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Traditionally, Roman society was extremely rigid. By the first century, however, the need
for capable men to run Rome’s vast empire was slowly eroding the old social barriers.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.