Ancient History & Civilisation


The basis of Roman society was not the individual but the family, at whose head the father (paterfamilias) wielded autocratic power (patria potestas: see p. 323). When he died, his sons in turn became heads of their own households, so that the familiaeincreased. Gradually relationship would be forgotten, but various families found themselves linked by the use of a common name; thus a new social body was formed, the house or clan (gens), which played a vital part in Rome’s growth.26

Each man had a name (nomen) denoting his gens, of which there were according to Varro about a thousand, a personal name (praenomen), of which only thirty are known to us and about fifteen were in common use, and a surname (cognomen) which marked the family or group of families within the gens, e.g. Publius (praenomen) Cornelius (nomen) Scipio (cognomen). In early times the gens had common religious observances (sacra) and possessed a common place of burial, but probably it did not hold land in common. The fact that Romulus is said to have distributed conquered land viritim shows that the Romans themselves regarded private ownership as primitive; yet at one time there may have been some restriction on conveying or mortgaging land.27 Closely attached to thegens or family, and enjoying some of the privileges, though not full members, were the dependants (clientes) who stood in a filial relationship to their patrons (patroni). Their origin is clear: in a primitive state the man who lacked the protection of his family could not safeguard his life or property without the legal assistance of a ‘patron’ – for instance, the manumitted slave, the son who broke away from his family, the stranger whom trade had attracted, or even the poor citizen who had fallen under the domination of the nobles. The patron granted protection and land for occupation; in return the client, like a medieval vassal, was expected to render certain services, such as help in ransoming his patron if captured in war, or in dowering his daughter. They were bound together by moral and religious sanctions, which are apparent in the use of the word fides, while he ‘who weaves a net of guile about his client’ is placed by Virgil on a level with the man who strikes his father.

Roman society was sharply divided into two classes, patricians and plebeians, or nobles and commons, and the early history of the Republic consists largely in the struggle of the plebeians to attain complete equality with the patricians. But the origin of the two orders is shrouded in mystery. Livy and Cicero thought that the distinction was political: Romulus selected a hundred senators whom he named patres and whose descendants were called patricians; the rest of the population was plebeian. Various modern theories have been advanced to explain the origin of the plebeians. One school saw in them a distinct racial element, representing a conquered people, like the English after the Norman conquest. But great divergence was displayed in determining who the conquered were: the original population subdued by Indo-European invaders or by Etruscans; or the inhabitants of conquered cities transported to Rome; or the Sabines conquered by northern invaders coming immediately from the Alban hills; or the original Latin settlers conquered by the Sabine tribes. Such views are now out of favour. Thus although there was a definite Sabine element in the state and although some believe in a Sabine conquest of Rome, ancient tradition neither identifies this element with the patricians, nor supports the view that the Roman state originated by conquest; any differences between the orders in ritual or in ceremony (e.g. marriage and burial) are due to divergences in rank and wealth, not in race. A second school, that of Mommsen, maintained that the patricians were the original settlers, the plebeians their clients and dependants. It is not, however, now generally admitted that the original settlement consisted entirely of patricians, nor is the struggle of the plebs to be conceived as the effort of a depressed non-citizen class of clients to win independence. Further, it is difficult to see how the struggle began if the plebs were originally bound by ties of loyalty and interest to their patrician patrons, for it is unlikely that they ever sank to serfdom; nor is it probable that so large a part of the population would have arisen in this way.28

A more satisfactory explanation is that class differences and the caste system arose from economic conditions. A plebs urbana would gradually be formed by the humble traders who were attracted to the city and by clients who lost their patrons; and later, when the nobles became more exclusive, even by more wealthy merchants. At the same time a plebs rustica arose from the farmers ruined by war or other causes. Land varied in productivity; the soil of the central plains might be washed away or deteriorate under continual cultivation, so that some farmers would gain at the expense of their fellows whom they could exploit more and more as their capital increased. A caste system of the successful and the failures grew up and hardened under the Etruscan rule; no such distinct cleavage between the orders is noticeable in other Latin cities which were not subjected to the Etruscans for so long. Yet the plebeians probably did not in early times sink to the condition of serfs, bound to the soil, for the oligarchical tendencies of the aristocracy were checked by the Etruscans who made the plebs class-conscious.29

It can no longer be maintained that the citizen body of early Rome was composed solely from the patrician clans. The plebs were citizens, and their struggle against the nobles was not for admission to citizenship but for certain privileges from which they were excluded. Like the patricians, they were organized in gentes, some of which even bore the same names as patrician gentes. And since the gentes had no official position in the state, the aristocracy could not easily have objected to the organization of successful plebeian families into gentes, constituted for the practice of common cults and the exercise of rights of succession, nor even to them attaching clients to themselves. The point at which the citizen body definitely hardened into these two sharply divided orders must probably be set later than is often supposed: while doubtless a distinction between oligarchy and the masses was always a feature of Rome’s political existence, the emergence of a patriciate as such may belong only to the later regal period and the early fifth century. In fact, the patricians probably made a final attempt to increase their exclusiveness when in 450 the decemviral legislation forbade intermarriage with plebeians, probably for the first time.30

The origin and meaning of the division of the patrician gentes into maiores and minores are uncertain. Traditionally Tarquinius Priscus added to the patres a hundred members minorum gentium, who perhaps were either less successful patricians or else a highly successful body of plebeians who were admitted into the patriciate while it was still hardening into a caste. When Alba fell, its chief families were added to the patres by Tullus Hostilius, while even after the fall of the monarchy the Sabine gens of the Claudii is said to have migrated to Rome and to have been co-opted into the patrician body by the Senate. Nevertheless the aristocracy increasingly tried to assert its supremacy, alike in political, social and religious life. The political aspect will be dealt with in the next section; suffice it to say that they alone in practice formed the Senate and held any offices which existed under the monarchy. Socially they maintained their exclusiveness by avoiding intermarriage with the plebs. They practised a form of marriage, namedconfarreatio after the cakes of spelt (far) offered to Jupiter, at which the Pontifex Maximus and flamen Dialis officiated. The plebs used two forms of marriage, both legally valid: coemptio, originally marriage by purchase, and usus. This avoidance of intermarriage was one cause of the decline of the patricians: of the seventy gentes represented in the early Republic only twenty-four are found among the higher magistrates between 366 and 179 BC. This gradual extinction, which was hastened by the heavy toll which war levied on the nobles, incidentally favoured the rise of the plebs, whose ranks would be swelled by the clients of patrician families which died out.

The third factor in the caste system was the patrician control of the religious institutions of the state (see Chapter XVIII). The two great priestly colleges of pontiffs and augurs were in the hands of the patres. At the head of the pontiffs was the Pontifex Maximus who controlled the priesthoods of the flamens, Salii and Vesta. The pontiffs who were traditionally established by Numa were the guardians of the ius divinum and had charge of the Roman calendar. By determining what was fas or nefas they elaborated the earliest criminal code and the procedure in private law; by declaring what days were lucky (fasti) or unlucky (nefasti) and by their interpretation of prodigies they obtained considerable influence over public business. Hardly less political power was wielded by the College of the Augurs, which Romulus is said to have established. All state business needed auspicia, signs duly observed which showed the favour of heaven. Although the king, and in Republican times the magistrates, ‘had the auspices’ and were responsible, the augurs interpreted the signs vouchsafed by the gods and thus gained considerable political power.

Finally, another guild of priests, the fetiales, played an important role in Rome’s international relations. They were established by one of the early kings to perform a ritual for which he himself had been responsible: the declaration of war and the swearing of treaties. When complaints of any act of aggression by their neighbours reached the Senate, the fetial board investigated the matter and, if necessary, sent one or more of their number to seek redress with the formula (rerum repetitio): ‘If I unjustly or impiously demand that the aforesaid offenders be surrendered, then permit me not to return to my country.’ If restitution was not made during a thirty-days’ interval while the Roman citizens were mustering for war and a standard was flying on the citadel, the fetialesreturned and called on the gods to witness that they had been wronged and that their cause was just (testatio deorum). The Senate then decided on war, which was confirmed by the people, a messenger was sent to hurl a magical charred spear into the enemy’s territory, and a ‘just’ war was thus proclaimed (indictio belli). This procedure demonstrates that the normal relationship between Rome and her neighbours was that of peace, not war, and that Roman custom did not recognize an aggressive spirit or territorial covetousness as legitimate causes for war: a custom which arose less perhaps from moral scruples than from an inherent desire for law and order and from a clear recognition of the value of peace. As fetial priests existed in other Latin towns and even among the Samnites, they helped to build up a primitive, but generally accepted code.31

Such then were some of the privileges which the patricians reserved for themselves. The plebeians were citizens and had a vote in the meeting known as the Comitia Curiata (ius suffragii); if in theory they could sit on the Council of the patres or hold any magisterial office (ius honoris), in practice they would seldom succeed. Of the private rights of trade and marriage (iura commercii et conubii) they exercised the former, which included the right to hold property, but if they possessed the latter they were seldom able to avail themselves of it. In addition, they were excluded from knowledge of the law and from the conduct of the state’s relations with its gods. Large numbers of them were bound by the ties of personal clientela to individual patrician patroni, whose interests they were obliged to foster, while those who lacked a patron’s protection may well have been in an even worse position.

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