Ancient Greece and Rome both had rigid class structures in which a small group of individuals or families had great power, usually based on the amount of land they controlled. This economic power was commonly taken to be a sign of superior character and ability as well. The vast majority of people were poor and worked for a living. The survival of these working people often depended on the unequal relationships they had with the rich and powerful.
Early Greece and Rome were traditionally agricultural societies in which land ownership was closely associated with wealth and power. People who had only small landholdings often found it difficult to provide for their family’s basic needs. Many were forced to become tenants of wealthy landowners, giving up control of their own land and offering their labor and a portion of crops to their landlords. Over time, the land became concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. Eventually, the few controlled all political, military, and religious power, and a hereditary aristocracy* was established.
Because agriculture dominated the early Greek and Roman economies, few opportunities for advancement existed for people with little or no land. Those who had special skills or could provide special services, such as merchants or traders, might improve their financial situation. Occasionally, they might even gain substantial wealth and achieve positions of political influence. This happened more frequently during the Roman Empire than it had in the early Greek city-states* or the Roman Republic*.
Some workers in ancient Greece and Rome attempted to improve their lives by migrating to other regions. Overseas colonies offered ambitious individuals opportunities for a fresh start and, perhaps, wealth and influence.
* aristocracy privileged upper class
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
Poor Greeks migrated to Asia Minor and elsewhere because more land was available there than at home. During the Roman Empire, slave labor replaced many rural workers, who then migrated to Roman colonies. In both ancient Greece and Rome, some working-class people left their homelands to pursue careers as mercenaries*, merchants, or artisans* in places where their skills might be in demand and where the prospects of getting ahead were brighter.
Military service provided working-class Greeks and Romans with still another opportunity to improve their lives. In ancient Athens, for example, service in the navy provided thousands of men with an occupation and a salary equal to that of skilled workers. The opportunities for a career in the Roman navy were even greater. At first, only individuals who owned property could serve in the Roman armies. This property requirement was later abolished, and many rural peasants and urban poor enlisted. In addition to their pay, Roman soldiers typically received a grant of land, usually in the provinces*, as well as a substantial sum of money when they retired.
The vast majority of people in ancient Greece and Rome had difficult lives. Most struggled to provide for their most basic needs. Even when successful, they remained poor in comparison to the upper classes. The exploitation of the poor by the wealthy sometimes led to social and political unrest, including occasional outbreaks of violence. During the Roman Republic, the continued threat of such conflict helped the plebeians* gain greater political and economic rights. During the imperial* period, however, the lives of the poor worsened, resulting in social unrest and rebellions in the provinces that gradually weakened Rome. (See also Class Structure, Greek; Class Structure, Roman; Economy, Greek; Economy, Roman; Labor; Land: Ownership, Reform, and Use; Migrations, Early Greek; Migrations, Late Roman; Slavery.)
* mercenary soldier; usually a foreigner; who fights for payment rather than out of loyalty to a nation
* artisan skilled craftsperson
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
* plebeian member of the general body of Roman citizens, as distinct from the upper class
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire