What is your social status? Today we tend to rank people according to how much wealth they control. We stratify people into "wealthy," "middle class," "lower class," and "the poor," with various gradations in between. The way you move between classes is through merit and achievement. But you have no doubt heard the expression, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” People use this expression when they sense someone has achieved position, or gain because of personal connections with powerful people rather than through merit in open competition. In other words, they cheated. It violates our sense of fair play, of everyone having an equal chance to improve his or her “status.” Here is a news flash. The Greco-Roman world was 180 degrees opposite our thinking!
Status was achieved through patronage in the Greco-Roman world. You have seen the bumper sticker, “He who dies with most toys wins.” Well, our Greco-Roman ancestors would have said, “He who dies with most clients wins.” They measured your status by how many people were indebted to you and served you.
Everyday purchases of goods and services were conducted on a market basis but just about everything else in life involved having connections with people who had the power to offer goods, service, jobs, and positions of status. Patrons were expected to give gifts and do favors without calculation of what he or she (the patron) might personally gain in return. Philosophers instructed patrons to seek out those who could not repay them because that would heighten the sense of indebtedness and gratitude. Sometimes a patron’s client would need assistance that only another patron could offer. Patrons would then become "brokers" with other patrons on behalf of the clients. The client was to receive the gifts and favors with exceeding gratitude. He or she was to sing the praises of the patron and do the patrons bidding with unreserved dedication.
The patron usually referred to clients as “friends,” supposedly avoiding any tone of condescension toward clients or causing them to lose face. Reciprocally, the client showed subservience, making no attempt to hide their lesser status, and looked for occasions to honor the patron. The wealthiest patrons provided for most of the public facilities out of their own means. The city would erect statues, post inscriptions, or have a feast in the patron's honor. Patronage was the glue that held society together.
The philosophers talked about this patronage as a three-part dance: A) the giving done by the patron, B) the thankfulness of the client for receiving the patron’s gifts, and C) the unreserved devotion and responsiveness of the client to the patron. This three-part dance was called charis, which we interpret as “grace.” David deSilva points out that today we think of this word as a purely religious term but the New Testament writers were taking this concept of charis and using it as a metaphor for theological purposes. The idea of “faith” describes the state of mind of the client who is confident that their patron will provide for them, and the reciprocal need for the client to be “faithful” in his or her actions.
As we think about status, our modern post-Marx understanding of society tends to place people in economic layers stacked one upon the other with people in those layers tending to unite on the commonality of their status position (i.e. they are integrated horizontally). This stratification is much less meaningful when looking at the Greco-Roman world. Rather than strata, the more helpful image is of multiple patronage pyramids vying against each other (i.e. vertically integrated.) Clearly, wealth was a factor in this patronage game but shrewd use of the patronage system could be just as beneficial as wealth.
In addition to patronage and wealth, there were class distinctions but they differ from our sense of class based almost exclusively on economic criteria. More on that next time.