SOCIETY and INEQUALITY in EURASIA
World History I Chapter 5
Class Inequality in China
China’s social system has nearly always been based upon its civil service administration. Boys were trained almost from birth to study hard in order to pass the civil service exam that would give them a revered job and bring honor to their family. It cost money to take these exams, though, so often only the wealthier families could afford the tests for their sons.
Another higher class in China were the landowners- as with nearly every civilization, the more land you owned the more wealth you could obtain, and this usually meant a higher rank in society.
One exception, though, was China’s merchant class- merchants were looked down upon as a kind of necessary evil within China. They were considered “unclean” because they did not produce anything, they merely bought and sold things other people produced, which diminished their worth as people in the eyes of the Chinese. Merchants were not allowed to wear silk or ride horses or carry weapons, nor could they sit for civil service exams.
Class Inequality in China
Even the peasants, who were much poorer than the merchants, were often considered to be in a class above them, since the peasants labored all day to produce food for the nation. The peasants had a much worse life, though, working constantly and still living on the brink of starvation. Consequently, peasant rebellions were an accepted aspect of life in China.
Caste Systems in India
Like China, people in India were born into their class and there was little chance to improve one’s class. India’s class system – or caste system, which is a more appropriate term – is unique in the world.
India had four classes, or VARNAS. The top varna were Brahmins, Hindu priests. They were the only ones who knew the sacred rituals needed to keep the world working properly.
Next came the KSHATRIYA, the warriors and rulers who protected India. Then was the VAISYA class, the farmers. Together these three classes were believed to be especially pure and noble, so were given the additional distinction of being ARYAN.
India’s Caste System
Below the Aryans came the SUDRAS, which were basically everybody else. Sudras didn’t have the same rights as the other classes and were not well protected by laws or society.
As time went on, medicine men and “sorcerers” became part of the Brahmin class, Merchants became part of the Vaisya and a lower class, the Untouchables, emerged.
The Untouchables had to perform tasks other castes felt were beneath them, such as disposal of the dead (whether human or animal) and executioner. Eventually, as industrialization occurred, the caste system enlarged to include many different occupations within each of the castes.
How did slavery begin in the world? We aren’t sure but we do know it is a very old practice, dating back to the Paleolithic era. It’s probable that the first slaves were women captured in warfare. Men were usually killed but women were often raped and then made into concubines, which is in essence a sex slave. As man began to grow labor intensive crops and more hands were needed for work, slavery probably grew from there.
A slave is defined as someone who worked without pay, could be sold, was owned by someone else and lived on the bottom rungs of society. Most slaves had no rights or even personal identity. All early civilizations and most later civilizations used slavery.
An early Roman fresco showing slaves working for their masters
In some areas, slaves could earn their freedom or were set free if they adopted the local religion, or got to old to work, etc. In some cases, slavery was hereditary- if you were a slave, your children were too. There was no absolute set of rules for slavery.
People were not only enslaved through warfare, but could become slaves as punishment for crimes or to pay their debts, or a family members’ debts.
Whether or not slaves had any rights or were protected by any laws differed from civilization to civilization. In areas like India and China, where slaves were never heavily relied upon for economic benefit, slaves were usually protected legally against abuses by their owners.
Slaves being brought before the Chinese Emperor.
Slavery in Greece
In the Mediterranean world, slavery was huge, though. In Athens, about one third of the population were slaves- which is ironic, since that area is considered to be where democracy got its start.
Even poor families in Athens usually owned a slave or two, and although it was common for slaves to be given their freedom, they could never become full citizens nor could they marry citizens, so they never had the same rights as free Athenians and always remained in a lower class.
Slavery in the Roman Empire
In the Roman Empire, about 40% of the population at any time might be slaves. As with the Greeks, slave ownership meant social status- the more you owned, the higher up you were. Freed slaves could own other slaves.
Because Roman men were so often off fighting the wars of empire, slaves were needed on the farms in and in businesses to do the labor and keep things running. As the Romans conquered an area, the conquered were often made slaves also.
When Carthage was conquered after the Punic Wars, 55,000 people were enslaved. Still more slaves were purchased from slave traders from Africa and Northwestern Europe.
Children born to enslaved women were also slaves. Even homeless orphans or abandoned children could be enslaved.
Slavery in the Roman Empire
Unlike slavery in America much later, the Romans were equal opportunity enslavers- race did not matter- pretty much anyone could be enslaved.
Slavery was so ingrained into Roman culture that even the advent of Christianity did not stop it in the Roman Empire.
Slaves could be doctors, teachers, gladiators in the arena- pretty much any job could be held by a slave. The only jobs a slave could not hold was that of being a soldier in the military.
Slaves in Rome really had no rights. If they earned money, their owner could take it at any time. Any property they had really belonged to their masters.
In Rome, a slave who was freed could become a citizen, with all of a citizen’s rights.
If a slave killed his or her master, ALL of the master’s slaves were executed as punishment. This made slave rebellions really rare, as you can imagine.
One notable exception was the slave SPARTACUS, a gladiator in 73 BCE who led 70 other gladiators in a slave revolt that eventually grew to 120,000 slaves. When they were finally defeated by the Romans, about 6,000 captured slaves were crucified, their crosses spread out over the Appian Way (the main road) for about one hundred miles.
Gender Inequality in Greece
Regarding that other great class of the nearly enslaved- women, gender inequality continued to exist in most cultures at this time. The textbook looks specifically at the differences between Athens and Sparta in Greece.
The Athenians, who today are recognized as the fathers of democracy (government by the people) denied most rights and freedoms to their women.
Lower class women were expected to do their jobs among the public, but upper class women were supposed to remain sequestered within their houses. Their jobs were to birth the next generation and keep the households running smoothly.
The Athenians thought it was a near criminal idea to educate a woman, as women were basically seen as a necessary evil.
Gender Inequality in Greece
In Sparta, a culture which many modern people deride because of their militarism, women were more equal than in Athens.
Their job was still to birth the next generation, but they were expected to learn and to train as well as the men (although not as hard) in order to raise more worthy Spartans. The statuette at right was found in the ruins of Sparta, and depicts a Spartan woman running a race.
When a Spartan woman died in childbirth, she was lauded just as a Spartan warrior who died in battle would be.
Homosexuality in Greece
Homosexuality was readily accepted in Greece, and in the case of Sparta, even expected in order to develop the bonds of warriors.
In Athens, older men were often expected to take younger men as their lovers, until the younger men could take their places as adults in Athenian society and politics.