Social Classes in Ancient Egypt

Social Classes in Ancient Egypt was divided into three main classes : The King and his family, who were considered to be divine, Priests and nobles of high rank, Commoners, soldiers and slaves. Often slaves were prisoners of war or people who had been sentenced to hard labor as punishment. A Class system divides people into groups based on wealth, social status and privileges. The members in each class share a common lifestyle and may also share a common education level. This post discusses the different social classes of Ancient Egypt and how these classes changed over time. The ancient Egyptians lived in one of the first class-based societies.

Social Classes in Ancient Egypt
 There were three main social classes in ancient Egypt. The upper class had all the power, the middle class was in support of the upper class, and the lower class provided most of the labor for those above them.  The upper class consisted of royalty and nobility who received a higher education and had money to spend. They could afford better food and more comfortable living conditions. Below these were the middle classes: government officials, priests, scribes, traders, teachers and doctors. The lower class consisted of farmers, construction laborers ,slaves and servants who performed services for those above them.

Egypt’s king

At the top of the pyramid were Egypt’s kings, who were also viewed as gods. They were responsible for the country’s spiritual and material  well-being. As the living example of the god Horus, the king battled  cosmic forces. He upheld ma’at against  isfet. Everything he said was  law. Justice in Egypt meant “what the king loves.” Wrongdoing was  “what the king hates.” As chief priest and fertility symbol, the king was responsible for  the prosperity of the land, the success of crops, the annual, moderate  inundation of the Nile, and the daily rising and setting of the sun.

Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs

He was chief rainmaker and water-finder. His coronation took place  at the beginning of  akhet, the inundation season, to symbolize his  power over the river. As military leader, he had to keep Upper and  Lower Egypt united and content, and protect Egypt from enemies and  invaders. The king owned everything—legally speaking, at least. All land,  resources, animals, crops, people, every ounce of gold, every jar of beer,  and every mud-brick in every peasant’s hut were technically the king’s.  He held absolute power over life and death.

Social Classes in Ancient Egypt

Everything the king touched—his clothing, crowns, jewelry, tools,  food, sandals, beer mug—was blessed with magic rituals and reserved  for his use alone. Much of his time was spent performing magical and  religious rituals to keep the universe running properly. His performance of these rituals magically activated similar rituals performed by  lesser priests. The palace, called per-aa (which means “great house”), was a group  of residences for the king and his family, harem, friends, personal staff,  and government officials.

It was also the seat of the central government and the military headquarters. It included a major temple with its own  priesthood. Many kings kept two per-aa (in Upper and Lower Egypt)  and also many smaller palaces. The per-aa was a place of luxury, beauty, and ceremony. No effort  or expense was spared to impress visitors. Everything the king did  followed strict guidelines. He was constantly surrounded by officials,  priests, people of the royal court, visitors, and favor-seekers.  Many favorites and officers of the court and their families and  staffs lived at  per-aa at the king’s expense.

Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs

These Honored Ones, as  they were known, were granted special favors: tombs near the king’s  and fabulous grave goods (linen, oils, wood for coffins, stone for sarcophagi). In the Old Kingdom, these honors meant they would join the  king in eternal life an extremely rare privilege. The posts that had the highest rank were King’s Friend and  Unique Friend. Other top posts were Lordship of the Secret of the  Royal House (keeper of the crown jewels) and Lordship of the Secret  of all the Royal Sayings (issuer of invitations into the king’s presence).  The Director of the King’s Dress supervised a large staff, includ- ing the Valet of the Hands, Director of Oils and Unguents (lotions),  Keeper of the King’s Wigs, and Groom of the Bedchamber. Each  supervised large staffs.

The king chose his heir from among his sons—usually the son  of his chief wife. If he had no sons, the king might choose a senior  official who had married a princess. Many princes were prepared  to become king, just in case. (Although some went into military or  religious service, particularly if an heir was named early on.) They  studied astronomy, mathematics, civil engineering, architecture, and  magical-religious rituals and spells. Princes participated in hunting expeditions, military tournaments,  and sporting competitions. They were expected to show exceptional  talent and ability.

Some princes ruled as coregents (co-kings) with their  fathers, although Egyptologists do not agree on how many kings really  had coregents. Many princes spent time in the army and took part in  military campaigns. While still a child, the crown prince (the one selected to be heir to  the throne) was generally married to a sister, half-sister, or cousin. This  kept the royal bloodlines “pure” and honored the god Osiris and his  sister-wife, the goddess Isis.  

Nobles and Priests Class

A few hundred privileged families controlled most of Egypt’s wealth.  Wealth meant land. The king (who owned everything) granted large  estates to his relatives, friends, and favorites. These large estate-holders  paid no taxes, but they collected heavy taxes from the peasants on their  estates. They became fabulously wealthy “little kings.” Nobles had a moral  duty under ma’at to care for the poor, but they were not legally required  to do so. Priests performed daily religious-magical rituals for the dead, and for  gods and goddesses. These very involved rituals were based on ancient  traditions and had to be carried out exactly the same way every time.

If  the king—Egypt’s chief priest—did not perform the proper daily rituals,  the rituals performed by ordinary priests were worthless.  The dead and the gods required daily nourishment. Rituals included  offerings of food and drink, sacrifices of animals, and magical spells. One  important ritual in every temple was the daily washing, feeding, and  clothing of the statue of the god or goddess. Individual priests had specialties such as teaching, record-keeping,  caring for the dead, conducting funerals, sacrificing animals, or car- ing for the god’s statue.

Priests in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian Nobles

They paid no taxes and were supported by the  government. All but the smallest temples included places to store grain,  libraries, healing centers, and schools. Temples also employed staffs of  artisans, craftsmen, scribes, butchers, bakers, herdsmen, cooks, guards,  doorkeepers, and janitors. In large temples that were dedicated to the major gods, priests  controlled enormous wealth. At the height of their prosperity under  Twentieth Dynasty king Ramesses II, the priests of Amun-Re at Thebes  controlled 90,000 peasants, thousands of acres of farmland, 500,000  head of cattle, 400 orchards (where fruit trees grow), 80 ships, and  50 workshops.

The Amun-Re temples received all the taxes from 65 towns and cities in Egypt and  its empire. Most priests worked parttime at small temples of local  gods or goddesses. As Egypt’s  most educated class, priests were  doctors, mummy preparers,  astronomers, mathematicians,  architects, librarians, teachers,  and scribes. They also ran the  temple schools. While on duty, a priest had  to be “pure.” This meant shaving  his head and body and cleaning  his mouth with natron (a dry- ing mineral), among other rit- ual practices. There were many  things he was not allowed to do  and many things he was required  to do. While performing rituals, priests wore leopard skins,  masks, wands of office, and elaborate jewelry.

Women were not allowed to  become priests. However, they  could be professional mourners  (people who express sadness) at funerals, acting out the grief of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys at the  death of Osiris. They could be sacred prostitutes in the temples of the  fertility god Min. They could be temple musicians, shaking the sistrum  (a sacred musical rattle) or playing instruments during ceremonies.  The word “priestess” generally meant a temple prostitute or a musician.  Women also helped take care of their family cults by bringing offerings to  the dead or burning incense at tombs.

 Government Officials Class

The vizier, or tjaty, was the king’s top government official. He was the  king’s eyes and ears, his right-hand man, his enforcer, and his chief advisor. The vizier enjoyed enormous personal wealth, prestige,  and power, but he also carried  heavy burdens of responsibility. He consulted with the king  every day about major issues and  decisions. He planned the king’s  schedule, hired and fired royal  household staff, and supervised  the king’s bodyguards.

As manager of all the official records, he  inspected and approved government documents, issued receipts  from royal storehouses and granaries, and sent out palace messengers and diplomats. As acting  chief justice of the courts, he  judged arguments over land. He  oversaw the cattle census.  Every few months, the vizier  toured the country. He inspected  canals, reservoirs, and dams. He  supervised cutting down trees  and building ships.

Ancient Egyptian Government Officials

He made sure  the border forts were well-supplied and secure. He organized  defenses against border raids. No  wonder Rekhmara, vizier of Eighteenth Dynasty king Tuthmosis  III, was known to wake up before  dawn and wander the streets of  Thebes! The vizier supervised a personal staff of scribes, assistants,  couriers (people who carry messages), guards, and stewards (people who manage a household or property). Many kings had two viziers—one for Upper Egypt and one for  Lower Egypt.

In the early dynasties, the vizier was usually a relative of  the king. The job could be passed from father to son, but only in cases of ability and merit. Kings were advised to appoint only very rich men  as viziers, because they were less likely to be tempted by bribes. Some viziers were also architects, doctors, and astronomers. One  of the most famous, Imhotep, was vizier to Third Dynasty king Djoser.  Imhotep was a brilliant architect. He designed Djoser’s Step Pyramid.  He was the first to make large buildings entirely of stone.

Imhotep was  also famous as a doctor, mathematician, astronomer, magician, statesman, and wise man. He was credited with inventing the calendar. In  later years, he was worshipped as a god and was considered to be a son  of Ptah, the god of arts and learning. Like modern bureaucrats, viziers loved to add employees to their  departments. Reporting to the vizier were several sub-viziers, cabinet  officers, and department heads. The chief steward, master of the horse,  scribe of the recruits, and superintendent of works also reported to the  vizier. So did the nomarchs—governors of Egypt’s 42 districts (called  nomes).

The chancellor (known as director of the seal) oversaw taxes, trade,  and economic affairs. Overseers of the treasury looked after raw mate- rials, tribute, loot, and raw materials such as metals. Overseers of the  granary managed the harvesting and storage of crops.  Egypt’s government had many layers. It was bureaucratic, and very  expensive to run. It collected heavy taxes and spent a lot. Huge depart- ments—in charge of farming, granaries, taxes, borders, trade, health,  the army, shipbuilding, foreign diplomacy, law—had branch headquar- ters in Upper and Lower Egypt.

Each had many sub-departments and  regional offices. Regional officials working throughout Egypt and in conquered  provinces reported to the vizier. One of the most powerful regional  officials was the viceroy of Nubia. He ran conquered Nubia, oversaw  military forces and border forts, and kept the southern trade routes  open. He commanded a large bureaucracy and ruled independently,  far from the king’s eye. This job was usually passed from father to  son. Egypt was divided into 42 nomes: 22 in Upper Egypt, 20 in Lower  Egypt. Throughout Egypt’s history, the nomes were the basic administra- tive units of government. Nome boundaries were ancient, and nomarchs  were the descendants of Predynastic tribal chieftains. The nomarch was  governor, chief judge, and high priest of the local god or goddess. Each  town or city had a Council of Elders that reported to the nomarch.  


 The Middle Class

 A middle class emerged during the Middle Kingdom. It included  independent artisans, tradesmen, scribes, and professional soldiers.  Most lived in towns or cities, and they gathered in districts with other  members of their profession. They formed informal guilds (unions) and  tradesmen’s groups. They did not control estates, but they were often  wealthy and had many possessions. They depended on wealthy custom- ers and clients, but were not tied to a wealthy landowner’s estate the  way most peasants were. Only 2 to 5 percent of Egyptians could read and write. They  were scribes, who were essential to Egypt’s agricultural economy  and bureaucratic government. 
When a government official visited a  district to inspect granaries, enforce tax collections, hold a criminal  trial, open a new temple, supervise repair of a dam or canal, or oversee  a building project, a team of scribes was there, writing everything  down. Like modern technology workers, scribes traveled frequently for  their jobs. Their equipment had to be as compact, lightweight, portable,  and useful as a modern business traveler’s laptop. A scribe carried his  tools in a custom-made box decorated with colorful designs. He had  a small palette (like a child’s watercolor box) with shallow pots of dry  red and black ink. (He often carried blue, green, and yellow ink, too.)

Ancient Egyptian Merchants
Ancient Egyptian Merchants

He packed small pots for gum (a binder for ink) and water, a mortar and pestle (a bowl with a heavy grinding stick) for grinding ink, lumps of raw minerals for  colors, extra pens and papyrus scrolls, brushes made of  rope or crushed twigs, tools  for repairing his pens and  brushes, and a clipboard-like  writing surface. He was ready  for any job. The scribe moistened his  reed pen in gum and drew it  across one of the colors on  his palette. In flowing hier- atic script, he wrote on scrolls  of papyrus paper propped up  on his writing surface. Many of a nobleman. He might work at a building site tracking labor, materials,  and progress.

 He could work in a temple, copying religious texts or teach- ing student scribes. He could provide sketches of hieroglyphic texts to  stone carvers and painters working on decorating a tomb or temple. Egypt’s professionals—engineers, architects, astronomers, math- ematicians, and doctors—came from the ranks of scribes. Scribes could  become civil engineers, in charge of harbors, irrigation systems, roads,  canals, and public works. They might go along with trading or mining  expeditions to Nubia, Lebanon, or Sinai to negotiate trades or record  business deals. They might join diplomatic missions to write down  treaties and trade agreements.

Ancient Egyptian Scribes

Scribes were almost always men. The job was often passed down  from father to son, but a clever peasant boy might be selected to attend  a temple school. A Middle Kingdom literary work called Satire of the  Trades impressed upon students the advantages of being a scribe, and  the miseries of every other occupation.  Scribes generally did not pay taxes. They were supported generously by the government and by temples. They were fed, housed, and  given fine clothes. They did no heavy labor. A scribe was sometimes his  own boss (although most were part of a government administration).  A scribe often supervised important projects. He was honored and  respected by all, and held up as a role model for the young.  The scribe’s high status also brought responsibilities. 

He was  expected to be a man of especially good character and to live up to the  reputation of his profession. Scribes were held in such high regard that  wealthy men who were not scribes often had statues made showing  themselves as scribes. Egyptian artisans, another part of the middle class, created beautiful work, but not for personal artistic expression. Their statues, paintings, and carvings had specific religious, magical, or ritual purposes.  In the early days, art mainly served the dead (especially kings), and the  gods. As Egypt grew richer, artisans began creating beautiful and useful objects for the living.

Ancient Egyptian labor

 Most artisans labored in workshops as members of efficient production teams. They did not sign their work and get individual recognition.  Their work was dedicated to the glory of the king, the dead, and the gods  and goddesses.  They had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate technical excel- lence and pride in their workmanship. Their work required talent, skill, patience, and discipline. Though it had to follow strict conventions and  traditions, it was frequently witty and inventive, and almost always  graceful and elegant.

 Artisans apprenticed (learned their trade) for years in the work- shops of master craftsmen. Most artisans did not know how to read or  write. They copied plans and sketches provided by scribes or priests.  One workers’ colony studied by Egyptologists, at Deir el-Medina  near Thebes, was occupied by generations of artisans and tradesmen  who worked on tombs in the Valley of the Kings. They lived with their  families in a walled village, enjoying a large measure of independence  and self-government. They worked four hours in the morning, took a  lunch-and-nap break, then worked another four hours. They enjoyed  one day of rest every 10 days (10 days was an Egyptian week).

They often  took time off for festivals and religious holidays. In their off hours, they  were free to cut and decorate tombs for themselves and their families in  the nearby cliffs. Some worked part-time as priests. Workers were paid in wheat and barley. The government supplied  fish, vegetables, oils, butter, salt, charcoal, wine, and beer. They had  servants to do laundry, carry water, grind grain, and catch fish. They  employed cooks, butchers, rope-makers, weavers, and basket makers.   

The Military Class

Another way to raise one’s status was in the military. Before the Middle  Kingdom, Egypt did not have a regular army. Soldiers were drafted  when they were needed. Each nome had to send a specific number of  men. Military leaders were citizen soldiers, not professionals. During Egypt’s imperial age, however, military service became  a profitable career. Professional officers were rewarded with tax-free  estates, livestock, gold, ceremonial weapons, and comfortable retire- ment jobs. During the New Kingdom, Egypt had two large armies divided into  four divisions. 
They were stationed permanently in Upper and Lower  Egypt. The army included infantry (soldiers who fight on foot), scouts  (who go ahead of the army to check out the situation), charioteers (who  fought from chariots), marines (who fought from land or on boats),  and archers (who used bows and arrows). Officers successfully used  strategies, tactics, and innovations introduced by the Hyksos, including  horses and chariots.  New Kingdom soldiers were a privileged, prosperous class. During  peacetime, they lived in military communities.

Ancient Egyptian Military

Soldiers returning from  battles were rewarded with land, livestock, and peasants to farm their  land, which they could keep as long as at least one member of their fam- ily remained on active duty. A military career was one of the few paths to status and wealth  for a poor young man. Even common soldiers shared in battle loot,  including cattle, weapons, and other items taken from defeated peoples.  Ahmes Penekhbet, a soldier who distinguished himself in battle against  the Hyksos and Asiatics, won armbands, bracelets, rings, two golden  axes, and two silver axes. He also received the “gold of valor”—six gold  flies and three gold lions—from the king. Most Egyptians were unwilling to go abroad for military expedi- tions.

They were terrified that if they died outside Egypt, their bodies  would not be properly mummified or buried, and the proper prayers and  spells would not be said at their funerals (if they even had funerals). If  that happened, they would lose their chance at eternal life. So even at the  height of empire, much of the army was made up of mercenaries (soldiers  for hire) and troops from conquered lands, especially Nubians.  Late Period armies were mostly Asiatics and Greeks. Slaves and  foreign captives often won their freedom by joining the army.    

Serfs, Slaves, and Guards Classes

Egyptian peasants were serfs—people who had to work their masters’  land and could not leave. They could also tend their own land and own  animals when they had time. But most peasants owned very little, and  everything they produced was heavily taxed. Most lived in small mud- brick houses in villages next to the fields. Each village had a Council of  Elders, members of the main families who handled day-to-day matters  and minor disputes. A peasant’s life was one of constant, backbreaking labor.

He  planted, tended, and harvested his master’s main crop. He labored in  his master’s garden and tended his master’s herds, f locks, and bee- hives. He carried endless heavy clay jars of water from river or canal  to field and garden, balanced in pairs across his shoulders on a frame  called a yoke. The government also required labor for certain projects from  peasants, although it was not considered slavery. During the inundation, the fields were under water and most peasants had nothing to  do. The government took advantage of this idle labor force. They were  drafted to build royal tombs and temples, cut and haul stone, work  mines, or for military campaigns.

Ancient Egypt Farming

Canals, dams, and reservoirs that  held and managed the waters of the inundation were in constant need  of improvement, maintenance, and repair. Draftees were put to work  year round on these projects and were sent wherever their labor was  most needed. The work was often very hard and dangerous. But the men were  fed, housed, and treated reasonably well. Evading the labor draft was a  serious offense, and it was punished harshly. If a draftee ran away, his  family might be sent to prison or held hostage until he returned.

A man who had enough money,  could hire a replacement worker to take  his place in the labor draft. This a prac- tice was not officially approved, but the  government tolerated it. This kind of labor was not popular.  Still, many men probably saw their expe- rience as an adventure. This might be  their only chance to see the world beyond  their village and participate in the great  works of the age. A talented worker might  be noticed by an important official and  given education and training. Most slaves were foreign war cap- tives from Asia or Nubia.

Ancient Egyptian slaves

The concept  of a slave as a person totally owned  by another person did not exist. The  line between “slave” and “citizen” was  fuzzy. The personal slave of a wealthy  man was often better off than a peasant. The slave could own property, and  even have servants. He could purchase  his freedom, or his master could free  him with a word. Most Egyptian slaves  were treated reasonably well, especially compared to slaves elsewhere in the world at the time. They were fed,  housed, and given a yearly allowance of clothing, oils, and linen. When  it was especially hot, their work hours were reduced.

 In the Late Period,  many foreigners, including former slaves and descendants of slaves, rose  to positions of power. The Medjay (or Medjai) were desert wanderers from Nubia who  were hired by Egypt as policemen, guards, and soldiers. The Medjay  had reputations as fearless guards and brutal law enforcers. They pun- ished criminals such as tax evaders and people who tried to avoid the  labor draft. They guarded palaces, temples, and tombs all over Egypt.  But no police force, even the fierce Medjay, was ever able to stop the  robbers who looted just about every royal tomb in the land.


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