Ancient Egypt often seems to have been a civilization obsessed with status. A characteristic feature of Egyptian art is the hierarchical scaling seen in relief and statuary, whereby the larger a figure is depicted, the greater is his or her relative status compared to other figures in the composition. Expressions of relative status are particularly noticeable in the sphere of mortuary provision: the size of a tomb, its location, and the wealth of its contents all indicate the social position of the tomb owner. In general, Egyptian art presents a world where status was reserved for a small elite of literate males clustered around the person of the king. However, other, more diverse sources suggest a rather more complex picture of social stratification. Certain social groupings cut across traditional class divisions; and, like all aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization, social stratification underwent significant changes over time.
Origins and Historical Overview.
The earliest communities in Egypt for which we have archaeological evidence emerge as relatively egalitarian, without marked differences in status based on wealth or birth. In Lower Egypt an egalitarian social structure seems to have characterized local communities until the last third of the fourth millennium BCE, when the Nile Delta became intimately involved in the process of state formation. From the early fourth millennium BCE, the graves at sites such as Heliopolis South and Wadi Digla show a distinct lack of wealth differentiation, while the pattern of settlements at Merimda and Maadi suggests a simple social structure composed of family units. The first evidence of incipient social stratification is found farther south, in Upper Egypt. It was in this part of the country that the process of political and economic centralization, which ultimately led to state formation, had its origins. For the early fifth millennium BCE, Badarian graves show limited evidence of social inequality, suggesting the beginnings of a stratified society in Upper Egypt.
Differences in grave size and wealth become more marked in the following Naqada I period: burials of certain individuals are distinguished by special artifact types (such as mace heads or ivory tags) which seem to have served as badges of status. Wealthy child burials are also encountered, a sure sign of inherited status: greater expenditure on the burial of an infant than on those of adults from the same community clearly indicates that hereditary lineages had developed, whose authority depended on birth rather than achievements. Taken together, the mortuary evidence indicates the crystallization of social distinctions and the development of an increasingly stratified society in Upper Egypt during the Naqada I period. In the following Naqada II period, political and economic power seem to have become concentrated in the hands of a few hereditary lineages whose influence (if not authority) extended over sizeable territories. This trend accelerated in the final phase of the Predynastic period, Naqada III, reaching its culmination in the formation of the Egyptian state at the very end of the fourth millennium BCE. After the unification of Egypt, all political and economic power was concentrated in the hands of a small ruling elite, presided over by a king claiming divine authority.
Written records from the beginning of the first dynasty indicate that Egyptian society was divided into two groups: the small, ruling elite of royal kinsmen (pʿt) and the mass of the populace (rḫyt). This distinction is reflected in mortuary archaeology in the area around Memphis, the first capital of Egypt: the royal relatives who occupied the highest offices of state were buried in huge, imposing tombs on the edge of the desert escarpment at North Saqqara, whereas the majority of the city's population was interred across the river at Helwan/el-Ma'asara. It has been suggested that, during the first few dynasties, a talented individual from outside the pʿt might achieve high office, since the administration was expanding as the early kings developed sophisticated mechanisms of rule. However, given the meager evidence for Early Dynastic administration, it seems more likely that political and economic power were restricted to the king and his immediate circle. The populace was literally subject to the king: early royal art depicts the rḫyt as subjugated peoples, almost on a par with Egypt's foreign enemies. Early Dynastic society seems, therefore, to have been characterized by a marked division between the governing and governed classes.
Only in the fourth dynasty is there evidence that the highest offices of state were opened up to persons of nonroyal birth, giving individuals from humbler backgrounds the chance to better their social status. Nonetheless, there was probably little change in the overall structure of society, which remained basically pyramidal in form: at the apex there was the king, fount of all authority and channel of communication between the people and the gods; beneath him were the royal family and the literate officials who made up the government; forming the base of the pyramid was the bulk of the population, most of them illiterate agricultural workers. At all times, the political influence of the peasantry remained virtually nonexistent.
At the end of the Old Kingdom, the breakdown of central authority and the political fragmentation of the country brought a blurring of social distinctions; practices and beliefs previously restricted to the royal sphere were adopted by a broader section of society. This process is most noticeable in funerary religion, where it has been dubbed “the democratization of the afterlife.” From the First Intermediate Period onward, it was acceptable for anyone at death to identify himself or herself with Osiris; correspondingly, anyone could now hope to participate in some sort of life after death, a promise that had been effectively the preserve of the king during the Early Dynastic period and Old Kingdom. It used to be thought that the images of national distress so vividly described in Middle Kingdom literature represented firsthand accounts of social turmoil during the First Intermediate Period. It is now widely accepted that they reflect, rather, a particular preoccupation of Middle Kingdom literate society. Nonetheless, the First Intermediate Period stands as something of a watershed in the development of Egyptian society.
The reestablishment of centralized government at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom was accompanied out-wardly by a return to Old Kingdom social structures, but in practice society was somewhat more fluid, with limited opportunities for advancement, irrespective of birth (see below). This trend became more pronounced in the New Kingdom, which is distinguished from preceding periods by the appearance of a significant “middle class,” comprising craftsmen, traders, and minor officials. These people provided a link between the traditional, polarized classes of ruling and ruled, as did the various occupational categories which began to emerge as social groupings in their own right. One of the late New Kingdom Tomb Robbery Papyri contains a list of households on the western bank of the Nile at Thebes. Most of the house holds were in the village of Maiunehes, a community that had grown up around the mortuary temple of Ramesses III. Different categories of householders include senior civil officials, priests, scribes, military personnel, junior officials, craftsmen, and agricultural workers: a representative cross-section of late Ramessid society. The list also reveals the relative social fluidity of New Kingdom Egypt, whereby a priest might also hold a civil appointment, bringing him into contact with a wider range of people. A further picture of late New Kingdom society is provided by the Wilbour Papyrus, which lists land holdings in a stretch of Middle Egypt during the reign of Ramesses V (c.1143 BCE). Among those renting fields from the large land-owning temples are temple personnel themselves, wealthier farmers, and military colonists. The military aspect of New Kingdom society is striking, and important for questions of social mobility (see below). The foreign campaigns waged by New Kingdom pharaohs affected Egyptian society in another important way: they resulted in large numbers of prisoners of war entering Egypt. From this time on, an underclass of slaves was to remain a feature of the Egyptian hierarchy.
Egyptian society in the Late period may be conveniently divided into six groups: slaves, who were the property of their masters and enjoyed few legal rights; serfs, who were tied to the land, and who formed a significant element of the population; and four occupational categories of free citizens (commoners—mostly agricultural workers—warriors, priests, and administrative officials). By comparison, the Greek historian Herodotus identifies seven principal occupations—priests, warriors, cowherds, swineherds, tradesmen, interpreters, and pilots. Many of the groups are the same; the fact that Herodotus recognized interpreters and pilots as separate groups probably reflects his own particular experiences when traveling in Egypt, rather than Egyptian society in general. As at all periods, most of the population remained tied to the land, either legally or by force of circumstances, with few opportunities for social advancement. By contrast, the warrior class enjoyed high standing in Late period Egypt; most “warriors” originated as Libyan mercenaries who had settled in Egypt during the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period. In common with the priests, they probably felt some degree of corporate identity, perhaps even communal interest.
From the beginning of Egyptian history, authority and literacy were inextricably linked. The general designation “scribe” simply indicated an official, since the ability to read and write secured access to the administration and hence a degree of political influence. For most of Egyptian history (until the Late period), the proportion of the population who could read and write is unlikely to have exceeded 5 percent, effectively restricting the reins of power to a tiny minority. The Wisdom Literature of the New Kingdom makes passing reference to education, but it remains unlikely that scribal training (which must have formed the most important element of education) would have been accessible or available to any but a very few children from lowly backgrounds. The single factor of literacy must, therefore, have been a powerful impediment to significant social mobility in ancient Egypt.
Throughout much of Egyptian history, there was a tension between the hereditary principle—whereby important offices often passed from father to son within a family—and the theoretical right of the king to appoint all officials. At certain periods, for example the late New Kingdom and Late period, powerful families monopolized some of the highest civil and religious positions. The “Petition of Petiese,” preserved on Papyrus Rylands IX, illustrates how one family monopolized the office of high priest of Amun-Re at Teudjoi during the twenty-sixth dynasty. Although royal ratification was required in theory for each new appointment, several generations of Petiese's family succeeded to the office following the hereditary principle. In periods of strong central government, the king exercised his right to make appointments; at other times, there was little royal control over who held the most important religious and civil offices.
The “Petition of Petiese” also illustrates how families worked together to promote the interests of their members. Thus, in difficult circumstances, Petiese II could turn for support to his relatives who held the office of high priest of Amun-Re at Thebes. Such family networks must have been an important feature of officialdom throughout Egyptian history. For example, in the late eighteenth dynasty, Yuya and Tuya—a couple of nonroyal birth from a relatively modest background—were accorded the exceptional privilege of a burial in the Valley of the Kings, entirely because of the fact that their daughter had married the king, Amenhotpe III. The accession of Ay, after the death of Tutankhamun, may have been eased by his apparent connection with the same family.
Birth into a noble family was not the only means of achieving high office, and from the early Middle Kingdom on there are examples of individuals from humble backgrounds who reached the higher echelons of the court through their own achievements. On his stela from Abydos, an eleventh dynasty official named Mentuhotep implies that he was a self-made man: he boasts of being “one whose [own] counsel replaced for him a mother … a father … and a son.” In the New Kingdom, those brought up at court with the future king could expect to be appointed to high office when their childhood companion came to the throne. It was also possible for those from lowlier backgrounds to rise to prominence. For example, Ahmose, son of Abana, was the son of a simple soldier, but he succeeded in acquiring land and wealth through his valiant actions in the war of liberation against the Hyksos under King Ahmose. In a similar way, Amenhotep, son of Hapu, one of the most powerful officials in the reign of Amenhotpe III, boasts in one of his statue inscriptions of having built his career on personal qualities rather than high birth.
At times when the usual system of royal succession broke down, it seems to have been easier for men of humble birth to rise to positions of power. Thus, Senenmut, who probably began his career as a simple soldier, enjoyed rapid promotion when Hatshepsut became regent for the young Thutmose III. Although Senenmut never held one of the chief offices of state, his position as the queen's “chief spokesman” and intimate gave him tremendous authority. In a similar way, Akhenaten raised individuals from lowly backgrounds to high office. An official named May held the influential post of “fan bearer on the king's right hand,” as well as being “royal chancellor,” “overseer of all the king's works,” and “overseer of the soldiery of the Lord of the Two Lands.” In his tomb biography, May attributes his success to royal favor: “I was a man of low origin both on my father's and on my mother's side, but the ruler established me; he elevated me … he caused me to associate with nobles and companions [though] I had been one who held last place.” At the end of the Amarna period, the extirpation of the Thutmosid royal line allowed two military men of nonroyal birth, Horemheb and his colleague Ramesses I, to gain the highest office in the land, the kingship. The military formed a powerful section of New Kingdom society, and there was the potential for a successful soldier to reach the highest echelons of government. As “chief army commander” under Tutankhamun, Horemheb had effectively been the king's deputy; he was thus well placed to claim the office of kingship on the death of Ay, Tutankhamun's ephemeral successor. Horemheb also drew on military discipline to restaff “with the finest of the army” the major temple priesthoods, demoralized after Akhenaten's religious reforms. Being childless, Horemheb appointed another trusted army officer, Ramesses, as his heir. The succession at the end of the eighteenth dynasty emphasizes the degree to which the military saw itself as a distinct social group with its own identity and interests.
With each break in dynastic succession throughout Egyptian history, it is possible that the figure who emerged as the new king came from outside the royal family. Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is little evidence for the family background of such rulers. It was considered inappropriate—and, no doubt, unwise—to refer openly to a king's origins if these might cast doubt on his legitimacy. For example, it is likely that Amenemhet I, first king of the twelfth dynasty, had been vizier under his predecessor; perceived illegitimacy may have been one reason behind his apparent assassination. Though hedged about with divinity and ritual, the kingship may always have been viewed by powerful and ambitious individuals as a goal, an opportunity for the ultimate in social advancement.
In the late Ramessid period (twentieth dynasty), society reverted to a more rigid structure, with fewer opportunities for social mobility. Important offices of state now became the prerogative of a few influential families and were passed down from generation to generation with little direct reference to the king. Texts from this period also suggest a resignation to one's social status; this change of tone contrasts sharply with the optimistic outlook of some of the wisdom literature from the earlier New Kingdom, which reflects a distinctly “middle-class” view of society and its opportunities.
Although Egyptians of the Middle and New Kingdoms might hope for social advancement if their skills and achievements gained official recognition, Egyptians of the Late period faced the opposite prospect: debt or punishment for a criminal offense could force an Egyptian into serfdom or slavery. As an underclass, slaves became a significant feature of Egyptian society only in the New Kingdom. At first, slavery was more or less restricted to foreigners, captured in battle or traded from abroad. However, during the Persian period, when slavery was recognized by law, we find Egyptians acting as slaves to Jewish mercenaries on the island of Elephantine.
Two aspects of social stratification that have generated much interest are the positions of women and foreigners in ancient Egyptian society. High-status tombs (which, with few exceptions, were built for male members of the government apparatus) present a male-oriented view of society—the man dominating his wife and children, both iconographically and ideologically—that may not accord with the reality of daily life in an average Egyptian home. Documentary evidence from the New Kingdom workmen's village of Deir el-Medina suggests that women took a leading role in the local economy, in addition to managing household activities. Although it was extremely rare for women to achieve high office in their own right, their political influence may have been significantly greater than the male-dominated sources would have us believe. Likewise, official Egyptian ideology (and the iconography by which it was expressed) despised foreigners as inferior barbarians. However, there is plentiful evidence for foreign mercenaries having been recruited into the Egyptian army throughout pharaonic history. As a general rule, foreigners settling in Egypt were accepted as long as they adopted Egyptian customs and conducted themselves—at least in public—as Egyptians. During the Third Intermediate Period, foreign dynasties (such as the twenty-third and twenty-fifth) were even able to claim the kingship, but made strenuous efforts to portray themselves as traditional Egyptian pharaohs.
- Bard, Kathryn A. From Farmers to Pharaohs: Mortuary Evidence for the Rise of Complex Society. (Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology, 2.) Sheffield, 1994. Mortuary data (grave size and contents) from two Predynastic cemeteries are used to chart the rise of social stratification in Upper Egypt.
- Dorman, Peter F. The Monuments of Senenmut: Problems in Historical Methodology. London and New York, 1988. A detailed study of the career of Senenmut, including discussion of his family background and his sudden rise to power in the reign of Hatshepsut.
- Helck, Wolfgang. “Die soziale Schichtung des ägyptischen Volkes im 3. und 2. Jahrtausend v. Chr.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 2 (1959), 1–36. A unique article commenting on the evidence for changes in social stratification during the historical periods of ancient Egyptian civilization.
- Kemp, Barry J. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. London, 1989. Chapter 7 of this general work includes a section discussing the composition of society in the New Kingdom.
- Malek, Jaromir. In the Shadow of the Pyramids: Egypt During the Old Kingdom. London, 1986. A detailed examination of Egyptian civilization during the Old Kingdom. Chapter 6 looks at the structure of Egyptian society and the working of government.
- Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt. London, 1993. The best treatment to date of the role and status of women in ancient Egypt.
- Trigger, Bruce G., et al. Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Cambridge, 1983. Four chronologically based chapters cover the full span of Egyptian dynastic history. A large part of chapter 4 deals with social stratification in the Late period.
- Vernus, Pascal. “Quelques examples du type du “parvenu” dans l'Égypte ancienne.” Bulletin de la Société Française d'Égyptologie de Genève 59 (1970), 31–47. Probably the only discussion of social mobility in ancient Egypt.
Toby A. H. Wilkinson