Athenians of the Classical period mainly thought of their city as the sum of its citizens, not as a geographical area: for that there were separate terms: asty (town) to refer to Athens, or chora (country) to refer to the remainder of Attica.

At its peak, the population of Attica was somewhere in the region of 300,000 to 350,000. The distinction between one inhabitant of Athens and another rested on whether he had the ability to exercise civic rights. Pericles' citizenship law of 451 B.C. meant that any adult male whose parents originated from an Athenian deme qualified for citizenship. But the citizens can never have numbered more than 50,000 at most as the bulk of the population -women, metics and slaves- had no civic rights. There was also a secondary distinction, based on origin: men, women and children of Athenian origin were known as astoi (townspeople).

In Classical Athens equality among citizens was restricted to the equal exercise of civic rights. Perceived differences in the economic fabric ran all the way through everyday life, and were not seldom associated with origin. The oikos, the household, was the basic unit of the polis, the city, and the life style of the family in each oikos depended on its economic potential. The house of an aristocrat or a well-to-do person differed from that of the hoi polloi not only as regards its size, but as regards the part played by its members.

Social differences in Athens were also based on the jobs people did. You have only to look at how Classical writers mark off social groups to see how strongly these differences were felt. As a rule, writers were from the ranks of the aristocratic or the well-to-do. They used adjectives like 'poor', 'inferior', 'rascally' or 'trivial' for the common people, to contrast with 'rich', 'well-to-do', 'well-born', 'powerful', and 'refined' (kalos k'agathos).

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