With the expansion of its borders, Roman society underwent social changes as it grew wealthier and culturally more sophisticated. The categories of social rank underwent a change in this period as society became more differentiated. Nevertheless, the highly hierarchical nature of Roman society remained the same, with the position of the privileged classes recognized by the state and communicated through specialized dress for subsections of society. There was an expectation among wealthy patrons that their corresponding clients were to demonstrate overt displays of deference. The poet Martial (Epigrams 2.68) wrote of his patron’s demand to be addressed as dominus et rex (lord and king), “titles that even early emperors avoided as arrogant and unnecessarily provocative” (CAM, 549). The humiliation and public subordination of the poor and weak are ubiquitous features of all periods of history. In addition to the realized fact of elitism, there does not even appear to have been a veneer of egalitarianism as an ideal. In De Republica, Cicero explains the flaw of democracy, in which every citizen has equal rights: “Equality itself is unfair, since it makes no distinctions in accordance with social rank (dignitas).” Also in Pliny the Younger, Letters 9.5. These writers, however, were elites and we might assume that the poor did not share the sentiment. Though there was clear resentment of the abuse of the poor by the rich, however, “there was never (to our knowledge) any widespread call for the demolition of the hierarchy and the privileges implicit in it, no widespread serious thought, for instance, about the abolishment of slavery.” Our sources place narrow constraints on what can be said concerning less privileged Romans.
An account of Roman society can be given in terms of three types of social categories: order, status and class.
1. Orders are categories whose membership is formally defined by the state (i.e. patricians and plebeians, later senatorial and equestrian orders).
2. Status is a less precise category based on social estimation of a man’s honor, or people’s perception of a man’s prestige (i.e. respectability of family, etc.).
3. There are disagreements about how class is to be defined. The principal class divisions, however, are based upon a man’s place in economic production (i.e. between owners and laborers, and further still between those owners who work with their own means of production vs. those who live comfortably off of the means of production).
Wealth was a fundamental factor in assessing a person’s position in terms of all three categories.
THE EARLY REPUBLIC
Two themes dominate early Roman social history: military conquest of its neighbors and domestic social conflicts created by plebeians attempting to gain more economic and political status from the dominate power of the patricians. Modern historians, however, are skeptical of much of the nature and detail of these conflicts as related to us by Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. The writing of Roman history did not begin until centuries after the “Struggle of the Orders.” The most extensive and reliable document on early Roman society is the fragmentary law code known as the Twelve Tables (c. 451-450 BCE). In it there is reference to the distinctions between patricians and plebeians (that they could not intermarry), the Comitia Centuriata (which separates citizens according to wealth), special rules for slaves and freedmen, and the protection and sacrosanctity of the patron-client relationship.
The patricians were a small minority of Roman society that attempted to segregate themselves off as a special ruling caste; however, this was curtailed by the efforts of wealthy plebs who sought to break into the areas of power and influence dominated by the patricians. Disparate interests and diversity within the plebs, however, prevented them from unifying together for the purpose of overthrowing the dominance of the patricians. The far-reaching single success for the plebs came in 367-366 BCE in the form of the Liciniun-Sextian Laws, which has political and economic implications. It guaranteed them the right to hold the highest magistracy in Rome, the consulship. It granted a measure of debt relief to poor plebs and limited the amount of public land (ager publicus) that a single Roman could occupy. In Italy, conquered land became public land which Roman citizens could occupy for minimum rent. The powerful managed to lay claim to a disproportionate share of the land, which prompted the poor at various times to seek a more equal distribution either by laws granting individual plots, or as through the Licinium-Sextian Laws, limiting the amount of land any one Roman could occupy, for the purpose of freeing land for others.
Nexum vs. manus iniectio
Nexum was the result of taking a loan and involved bondage in Rome; manus iniectio proceeded from failure to repay a loan and resulted in death or exile outside of Rome (Roman citizens could not be kept as chattel-slaves in Rome).
351 BCE, plebs allowed to the censorship
337 BCE, plebs allowed to the praetorship
c.326 BCE, the passage of Lex Poetelia abolishes the institution of nexum
300 BCE, plebs allowed to the priesthoods
287 BCE, marked the end of the “Struggle of the Orders,” with the concession by the patricians that the decisions of the plebian assembly had the force of law for the entire Roman citizenry.
“Far from losing power in the Struggle, the patricians preserved it by sharing it with wealthy plebeians. In this way they co-opted the leaders of the opposition without whom the humble plebeians had no one to raise or press their interests in the assemblies. Before the admission of plebeians to high-office, the patrician plebian division cut across class divisions. From the later fourth century BCE onward, the patricians and wealthiest plebeians together formed a nobility that coincided with economic divisions within society and was open to newcomers with the necessary resources. This ability to absorb new men into the aristocracy—at first rich plebeians and the elite from other Italian municipalities, and then the rich and powerful from the provinces—contributed to Rome’s impressive social and political durability over centuries.
EXPANSION AND THE GROWTH OF WEALTH
REFORM IN THE LATE REPUBLIC
Tiberius Gracchus tribune of the plebs in 133 BCE. Tiberius pushed land reforms through the tribal assembly against the wishes of the senate. When he sought an unconventional second term as tribune, he was murdered by a mob of senatorial vigilantes. Despite Gracchus’s death, the senate did not attempt to repeal his popular measures in the assembly. The new law provided for a limit on individual holdings of public land (500 iurgera, or 312 acres, plus 156 acres for each child); excessive holdings were then to be distributed to the poor in lots of 30 iurgera, about 19 acres, or less by a land commission. These reforms had in mind the rural poor not the urban proletariat. In the end, elites successfully obstructed the activities of the land commission. Gaius Gracchus tribune 123 BCE and 122 BCE. When Gaius came to power, he revived the land commission. In addition, he secured legislation for the settlement of colonies in Carthage and in Italy. In order to relieve tensions created by the periodic scarcity of grain available to the urban poor Gracchus commissioned the development of food stores which would house grains and sell them at subsidized prices to the poor. Gaius also called for the granting of citizenship to those of Latin status and Latin status to all other Italian allies. Gaius was opposed by the tribune Livius Drusus, who served the interests of the elitist Optimates faction in the senate, drummed up popular sentiments against Gaius. In 121 BCE, Gaius and an armed group of his followers attempted to forcibly prevent the repeal of his legislation. In was subsequently killed along with his followers in the violence that ensued.
The land-military manpower nexus came to the from again within a generation, when in 107 BCE the general Gaius Martius dropped the traditional property requirement for citizenship, so that he could recruit poor Romans to the army during his campaign against the Numidian king Jugurtha.
THE CIVIL WARS
With the assassination of Gaius Gracchus the matter of citizenship for non-Roman Italians was left unsettled and became a point of resentment among Rome’s Italian allies. The matter was taken up by Livius Drusus II (son of the former Drusus), who attempted to resolve the issue by forming a coalition in support of citizenship. Drusus’ efforts, however, were met with resistance and he was eventually assassinated. Eventually, disenfranchised and disillusioned Italians took up arms against Rome in what was called the “Social War,” which set the stage for the first round of full-scale civil wars between senatorial powers and Roman generals Marius and Sulla. The Social War was not over class, however, so the conflict ended after concessions were made to Rome’s allies. Nevertheless, senatorial attempts to marginalize the influence of these new citizens again escalated to violence. Though unrest had led to conflict, eventually, the competing ambitions of the Roman generals Marius and Sulla overtook any previous social concerns leading to violence and the civil war became an inner-senatorial conflict over power.
Sulla established the precedent of using an army loyal to its general to further personal political ambitions through violence, while the poor soldiers discovered civil war to be a means of obtaining a redistribution of Italian land for their own benefit. The latter clearly acted out of self-interest, not a sense of class-consciousness; small farmers as well as rich forfeited lands to the Sullan settlers, a process that then replaced an old class of discontented landless with a new one. Sulla recognized that the Republic could not survive if others followed his precedent, and so before resigning his dictatorship he instituted a series of reforms designed to stabilize the state and to restrain ambitious individuals like himself. However, as Ronald Syme has said, “Sulla could not abolish his own example.”
In the years following Sulla, the consul Aemilius Lepidus raised an army against the senate to push for reforms on behalf of dispossessed farmers in Etruria. The senate called on the young general Pompey to crush the resistance. Pompey later put down the slave revolt led by Spartacus in 73-71 BCE. Years later, there was another uprising in Etruria among disgruntled peasants and Sullan veterans displeased with the quality of their land grants. These groups were formed into two legions by the senator Catiline. The Catiline conspiracy was put down, but our knowledge of the conflict is obscured by the fact that Cicero’s account of the events are deeply entangled with his personal involvement in them. In all of these conflicts, however, there never seems to be any attempt for groups to attempt to overthrow the class structure.
Following efforts to end piracy as well as successful campaigns in the East, Pompey returned to Rome and sought to obtain a land bill which would allow him to provide land grants to his returning veterans. His efforts were thwarted, however, by the Optimates who sought to curtail his growing power and influence. Eventually, Pompey attempted to circumvent this arrangement by forming an alliance with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus. The First Triumvirate effectively ended the senatorial ability to obstruct the efforts of populist politicians. Populists also quickly figured out the power available to control policies through the manipulation of urban mobs. This eventually led to urban riots and gang violence instigated by senators against their political rivals. The Frist Triumvirate eventually collapsed following the death of Pompey’s wife Julia, the daughter of Caesar, and Crassus’ defeat and death in a battle against the Parthians. Like the conflict between Marius and Sulla, the civil war between Caesar and Pompey was a contest of powerful senators seeking prestige and position. The perception of the poor, however, seems to have favored Caesar over against the senate as a champion of the peasantry.
THE AUGUSTAN PRINCIPATE
Following the collapse of the Second Triumvirate and the final civil war of the Republic, Augustus sought to eradicate urban violence by giving more systematic attention to the basic needs of the poor. During the civil wars admission to the senate had been given as a reward to supporters. So, Augustus found himself in a situation with far too many senators. In order to address this problem he instituted a new property requirement for membership in the senate of one million sesterces. He also reinstituted many of the traditional roles of the equestrians.
THE IMPERIAL SOCIAL ORDER
The Senatorial Class
The leisure class of the empire was made up of the top three orders: senatorial, equestrian, and curial (local town councilors). The senatorial order included senators, their families, and descendants to the third generation. The size of the senate stabilized at about 600. If the population the empire was in the order of some fifty million, then then the senatorial order constituted only a few thousandths of one percent of the population, in which was concentrated enormous power and wealth. Though senators lost most of their power under the emperors, individual senators were still entrusted with high office and major military commands. The trend of ever-greater accumulation of wealth was carried over from the republic. Senators like Pliny the Younger who considered themselves modestly well off had twenty times the minimum senatorial census requirement, yielding an income some 2,500 times that of a family living at the level of subsistence. The notoriously wealthy senators such as Seneca the Younger possessed fortunes more than ten times as large as that of Pliny’s.
All senators were supposed to be endowed with three aristocratic qualities: high birth, wealth and moral excellence, but some were more endowed than others thus leading to stratification even among this elite group. Those with consular ancestors (nobiles) claimed a particularly elevated status.
According to Dio Cassius (Roman History, 2.19.4), equestrians were aristocratic citizens slightly less dignified than senators, because they possessed the aristocratic virtues in lesser degrees. Like senators, equestrians had to be of reputable birth, and were primarily men of landed wealth. Because the group was broader than the senators, there was a greater degree of stratification among those equestrians holding offices.
By the late second century CE, a formal hierarchy of epitaphs developed to reflect this stratification among equestrians; “excellent” (egregius) for procurators, “most accomplished” (perfectissimus) for the senior prefects, and “most eminent” (eminentissimus) for the praetorian prefects. These appellations distinguished equestrians from senators who were referred to as “most renowned” (clarissimi). But by the mid-third century CE, equestrians were no less honored. Nevertheless, equestrians did not hold imperial offices, so there were only a few hundred positions for thousands of equestrians. The equestrian rank, noted visibly by a gold ring, remained among the one-tenth of one percent of the citizenry.
The Curial Class
Local notables (Curials) were a group that occupied administrative roles in the empire. Though they were not as wealthy as the senators or equestrians, they can still be thought of as aristocratic in the broad sense that they had to meet property requirements for admission into the order and they thought of themselves as possessing the aristocratic virtues. The property requirements for admission seem to have been less stringent for administrators living in less populous or less important regions. Nevertheless, freedmen, auctioneers, undertakers, or other people generally considered to be of low status were excluded on principal. Wealth was required of decurians, municipal counselors (decuriones), for pragmatic reasons as well as for status. Local magistracies were unpaid, and in return for the honor of being elected, magistrates were expected to pay for public buildings, games and the distribution of food, and to manage the collection of imperial taxes. If they could not collect enough taxes from the working classes, then it was expected that they would pay the difference from their personal fortunes to cover therequirments of the imperial tax.
The great majority of the empire’s inhabitants were classified as humiliores—an amorphous group of working freemen. Approx. three-quarters of who worked the land under various conditions. This group can be divided between those who owned the land that they worked and those who worked the and for others. Because of the nature of our records, we know very little about this portion of Roman society. It is possible that tenant farmers, rather than slaves, were the principal labor on the estates of the rich. Generally, this group was very diverse economically ranging from the destitute to the moderate comfortable. What linked this group together as an economic stratum though was the degree to which their individual wellbeing was tied to the fluctuation of broader economic conditions.
It should be noted, however, that this refers to ‘working’ freemen. The designation freedmen or a body of individuals substantially comprised of former-slaves extended into every class of Roman society. So that, some of the empire’s wealthiest citizens were former slaves. So, ‘freedmen’ is not coterminous with poor or middle-class. It is a designation referring to social rather than economic standing. So there is a distinction to be made between ‘free’ and ‘freed.’
At the bottom of the social hierarchy were those enslaved as human chattel. Slaves are distinguished as a society class because they own none of the means of production, not even their own labor. Though slaves did not have the legal capacity to own property, a few slaves it is known did have considerable fortunes at their disposal. The position of slaves in Roman society ranged from rural slaves bound in chains provided with only enough food to keep them working to slaves in the imperial household some of who held important posts and commanded considerable fortunes.
Two important factors influencing the chances of mobility in a society are demographic trends and the potential for the accumulation of wealth. For the masses upward mobility was a matter of accumulating enough money to enter the ranks of the propertied elite. But in a society in which most economic production was based on inherited land, prospects for enrichment were poor. The army and the patronage of former slave owners were two means of ascending the social latter.Bibliography:
Richard P. Saller, “Roman Class Structures and Relations” CAM 1:549-573