The social structure in the Maya Empire was set. It was very difficult to move upwards. Status was usually hereditary. Occupations for Maya men was limited to their father's occupation. If your father was a farmer, you were a farmer. If your father made bricks, you made bricks. There were some exceptions, but they were rare. Women, however, could be involved in government, economics, and religion, as well as responsible for hearth, home, and children. Still, Maya women could not marry outside their social class.
Social Classes, the Caste System: A caste system is a very rigid social system in which you are born into a social position and cannot leave that position. In a caste system you are required to marry within your own caste. The upper caste was composed of rulers, nobles and priests. The middle caste were businessmen, merchants and soldiers. The lower caste was made up of farmers and slaves.
Rulers: Each city had a ruling family. That family lived a life of luxury. During religious ceremonies, rulers wore headdresses that were taller than they were. Rulers held hereditary positions. Sons inherited their right to rule from their fathers. The only way a new ruling family could take over would be by war. This is one reason fights and wars between Maya cities were common.
Nobles and Priests: The only people who could read and write in the ancient Maya world were most of the priests and some of the nobles.
Priests: The most powerful people in the ancient Maya Empire were not the ruling families; the most powerful were the priests. The common people brought the priests tributes or gifts and provided free manual labor for whatever they needed. They did this because the people believed the priests could talk to the Maya gods. Priests lived a life of luxury with servants and attendants. They usually lived away from the common people. Except at the major festivals, the people who supported the priests rarely saw them.
Nobles: Nobles did not have to pay taxes. They did not need to produce anything, although some had jobs. Those who wanted them were given jobs in civil service, as military leaders, and as business leaders in commerce and trade. Most nobles had a great deal of free time and lived lives of luxury.
Merchants and Craftsmen: The Maya didn't have a middle class, so merchants and craftsmen were either nobles or peasants creating art or running a business. For those craftsmen who were peasants, their life was a step up from the life of a farmer, but they could not act like or dress like a noble. They were peasants and if they forgot that, they risked death.
Peasants: Peasants made up the bulk of Maya society. Craftsmen lived in the cities. Farmers lived outside the cities, in their fields. Peasants worked very hard. They did not live a life of luxury. Peasants were used as human sacrifice if no other people, like captured warriors, were available.
Slaves: Slaves were the lowest level. In general, slaves were not treated poorly. In some cases, their lives were far more comfortable than the life of a farm family. But no matter how they were treated, slaves had no rights or privileges. Slaves could be orphans, captured people, or punished people - people who were serving a sentence as a slave. Most of the victims of human sacrifice were selected from the slaves.
Warriors: Warriors were special. They didn't fall into any class really except that of warrior. Military leaders came from the nobles. In the rank and file, some warriors were sons of warriors. Some warriors were peasants, pulled from the fields to fight, who remained in the military if they showed an aptitude for warfare. Some warriors were highly respected, and in some cases, honored. But there was a pecking order. If you were a peasant, you might become a warrior but you would never achieve the same rank as the son of a warrior, although your son might, because your son would be the son of a warrior.