Social Stratification in the Mediterranean World

The Greco-Roman social structure was clearly defined by one’s membership in an oikos and by one’s ability to be a Roman citizen (Judge 1960, 27-29; Neyrey 1991, 28ff.).  This social order was reinforced by food and social codes.  The codes determined what one ate, when one ate, how one ate, where one ate, to what community, group, or kinship network one belonged and what constituted the group’s traditions, values, norms, and world view (Elliott 1991, 103).

There were basically two social levels: elite and non-elite.  Roman society was intensely vertical.  The powerful made sure that they remained powerful.  Property ownership, the single most important sign of wealth in the Roman world, was concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of the population.  About three per cent of the population (i.e. the wealthy) in Rome lived in one-third of the residential space of the city.  The masses were crowded in huge tenements, called insulae (Branick 1989, 42-43; Meeks 1983, 53ff.).  The elite and non-elite had very little contact with one another, except to do some business/commercial transactions (Neyrey 1991, 136).  The elite group normally resided in the center of the city and the non-elite lived in the suburbs and country.  The elite controlled the city because they possessed the land and money (Neyrey 1991, 133).

People did not have equal rights or equal access to all things in the Roman world.  If a person wanted something that someone else had then, that person had to give something in return.  Patronage was a common way in which people formed social relations.  These social relationships were based on a strong element of inequality and difference in power.  A patron possessed social, economic, and political resources needed by a client.  In return, a client would give expressions of loyalty and honor that were useful for the patron.

Brokerage and friendship are the two most relevant types of patron/client relationships for a study of the Mediterranean society in the time of the Roman Empire.  The broker served as a mediator between two parties.  Patronage also took the form of “friendship.”  Friendships were not primarily characterized by an emotional attachment.  Friendships were established more as a form of social interaction, and even political contract, based upon reciprocity.  Friends were expected to help each other become economically secure.  Patronage fused the private and public since it was acceptable for one friend to reward another friend with a political position or some other favor. This kind of patronage was practiced among the elite class.  Patronage was not perceived as ethically wrong; it was expected (Neyrey 1991, 241-268; Sampley 1980; Jeffers 1991, 131-134).

The non-elite class could be divided into various groups. The groups within the non-elite class varied according to money and prestige (Tidball 1984, 69-70).  Kyrtatas (1987, 28, 41) groups slaves into four categories: rural slaves, urban slaves, slave miners and the slaves of the emperor (familia Caesaris).  He has an extensive study on slavery, manumission, and freedman and devotes chapter 3 and 4 to Christianity and its relationship to the familia Caesaris.

Approximately fifty percent of the people in the Greco-Roman world were slaves (Binns 1938, 17; Allen 1962, 32-37; Meeks 1983, 20-23).   Slaves were usually of the same color and race as their masters.  Many were allowed to be educated so that they could acquire a skill.  Some slaves enjoyed great advantages.  It was not uncommon for freeborn provincials to make themselves slaves to a wealthy and influential Roman in order to be emancipated by him and secure a franchise and his patronage (Biggs 1905, 112).

Manumission, the setting of a slave free from slavery, had been formally established by the fifth century BC.  There were many freedman in society although they did not constitute a distinctive social class.  They were found in many social classes and were drawn to the mystery religions (Kyrtatas 1987, 55-74).  Meeks (1983, 22) maintains that freedman suffered from “status inconsistency.”

NOTE: Monday’s postings  are reviewing the rise and decline of the house church during the first 300 years of the Christian church. This review began a couple weeks ago and will continue for a couple more weeks.

 

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