Egyptian Society

(Chapter 164) In this short chapter, what Herodotus does not say is as important as what he does. His major aim in this and the following four chapters is to survey the military manpower of Egypt. The seven classes, or castes -- there is no precise word for the concept -- are a middle class. There are soldiers and priests; the priests are probably distinguished by not being liable for military duty, while the soldiers form a standing army; Herodotus makes it quite clear that they do nothing else but follow arms. The other five castes are all probably subject to military duty in times of necessity, possibly by a rotating levy. Two important groups of people are left out: first, the nobles, or owners of land, and second, slaves. It would be quite natural to Herodotus to leave them out, since all his readers would assume their existence. Neither of these groups, the few nobles and the many slaves, were subject to ordinary military service. The word caste is perhaps better than class, since membership in the groups was hereditary, sons following fathers. However, the castes were not socially isolated, and did intermarry, except for the daughters of swineherds, who, as Herodotus tells us elsewhere, were only acceptable to other swineherds. Note that farmer is not one of the groups, and steersmen are included, but not rowers or stevedores. It is clear that the general labor was done by slaves, owned by the state, temple, or lord. For extraordinary works, drafts could be made on these people, or tributary states could be required to provide the equivalent. There seems to be ample evidence for both. It would be very interesting to know if a distinction was made between the serf and the slave, the serf being free but tied to his place, and the slave human property. The hieroglyphs in the title are ideographic, often used as determinatives for these classes of people, as well as by themselves. The priest has his holy water, the soldier his weapons, and the scribe his reed and inkpots.

The castes include herders of cattle and swine, but not sheep; small merchants, which probably included skilled craftsmen; interpreters (they may have interpreted hieroglyphs for Herodotus), which probably includes what are usually called scribes, and boat pilots or steersmen, no doubt owners of boats. Some members of these castes probably had skills or duties not precisely described by the names, which may have actually been a convenient classification for official purposes. The military caste was divided into two groups, the less numerous Hermotybies, and the more numerous Calasiries. Herodotus lists the nomes from which each group is raised in the immediately following chapters, and the Hermotybies are from the western Delta, meaning that they were probably racially Libyan. The Calasiries come from eastern and upriver nomes, and are named after their dress, said to be a long fringed tunic. These two groups are the soldiers that would have marched with Amasis against Apries' Greek and Carian mercenaries.



This is a rather easy chapter. Note the perfect tense, used to describe a definite action (naming) that has an effect that continues to the present. If the action was over at once (like the act of naming instead of the state of being named) the tense would be aorist. If the action continued repeatedly or habitually (being given a different name every month) the imperfect would be appropriate. If the effect lasted for a considerable time (names used for 100 years) but no longer exists, the tense would be pluperfect. If naming was started in the past and was still going on, it would be present. The voice is middle (no agent expressed). In the last sentence, apasa agrees with the nominative Aiguptos, not with some understood ta (or so I believe), so the effect is like Caesar's Gallia est omnis divisa. Some translators believe Herodotus is saying that all things in Egypt are divided by nomes, which is really not true.

There are seven castes of Egyptians, and of these the priests and warriors are so-called; also the cattlemen, also the swineherders, also the merchants, also the interpreters, also the steersmen. Such are the castes of the Egyptians, names given to them from their trades. The warriors of these are called Calasiries and Hermotybies, from the following nomes, for all Egypt is divided into nomes.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Last revised 30 July 1999