The (Awesome and Fascinating) Complexities of Roman Society

I love how bewilderingly complex Roman society was. Western culture has a habit of thinking of status in a very feudalistic way, even centuries after feudalism itself failed. (I’m not sure why this is, but I’d love for some sociologist to explain why we remain cultural inheritors in this way). We think in percentages and fairly clearly delineated strata. Lower class, lower middle, middle, upper middle, upper. Social class, economic class, and political power remain tightly linked together in our mental constructs, and there’s a tendency to project that backwards onto other eras, but the reality for the Romans was a much weirder system.

Like, there are patricians and plebeians, right? The patricians were the oldest families of consequence, those who had (at least supposedly) formed the original Senate, and the plebeians were everybody else. Except by the late Republic, the distinction was not just wealthy/poor, or even aristocrat/proletariat, thanks to all the other factors in the rest of this post. Initially the groups could not intermarry, but that changed in 445 BC. And by the mid to late Republic, lots of the plebeians were fabulously wealthy — even moreso than a lot of the patricians. And a plebeian could be considered “noble” if a member of the family attained high enough rank, thus ennobling all subsequent generations of the family. All patricians were nobles, but not all nobles were patricians.

Then you have the Orders, the census ranking: senatorial, equestrian, the Five Classes, and the Head Count. Designation of senator and equestrian depended entirely on income and net worth. Technically, senators were supposed to have their wealth derive exclusively from land, not from commercial ventures; the line between the two could be very, very thin, and senators were always finding ways to get around the restriction. The Head Count down at the bottom were those with no property worth assessing. Initially they could not serve in the legions, but the Marian reforms changed that, offering the poorest citizens a substantial chance for bettering themselves. All of the Orders were fluid; loss or gain of wealth could move you from one category into another, if you had a censor willing to either hear you out or overlook debts, and a Senate willing to accept new members to the rolls.Cursus Honorum

Then you have the cursus honorum (diagram from, which I modified for Julius Caesar dramaturgy packet, at right). You had to be of senatorial rank to enter (though you weren’t automatically in the Senate just because you were of senatorial rank). If you’re a patrician, this means: military service (as tribune if you can manage it) < quaestor (the rank which conferred membership in the Senate) < aedile < praetor < consul < censor. If you’re a plebeian, you also have the option of serving as tribune of the plebs, a sacrosanct office with veto power. Each office had a minimum age, which after Sulla was two years less for patricians than for plebeians.

Then there’s the military ranking, which is another matter entirely, which can intertwine and intersect with the cursus honorum or remain entirely apart from it. Legionary < decanus < decurio < tesserarius < optio < centurion < primus pilus < junior tribune < prefect < senior tribune < legate. The legate might or might not be a senator, a praetor, a propraetor, or a proconsul. Or, you might have a legate and then also have a praetor, propraetor, consul, or proconsul placed above him, depending on the campaign and how many legions were in a province. And then there were also special ranks, like aquilifer or cornicen, and the auxilaries, who fit in sort of sideways. Philip Matyszak’s Legionary is a great source for all of this.

Then there are the religious orders. Some offices could only be held by plebs. Some offices could only be held by patricians. Some colleges had to have a half-and-half composition. Some positions were elected, some appointed, some bought.

Then there are the Tribes, to which every Roman citizen belonged and which were the basis for voting — except that the patricians and wealthy citizens were all in the more numerous but smaller “rural” Tribes (not actually dependent on where you live, though, but rather where your ancestors were supposed to have hailed from), whereas the poorer citizens and all freedmen got shunted into the few urban Tribes. Since votes went by Tribe, not by individual, that means an individual’s vote meant a lot more in a smaller rural tribe than a large urban one, and that the rural tribes could easily defeat the larger ones in a vote. RomanConstitution

Then there are the four different voting bodies: the Senate, the Century Assembly, the Tribal Assembly, and the Plebeian Council. Certain offices or laws could only be elected by certain voting bodies, which overlapped, and a man could belong to more than one voting body simultaneously. The diagram at the right, which I found on Wikimedia Commons, is really the only thing I’ve ever seen that somewhat makes sense of that.

Then there are the relationships of patron and client; and, if you were not of the highest rank, you might be patron to some men but also client to someone more powerful than yourself.

And then there’s citizenship, the rights of which with regard to voting, taxation, and property were different for Romans, Latins, foreign-born, and provincials.

And then there are the slaves, who were considered property, who could be manumitted, who could buy their freedom, who could be beaten or killed (though it reflected poorly on the master), who could be used sexually, who could be sold away. But they were allowed to earn wages and to hold property. Some even had slaves of their own! They were recognized as people, though not under the same legal definition as Roman citizens were people; some philosophers early on debated whether or not they really had souls in the same way citizens had souls, but that sort of seems to be all pontificating, and the idea disappears by the late Republic. And there was a hierarchy among them, deriving largely from country of origin and method of being enslaved: educated Greeks who sold themselves for the chance of a better life in Rome ranked above slaves taken as prisoners in battle, but Romans didn’t scruple to make use of intelligent and capable of slaves of any ethnic background. And once manumitted, they became citizens. The men were enrolled in a Tribe (usually one of the larger urban Tribes) as clients of their former masters and could vote. Their children were natural Roman citizens like any other.

And then there are the Roman virtues, which are entirely intangible and almost untranslatable, but which were nonetheless quantifiable for the Romans and which affected a man’s ability to effect his will on others. Things like dignitas and auctoritas were so much more than their English derivates of dignity and authority, despite being nebulous and a very difficult thing for us to wrap our heads around.

So, you could be a plebeian of senatorial rank who held an augurship and had also gone through the cursus honorum, been tribune of the plebs, and eventually become consul.

You could be a patrician whose income fell out of senatorial rank because you were in too much debt or lost your sources of revenue. You wouldn’t necessarily lose your rank when this happened, but if the censors in office were sticklers for detail — or your political enemies — it was a possibility. If this troubled you, you could get yourself adopted by a plebeian family with a lot of wealth, if you had something substantial to offer in return (sufficient auctoritas, powerful allies, a daughter to marry off, etc). Or, if you were still a wealthy patrician but wanted to serve as a tribune of the plebs instead of spending all your money in an aedileship, you could pay a plebeian family to adopt you.

You could be an ordinary pleb of Head Count who nonetheless rose through the ranks of the legions enough to win a high enough military honor, or even serve as consul, thus making your family noble (but not patrician or senatorial).

You could be a woman of any class, and thus hold no office, but you were still considered a citizen, even though you couldn’t vote, and your son’s citizenship depended on your status, not the father’s. Officially you had no political power whatsoever. Unofficially you could wield quite a lot. Depending on the type of marriage you entered into, you could retain a lot of financial freedom as well. You could hold property, including land, write your will, testify in court, even deliver oratory on behalf of yourself or another. And if your husband, father, or other male responsible for you wasn’t too strict (or too observant), you could actually enjoy quite a bit of sexual freedom as well (as Roman authors were always lamenting).

You could be a slave who was manumitted, becoming your former master’s client and joining either his tribe or an urban tribe, probably still a member of the Head Count (unless he settled some property on you, not unheard-of), eligible to vote in the Tribal Assembly and Plebeian Council. And if you gained enough wealth, your sons might get to belong to a higher class and earn higher rank, or they could go into the legions and earn fame and power there.

You could be a pontifex who was also a senator who was also a praetor who was also a patrician. Or a pontifex who was also a senator who was also a proconsul who was also a plebeian.

(Or you could be Julius Caesar, a patrician from an ancient but somewhat fallen family who literally did everything. Except be tribune of the plebs, for which he had Mark Antony.)

So, seriously, how is this not great?

(Yes; I do realise that I am not normal).

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