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Background Research: The Roman Social Classes
The Aristocracy (Patricians)
From the earliest beginnings of Rome the basic unit of Roman society was the family. Within the family
units, the father was to all intents and purposes "owner" of his wife, children and slaves to the same
extent that he owned his sword and other material possessions. The head of the family could do
whatever he wished with the other members of his direct family, including selling them off as slaves or
putting them to death. In the very beginning there were no laws to govern the rights of individuals
within the family.
The families were grouped up into clans or "gens". Each gens claimed a common ancestor and they
came to make up the aristocracy of Rome. The head of each gens/clan was called "pater" (father) and all
the members of these aristocratic families became known as "Patricians".
The "plebs" were the vast majority of society and they constituted a social class made of the common
folk. Generally speaking they were the descendants of people who had come to Rome after the Patrician
families had founded it. Possibly they were descended from freed men or simple immigrants.
Everyone knows what a slave is, and in the early days of Rome these persons were largely
confined to working in the house. The lord of the house had the same rights over his slaves as he did
over his wife and children. He could make a slave into a free man or sell one of his own family members
into slavery.
It is generally a mistake to ignore the role of the slaves even if they had no free will or voting
rights. Like any other "commodity good", the price of slaves was related to their abundance. Times of
conquest brought access to cheap slaves which in turn meant free, extremely cheap labour. This in turn
had huge and direct effects on productivity, on the Roman economy and the welfare of the people,
whatever their social class.
Slaves could perform all sorts of jobs and in many cases could be extremely well educated
people. One could therefore find slaves working in the shops, banks and teaching in schools just as easily
as they might be found tilling the land of some rich Patrician.
"Libertus" was the social class of a freed slave. Though at first sight this might give the
impression of someone doomed to a lowly existence there is plenty of evidence of liberti wielding great
wealth and power. first and foremost amongst these were the liberti in the imperial household who
practiced all types of office for the emperor and were often more highly trusted than the wealthy
Patricians who might have a "misalignment" of interests with the emperor.
This situation provoked extreme tensions between the liberti and senatorial class which
evidently felt that the liberti were wielding powers far above those earned through birth, wealth and
social rank.
A particularly poignant insight into the extreme wealth and power which might be reached even
by a libertus are to be had from Petronius Arbiter's book "Satyricon" written at the time of Emperor
Nero: the situation was clearly at one of the greatest extremes as would be expected of Roman satire,
nonetheless the very fact that it was a subject worthy of writing about is sufficient to give a sense of the
extremes which had been reached.
Persons who had come to Rome such as travelers, merchants and other foreigners, including
freed slaves, were generally known as Clients and effectively formed part of a separate social class.
In the early days only the Patricians had Roman citizenship. Clients wishing to do business in
Rome required the support of a Patrician as personal patron. A solid Patrician-Client tie was thus
formed. A patrician waking up in the morning would often start off his daily duties by meeting up with a
group of his Clients who would have come to visit him at his home in order to ask for his favor’s and
support in some matter. The Clients would return these favors according to their means, whether by
working the Patrician's land if they were poor, or by making generous gifts.
Social stigma and taxation laws meant that in later years wealthy Clients tended to be linked with
banking and trade whilst the Patricians tended to be focused on land ownership. Through the personal
networks of Clients, the Patricians could carry out trade which might otherwise be seen as personally