Social Status and Justice in Ancient Civilizations

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While much progress has been made towards a fair and equal democratic justice system over the course of the last four millennia, the concept of justice during the Age of Antiquity was unquestionably highly dependent on one’s social status. The availability of a just consideration within society, whether it be in regard to the laws that could benefit or harm you or simply just one’s ability to represent themselves within society, was determined by more than just one’s personal wealth.

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Depending on the society, social status could be affected by gender, nationality, wealth, one’s level of servitude, and more. These factors lent themselves to a fairly disjointed sense of equality and a concept of justice that was equal for some but unfair or entirely inaccessible for others. Not all law was split along social lines though, as the groundwork for impartial and equal law was actually laid out as early as 4000 years ago, and this carried through to various changes and levels of progress within the ancient societies themselves over thousands of years. Despite the legal inequalities present in these ancient civilizations, though, it was their laws and concepts of justice that developed and established the cornerstone for modern day justice as we know it.

In the beginning of recorded legal history, justice was said to exist primarily for the benefit of the poor and weak. The first codification of Babylonian law, the Code of Hammurabi, while consisting mainly of civil rather than criminal law, was created “in order that the strong might not oppress the weak, that justice be given the orphan and the widow”‘ (Shaffern 3). This sentiment, that laws were intended to protect the weak and disenfranchised, laid the groundwork for a concept that would be repeated and seen over and over again in societies all over the world. Additionally, the laws in the Code of Hammurabi, which were carved into stone tablets and set up in public places, established that law should be impartial, affecting and applying to everyone to the same degree, regardless of status. This idea further extended upon the previous, that it wasn’t just the wealthy and powerful who could be protected by the state, but that citizens from all social levels should be considered impartially under the law. That being said, the Code of Hammurabi wasn’t entirely blind to the varying social classes that existed in Ancient Babylon.

The Code recognized three unequal, legal social classes. A citizen’s classification within one of these classes-noble, common, or slave-determined how much compensation was owed to the victim of a crime. A noble was entitled to most, then followed by a commoner and so on. While slaves could bring forth a case against another, they had virtually no legal rights otherwise. When a slave was killed, the murderer would compensate the slave’s owner rather than their next of kin as was the case with nobles and commoners. So, while anyone within any class could make a case against anyone else regarding theft, murder, assault, or family matters, the compensation and hence the justice one could receive certainly varied based on their social standing.

Hammurabi’s beliefs that law should benefit the weak and poor was not specific to him and the Babylonians. Ancient Athens had much the same belief, and they extended it further still to determine what they believed was the root cause of the injustice as a whole. A great tension existed in Athens between the nobility and commoners, called “stasis.” The feud, which began in its most intense state during the Hellenic Archaic Age (800-500 B.C.E), motivated a newer system of belief in Athens (Shaffern 23). It was strongly recognized during that time that conflict between the commoners and the nobility was the cause of much of the issues in Athens, and that it literally brought with it “famine and blight,” as farmers made up a large portion of the commoner class (23). It was these inter-class issues that put the concept of fair justice and equal representation into perspective and to the forefront of Athenian society. Athenians “were convinced that injustice resulted from intolerable levels of inequality in the polis, or city-state,” and they further believed that “judicial proceedings, then, depend[ed] upon equality among the citizens of that polis” (21). This belief motivated the creation of the ekklesia, an assembly of citizens, which was intended to act as a jury representing all peoples of Athens.

The ekklesia didn’t provide an overnight fix for the class-based issues, though. The Athenian statesman Solon was frustrated and tired of the strife, and worked towards the minimization of the stasis between the classes by actively working to give the commoners more wealth and power. He believed, similar to some of his Athenian counterparts, that “equality bred no war,”‘ and so, amongst other changes, he cancelled farmers’ debts and prohibited slavery caused by indebtedness in the hopes that the gap between the two classes could be lessened (Shaffern 25). He also established a council of 400 common people, 100 from each tribe, called the Boulé, whose sole purpose was to discuss and debate legislation before it was put before the ekklesia for a vote. All of these changes worked to make it easier for the weak, poor, and average citizen to obtain a fairer concept and application of justice where it had previously been unequal or entirely unreachable. Commoners were given the right to appeal to the jury-court, and could also depend less on more powerful patrons to support their endeavors towards varying levels of justice for themselves. These changes allowed commoners to rather rely more heavily on their own actions and their countrymen to work towards the goal as a whole. As a byproduct of Solon’s work and changes, he institutionalized a prototype equal access to justice for every citizen, something that what would become a significant aspect of both Athenian and modern democracies. This concept eventually become ingrained in the Ancient Athenian and Greek ways of life, so much so that it showed up regularly in culture and art. The balance between the newer concept of a democratic trial-by-jury and religious law can be seen heavily in “Eumenides”, the third part of the Oresteia, written by Aeschylus. In it, Orestes is tried in front of a new jury of Athenian men, and Athena says that, “…this court of judges will continue to exist for the people of Aegus…” (Aeschylus 798-799). Culturally in Greece, even in fiction, the support for democratic justice by a god would go a long way to both demonstrate the pride and love the Greek people had for their new system of justice and to motivate others to support the new system.

Despite the push and progress towards equal justice and representation, it’s important to note what the Athenians actually considered to be “equal.” The ekklesia, for example, which was intended as an assembly for all citizens, was in reality only available to all citizens who were enfranchised, free males. While this did technically extend to both noble and common social classes, it still excluded a massive section of Athenian society and limited their influence within the Athenian justice system. This did eventually change, at least slightly, for the better with reforms around 500 B.C.E, as the creation of Athens’ navy and the introduction of policies providing the right to be a member of the ekklesia following military service, regardless of social class (Shaffern 34). While this was still limited to men, it at least ensured that for the first time most cases in Ancient Athens, and therefore the justice applied to the cases, could be decided on by men of all social standing, low to high.

Much like the Ancient Babylonians and Greeks, Ancient Rome’s laws also recognized multiple social classes. The two primary, recognized classes were the patrician and the plebeian, where the latter was made up of the lower class common people, and the former represented the upper class nobles. There were also free poor and slaves, although neither of them were considered part of the two recognized estates. Similar to Ancient Athens, an intense conflict and division between the two classes motivated the first codification of Roman laws, as the plebeians insisted that there be written law to reduce the unfair and often arbitrary practices against them. Like the Greeks, the Romans associated political and legal rights with military service, and the very lowest in the social latter, the slaves and free poor, were not required to serve. Their lack of military obligation, therefore, meant that they also had no legal influence or right to vote. This, and the fact that the plebeians used their military service as a bargaining chip, provided the lower sects of society fuel to pressure the patricians strongly for more equal consideration within the law. As compensation, the tribunes of the plebs were created in 471, which had the ability to veto legislation (Shaffern 47). This allowed them to “paralyze government and military planning if they did not get what the plebeians demanded,” which allowed people within the lower social classes to have greater influence over the laws that affected them and the justice that they could achieve for themselves (47). Additionally, a plebeian assembly was later created, and, following the passage of the Valerio-Hortensian Laws in 449 B.C.E, it provided the plebeians significantly more representation and power within legislation (50).

In many ways, Rome’s laws and policies developed in quite a progressive manner considering the beliefs of the time. Assorted laws were passed over the years following the Valerio-Hortensian Laws that lessened the gap between plebeians and patricians and ensured that plebs had a more equal legal standing with patricians. During a period of extreme tension, the patricians’ determination to retain the office of consul motivated the plebeians to demand the office for themselves, and so a law was passed in 367 that made it legal for plebeians to be elected to consul, and it required that one of the consuls had to be a plebeian (Shaffern 50). Amongst other changes and new laws, marriage between the two classes was legalized, and it became illegal for plebeians to be enslaved for debt. All of these worked to ensure a fairer sense of justice for the average person, regardless of their social class, wealth, or power. Despite the changes, there were still many marginalized, disenfranchised, and ostracized groups within society, though, and the progress didn’t create a true sense of equal justice by modern standards, but, certainly in the context of Ancient civilization, the progress was significant and influential. Many of these changes, developments, and concepts further established the backbone for what many modern societies now believe equality to be in the context of law, justice, and representation.

The concept of justice and one’s access to it didn’t simply depend on wealth or power. One’s own gender played a major difference and in and of itself was a large determining factor of social status and the justice someone could receive. Ancient Athens had a pronounced patriarchy, and the inherent misogyny created a double standard in regard to how certain crimes were recognized. Adultery, for example, could only be committed by wives, and as such husbands suffered no penalty nor paid any level of compensation for committing it. Adultery was said to “corrupt the position of the wife within the household,” which further increased the severity of the crime, as it called into question the legitimacy of the children, who were the heirs to the household (Shaffern 38). Ancient Hebrews carried similar views regarding women. They forbade marriages to foreigners, as they believed that foreign wives would corrupt their husband’s belief in God. Similarly, in Rome, male rule and authority was considered absolute. This meant that wives were under extensive control within their own homes, whether it be under their husband, brother, or father. Even unmarried women remained under the control of a male relative. Outside of marriage, women were not even allowed to draft their own wills for some time, until this was later changed by law. All of these limitations, on top of the fact that all of these ancient civilizations barred women from serving on juries, demonstrate the fact that women remained a lower social class and had little to no representation or influence within the law, and so they had no control over the types of justice that could apply to them.

In Ancient Israel and Babylon, Ancient Greece, and Ancient Rome, social status and class really did mean a significant amount to the justice one could achieve, the laws that affected them, and the influence they had in determining both of those things for themselves. Whether it be status due to wealth, power, or gender, the legal influence one had and the amount to which they could legally support themselves and their claims varied. That being said, over the course of thousands of years, these laws and concepts were shared and evolved slowly but surely, providing the disenfranchised and weak with more influence, and curtailing the influence that the most powerful had over those below them. These civilizations influenced many of the world’s governments significantly. Many of the changes within them further evolved into and influenced what the world sees and experiences today, but that’s not to say that every country currently experiences an equal concept of justice. Even the most liberal, progressive, and free countries in the world today still define “equality” in the context of their own society, which often times means that it’s not truly equal. It’s clear, though, that the cultural and political motivations of the ancient era were the true motivators for the changes that occurred, and this will likely be the case now and in the future, as societies develop their understands of what “equality” and “justice” mean to them.

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Social Status and Justice in Ancient Civilizations. (2019, Apr 24). Retrieved from