Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life
The social classes in ancient Egypt: The nobility, the intelligentsia, labour, the outcast the military and priesthood, social stability
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The social classes in ancient Egypt

    Two ancient views of Egyptian society, the first belonging to a king, Ramses III, who thought of his people as composed of noblemen, administrators, soldiers, personal attendants, and a multitude of citizens...
... the princes, and leaders of the land, the infantry and chariotry, the Sherden, the numerous archers, and all the citizens of the land of Egypt.
Ramses III in the Harris Papyrus
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four, § 397
butlers of the palace, great princes, numerous infantry, and chariotry, by the hundred thousand; Sherden and Kehek, without number; attendants by the ten-thousand; and serf-laborers of Egypt [3]
Ramses III in the Harris Papyrus
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four, § 402
... the second reflecting the experiences of a foreign commoner, Herodotus, who classified people according to their profession or trade [6]. Interestingly he left out slaves, called "tools that speak" by the Greeks and barely considered human, and peasants.
Now of the Egyptians there are seven classes, and of these one class is called that of the priests, and another that of the warriors, while the others are the cowherds, swineherds, shopkeepers, interpreters, and boatmen. This is the number of the classes of the Egyptians, and their names are given them from the occupations which they follow.
Herodotus Histories 2.164
    Strabo on the other hand saw Egypt as being made up of three social classes since its very beginning:
When they had appointed a king, they divided the people into three classes, into soldiers, husbandmen, and priests. The latter had the care of everything relating to sacred things (of the gods), the others of what related to man; some had the management of warlike affairs, others attended to the concerns of peace, the cultivation of the ground, and the practice of the arts, from which the king derived his revenue. The priests devoted themselves to the study of philosophy and astronomy, and were companions of the kings.
Strabo Geography Book XVII, § 3
    None of them seems to have given much thought to the existence of women and their crucial economic and social role in society.
 
    It is not easy for us to gauge how deep the social divides were and how difficult it was to cross them, and even harder to understand how the ancient Egyptians perceived social groupings. Some people rose from humble standings and ended their careers in positions of authority. In traditionalistic societies, as existed in the Europe of the Late Middle Ages for instance, they and their offspring would not be accepted as social equals by those who had inherited such positions from ancient forebears, for generations. In Egyptian texts the basic equality of men is often averred, e.g. the creator god says in the Coffin Texts,
I have made each man the same as his neighbour,
and have prohibited that they should do wrong.
But their hearts have resisted my commandments.
Coffin Texts, spell 1130
Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, Metropolitain Books 2002, p.193
but, like the prohibition to do wrong, this seems to have had little influence on people's behaviour in every day life.
    Thanks to tomb inscriptions we know how the deceased thought of their own social position, but only as part of their official relationship with the king: they were sole companions (Henku among many others), more honored by the king than any servant (Ptahshepses), pleasant to the heart of his majesty (Weni), etc.
    Others had ancestors whom they referred to: I surpassed the feats of the ancestors (Ankhtifi) or I remitted all imposts which I found counted by my fathers (Kheti II).
    The members of these two groups were part of the inner circle of power, men who thought of themselves as elevated above the masses but immeasurably below the king, the living god. Harwa, a descendant of a Theban priestly family who came to rule part of Lower Egypt saw himself as part of this nobility
For I am a noble for whom one should act,
One sound of heart to the end of life.
The inscription of Harwa, 8th century BCE
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.26
    Less is known about the common people most of whom did not have the means to leave inscriptions for eternity. At least the wealthier ones were proud of their position, relative independence and achievements:
I was a respected citizen at the head of the army on the day of difficulty, praised by his lord and his court.
    Ancient Egyptian society was highly polarized. The chasm between rich and poor appears to date back to pre-dynastic times [2] and grew more pronounced with Social classes: status and wealth the passage of the centuries [4]. Juan José Castillos of the Uruguayan Institute of Egyptology in Montevideo bases his conclusions on the disparity between the numbers of large, sumptuous tombs and of simple graves during the Naqada I period and later: Except for occasional local discontinuities that occur due to ecological, economic, or political events, Pre-dynastic Egypt evolved steadily into a more stratified society without great disruption[1].
    From the unification of the country onward, a diminutive rich upper class ruled with the help of a small scribal administration over the masses of Egyptian workers and peasants living barely above subsistence level, soaking up most of the surplus the labour of the workers produced. This development reached an apex during the beginning of the pyramid age, when the building of the royal tombs and mortuary temples required the effort of the whole nation, setting the pharaoh apart from the other members of the upper class. It was followed by a decline in the wealth and power of the pharaohs and their families and by the rise of the local nobility during the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period. After the 12th dynasty monarchs gained power over the country, they relied heavily on the services of the scribal class which remained the mainstay of authority throughout pharaonic history.

The nobility

Mereruka, vizier of Teti (6th dynasty), married to Teti's daughter Hert-watet-khet     The status of the local nobility was more independent of the central authority than that of the royal administrators who flourished around the person of the king. The nomarchs, who formed part of the royal administration, were generally chosen from among these noblemen. During the late Old Kingdom the position of these nomarchical families became so strong that rule over the nomes became virtually hereditary.
    Unable on his own to contend with challenges to his authority, the Memphite Pepi I (2313-2279 BCE) had to enter into alliances with Upper Egyptian noble families, who came to have great influence over the government of the country.
    The courts of the local nobility vied at times with the royal centre for cultural predominance. They were generally pillars of social stability, provided local political cohesion to their regions in times of failing central power and from their midst often emerged new royal lines. While the pharaohs as living gods were considered to be immeasurably above other members of their own social class, it was generally among the nobility that they looked for social contact, military leadership and political advice.
The majesty of {the full titulary of} Amenemhet (II), who is given life, stability, satisfaction, like Re, forever, appointed me to be hereditary prince, count, governor of the eastern highlands, priest of Horus, and [priest] of Pakht; to the inheritance of my mother's father in Menet-Khufu.
The inscription of Khnumhotep II, Middle Kingdom
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 624
    From the Middle Kingdom onwards their power and independence were curtailed, and many of their administrative functions were taken over by the vizierate.
    To the indigenous clans of noblemen were added - if not socially then at least at the level of administration - the military elite of the Hyksos during the Second Intermediary Period and of the Libyans during the Third. They both succeeded in subduing most of the traditional Egyptian power centres and their kings were recognized, sometimes grudgingly, as pharaohs.
    Upper class Egyptians, such as the Old Kingdom nomarch Henku, Sheshi feeding the hungry, Ankhtifi, who coupled good deeds with business acumen, or Kheti II, a nomarch convinced that Heracleopolis praised god for me, liked to see themselves in the role of caring leaders of their people, but many must have succumbed to the temptations the powerful have always been prone to, and exploited their social inferiors. One may suppose that the transgressions which Ameni, a 12th dynasty nomarch, went to great lengths to absolve himself from, were not rare occurrences:
There was no citizen's daughter whom I misused, there was no widow whom I oppressed, there was no [peasant (?)] whom I repulsed, there was no shepherd whom I repelled, there was no overseer of serf-laborers whose people I took for (unpaid) imposts, there was none wretched in my community, there was none hungry in my time.
J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 523
    From the New Kingdom onward noblemen often omitted mentioning such benevolence toward their social inferiors in their autobiographies and preferred to stress their service to the king and the gods.

The intelligentsia

Hesire, scribe and physician     The education future scribes received, i.e. reading, writing and arithmetics, together with the lack of a personal power base, made them ideal administrators. Apart from this basic knowledge they were often taught a profession, such as architecture, medicine and the like, and they were assigned a rank in these specialist hierarchies.
    The nobility was literate too, even many women among them, but they were prone to have political agendas of their own and pursue them, above all when central government was weak. Still, many high state functionaries were drawn from the nobility, often from the pharaoh's own family. Occasionally working class commoners knew how to read and write, but administrative positions were generally filled with scribes who had inherited their status from their fathers.
An invocation-offering to the Count, Seal-Bearer of the King of Rekhyt [Lower Egypt], Sole Companion, and Lector Priest, honored with the great god, the Lord of Heaven, Uha, who says: I was one beloved of his father, favored of his mother, whom his brothers and sisters loved. .............. I was a commoner of repute, who lived on his own property, plowed with his own span of oxen, and sailed in his own ship, and not through that which I had found in the possession of my father, honored Uha.
From The offering of Uha, ca. 2400 BCE
From: D. Dunham, Naga-ed-Der Stelae of the First Intermediate Period, (London, 1917), pp. 102-104
Internet Ancient History Sourcebook
    For their services these members of the bureaucracy received goods which were commensurate with the importance of their position, and could rise to the highest ranks in the administration (cf. The autobiography of Weni). While they belonged to families of some substance and inherited positions, land and dependants at times from both parents ...
There were presented to him the things of his father, the judge and scribe Anubisemonekh; there was no grain or anything of the house, (but) there were people and small cattle
The biography of Metjen
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 171
There were conveyed to him 50 stat of land by (his) mother Neb-sent; she made a will thereof to (her) children ....
The biography of Metjen
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 175
... they could augment their possessions and their social status greatly in the meritocracy [5] of the royal administration. Metjen began his career under Djoser by being appointed chief scribe and overseer of the provision magazine, became governor and judge at Xois, performed many other duties and ended up as nomarch of the Anubis nome. Apart from the income from these offices
... were conveyed to him as a reward 200 stat of lands by numerous royal [...], a mortuary offering of 100 loaves every day from the mortuary temple of the mother of the king's children, Nemathap, a house 200 cubits long and 200 cubits wide, built and equipped; fine trees were set out, a very large lake was made therein, figs and vines were set out .......... Very plentiful trees and vines were set out, a great quantity of wine was made therein. A vineyard was made for him: 2,000 stat of land within the wall ......
The biography of Metjen, official under Djoser and Snefru
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 172
    Metjen inhabited a 10,000 m² mansion, while urban workers and their families lived in flats of less than 100 m², and his walled in vineyard covered 500 ha. He had wealth and power and was counted among the country's leaders.
    The residences of the Middle Kingdom officials at Hotep Senusret measured about 2,000 m². They seem to have served both as living quarters for the scribe's family and servants and as offices. Less successful scribes had to do with much less.
 
    Burials at the pharaoh's expense, often close to the tomb of their master, were also part of the recompense of faithful civil servants
[His majesty commanded that there be made for him a coffin of] ebony wood, sealed. Never [was it done to one like him before] ......... laid therein. ......... these ...... of the northern .......... His majesty had him anointed by the side of his majesty.
Tomb inscription of Wesheptah, chief architect of Neferirkere
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 247
    Similar social groups in other ancient societies invested their energy and skills in private enterprise. In pharaonic Egypt there was no private initiative on a large scale, and they remained part of the administration, be it that of the state or that of the temples.

Labour

... manual labor is little elevated; the inaction of the hands is honorable.
    This largest part of the population consisted mostly of peasants and farm labourers, generally despised by their superiors. How free they were throughout history is unknown, but there are documents which seem to imply that many of them lived in a state similar to that of the serfdom known in the European Middle Ages. Slaves, not as utterly without rights as they often were in other slave-owning societies, were relatively few in numbers, and it is debatable whether they should be looked on as a different social class.
    Other commoners, be they farmers or artisans, were their own masters, possessing homes and land, buying and selling belongings and produce as they saw fit. They employed servants and workers and were at times even masters of slaves, but most people worked at least to a certain extent under some kind of supervision by scribal officials belonging to some estate, temple, or state administration.
Goldsmith and scribe     Literacy marked the dividing line between the proletariat and the upper classes, but it was seemingly less rare among members of the working class than had been assumed in the past. Certain groups needed knowledge of hieroglyphs, e.g. artists who had to copy sacred texts correctly onto tomb walls and coffins [8]. Hieratic was also known. Quite a number of inscribed ostraka were found at the New Kingdom village of Deir el Medina dealing with everyday matters. The study of reading and writing became easier and probably more widespread with the introduction of the Greek alphabet by Hellenistic settlers in the last centuries of the first millennium BCE and its adaptation for the writing of Late Egyptian, Coptic.
    The differences in wealth and status among these commoners were considerable, even if they dwindle into insignificance when comparisons with the upper classes are made: At Kahun (Hotep Senusret) built during the Middle Kingdom flat sizes in the workers' quarter were between 50 and 80 m², at the New Kingdom settlement Deir el Medina the average flat covered 80 m², the smallest flats measured about 50 m², and the largest, probably those belonging to the foremen and village administrators, 160 m².

Outcasts

    Little is known about the status of beggars, social misfits, and outlaws. Leaving the country without authorization or even just absenting oneself from ones workplace could lead to incarceration, as documents from the Central Prison prove. Vagrancy was a criminal offence since the Middle Kingdom at least and the police hunted vagabonds down and arrested them.[10] But some settled, law-abiding people were also shunned. Mummifiers were apparently ostracised and according to Herodotus
swineherds, though they may be native Egyptians, unlike all others, do not enter any of the temples in Egypt, nor is anyone willing to give his daughter in marriage to one of them or to take a wife from among them; but the swineherds both give in marriage to one another and take from one another.
Herodotus Histories, Part 2
    In Graeco-Roman times beggars were at times quite sophisticated, perhaps educated persons fallen upon hard times, who wrote begging letters, like one Petosiris:
[- - -] but also I have nothing to wear and we are living in the open. Will you kindly then order them to give me 4 drachmai, that I may buy at least an old cloak [- - -]
P.Mich.:1:90, 3rd century BCE
APIS record: michigan.apis.1781
    On their forays into the desert traders, miners and quarrying gangs were accompanied by troops who were probably both employed as unskilled labourers as well as protectors. In these inhospitable regions nomadic and semi-nomadic people could be found. We may suppose that they were mostly living off their herds of sheep and goats, but were not disinclined to indulge in a little robbery if the opportunity arose.

The military and the priesthood

Infantry     Both these groups are sometimes considered to have been distinct social classes in ancient Egypt, but their members were recruited from all walks of life during much of pharaonic history:
  • Noblemen led peasant armies into battle during the Old Kingdom and they manned the chariots during the days of the empire led by the king or one of his close relatives,
  • the pharaoh himself was chief priest appointing relations and friends to high clerical offices, while lay-priest artisans served in the temples on a temporary basis.
    Military officers often filled priestly positions and were officials of the royal administration as well. Economic remuneration depended on social status and varied greatly between high officials and their lowly subordinates. Neither of these groups were apparently freed from ordinary justice and subject only to their own special laws.
    With the passing of time both these callings became professionalised. From the middle of the second millennium BCE onward the temples amassed huge fortunes, becoming economically independent, and in the declining centuries of Egyptian culture the priesthood turned into a hereditary caste, bearer of native Egyptian cultural and political traditions and often in conflict with foreign rulers and their soldiery.
    The military relied more and more on mercenaries, mostly of foreign extraction: Nubians in significant numbers since the Middle Kingdom, Sherden during the New Kingdom, Libyans during Third Intermediate Period, and later Ionians, Greeks, Aramaeans, Jews and others. For their services they received at times land, entering into a quasi-feudal relationship with the crown. Elite units were often formed of these foreigners and officered by them. The chariotry on the other hand was the exclusive domain of Egyptian noblemen during the New Kingdom, while the common footsoldier was still mainly a drafted peasant, even if not one belonging to a temple:
I did not take people as a tithe, from the temples of any gods, since those kings; doing it in order to appoint them to the infantry or chariotry.
Ramses III, Harris Papyrus
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 354

Social stability and mobility

Queen Tiye; Source: Jon Bodsworth     Social unrest seems to have been rare. Slaves who became a major factor for social instability in Greece and imperial Rome, were relatively few in numbers and perhaps better treated. Most Egyptians were probably more or less satisfied with their lot, and when they were not, they were not afraid to complain. [9] They were to some extent protected from the unlawful interference in their own business by the mighty, enjoyed the rights and privileges of their social group, and followed in the footsteps of their ancestors, inheriting their status, positions and property; but enterprising individuals availed themselves of the possibilities they encountered for personal betterment. A career in the military, the civil administration or the priesthood could improve one's fortunes.
Greatness can be yours by your action,
if you have spent your life within the frame of your god
    Thrift, hard work, initiative and luck were at times instrumental in achieving a higher social status: servants inherited their masters possessions when these died childless, a non-royal became Great Wife of the King and a foreigner became pharaoh in a coup d'état.

 


Sources of pictures:
[  ] The goldsmith and the scribe: Lefebvre, Gustave ; Le Tombeau de Petosiris
[  ] Mereruka, Queen Tiye: Courtesy Jon Bodsworth
 
Footnotes:
[3] Pierre Grandet's interpretation of this text (... numerous cupbearers of the palace and magistrates, numerous soldiers and charioteers by the hundreds of thousands, Sherden and Qeheq without limits, servants by the tens of thousands, smdt [7] of Egypt) leads him to propose Egypt as a hierarchy of foundations (partially autonomous communal institutions), with the domain (pr) [7] of the pharaoh (pr-aA) at the top.
[4] The redistributive character of the Egyptian economy, which in normal times mostly meant collecting produce from the peasants and giving it to officials for services rendered, and the strengthening of the social security network in the form of public grain stores as a reserve for years of bad harvests introduced during the Middle Kingdom may have contributed much to the stability of society. But one should always bear in mind that ancient Egypt was not a welfare state.
[5] The Instructions for Merikare are purported to have been written by the father of Merikare, but are more likely to have been composed by a scribe, a commoner - albeit a privileged one - rather than a nobleman:
Do not prefer the wellborn to the commoner,
Choose a man on account of his skills...

The instruction addressed to king Merikare
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume 1, p. 101
Of course, in the Egyptian, as in a the modern Western meritocracy, it helped having a good start on the way up, and offices were inherited by the sons of the title holders - unless they proved to be utterly incompetent, probably.(cf. Learning for Life)
[6] According to the first century CE writer Strabo, Polybios, a Greek historian living during the 2nd century BCE, discerned divisions at least partially based on ethnicity:
He (i.e. Polybios) describes the inhabitants of Alexandria as being composed of three classes, first the Egyptians and natives, acute in mind, but very poor citizens, and wrongfully meddlesome in civic affairs. Second were the mercenaries, a numerous and undisciplined body, for it was an old custom to keep foreign soldiers - who from the worthlessness of their sovereigns knew better how to lord it than to obey. The third were the so-called "Alexandrines," who, for the same reason, were not orderly citizens; however they were better than the mercenaries, for although they were a mixed race, yet being of Greek origin they still retained the usual Hellenic customs.
Strabo, Geography
Text scanned and modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton
[7] A few words about the transliteration and pronunciation of ancient Egyptian.
[8] Some craftsmen seem to have been literate before the (relatively) great proliferation of writing in the Middle and New Kingdoms, when even commoners - and not just the elite as had been the usage during the Old Kingdom - were buried with texts. A First Intermediary Period nomarch, Kheti II, wrote in his tomb:
But every scribe, every learned one among the craftsmen of this nome, ...who has gone to school and walks past this stairway, enters this tomb and reads the writing in its entirety, treats its reliefs with piety, ... recalls my name, reports it to his fathers, mothers, wives, children, followers, and all the people coming after him, he shall become an ancient one for his city and an honoured one for his nome.
Tomb of Kheti II
After U. Verhoeven-van Elsbergen, Zwischen Memphis und Theben: Die Gräber politischer Drahtziehern in Assiut
Natur & Geist, Forschungsmagazin der Johannes Gutenberg Universität, Mainz, 2004, p.17
[9] For protests against bad treatment cf. Masters and Workers: Labour relations in ancient Egypt, for appeals to the authorities for protection against unlawful oppression cf. The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant.
[10] Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, Metropolitain Books 2002, p.139

- -Slavery
-Social changes in the Late Dynastic Period
-Masters and Workers: Labour relations in ancient Egypt
-The army
-Man and wife
-The people of ancient Egypt
 

-Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page
 
Links(Opening a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites.
 
-[1] The Rise of Social Classes in Predynastic Egypt
-[2] The Elite Cemetery by Renée Friedman (Interactive Dig)
-Old Kingdom Society (Royal Ontario Museum)
-Social classes in ancient Egypt (University College London)
 

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© December 2002
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