Class and Social Order in the Roman Republic


Detail of a mosaic of farming activities / Museum of Cherchell, Creative Commons

Traditionally, Roman society was extremely rigid.


Introduction

The social structure of ancient Rome was based on heredity, property, wealth, citizenship and freedom. It was also based around men: women were defined by the social status of their fathers or husbands. Women were expected to look after the houses and very few had any real independence.

Dressed to impress 

The boundaries between the different classes were strict and legally enforced: members of different classes even dressed differently. Only the emperor was allowed to wear a purple toga, while senators could wear a white toga with the latus clavus, a broad purple stripe along the edge. Equestrian togas had a narrow purple stripe (clavus augustus). 

Although the classes were strictly defined, there was a lot of interaction. Slaves and some freemen worked the in homes of the upper classes, like the senators and patricians. Soldiers also mixed with their officers. 

Patronage 

Roman society also involved a system of patronage. Members of the upper classes – the patroni – offered protection to freedmen or plebeians, who became their “cliens.” Patronage might consist of money, food, or legal help. Traditionally, any freed slaves became the cliens of their former owner. 

In return, patroni received respect and political favors. During the empire, cliens were required to offer daily greetings to their patroni, and the number of these greeters helped determine social status. On the frontiers of the empire, Roman generals served as patroni for the people they conquered, while Roman provinces or cities often sought out an influential senator to act as patroni and oversee their interests in Rome.

The chosen few 

Despite the inflexibility of Roman society, advancement was always possible for the select few. Wealth and property were well-known routes to social advancement, as was patronage by the emperor – at one point, Caligula even made a horse a senator. 

Over time, society did become more fluid. Augustus expanded the equestrian order and hired them into senior administrative positions. By the end of the first century, equestrians were recruited into the Senate. 

Membership of the equestrian class was not restricted to Italian-born citizens, so letting equestrians into the Senate was a big step. Over time, the Senate would be open to Roman citizens from outside Italy. By the end of the first century, even the emperor himself would be born abroad.

Patricians

Mosaic floor from the cubiculum of a patrician house in black, white and ochre, Nora, Sardinia / Photo by Carole Raddato, Wikimedia Commons

Sitting at the top of Roman society were the emperor and the patrician classes. 

Although they enjoyed fabulous wealth, power and privilege, these perks came at a price. As Rome’s leaders, they couldn’t avoid its dangerous power struggles. 

Life of luxury 

As absolute ruler of Rome and its enormous empire, the emperor and his family lived in suitable style. They stayed at the best villas, ate the finest food and dressed in only the most magnificent clothes. 

Life was luxurious, extravagant and indulgent – the emperor’s family could spend their days enjoying their favorite pastimes, like music, poetry, hunting and horse racing. 

Palace intrigue 

Still, it was not an easy life. Succession to the emperor was not strictly hereditary: the throne could pass to brothers, stepsons or even favored courtiers and any heir had to be approved by the Senate. 

As a result, royal palaces were constantly filled with political intrigue. Potential heirs and their families always needed to be pushing their name, making their claim and hustling for position. 

They would have to keep an eye on their rivals for the throne – including members of their own family – and would need to keep tabs on the many political factions within the Senate. Ultimately, to secure the ultimate prize would often require betrayal, backstabbing and even murder. It all made for a very stressful life in which only the strongest and most determined could survive. 

Patricians 

Ranked just below the emperor and his relatives, the patrician families dominated Rome and its empire. The word “patrician” comes from the Latin “patres”, meaning “fathers”, and these families provided the empire’s political, religious, and military leadership. 

Most patricians were wealthy landowners from old families, but the class was open to a chosen few who had been deliberately promoted by the emperor. 

A good education 

Boys born into a patrician family would receive an extensive education, usually from a private tutor. This would focus on the subjects a sophisticated noble would be expected to know, as well as some required for his future career. Poetry and literature, history and geography, some mythology and important languages – like Greek – would all be taught. 

The Romans also considered lessons in public speaking and the law to be essential parts of a good education. Most young patrician men would go on to careers in politics and government, for which these two subjects were crucial. However, the patrician families were also expected to help continue the ancient priesthoods. 

A privileged position 

The patrician class enjoyed few privileges: its members were excused some military duties expected of other citizens, and only patricians could become emperor. But this eligibility carried its own dangers: patricians could find themselves becoming wrapped up in palace intrigue. If they ended up on the losing side, they could easily lose their home, their lands and even their lives. 

Apart from the plots and politics, however, members of both royal and patrician families faced little work or real responsibility and were blessed with a relatively charmed life – certainly compared to the other inhabitants of Rome at the time.

Senators

A fresco by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919 CE) depicting Roman senator Cicero (106-43 BCE) denouncing the conspirator Catiline in the Roman senate. (Palazzo Madama, Rome) / Wikimedia Commons

Senators in the first century AD held much less power than their predecessors, although the Senate still had the right to confer the title of emperor. 

This alone ensured that the Senate and its members remained relevant and important. 

The Roman Senate started life as an advisory council, filled entirely with patricians. In the last two centuries of the republic, however, it had become much more powerful and a major player in politics and government. 

Civil war 

Many senators had been killed in the civil war that brought Julius Caesar to power in 46 BC: as a result, the Senate was looking a little empty. Caesar increased the number of senators from around 600 to 900. This changed the membership of the Senate considerably: many of the new faces were Equestrians or came from Italian towns – some even came from Gaul. 

This increase in the number of senators soon reversed itself and, during the first century, the Senate consisted of 600 men. Most were either sons of senators, or were elected quaestors (junior magistrates). 

Climbing the ladder 

Only Roman citizens aged 25 or over, with both military and administrative experience, could become quaestors, the lowest rung on the government ladder. Potential candidates were nominated by the emperor and the elections were merely a formality. 

Once elected, an ambitious senator would progress through the different ranks of magistrates. These included the quaestorship, the aedileship, the praetorship and, ultimately, the consulship and the position held at any one time determined his senatorial rank. 

Privileges of office 

In addition to their political and judicial powers, senators had special privileges. They alone could hold the highest official offices and judgeships in criminal and civil courts. In addition, senators enjoyed reserved seating at public ceremonies and games, and they alone had the honor of wearing the ‘latus clavus’ – the purple striped toga. 

In 27 BC, Augustus claimed he had restored the republic. In truth, Rome was governed by a dynastic monarchy and real power was held by the emperor. Augustus pretended that he valued the traditional republican institutions. He understood that it was politically important to pay lip service to the Senate and ensure it kept some prestige. 

New ruler, new rules 

Augustus also began a new rule that senators had to have property worth 1,000,000 sesterces (Roman coins). Senators were also not allowed to become directly involved in business – particularly shipping or government contracts where there might be a conflict of interest. Given they were also unpaid, this meant that only a small percentage of the population could afford to become deeply involved in politics. 

During the empire, the senate was at the head of the government bureaucracy and was a law court. The emperor held the title of Princeps Senatus, and could appoint new senators, summon and preside over Senate discussions, and propose legislation. 

The Senate therefore took its lead from the emperor and, in most important areas, was only an advisory body. However, it still had the right to confer the title of emperor and this power alone meant that the Senate and its members remained relevant and important, even during the worst years of the first century.

Equestrians

The replica of the statue of Marcus-Aurelius, Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome, Italy / Photo by Jebulon, Wikimedia Commons

Ranking immediately below senators, equestrians became an important human resource, whose work underpinned the smooth running of the Roman Empire. 

As its name suggests, the equestrian class was originally composed of the Roman cavalry. In 218 BC, equestrians took on more commercial roles when Lex Claudia prevented Senators from becoming involved in trade or business. 

The business classes 

As a result, many in the equestrian class became wealthy businessmen. Many were tax collectors, bankers, miners and exporters, while others governed lucrative public contracts, such as those awarded to build roads or aqueducts. 

The Emperor Augustus recognized the importance of the equestrians, reorganized them into a military class and encouraged others to join. Now Roman citizens of any social level could become equestrians, as long as they were of good reputation, in good health and owned at least 400,000 sesterces (Roman coins). 

Running the empire 

By using equestrians in responsible positions in government, Augustus founded the imperial civil service, which equestrians would later head. Their business background made them particularly suited for positions in the financial administration of the provinces. Over the following decades, the number of equestrians increased dramatically, until there were thousands throughout the empire.

By the time of Claudius, equestrians could reasonably expect a good career. After serving in the army as an officer, a potential equestrian might become a procurator – an agent of the emperor. He could then become a prefect, or government administrator, at home or abroad. Prefects had responsibilities as varied as the fire brigade, grain supply, and foreign provinces, such as Egypt. 

Opportunity knocks 

Equestrians could rise to the rank of senator. The senatorial class found it difficult to supply enough men of its own, so they recruited from the equestrian class. Also, sons of senators were automatically classified as equestrians until they had gained the necessary age, experience and office. 

Because equestrians did not have to be Roman or Italian by birth, this opened up the ranks of senators to non-Italians. When Vespasian increased the number of senators, the popularity of the equestrian class meant that the Senate now included citizens born in provinces such as Gaul and Spain. It was a sign that talented men from all over the empire could hold important office. Before long, the Emperor Trajan would be in power and, for the first time, Rome would be ruled by a man born abroad.

Plebeians

Coriolanus Addressing the Plebeians, by George Cruikshank

Rome’s working class, the plebeians had little individual power. Grouped together, however, they became a Roman mob and had to be handled carefully. 

By the first century AD, plebeians comprised a formal class, which held its own meetings, elected its own officials and kept its own records. The term plebeian referred to all free Roman citizens who were not members of the patrician, senatorial or equestrian classes. 

Working class heroes 

Plebeians were average working citizens of Rome – farmers, bakers, builders or craftsmen – who worked hard to support their families and pay their taxes. Over the course of this period, early forms of public welfare were established by Titus and Trajan and, in difficult times, plebeians could ask Roman administrators for help. 

We know much less about daily life for the lower classes, such as plebeians. Unlike the more privileged classes, most plebeians could not write and therefore they could not record and preserve their experiences. 

A glimpse of normal life 

This is one reason why archeological sites like the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are so important: they preserve the living spaces, shops, tools, and graffiti of the common people that would otherwise be lost to history. 

Social climbing 

Some plebeians, who were doing reasonably well, might try to save enough money to join the equestrian class. For many, however, life was a daily struggle. 

But although individual plebeians had little power, there were a lot of them. In bad times, or during political unrest, there was always the risk of the Roman ‘mob’ rioting or rebelling against the upper classes. 

Bread and circuses 

The Emperor Augustus was well aware of this risk and was keen to keep the poorest plebeians happy enough and reasonably well fed so that they would not riot. He began the system of state bribery that the writer Juvenal described as ‘bread and circuses’. 

Free grain and controlled food prices meant that plebeians could not starve, while free entertainment – such as chariot races and gladiators in amphitheaters and the Circus Maximus – meant that they would not get bored and restless. Bribery it may have been, but it often worked.

Slaves and Freemen

A marble relief panel from Smyrna showing Roman slaves in chains. 200 CE. (Ashmolean Musuem, Oxford, UK) / Photo by Jun, Wikimedia Commons

Slavery in ancient Rome differed from its modern forms in that it was not based on race. 

But like modern slavery, it was an abusive and degrading institution. Cruelty was commonplace. 

A common practice 

Slavery had a long history in the ancient world and was practiced in Ancient Egypt and Greece, as well as Rome. Most slaves during the Roman Empire were foreigners and, unlike in modern times, Roman slavery was not based on race. 

Slaves in Rome might include prisoners of war, sailors captured and sold by pirates, or slaves bought outside Roman territory. In hard times, it was not uncommon for desperate Roman citizens to raise money by selling their children into slavery. 

Life as a slave

All slaves and their families were the property of their owners, who could sell or rent them out at any time. Their lives were harsh. Slaves were often whipped, branded or cruelly mistreated. Their owners could also kill them for any reason, and would face no punishment. 

Although Romans accepted slavery as the norm, some people – like the poet and philosopher, Seneca – argued that slaves should at least be treated fairly. 

Essential labor 

Slaves worked everywhere – in private households, in mines and factories, and on farms. They also worked for city governments on engineering projects such as roads, aqueducts and buildings. As a result, they merged easily into the population. 

In fact, slaves looked so similar to Roman citizens that the Senate once considered a plan to make them wear special clothing so that they could be identified at a glance. The idea was rejected because the Senate feared that, if slaves saw how many of them were working in Rome, they might be tempted to join forces and rebel. 

Manumission 

Another difference between Roman slavery and its more modern variety was manumission – the ability of slaves to be freed. Roman owners freed their slaves in considerable numbers: some freed them outright, while others allowed them to buy their own freedom. The prospect of possible freedom through manumission encouraged most slaves to be obedient and hard working. 

Formal manumission was performed by a magistrate and gave freed men full Roman citizenship. The one exception was that they were not allowed to hold office. However, the law gave any children born to freedmen, after formal manumission, full rights of citizenship, including the right to hold office. 

Informal manumission gave fewer rights. Slaves freed informally did not become citizens and any property or wealth they accumulated reverted to their former owners when they died. 

Free at last?

Once freed, former slaves could work in the same jobs as plebeians – as craftsmen, midwives or traders. Some even became wealthy. However, Rome’s rigid society attached importance to social status and even successful freedmen usually found the stigma of slavery hard to overcome – the degradation lasted well beyond the slavery itself.

Soldiers

Levy of the army, detail of the carved relief on the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, 122-115 BC / Photo by Jastrow, Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons

The Roman Army was one of the most successful in the history of the world and its soldiers were rightly feared for their training, discipline and stamina. As a result, the army was a major player in Roman politics and maintaining its loyalty was an essential task for any Emperor.

The Roman legions

The Roman Empire was created and controlled by its soldiers. At the core of the army were its legions, which were without equal in their training, discipline and fighting ability.

By the time Augustus came to power, the army contained 60 legions. Each of these was divided into ten cohorts of up to 480 men. The minimum term of service for a soldier during the first century AD was twenty years.

Weapons and armor

Each legionnaire (or ‘miles’) carried a short sword, called a gladius. This was his main weapon. He also carried a ‘pilum’ (javelin), a helmet, armor, shield and a pack with supplies. Soldiers were rigorously trained to march long distances, fight in precise formations, and kill expertly with all the weapons they carried.

The toughest postings for soldiers were those at the frontiers of the Roman Empire, where legionnaires never had enough supplies, faced hostile local tribes and had to endure tedious routines.

Writing home

At the northern limit of the Roman Empire was Britain. Soldiers and their families found it to be a cold, remote, hostile place with little to do. Like soldiers ever since, they spent much of their free time writing letters home, asking for news and warm clothing.

When they retired, every legionnaire was entitled to a plot of land to farm. Soldiers looked forward to this generous reward for a lifetime of loyal service. Despite the hardships, many who had been posted to Britain settled there, taking plots of land near remote Roman forts.

Mutiny

Rome was not always able to honor the important promise of land. In 14 AD, just after Tiberius had become emperor, a mutiny broke out among legions in central Europe. Soldiers complained that Rome was not keeping to the spirit of its promise.

The length of service, combined with the trials of military life, meant that soldiers developed deep camaraderie and these complaints struck home with other soldiers. The mutiny gained momentum: some soldiers began showing their scars; others looted and killed their officers.

A serious army mutiny spelled potential disaster for any emperor, whose power, both at home and abroad, was based on his control of the army.

Enter Germanicus

Tiberius sent Germanicus, his nephew, to deal with this problem before it got even worse. It was a good choice: Germanicus was a popular, charismatic general whom the soldiers respected as one of their own. His son, Caligula, had been born in an army camp and was a mascot to the Roman legions.

At first, the arrival of Germanicus and his family appeared to be a big mistake. Fearing further violence, he sent his wife and son away. Ashamed, the soldiers begged her to return. The mutiny was all but over. It had taught an important lesson – that the loyalty of the army was essential for the empire to exist, but that loyalty could not be taken for granted.

Keeping the army on side

As future Emperors would discover, while soldiers were loyal to their emperor, this loyalty was nothing compared to the loyalty felt by many legions to their commanders. Holding the monopoly on force that underpinned empire and emperor, the army was always politically important. A discontented army was a powerful enemy and a popular commander was a potential threat.

Women

Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”) / Naples National Archaeological Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Defined by the men in their lives, women in ancient Rome were valued mainly as wives and mothers. Although some were allowed more freedom than others, there was always a limit, even for the daughter of an emperor. 

Not much information exists about Roman women in the first century. Women were not allowed to be active in politics, so nobody wrote about them. Neither were they taught how to write, so they could not tell their own stories. 

Legal rights 

We do know a little, however. Unlike society in ancient Egypt, Rome did not regard women as equal to men before the law. They received only a basic education, if any at all, and were subject to the authority of a man. Traditionally, this was their father before marriage. At that point, authority switched to their husband, who also had the legal rights over their children. 

However, by the first century AD women had much more freedom to manage their own business and financial affairs. Unless she had married “in manu” (in her husband’s control, which conferred the bride and all her property onto the groom and his family) a woman could own, inherit and dispose of property. 

Traditionally, these women, who had married “sine manu” (meaning she was without her husband’s control but still under the control of her pater familias), had been obliged to keep a guardian, or ´tutela,´ until they died. By the time of Augustus, however, women with three children (and freedwomen with four) became legally independent, a status known as “sui iuris.” 

A woman’s work 

In reality, the degree of freedom a woman enjoyed depended largely on her wealth and social status. A few women ran their own businesses – one woman was a lamp-maker – or had careers as midwives, hairdressers or doctors, but these were rare. 

On the other hand, female slaves were common and filled a huge variety of roles, from ladies’ maids to farm workers, and even gladiators. 

Wealthy widows, subject to no man’s authority, were independent. Other wealthy women chose to become priestesses, of which the most important were the Vestal Virgins. 

Influence, not power 

However wealthy they were, because they could not vote or stand for office, women had no formal role in public life. In reality, wives or close relatives of prominent men could have political influence behind the scenes and exert real, albeit informal, power. 

In public, though, women were expected to play their traditional role in the household. They were responsible for spinning and weaving yarn and making clothes. These were usually made from wool or linen, although wealthy women (whose servants made their clothes) often dressed in expensive, imported fabrics, like Chinese silk or Indian cotton. 

Women were expected to be the dignified wife and the good mother and, while these rules could be bent, they couldn’t be broken.

The Trouble with Julia

Bust of Julia the Elder / Wikimedia Commons

Julia was daughter to Emperor Augustus and was renowned as a clever, vivacious woman with a sharp tongue. However, Augustus was traditional and insisted that Julia spin and weave like plebeian women, to demonstrate her wifely virtues.

This was unfortunate, because wifely virtues were not her strength. In fact, Julia had a series of lovers and many people knew this. 

Augustus, who was socially very conservative, was furious. He denounced her in public and banished her for the rest of her life. There were limits – even for an emperor’s daughter.

On the Frontiers

Roman soldiers crossing the Rhone on pontoons / Wikimedia Commons

At the height of the Roman Empire, a quarter of the world’s population lived under Roman law. 

This made the empire one of the most culturally diverse societies ever seen. Initially regarded as inferior, foreign citizens were eventually admitted to the highest ranks of Roman society. 

Under Emperor Trajan, the Roman Empire reached its peak. It stretched from the Middle East to northern Britain and from Egypt to Germany. 

Pax Romana 

Under the “Pax Romana”, meaning “the peace of Rome”, inhabitants of conquered lands were not automatically considered Roman citizens. But they were subject to Roman laws and paid Roman taxes. Some of these paid for public utilities, like roads and waterworks – being part of the empire did have some advantages. 

While local inhabitants behaved themselves and paid their taxes, they were allowed to continue with their local customs and religions, as long as these did not directly violate or compromise Roman law. 

Client kings 

To help Rome govern its provinces, it often appointed “client kings”. These would decide on local or religious matters that did not require Roman input. This arrangement did not always work. For instance, the head of the Iceni tribe in Britain was a client king, but after his death, his wife, Boudicca, led a rebellion that almost defeated the Romans in Britain. 

The trial of Jesus shows how the use of client kings worked. Jesus was first brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea, on charges of treason – a crime against Roman law. 

After hearing the evidence, Pilate found no proof of treason. He considered the case to be a religious dispute and passed it on to Herod, a client king. Herod could rule on accusations of blasphemy against the Jewish religion. However, the death sentence could only be used under Roman law, so Herod passed this back to Pilate, who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion. 

Promoting new talent 

A major change in the Pax Romana came under the rule of the Emperor Claudius. For a long time, the Senate had resisted new blood among its membership, especially foreign blood. Claudius was much more prepared to allow conquered peoples to become Roman citizens than his predecessors had been. 

In 48 AD, he took this a step further, arguing that men from Gaul (now modern France) should be admitted to the Senate, claiming it was the smart and right thing to do. He was opposed by the Senators. One claimed that Claudius “was determined to see all Greeks, Gauls, Spaniards and Britons wearing the toga.” 

In the end, Claudius won. It was an important move towards integrating the many countries of the empire and one that would ultimately see Trajan, a foreign born general, take the throne.


Originally published by PBS, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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