Social class in ancient Rome
Overview
Social class
Social class
Social classes are economic or cultural arrangements of groups in society. Class is an essential object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, economists, anthropologists and social historians. In the social sciences, social class is often discussed in terms of 'social stratification'...

 in ancient Rome
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

was hierarchical, but there were multiple and overlapping social hierarchies. The status of free-born Romans was established by:
  • ancestry (patrician or plebeian
    Plebs
    The plebs was the general body of free land-owning Roman citizens in Ancient Rome. They were distinct from the higher order of the patricians. A member of the plebs was known as a plebeian...

    );
  • census rank (ordo) based on wealth and political privilege, with the senatorial
    Roman Senate
    The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

     and equestrian ranks elevated above the ordinary citizen;
  • attainment of honors
    Cursus honorum
    The cursus honorum was the sequential order of public offices held by aspiring politicians in both the Roman Republic and the early Empire. It was designed for men of senatorial rank. The cursus honorum comprised a mixture of military and political administration posts. Each office had a minimum...

     (the novus homo
    Novus homo
    Homo novus was the term in ancient Rome for a man who was the first in his family to serve in the Roman Senate or, more specifically, to be elected as consul...

    or self-made man established his family as nobilis
    Nobiles
    During the Roman Republic, nobilis was a descriptive term of social rank, usually indicating that a member of the family had achieved the consulship. Those who belonged to the hereditary patrician families were noble, but plebeians whose ancestors were consuls were also considered nobiles...

    , "noble", and thus there were noble plebeians
    Nobiles
    During the Roman Republic, nobilis was a descriptive term of social rank, usually indicating that a member of the family had achieved the consulship. Those who belonged to the hereditary patrician families were noble, but plebeians whose ancestors were consuls were also considered nobiles...

    ); and
  • citizenship
    Roman citizenship
    Citizenship in ancient Rome was a privileged political and legal status afforded to certain free-born individuals with respect to laws, property, and governance....

    , of which there were grades with varying rights and privileges.
Encyclopedia
Social class
Social class
Social classes are economic or cultural arrangements of groups in society. Class is an essential object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, economists, anthropologists and social historians. In the social sciences, social class is often discussed in terms of 'social stratification'...

 in ancient Rome
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

was hierarchical, but there were multiple and overlapping social hierarchies. The status of free-born Romans was established by:
  • ancestry (patrician or plebeian
    Plebs
    The plebs was the general body of free land-owning Roman citizens in Ancient Rome. They were distinct from the higher order of the patricians. A member of the plebs was known as a plebeian...

    );
  • census rank (ordo) based on wealth and political privilege, with the senatorial
    Roman Senate
    The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

     and equestrian ranks elevated above the ordinary citizen;
  • attainment of honors
    Cursus honorum
    The cursus honorum was the sequential order of public offices held by aspiring politicians in both the Roman Republic and the early Empire. It was designed for men of senatorial rank. The cursus honorum comprised a mixture of military and political administration posts. Each office had a minimum...

     (the novus homo
    Novus homo
    Homo novus was the term in ancient Rome for a man who was the first in his family to serve in the Roman Senate or, more specifically, to be elected as consul...

    or self-made man established his family as nobilis
    Nobiles
    During the Roman Republic, nobilis was a descriptive term of social rank, usually indicating that a member of the family had achieved the consulship. Those who belonged to the hereditary patrician families were noble, but plebeians whose ancestors were consuls were also considered nobiles...

    , "noble", and thus there were noble plebeians
    Nobiles
    During the Roman Republic, nobilis was a descriptive term of social rank, usually indicating that a member of the family had achieved the consulship. Those who belonged to the hereditary patrician families were noble, but plebeians whose ancestors were consuls were also considered nobiles...

    ); and
  • citizenship
    Roman citizenship
    Citizenship in ancient Rome was a privileged political and legal status afforded to certain free-born individuals with respect to laws, property, and governance....

    , of which there were grades with varying rights and privileges. Men who lived in towns outside Rome (such as municipia
    Municipium
    Municipium , the prototype of English municipality, was the Latin term for a town or city. Etymologically the municipium was a social contract between municipes, the "duty holders," or citizens of the town. The duties, or munera, were a communal obligation assumed by the municipes in exchange for...

    or colonies
    Colonia (Roman)
    A Roman colonia was originally a Roman outpost established in conquered territory to secure it. Eventually, however, the term came to denote the highest status of Roman city.-History:...

    ) might hold citizenship, but lack the right to vote (see ius Latinum); free-born Roman women were citizens, but could not vote or hold political office.


There were also classes of non-citizens with different legal rights, such as peregrini
Peregrinus (Roman)
Peregrinus was the term used during the early Roman empire, from 30 BC to 212 AD, to denote a free provincial subject of the Empire who was not a Roman citizen. Peregrini constituted the vast majority of the Empire's inhabitants in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD...

. Under Roman law
Roman law
Roman law is the legal system of ancient Rome, and the legal developments which occurred before the 7th century AD — when the Roman–Byzantine state adopted Greek as the language of government. The development of Roman law comprises more than a thousand years of jurisprudence — from the Twelve...

, slaves
Slavery in ancient Rome
The institution of slavery in ancient Rome played an important role in society and the Roman economy. Besides manual labor on farms and in mines, slaves performed many domestic services and a variety of other tasks, such as accounting...

 were considered property and had no rights as such. However, some laws regulated slavery and offered slaves protections not extended to other forms of property such as animals. Slaves who had been manumitted
Manumission
Manumission is the act of a slave owner freeing his or her slaves. In the United States before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished most slavery, this often happened upon the death of the owner, under conditions in his will.-Motivations:The...

 were freedmen (libertini), and for the most part enjoyed the same legal rights and protections as free-born citizens.

Roman society was patriarchal
Patriarchy
Patriarchy is a social system in which the role of the male as the primary authority figure is central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination...

 in the purest sense; the male head of household (paterfamilias) held special legal powers and privileges that gave him jurisdiction over all the members of his familia, a more encompassing term than its modern derivative "family" that included adult sons, his wife (but only in Rome's earlier history, when marriage cum manu was practiced), married daughters (in the Classical period of Roman history), and various relatives as well as slaves. The patron-client relationship (clientela)
Patronage in ancient Rome
Patronage was the distinctive relationship in ancient Roman society between the patronus and his client . The relationship was hierarchical, but obligations were mutual. The patronus was the protector, sponsor, and benefactor of the client...

, with the word patronus deriving from pater, "father", was another way in which Roman society was organized into hierarchical groups, though clientela also functioned as a system of overlapping social networks. A patron could be the client of a socially superior or more powerful patron; a client could have multiple patrons.

Patricians and plebeians

The broadest division was between the patricians, whose ancestry, shrouded in mythical origins
Roman mythology
Roman mythology is the body of traditional stories pertaining to ancient Rome's legendary origins and religious system, as represented in the literature and visual arts of the Romans...

, was traced to the first Senate
Roman Senate
The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

 established by Romulus
Romulus
- People:* Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome* Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Roman Emperor* Valerius Romulus , deified son of the Roman emperor Maxentius* Romulus , son of the Western Roman emperor Anthemius...

, and the plebs
Plebs
The plebs was the general body of free land-owning Roman citizens in Ancient Rome. They were distinct from the higher order of the patricians. A member of the plebs was known as a plebeian...

, all other citizens. Originally, all public offices were open only to patricians, and the classes could not intermarry. A series of social struggles (see Conflict of the Orders
Conflict of the Orders
The Conflict of the Orders, also referred to as the Struggle of the Orders, was a political struggle between the Plebeians and Patricians of the ancient Roman Republic, in which the Plebeians sought political equality with the Patricians. It played a major role in the development of the...

) saw the plebs secede from the city on three occasions, the last in 297 BC
297 BC
Year 297 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Rullianus and Mus...

, until their demands were met. They won the right to stand for office, the abolition of the intermarriage law
Lex Canuleia
The Lex Canuleia is a law of the Roman Republic passed in the year 445 BC. Named after the tribune Gaius Canuleius, who proposed it, it abolished a corresponding prohibition in the Twelve Tables and allowed marriage between patricians and plebeians, with children inheriting the father's social status...

, and the creation of office of tribune of the plebs
Tribune
Tribune was a title shared by elected officials in the Roman Republic. Tribunes had the power to convene the Plebeian Council and to act as its president, which also gave them the right to propose legislation before it. They were sacrosanct, in the sense that any assault on their person was...

. This office, founded in 494 BC as a result of a plebeian secession, was the main legal bulwark against the powers of the patrician class, and only plebeians were eligible. The tribunes originally had the power to protect any plebeian from a patrician magistrate. Later revolts forced the Senate to grant the tribunes additional powers, such as the right to veto
Veto
A veto, Latin for "I forbid", is the power of an officer of the state to unilaterally stop an official action, especially enactment of a piece of legislation...

 legislation. A tribune's person was sacrosanct, and he was obliged to keep an open house at all times while in office. Some patricians, notably Clodius Pulcher
Publius Clodius Pulcher
Publius Clodius Pulcher was a Roman politician known for his popularist tactics...

 in the late 60s BC, petitioned to be assigned plebeian status, in order to accumulate the political influence among the people that the office of tribune afforded. The conflict between the classes came to a climax in 287 BC
287 BC
Year 287 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Marcellus and Rutilus...

 when patricians and plebeians were declared equal under the law.

Following these changes the distinction between patrician and plebeian status became less important, and by the Late Republic the only patrician prerogatives were a few priesthoods. Over time, some patrician families declined, some plebeian families rose in status, and the composition of the ruling class changed. A plebeian who was the first of his line to become consul
Consul
Consul was the highest elected office of the Roman Republic and an appointive office under the Empire. The title was also used in other city states and also revived in modern states, notably in the First French Republic...

 was known as a novus homo
Novus homo
Homo novus was the term in ancient Rome for a man who was the first in his family to serve in the Roman Senate or, more specifically, to be elected as consul...

("new man"), and he and his descendants became "noble" (nobiles
Nobiles
During the Roman Republic, nobilis was a descriptive term of social rank, usually indicating that a member of the family had achieved the consulship. Those who belonged to the hereditary patrician families were noble, but plebeians whose ancestors were consuls were also considered nobiles...

)
. Notable examples of novi homines are the seven-time consul Marius
Gaius Marius
Gaius Marius was a Roman general and statesman. He was elected consul an unprecedented seven times during his career. He was also noted for his dramatic reforms of Roman armies, authorizing recruitment of landless citizens, eliminating the manipular military formations, and reorganizing the...

, and Cicero
Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

, whose rise was unusual in that it was driven by his oratorical and intellectual abilities rather than, as with Marius, military success. During the Empire, patricius became a title of nobility bestowed by emperors.

Property-based classes

The census divided citizens into six complex classes based on property. The richest were the senatorial class, who were worth at least 1,000,000 sestertii
Sestertius
The sestertius, or sesterce, was an ancient Roman coin. During the Roman Republic it was a small, silver coin issued only on rare occasions...

. The wealth of the senatorial class was based on ownership of large agricultural estates, and by custom members did not engage in commercial activity.

Below the senatores in rank, but above were the equites
Equestrian (Roman)
The Roman equestrian order constituted the lower of the two aristocratic classes of ancient Rome, ranking below the patricians , a hereditary caste that monopolised political power during the regal era and during the early Republic . A member of the equestrian order was known as an eques...

("equestrians" or "knights"), with 400,000 sestertii
Sestertius
The sestertius, or sesterce, was an ancient Roman coin. During the Roman Republic it was a small, silver coin issued only on rare occasions...

, who could engage in commerce and formed an influential business class. Certain political and quasi-political positions were filled by equites, including tax farming
Tax farming
Farming is a technique of financial management, namely the process of commuting , by its assignment by legal contract to a third party, a future uncertain revenue stream into fixed and certain periodic rents, in consideration for which commutation a discount in value received is suffered...

 and, under the Principate, leadership of the Praetorian Guard
Praetorian Guard
The Praetorian Guard was a force of bodyguards used by Roman Emperors. The title was already used during the Roman Republic for the guards of Roman generals, at least since the rise to prominence of the Scipio family around 275 BC...

. Below the equites were three more classes of property-owning citizens; and lastly the proletarii, whose property was valued below 11,000 asses.

Women

Free-born women in ancient Rome were citizens (cives)
Roman citizenship
Citizenship in ancient Rome was a privileged political and legal status afforded to certain free-born individuals with respect to laws, property, and governance....

, but could not vote or hold political office. The form of Roman marriage called conubium, for instance, requires that both spouses be citizens; like men from towns
Municipium
Municipium , the prototype of English municipality, was the Latin term for a town or city. Etymologically the municipium was a social contract between municipes, the "duty holders," or citizens of the town. The duties, or munera, were a communal obligation assumed by the municipes in exchange for...

 granted civitas sine suffragio
Civitas
In the history of Rome, the Latin term civitas , according to Cicero in the time of the late Roman Republic, was the social body of the cives, or citizens, united by law . It is the law that binds them together, giving them responsibilities on the one hand and rights of citizenship on the other...

, women eligible for legal marriage were citizens without suffrage
Suffrage
Suffrage, political franchise, or simply the franchise, distinct from mere voting rights, is the civil right to vote gained through the democratic process...

. The legal status of a mother as a citizen affected her son's citizenship. The phrase ex duobus civibus Romanis natos ("children born of two Roman citizens") indicates that a Roman woman was regarded as having citizen status, in specific contrast to a peregrina
Peregrinus (Roman)
Peregrinus was the term used during the early Roman empire, from 30 BC to 212 AD, to denote a free provincial subject of the Empire who was not a Roman citizen. Peregrini constituted the vast majority of the Empire's inhabitants in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD...

.

Latin Right

The Latin Right
Latin Right
Latin Rights was a civic status given by the Romans, intermediate between full Roman citizenship and non-citizen status , and extended originally to the people of Latium . The most important Latin Rights were commercium, connubium, and ius migrationis...

 was a form of citizenship with limited rights. It was conferred originally on the allied towns of Latium
Latium
Lazio is one of the 20 administrative regions of Italy, situated in the central peninsular section of the country. With about 5.7 million residents and a GDP of more than 170 billion euros, Lazio is the third most populated and the second richest region of Italy...

 in the Republica era, and gradually extended to communities throughout the Empire. Latin citizens had rights, but not the vote, although their leading magistrates could become full citizens.

Peregrini

Free-born foreign subjects were known as peregrini
Peregrinus (Roman)
Peregrinus was the term used during the early Roman empire, from 30 BC to 212 AD, to denote a free provincial subject of the Empire who was not a Roman citizen. Peregrini constituted the vast majority of the Empire's inhabitants in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD...

, and special laws existed to govern their conduct and disputes. These distinctions continued until AD 212, when Caracalla
Caracalla
Caracalla , was Roman emperor from 198 to 217. The eldest son of Septimius Severus, he ruled jointly with his younger brother Geta until he murdered the latter in 211...

 extended full Roman citizenship to all free-born men in the empire.

Slaves

Slaves (servi) were not citizens, and lacked even the legal standing accorded free-born foreigners. For the most part, slaves descended from debtors and from prisoners of war, especially women and children captured during sieges and other military campaigns in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Carthage. In the later years of the Republic and into the Empire, more slaves came from newly conquered areas of Gaul
Gaul
Gaul was a region of Western Europe during the Iron Age and Roman era, encompassing present day France, Luxembourg and Belgium, most of Switzerland, the western part of Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the left bank of the Rhine. The Gauls were the speakers of...

, Britain
Roman Britain
Roman Britain was the part of the island of Great Britain controlled by the Roman Empire from AD 43 until ca. AD 410.The Romans referred to the imperial province as Britannia, which eventually comprised all of the island of Great Britain south of the fluid frontier with Caledonia...

, North Africa, and Asia Minor. Many slaves were created as the result of Rome's conquest of Greece, but Greek culture was considered in some respects superior to that of Rome: hence Horace's famous remark Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit ("Captured Greece took her savage conquerer captive"). The Roman playwright Terence
Terence
Publius Terentius Afer , better known in English as Terence, was a playwright of the Roman Republic, of North African descent. His comedies were performed for the first time around 170–160 BC. Terentius Lucanus, a Roman senator, brought Terence to Rome as a slave, educated him and later on,...

 is thought to have been brought to Rome as a slave. Thus slavery was regarded as a circumstance of birth, misfortune, or war; it was defined in terms of legal status, or rather the lack thereof, and was neither limited to or defined by ethnicity or race, nor regarded as an inescapably permanent condition.

Slaves who lacked skills or education performed agricultural or other forms of manual labor. Those who were violent or disobedient, or who for whatever reason were considered a danger to society, might be sentenced to labor in the mines, where they suffered under inhumane conditions. Slaves subjected to harsh labor conditions also had few if any opportunities to obtain their freedom.

Since slaves were legally property, they could be disposed of by their owners at any time. All children born to female slaves were slaves. Some slave owners, as for instance Tacitus
Tacitus
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors...

, freed slaves whom they believed to be their natural children. Slaves who had the education or skills to earn a living were often manumitted
Manumission
Manumission is the act of a slave owner freeing his or her slaves. In the United States before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished most slavery, this often happened upon the death of the owner, under conditions in his will.-Motivations:The...

 upon the death of their owner as a condition of his will. Slaves who conducted business for their masters were also permitted to earn and save money for themselves, and some might be able to buy their own freedom.

Over time, legislation was passed to protect the lives and health of slaves. Although many prostitutes
Prostitution in ancient Rome
Prostitution in ancient Rome reflects the ambivalent attitudes of Romans toward pleasure and sexuality. Prostitution was legal and licensed. Some large brothels in the 4th century, when Rome was becoming officially Christianized, seem to have been counted as tourist attractions and were possibly...

 were slaves, for instance, the bill of sale for some slaves stipulated that they could not be used for commercial prostitution.

Freedmen

Freedmen (libertini) were freed slaves, whose free-born children were full citizens. The status of libertini developed throughout the Republic as their number increased. Livy
Livy
Titus Livius — known as Livy in English — was a Roman historian who wrote a monumental history of Rome and the Roman people. Ab Urbe Condita Libri, "Chapters from the Foundation of the City," covering the period from the earliest legends of Rome well before the traditional foundation in 753 BC...

 states that freedmen in the Early Republic mainly joined the lower classes of the plebeians. Juvenal, writing during the Empire when financial considerations dictated economic class, describes freedmen who had been accepted into the equestrian class.

Freedmen were often highly educated and made up the bulk of the civil service during the early Empire. The Augustan poet
Augustan literature (ancient Rome)
Augustan literature is the period of Latin literature written during the reign of Augustus , the first Roman emperor. In literary histories of the first part of the 20th century and earlier, Augustan literature was regarded along with that of the Late Republic as constituting the Golden Age of...

 Horace
Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus , known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.-Life:...

 was himself the child of a freedman from Venusia
Venosa
Venosa is a town and comune in the province of Potenza, in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata, in the Vulture area. It is bounded by the comuni of Barile, Ginestra, Lavello, Maschito, Montemilone, Palazzo San Gervasio, Rapolla and Spinazzola....

 in southern Italy. Many became enormously wealthy as the result of bribes, fraud, or other forms of corruption, or were gifted large estates by the Emperor they served. Other freedmen engaged in commerce, amassing vast fortunes often only rivalled by those of the wealthiest nobiles. Many of the Satires of Juvenal contain angry denouncements of the pretensions of wealthy freedmen, some 'with the chalk of the slave market still on their heel'. Juvenal saw these successful men as nouveaux riches who were far too ready to show off their (often ill-gotten) wealth. The majority of freedmen, however, joined the plebeian classes, and often worked as farmers or tradesman.
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