Thursday, March 29, 2012

Did ancient cities have a middle class?

The middle clas
Last night I watched a National Geographic Special on PBS, "Quest for the Lost Maya," Like most of these shows, it combined interesting research material, first-hand images of fieldwork, overly dramatic music and prose, and silly media-speak. Here I want to explore briefly one aspect of the show, the claim that archaeologists (George Bey and William Ringle) have now identified the Maya "middle class." As quoted from the show's website (link above), "Could this be evidence of the Americas' first ever middle class, emerging a full a millennium before 1776?" My answer is "no."

The Maya middle class ??
This is not the first time that Maya archaeologists have claimed to find the Maya middle class; Arlen and Diane Chase made this claim (in print) for the Classic period city of Caracol some time ago (Chase and Chase 1992; 1996).

I am deeply skeptical of such claims, for two reasons. First, comparative analysis of early cities and states by many scholars has shown that in nearly all cases, these societies had a two-class system. Classes are categories of people who have a specific common relationship to wealth, power, and resources (or, in Karl Marx's terms, a specific relationship to the means of production). In ancient urban societies, the elites who controlled wealth and power typically made up somewhere between 5% and 10% of the overall population, and everyone else were commoners. Each of the two social classes contained variation in wealth and power, of course (e.g., slaves, serfs, free commoners, wealthy merchants among the commoner class). Here are some of the authors who provide the data and theoretical concepts to support the two-class model Trigger (2003), Sjoberg (1960), Williamson (2010).

My second objection to the "Maya middle class" argument is that the concept of "middle class" has a specific meaning in comparative social history. This is a class that arose in the context of medieval cities as an urban, commercial class differentiated from the peasants and the nobility by the creation of a new category of wealth: income from commerce. These men were the burghers, and the new commercial middle class was (and is) called the bourgeoisie. As stated by the great historian Henri Pirenne,

·      “Never before had there existed, it seems, a class of men so specifically and strictly urban as was the medieval bourgeoisie.”(Pirenne 1925:132). (see also Kocka 1995).

I doubt any of the Maya experts would claim that their "Maya middle class" was an urban commercial class, equivalent to the medieval Burghers. No one ever claimed for a Maya city that "city air makes one free" (an expression for medieval cities). Medieval European cities represented a radical break with other pre-modern cities in their commercial role, their legal independence from the king, and growing power of a new social class (the bourgeoisie). In these and other traits, the medieval European city  is not a good model for other ancient or premodern cities around the world, such as the Maya.

The Maya archaeologists base their claims for a middle class on evidence that some commoners were better off economically than others. The Chases use burial data (some tombs have fancier offerings than others, but they do not seem to be elite burials), and Bey and Ringle use evidence from houses and architecture at the site of Kiuic. I agree completely with them that uncovering evidence for prosperous commoners much earlier than anyone had expected (ca. 500 BC) is an exciting find. But this is not an example of the "middle class" as typically used by scholars outside the realm of Maya archaeology.

So, why claim to have found a Maya "middle class" - why not just say that some Maya commoners were prosperous, or that the commoner social class contained a lot of variation in wealth? (this is the way I see the evidence). I offer three possible explanations:
  1. Perhaps the archaeologists want to link their findings to modern society. That is, they want to show that the ancient Maya had similar institutions to modern society, or that they are relevant to modern concerns. Any reader of this blog knows that I sympathize with this urge, but I don't think it justifies misusing a standard social science concept.
  2. Perhaps the archaeologists find their new evidence incongruous with traditional models of the Maya and other ancient societies in which commoners are seen as exploited, downtrodden, and miserable, with no wealth or freedom. If you separate out a group of prosperous commoners as a new category, a "middle class," this can preserve the downtrodden commoners view for the rest of the commoners. I am sure that none of the archaeologists would admit to this motive, but the downtrodden commoners view is quite strong for many ancient societies.
  3. Perhaps the archaeologists are unfamiliar that the concept "middle class" has a specific usage in social history and social science that does not match the ancient Maya.
  4. Perhaps they really think they have identified a new social class, something not present in most other ancient civilizations. That would be an exciting finding, but it would require an explicit theoretical and comparative argument, backed up by considerable data. No one has done this yet, and I don't think it is feasible.
I don't know whether these four suggestions account for why archaeologists want to promote a "Maya middle class." Maya society was fascinating and complex, but there are better ways to describe it.


Chase, Arlen F. and Diane Z. Chase
1996    A Mighty Maya Nation: How Caracol Built an Empire by Cultivating its "Middle Class". Archaeology 49(5):66-72.

Chase, Arlen F. and Diane Z. Chase
1992    Mesoamerican Elites: Assumptions, Definitions, and Models. In Mesoamerican Elites: An Archaeological Assessment, edited by Diane Z. Chase and Arlen F. Chase, pp. 3-17. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Kocka, Jürgen
1995    The Middle Classes in Europe. The Journal of Modern History 67(4):783-806.

Pirenne, Henri
1925    Medieval Cities. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Sjoberg, Gideon
1960    The Preindustrial City: Past and Present. The Free Press, New York.

Trigger, Bruce G.
2003    Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Williamson, Jeffrey G.
2010    Five Centuries of Latin American Income Inequality. Revista de Historia Económica 28(Special Issue 02):227-252.


  1. This is definitely something interesting to think about. I'm but a lowly grad student (and not a Mesoamericanist, either), but I do have a couple of poorly-formed thoughts on this. First, I have no doubt that comparative analysis has shown a two-class system virtually everywhere, but as you say, this requires accepting that "slaves, serfs, free commoners, wealthy merchants among the commoner class", etc. are all part of the same class. It seems like there are other obvious ways of theorizing this.

    Second, while a definition of "middle class" as "an urban commercial class deriving their income entirely from commerce" is probably common in European social history, it doesn't really map all that well onto popular usage of the term, so it makes sense to forgive PBS for using it differently. It also doesn't seem like a definition of "middle class" is all that clear-cut anyway. Peter Saunders, in his entry on "Social Class" in the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (here: points out that even for Marxians it is difficult to really define the middle class (or classes), and when you use Weber as a starting point you end up with something very different. In a sense, it seems like a Weberian account would look something like your option #2: wealthy and poor commoners have very different "market situations."

    In the case of the Nat. Geo. Special, though, it does seem like option 1 is a likely reason. I'm not sure that concept is as standard as you say it is, though, especially when trying to understand the modern American middle class. I do think you're right, though, that it's probably better to try to understand Maya society on its own terms.

  2. @Ian- You make some good points. Class analysis is difficult, partly because there is so much intellectual variation in the definition and meaning of class. Also, the concepts of class have strong emotional overtones to many analysts, which hampers clear discussion.

    Now if archaeologists would decide to work on empirical wealth variation, we could clarify many issues. But this has not been a priority, so we end up with vague arguments of the form: "Two classes!" "Three classes with a middle class!" "No classes at all." A few graphs of house sizes would go a long way (and for a Christmas wish, maybe even some Gini indices!). But in the meantime, we are left with vague statements and no good way of deciding among them on empirical grounds.

  3. I think there is definate evidence for a middle social stratum but agree that class is a very problematic term.

  4. @Jeff- But what is a "social stratum" (and, for that matter, what is a "social class"?). Until we have empirical distribution data, this whole topic will remain fuzzy.

  5. Before he moved on to global concerns Ian Morris did some work on this for the Greek polis. It seems a three-class system of rich and 'middling' landowners and landless workers/slaves was in evidence here. Of course the 'middling class' were hoplite farmers and nothing like the early modern burgher, but they cannot be dissolved in the generic category of 'commoners' either.