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Ancient and modern

A touch of class

13 April 2013

9:00 AM

13 April 2013

9:00 AM

Class is back in the news, and the BBC’s online do-it-yourself ‘class calculator’ confirms that wealth is the overriding determinant of class status. No change there, then.

The Athenians had a term for a member of the upper class: he was (pl.) kalos kai agathos (shortened to kalos kagathos), ‘handsome and good in action’. It implied inherited wealth, good looks and a good education (the last available only to the rich, who had the leisure to indulge in it), which therefore qualified them for military and political leadership.


But there was little class strife. Since, in that results-conscious world, it was felt that such a family must have been doing something right to have reached that position, the ideology behind the kalos kagathos seems not to have been questioned. Further, the notion of the exploitation of labour was non-existent, because nearly all Athenians worked for themselves, trying to earn a living on the land or by making and selling goods they had produced. So they could not feel that others were enriching themselves at their expense. As a result, there was little demand from the democratic Assembly for the redistribution of wealth or land.

That did not mean the rich were necessarily loved. They could be accused of being overbearing, greedy, idle or liable to go soft. Those who enriched themselves or received high honours at the expense of the poor, especially by getting a cushy, highly paid job during a war or using their wealth corruptly, e.g. to bribe their way out of trouble, were strongly resented.

But for all that, it is hard to discern a contrasting, working-class ‘voice’ in ancient Athens. If the Athenian poor felt relatively comfortable in their skin, it may be because they, too, were an elite, a free, politically empowered, democratic citizen elite, in strong contrast with their slaves (‘human tools’) and the immigrants, subject to many legal disabilities, who outnumbered them.

The poor living in the miracle that is EU Britain today cannot enjoy even that feeling by way of compensation.


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