Ancient Romans classified themselves according to their wealth and heredity. At the top of society were wealthy landowners l from prominent families, whose privileged place was recognized by the state and marked by special clothing. At the bottom were peasants, tenant farmers, the urban poor, and slaves.
Roman society operated under a patron-client system. In public, privileged Romans expected open displays of deference from their clients, such as supporting the patron in his private and political life, and especially by coming to the patron’s home in the early morning to greet him. Though the terms of respect varied from period to period, the subordination of the lower classes was found in every Roman age.
Roman literature reveals that there was little support for the idea of equality, and no one gave serious thought to changing the class system. In his work De Republica, the Roman orator* Cicero criticized the idea that people were equal. He believed that the basic flaw of democracy was that it gave its citizens equal rights. “Equality itself is unfair,” he wrote. “It makes no distinctions in accordance with social rank.” This same attitude was expressed by other Roman writers.
* orator public speaker of great skill
Class Structure in the Roman Republic. Early Roman society was divided into two orders, the patricians (members of the upper class) and the plebeians (ordinary Roman citizens). These orders were formally defined by the state as determined in the census. During the census, each citizen’s personal wealth, including his property holdings, was evaluated in order to determine his rank in the political community.
In the early republic, the patrician class dominated Roman society. A closed circle of privileged families, they held a monopoly on Roman high political offices and priesthoods. According to Roman tradition, the patricians were descendants of the 100 men who had been in the first Roman Senate. Membership in the patrician class was inherited.
All Roman citizens excluded from the patrician class—from peasants and artisans* to landowners—belonged to the large class of plebeians. The patricians attempted to separate themselves further from the plebeians by banning intermarriage between the two classes. The law code established in 451-450 B.C., called the Twelve Tables, included this ban, but the ban was repealed five years later. The plebeians challenged the patrician monopoly on privileges.
Eventually, plebeians gained access to nearly all the important political offices and priesthoods formerly held by the patricians. The greatest success for the plebeians came with the passage of the Licinian-Sextian laws in 367-366 B.C. Plebeians gained the right to become consuls, the highest officials during the Roman Republic*. The wealthiest plebeians thus joined the patricians in forming a small and exclusive group that dominated Roman politics thereafter: the “patricio-plebeian nobility.” Also, a limit was placed on the amount of land any single Roman could own, although before 133 B.C., wealthy people generally ignored this law.
As Rome conquered additional territories during the mid and late republic, slave labor gained popularity. Slaves worked on the estates of wealthy landowners, forcing many peasants to sell or abandon their small plots of land. The growing discontent caused by the increasing numbers of desperately poor people finally erupted into violence and class conflict.
* artisan skilled craftsperson
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
In 133 B.C., Tiberius Gracchus took up the cause of poor plebeians. He proposed a reform program to provide landless citizens with acreage from public lands. However, the Roman Senate blocked the plan, sending assassins to kill Tiberius and his followers. Ten years later, Tiberius’s younger brother Gaius introduced an even more ambitious reform plan. His reforms provided subsidized grain for the urban poor.
Gaius’s reforms were not restricted to the poor. By Gaius’s time, two groups of wealthy citizens together made up the highest census classification—the senators first, and just below them, the equestrians. The equestrians, or knights, were those individuals who by reason of their wealth had been granted a horse in order to fulfill their civic military duty or had sufficient wealth to qualify them to have a public horse. (By a law passed in 129 B.C., senators and their families were excluded from the ranks of the equestrian order, making the remaining nonsenatorial wealthy members a clearly distinct second order just below the senators.) Gaius’s reforms offered benefits to the equestrians by transferring the privilege of jury service from senators to themselves. The most prominent members of the equestrian order were publicani, or public contractors. Gaius favored the publicani with a law giving them the profitable job of collecting taxes in the recently gained provinces* in Asia. Gaius wanted to establish Roman colonies in the provinces and grant citizenship to all Italians as well.
Violence erupted once again, leading to the assassination of Gaius and many of his supporters. The assassinations of the Gracchi brothers marked the beginning of a century of political violence and civil war that ended only with the creation of the empire under Augustus.
Remember: Consult the Index at the end of volume 4 to find more Information on many topics.
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
Class Structure in the Roman Empire. When Augustus became emperor, he took steps to deal with the social unrest. He distributed land to retired soldiers and resettled many of the urban poor in colonies in the provinces. To curb violence in the city of Rome, he established a permanent police force. Augustus restored the Senate to its former elite social standing in order to compensate for its loss of political power. He also helped the equestrian order by appointing more knights to government positions. These efforts by Augustus succeeded in establishing a stability in Roman society that lasted for two centuries.
During the empire, the top three social orders were senators, knights, and local notables, called curiae. The senatorial order included about 600 senators and their families. This tiny group of privileged Romans possessed tremendous wealth and power. Although the Senate lost most of its political power to the emperors, individual senators continued to hold the highest administrative offices and major military commands. To fill vacancies in the Senate, new senators were recruited from the local aristocracies* in Italy and the provinces. Members of the equestrian order were only slightly less privileged than the senatorial class. Like senators, knights were primarily men of landed wealth and high birth. They wore golden rings to indicate their class.
* aristocracy referring to the privileged upper class
The third highest class, the curiae, was the backbone of the government. They were the local magistrates and senators. People in this class were set off from the majority of people by their wealth and high birth. Men of low status, including freed slaves and undertakers, were excluded from the curial order. Because local magistrates were not paid but were expected to pay for public buildings and food distributions, they had to be wealthy.
The great majority of Romans were working freemen. Most worked the land, either as independent farmers or as tenant farmers who worked for others. These rural tenants were the principal source of labor on the estates of the wealthy. Free workers in the city lived in cramped quarters, enduring poor sanitation, food shortages, and frequent fires. While some were relatively well-off, most poor citizens barely made ends meet. They survived by begging, working occasional odd jobs, or attaching themselves as clients to wealthy patrons. When poor Romans died, their corpses were dumped into unmarked mass graves.
A large percentage of city workers were former slaves, some of whom became prosperous artisans. Some ex-slaves continued to work for their former masters, while others worked for themselves. Although freed slaves were barred from membership in the three aristocratic orders, some managed to become wealthy and powerful by serving the emperor. Senators and knights, who were sometimes left in the position of having to court an emperor’s freedman for favors, resented the influence these former slaves had with the emperor.
Slaves were at the bottom of the social order. Most rural slaves received only enough food and clothing to keep them alive and working. Some were kept in chains. In the cities, many slave artisans were free to engage in business, as long as they gave their owners the profit. Although slaves were not permitted to own property, a few managed to amass small fortunes with the permission of their masters, and some even owned slaves of their own. (See also Government, Roman; Gracchus, Tiberius and Gaius; Law, Roman; Rome, History of; Senate, Roman; Slavery.)
Tensions between rich and poor led to several uprisings during the late Roman Republic. One of the most dramatic began in 73 B.C., when Spartacus, a gladiator from Thrace, escaped from a gladiator's school in the southwest Italian city of Capua. He fled to Mt. Vesuvius, where 90,000 slaves, outlaws, and poor peasants joined him. The rebels defeated several Roman forces sent against them, and then plundered the Italian countryside. Spartacus was finally killed in battle in 71 B.C. To serve as a warning to other potential revolutionaries, the Romans crucified 6,000 of the captured slaves along the Appian Way.