Ancient Athenian democracy had its beginnings with Solon's government reforms around 570 B.C. The people of the city-state generally were grouped into citizens or non-citizens. While anyone was a citizen whose parents had been citizens, only male citizens over the age of 18 had any political role. Yet even among citizens there was a social hierarchy, with some accorded more respect and privilege depending on their wealth and family lineage.

Men of Measure

Prior to reform, a few noble families controlled the highest government offices. Solon believed these positions should be open to other citizens who contributed substantial wealth to Athens but were not of noble birth, so he created four classes of citizens based on the amount of foodstuffs they produced in one year. The two highest classes were made up of citizens who owned large estates and were cavalry and military officers during wartime. The highest class, called pentakosiomedimnoi, were men whose property produced at least 500 medimnoi. A medimnoi, both a dry and liquid measure, was roughly equivalent to either 85 pounds or 11 gallons. In ancient Athens, 500 measures would feed approximately 15 families each year, so these would have been the wealthiest Athenians. Citizens who produced between 300 and 500 measures per year were known as hippeis, or horsemen. They had the wealth to raise horses and typically served in the Athenian cavalry in times of war.

Working-Class Heroes

Although Solon's laws aimed to eliminate the privilege of nobility, certain high-ranking political positions remained available only to the upper classes. Lower class citizens included the zeugitai or "yoke men." These citizens produced between 200 and 300 measures per year from their own property, typically a small farm. In time of war, they most likely served as hoplites, the infantrymen of Athens. The rest of the citizens produced fewer than 200 measures and were known as thetes. Many thetes produced no measures themselves and instead worked as hired laborers or artisans. Approximately half of all ancient Athenians, if not more, were thetes. In 507 B.C., Athenian leader Cleisthenes introduced a series of further reforms to eradicate the political distinctions between the aristocracy and the middle and working classes. These reforms opened government positions to any adult male citizen regardless of property class.

Foreign Residents

People who came from outside the city-state of Athens, known as metics, were classed beneath all Athenian citizens. These usually foreign residents couldn't own land, but could run businesses. Some were relatively wealthy, but still lacked the privileges associated with Athenian citizenship. They had no political role in the institutions of Athenian democracy -- only citizens were allowed to attend the assembly or hold political office. Metics had direct access to Athenian courts, but the law required them to pay a tax for this privilege, and a legal official observed their cases.

People as Property

Slaves were the lowest class of people in ancient Athens, although some had important roles and a somewhat higher status in society. For example, public slaves were considered the property of the entire city-state. These elite slaves served as guards or police officers at various public functions. Unlike citizens or metics, Athenians made no gender distinction among slaves. All slaves were considered the property of their masters, and could be bought, sold, beaten or even killed by their owners at their discretion. Certain slaves also could become reasonably wealthy. Most often, these were skilled craftsmen who lived apart from their masters and sold the fruits of their labor, paying a portion of the proceeds to their master.

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