The patricians were a privileged class of Roman citizens who exercised great political and religious power, especially during the monarchy and the Roman Republic*. Patrician status was obtained only by birth, and for a brief time in the fifth century B.C., patricians were forbidden by law to marry plebeians*.
According to tradition, the patricians were descendants of the patres, or fathers, chosen by Rome’s founder and first king, Romulus, to form the first Senate. However, some sources indicate that not all the patricians were originally from Rome but also included members of aristocratic* clans* (such as the Claudii) who came to Rome from outside. Still others suggest that the kings of Rome would occasionally raise certain men to patrician rank. Whatever their true origin, by the time of the republic in the late 500s B.C., the patricians had become a hereditary social class. It is certain that, throughout the monarchy and early republic,
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials patricians controlled all the important priesthoods, although the nature of their political power is not as clear. Under the law of the Twelve Tables, drawn up between 451 B.C. and 450 B.C., the number of patricians was effectively restricted by forbidding patricians to marry outside their class. It is likely, however, that the law merely made official a practice that had been well established for quite some time. The law was repealed in 445 B.C.
* plebeian member of the general body of Roman citizens, as distinct from the upper class
* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class
* clan group of people descended from a common ancestor or united by a common interest
This statue shows a Roman patrician proudly holding the busts of his ancestors. Citizens with ties to the aristocracy or to the original founders of Rome were set apart in a privileged class that held the political and religious power in Rome.
Despite the legends about their origins and status, not all members of the Senate were patricians. During the early days of the Roman Republic, most magistrates—government officials, such as consuls* and praetors*—were patricians, and some offices, such as that of augur*, were restricted by law to patricians. By the 400s B.C., patricians had developed a monopoly on the magistracies. During the 300s B.C., the class of ordinary citizens, the plebeians, succeeded in breaking the hold the patricians had on those positions and on the priesthoods as well. However, the patricians continued to occupy high offices in greater proportion to their numbers than the rest of the population. Until 172 B.C., one of the two consuls who shared the highest authority was always a patrician, and about half of all priestly positions were held by patricians. Some priesthoods remained patrician by law, with no possibility of a plebeian occupying them.
The fact that the patrician class was an aristocracy based on birth ultimately led to a decline in the number of patrician clans, from about 50 in the 400s B.C. to only 14 by the time of the Roman Empire in 31 B.C. Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus were granted the power to create new patricians, and later emperors used their power as censor* to elevate other citizens to patrician status. New patricians created in this manner could pass this status on to their descendants. Even so, the hereditary class of patricians seems to have disappeared by the A.D. 200s. The emperor Constantine revived the title of patricius in the early A.D. 300s, but it was given to individuals as an honor in recognition of service to the empire and did not carry the privileges or the hereditary status that the original term implied. (See also Augur; Class Structure, Roman; Consul; Government, Roman; Law, Roman; Praetor; Priesthood, Roman.)
* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year
* praetor Roman official, just below the consul in rank, in charge of judicial proceedings and of governing overseas provinces
* augur Roman official who read omens and foretold events
* censor Roman official who conducted the census, assigned state contracts for public projects (such as building roads), and supervised public morality