The term patronage refers to the widespread practice in the ancient world by which wealthy or powerful men, known as patrons, provided financial support and opportunities to men of lesser social standing or to clients, who in turn owed service and loyalty to the patron. This system, most fully developed in the Roman world, took several forms, including social, political, and artistic patronage.
Social and Political Patronage. Social patronage usually involved an economic relationship between patron and client, like the tenant-farming arrangement that existed between many wealthy Roman landowners and those who worked on their large estates. A peasant might be granted a plot of land on which he and his family were allowed to live, grow crops, and raise livestock. In return, he was required to provide his patron with either a portion of the produce from his plot or a specified period of labor each year. Most free agricultural workers in ancient Rome were bound by this type of arrangement.
Patronage also existed between former slaves, or freedmen, and their previous owners, who were known as patrons. Roman law carefully defined the relationship of dependence between the freedman, who owed his patron respect as well as financial and political support. In return, the patron would defend the freedman’s interests—for example, in legal cases. The freedman also had to promise to provide his patron with a stated number of days each year when he would work or perform services for him or his family—for example, as a hairdresser, craftsman, or teacher of his children.
Political patronage concerned power and political influence rather than money or economic issues. Such patronage usually developed between two members of the ruling elite who came from different social classes. For example, a local magistrate* might enter into such a relationship with a senator or other high-ranking governmental official in Rome. The magistrate would enlist local support for the official, including gathering large groups of supporters when the patron senator visited or mustering soldiers for a military campaign in exchange for increased political influence in Rome. During the Roman Empire (beginning in 31 B.C.), many provincial* citizens established such relationships to gain seats for themselves in the Roman Senate. A wealthy and powerful local magnate* might act as both a patron to those lower down and a client of those higher up on the political and social ladder. In both directions, there could be many degrees or levels of patronage.
* magistrate governmental official in ancient Greece and Rome
* provincial referring to a province, an overseas area controlled by Rome
* magnate person of power or influence, often in a specific area
Artistic Patronage. Artistic patronage was common in both Greece and Rome. Because there was no mass audience able to pay for literature or art, patronage was the primary means of support for most artists and writers. Wealthy patrons engaged artists and writers to produce artworks and entertainments for their pleasure and amusement. Many great public monuments were created as a result of state patronage, especially in democratic Athens during the reign of Pericles and in Rome during the Roman Empire. Artists received gifts, financial rewards, and favors—such as official government positions—for their services to their patrons. Most writers showed their gratitude by composing works that praised their patrons or celebrated a patron’s achievements. In the first century B.C., the Roman poet Horace was supported by Maecenas, a wealthy man and an adviser to the emperor Augustus. Maecenas furnished Horace with a country estate outside Rome so that the poet could devote himself to his art.
The system of patronage was an important part of the social fabric of ancient societies in which only a small percentage of the population controlled nearly all the wealth and power. Patronage gave ordinary people at least some influence in their dealings with the power structure and created a bond between classes that promoted stability. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Class Structure, Greek; Class Structure, Roman; Labor; Land: Ownership, Reform, and Use; Working Class.)