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The thetes (Greek: θῆτες, thêtes, sing. θής, thēs, "serf") were the lowest social class of citizens in ancient Athens after the political reforms of Solon. The thetes were those who were workers for wages, or had less than 200 medimnoi (or their equivalent) as yearly income. This distinction spanned from some time earlier than 594/593 BC until 322 BC.
They had a crucial role in the Athenian navy as rowers.
Rights under the Solonian Constitution (594/593 BC)
Under Solon's reforms, they could participate in the Ecclesia (the Athenian assembly), and could be jurors serving in the law court of the Heliaia, but were not allowed to serve in the Boule or serve as magistrates.
Reforms of Ephialtes
Disenfranchisement and expulsion
12,000 thetes were disenfranchised and expelled from the city after the Athenian defeat in the Lamian War. There is debate among scholars whether this represented the entire number of thetes, or simply those who left Athens, the remainder staying behind.
Unlike the popular concept of galley slaves, ancient navies generally preferred to rely on free men to row their galleys. In the 4th and 5th century Athens generally followed a naval policy of enrolling citizens from the lower classes (the thetes), metics and hired foreigners. However, under some conditions, for example during the Mytilenean revolt, higher classes were enrolled as rowers also. This made them crucial in the Athenian Navy and therefore gave them a role in Athens' affairs (see Constitution of the Athenians).
In popular culture
- The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson describes a society dominated by so-called "phyles" or tribes. People who do not belong to any phyle are known as "thetes" and are often socially disadvantaged and economically poor. The protagonist of the book, Nell, is a thete.
- The Other Greeks
- Pentacosiomedimni, the highest class, who had at least 500 medimnoi of wet or dry goods (or their equivalent) as yearly income
- Hippeis, the second highest class, who had at least 300 medimnoi (or their equivalent) as yearly income
- Zeugitae, the class above, who were possessors of a yoke of oxen, with at least 200 medimnoi (or their equivalent) as yearly income
- Solon, the reformer who established the thetes
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