details are not know with any certainty. Notice the boy depicted here. It is not clear just what his status is. I am not sure where this Egyptian painting was found or the the approximate dating.

The vast majority of the Egyptian people lived an existance tied to the land and working in the field. They were essentially tennant farmers working land owned by the state. [Stewart, p. 78.] Ownership varied over time. Land belonged to the phraoh, arustocrats, and temples. The population was contolled by a small hereditary eliete whose primary qualification was literacy. A noted Egyptologist writes, "The business of the Egyptian state in the late Bronze age was conducted by paper-work of a volume and complexity that it would be hard to match until recent times." It was this class that ruled Egypt in the name of Pharaoh and conducted affairs of state and was responsible for organizing Egyptian civilization. It was when the authority of Pharaoh and this class weakened that Egypt declined into chaos and, anarchy, and civil war and was vulnerable to foreign invason. [Aldred, pp. 22-23.] This was the cause of the great breaks in Egyptian civilization between the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. Often the roblem was essentially the nobility gaining power and weakening the authority of the Pharoh or the central government. Position in Egyptian society was strictly hereditary. The son was appointed to the position of the father. Fathers taught sons. Peasants taught their sons agricultural skills. Caraftsmen taught their sons their trades. Scribes taught their sons to read and write. [Aldred, p. 23.]

Social Classes

The vast majority of the Egyptian people lived an existance tied to the land and working in the field. They were essentially tennant farmers working land owned by the state. [Stewart, p. 78.] Ownership varied over time. Land belonged to the phraoh, arustocrats, and temples. The population was contolled by a small hereditary eliete whose primary qualification was literacy. A noted Egyptologist writes, "The business of the Egyptian state in the late Bronze age was conducted by paper-work of a volume and complexity that it would be hard to match until recent times." It was this class that ruled Egypt in the name of Pharaoh and conducted affairs of state and was responsible for organizing Egyptian civilization.

Weakness

The ancient civilization of Mesopotamia and Egypt were all based on agriculture and were organized on the basis of a small eliete controlling a large priductive peasantry. The societies generated great wealth, but it was inequitanly shared with the peasantry--the source of the wealth. This was a basic weakness in social orgamization. As a result the history of the region is replete with a steady stream of war-like invaders, often numerically inferior nomdic or semi-nomadic peoples conquering much larger and richer agrarian societies. The reason this could happen is that the dominste elites could never be sure of the loyalty of the peasantry which they so thorougly exploited. Thus they did not arm the peasantry which could have protected against foreign invasion. Egypt because of its isolation was less affected but not imune from foreign invasion.

Slavery

Slavery in ancient Egypt is a poorly understood subject. One problem is that there does not seem to be a Egyptian cartouche for slave as destinct from servant. Nor is there any known way of idebtifying slaves in the reliefs and tomb paintings of ancient. Egyptian. It was once commonly thought that major construction projects were undertaken by large gags of slaves. This is generally dismissed today. It is now thought that labor at major projects was more likely peasants who had a labor obligation after the planying or harvest seasons. They might be used in the maintenance of irrigation canals or in other important projects such as the famous pyramids. This of course is not to say that there were not slaves in ancient Egypt. The major soyrce of slaves was war captives. This would include both the captured warriors as well as the general civilian population of conquered lands. The most famous Egyptian slaves were the Hebrews who apparently migrated to Europe because of drought. Slaves also came from law violaters. And some people sold thmselves or family members into slvery. No one knows the precise extent of Egyptian slavery. Records on such matters are not known. Most of the Egyptian population appears to have been a peasantry tied to the land, probably similar to Eeudal European serfdom, but precise details on this are unavailable. Certainly slaves were also used for agricultural labor. In fact this was probsably their major use. How theur treatment and status differened from the Egyptian peasantry is not well understood. It might be thought that slaves would obviously fill the lowest rank of society. It shoul be remembered that as the mzjor source of slaves were captured prioners and the people of conquered cities, these people probably came from a social strata and probably possed skills superior to the field peasant. We do know that the child of a slave iherited the slave status, even if the farher was free born. We also know that Egypt imported slaves and negotiated fugative slave treaties with neighboring states.

Children's Clothing and Social Class

Clothes were expensive in relative terms in ancient civilizations like Egypt. A family would soend afar greater portion of its disposable income for clothing than is the case in the modern world. Thus clothing was a major issue for a peasant family which would have existed on a narrow subsistence level. The clothes were woven by the women in the family. But this was only one of their many chores. Thus it is understandable that many hard-pressed peasant mothers in rge warm weather just let the children run around naked. The older children may have had garments for specual occassions, but for the most part went naked in the warm weather. As their fathers often worked naked, it is obvious that many boys commonly went naked. At what age peasant boys began to commonly wear clothing we are not yet sure. And it was not just peasant children that went naked. Even the children of the affluent class are commonly depicted naked in Egyptian art. It is of course more likely for children to be dressed, the richer and more important the family was. But it is clear from the many availavle depictions that even among hogh-status families, it was not unusual for the children to go naked.

Breaks in Egyptian Civilization

It was when the authority of Pharaoh and this class weakened that Egypt declined into chaos and, anarchy, and civil war and was vulnerable to foreign invason. [Aldred, pp. 22-23.] This was the cause of the great breaks in Egyptian civilization between the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. Often the problem was essentially the nobility gaining power and weakening the authority of the Pharoh and the central government.

Heredity

Position in Egyptian society was strictly hereditary. The son was appointed to the position of the father. Fathers taught sons. Peasants taught their sons agricultural skills. Caraftsmen taught their sons their trades. Scribes taught their sons to read and write. [Aldred, p. 23.]

Sources

Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten: Pharaoh of Egypt--A New Study (McGraw-Hill: New York, 1968), 272p.

Stewart, Doug. "Eternal Egypt," Smithsonian, date missing, pp. 74-84.






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Created: 5:51 AM 5/1/2006
Last updated: 6:04 PM 5/20/2009