Hierarchy in Ancient Greek Society
"All people are created equal" might be a tenet of democracy today; but in ancient Greece, the home of democracy, all people were definitely not considered equal, especially if they happened to be born women or slaves. Rather, ancient Greece was a highly stratified society ruled by the elite, where there was little to no room for social mobility.
1 The Polites
At the top of ancient Greece's social hierarchy were the polites. These were the aristocrats of Greece: native, free, adult men who made up the polis, or city state, which was at the heart of ancient Greek civilization and identity. Only polites enjoyed the rights and responsibilities of the Greek democracy: They served in the army and, after their mandatory service in the military was over, continued to serve the government by joining councils and assemblies. They also concerned themselves with literature and philosophy and nurtured the arts.
Adult male immigrants were known as metics, who basically made up what we would call the middle class of ancient Greece. These were typically merchants who joined the polis for reasons of trade or to study a particular craft. Like polites, they had to pay taxes and serve in the army. However, they had limited legal rights: They couldn't own a home or land, and weren't allowed to speak in legal proceedings.
Despite the fact that Greek mythology is filled with tales of strong, powerful goddesses, women in ancient Greece had few legal rights. Their lives were centered around the home: Childbearing, weaving, retrieving water, participating in certain religious festivals -- and sometimes serving a goddess -- were their main activities. No matter how old, a female was considered the ward of a male -- either her father, her brothers or her husband. The only thing to which she had a right was her marriage dowry, which was not available to her husband.
Much of ancient Greek society was made up of slaves, usually prisoners of war. Slaves were at the bottom of ancient Greek society. Considered barbarians, slaves had no legal rights. In Sparta, slaves were descendants of the original Mycenaeans whom the Spartans defeated before establishing their polis. The slaves were called helots and viewed as barely human. Spartans were known to send young men on krypteia, or "secret missions," to test their skills by killing as many helots as they could.