When you met an ancient Greek they would tell you about the place in which they were born. Each region was governed by a polis (city state). Being a citizen of a polis brought status, opportunity and protection. Citizens and other members of the society also had responsibilities: honouring the gods, paying taxes, serving in the military, participating in politics. Only some people had the rights of a citizen, even in Athens during its democratic period (511-336 BC).
Status in Society
Citizens - only men - were equal in law but not wealth. In buying a luxury glass alabastron rather than a clay one a Greek could show off wealth. Another way of showing wealth and status was owning horses, which explains why images of horses were so popular. Only aristocrats could afford to ride them in the hunt, races, or cavalry. Soldiers also paid a lot for their kit. The poorest of the Athenians were rowers on merchant ships or in the navy. Traveling by sea was risky. Greeks and others could be captured and sold as slaves in a foreign land. Once captured, slaves might never see their homes again.
It is hard for us to know about the lives of slaves or free women and children because they wrote little and little was written about them: they werenąt considered important. Objects tell a different story. Women used loomweights to weave clothes for their family and vases show women's important role in religion, including birth and death. Women took care of children so that the next generation of citizens would grow up ready to take part in city life.
The word democracy (demokratia) derives from the power (kratos) of the people (demos) who created these laws. Voting tokens, coins, and inscriptions provide evidence of the democracy that Athens created. This democracy gave political power to more people than ever before. All adult men with Athenian parents were citizens. These male citizens also represented the women and slaves. Although women, slaves, and immigrants had no say themselves, it was hoped that decisions would be made for the good of all, not just for the richest few. Debating helped citizens decide how the city should act. They voted to create laws about acceptable behavior, spending the city's money, and whether to go to war. Their laws survive in inscriptions on stone.
Before coins people swapped goods and services. Greeks and their neighbours started to pay for things with lumps of metal worth an agreed amount: this was the invention of coinage. At first, simple stamps on the metal guaranteed the value of each coin. In time, the image of the city god or logo insured the origin as well as value of the coin. City officials - selected at random - checked the quality of these coins and inspected other weights and measures. Such officials were paid in coin but, like everyone else, paid coins back to the city as taxes. Taxes paid for the water supply, public buildings, and religious processions, as well as the military.