ANCIENT ROMAN SOCIETY
Roman society was organized economically, legally and culturally, some have said, for the greater good. They were many things like good roads and infrastructure that could be enjoyed by all. Even so, the Roman middle class was made up primarily of small landowners and shopkeepers who often were not much better off than the poor. They might own a few hectares of land and raise enough food to feed themselves, enjoying meat, mostly pork, more than the poor, but they still slept on straw. People tended to wake up at dawn and go to the fields and do whatever work or chores they had to do first thing in the morning.
Dr Peter Heather wrote for the BBC: “It is important to recognise two separate dimensions of 'Roman-ness' - 'Roman' in the sense of the central state, and 'Roman' in the sense of characteristic patterns of life prevailing within its borders. The characteristic patterns of local Roman life were in fact intimately linked to the existence of the central Roman state, and, as the nature of state. Roman elites learned to read and write classical Latin to highly-advanced levels through a lengthy and expensive private education, because it qualified them for careers in the extensive Roman bureaucracy.” [Source: Dr Peter Heather, BBC, February 17, 2011]
Some 90 percent of the Roman Empire's population was comprised of peasant farmers whose lives, according to historian Chester Starr, were "grim, short, and abysmally poverty-stricken." Some poor survived by stealing food offering left for the dead. Others picked grain from horse manure. Christianity spread and was embraced in the Roman Empire in part because it addressed the needs of the poor.
Dr Valerie Hope of the Open University wrote for the BBC: “Roman society is often represented as one of social extremes - with the wealth, power and opulence of an emperor existing alongside the poverty, vulnerability and degradation of a slave. But beyond this, how and why was Roman society stratified? What were the major distinctions that shaped and influenced peoples' lives? [Source: Dr Valerie Hope, BBC, March 29, 2011. Hope is a lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University. |::|]
“At the end of the first century AD, the Roman administrator, poet and writer Pliny the Younger (today known particularly for his letters) attended a dinner party. He noted that the food and wine on offer differed in quality. The guests were not being treated equally. Instead the host was mirroring status distinctions in the standard of the food and beverages he presented to his guests. |As Pliny's observations show us, in Rome - and across the empire - status mattered. Who and what you were affected how you were treated and how you treated others. In the eyes of Roman law, people were not equal. Legal status helped to define power, influence, criminal punishments, marriage partners, even dress and where you sat in the amphitheatre.” |::|
See Separate Article on the Rich
Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ;
“Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans;
The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ;
Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu;
De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org;
British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ;
Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art;
The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ;
Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com
Book: “Roman Social Relations, 50 B.C. to A.D. 284" by Samsay MacMullen, a historian at Yale.
Ancient Roman Citizens
Government officials were elected by Roman, citizens Citizens could vote; had rights and responsibilities under a "well administered system of criminal and civil law. Men of both the upper and lower classes could be citizens. Women and slaves were not allowed to be citizens
Citizenship was generally passed down from father to son. The easiest way for non-citizens to become citizens was join the military. After being discharged for 20 years of service soldiers became citizens. The completion of military service provided citizenship not only to the soldier but to his entire family. Even barbarians were recruited with these promises.
Any male regarded as worthy, regardless of ethnic background, could become a Roman citizen. “E Pluibus Unum”, , the words featured on all American coins, meant that on any position in the empire was open to suitable candidates regardless of ethnic group or background. Within a fairly short time, the conquered people were made citizens of Rome and given all the rights and privileges that status entailed. Septimius Severus, a North African general became emperor of Rome and served for 18 years. Trajan, one of Rome's greatest emperors was from Spain.
Plight of Slaves and Ordinary People in Roman Society
In a review of Robert Knapp’s “Invisible Romans”, Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker: “Even slaves, Knapp shows, were not without hopes and ambitions: “A slave identity was a combination of what was imposed upon him and what he could fashion for himself,” for instance, by saving money or learning a valuable skill in order to bargain for his freedom. Knapp wants to remind us that a Roman slave “remained a thinking, feeling, active human being”—a fact that few would deny but which is easy to forget when reading about the exploits of their owners. [Source: Adam Kirsch, The New Yorker, January 2, 2012]
“Still, these are meagre sparks of light in an overwhelmingly dark picture. “Invisible Romans” is full of anecdotes and quotations that speak volumes about Roman attitudes toward women, slaves, and the cheapness of human life in general. There is the story told by Pliny the Elder about an auctioneer who was selling a hugely expensive candelabra; to sweeten the deal, he “threw in as a free bonus a slave named Clesippus, a humpbacked fuller, and a fellow of surpassing ugliness.” There is the skeleton discovered in North Africa wearing a slave collar inscribed “This is a cheating whore! Seize her because she escaped from Bulla Regia!” And the casual aside in one of Cicero’s speeches in defense of his friend Plancius: “They say you and a bunch of young men raped a mime in the town of Atina—but such an act is an old right when it comes to actors, especially out in the sticks.”
“In general, the lot of the ordinary Roman was no different from that of the vast majority of human beings before the modern age: powerlessness, bitterly hard work, and the constant presence of death. The thing that strikes Knapp most about Roman popular wisdom is its deep passivity in the face of these afflictions, which feels so alien to moderns and especially to Americans. The Romans, he writes, had no concept of progress: “The implication is that the order of the universe is static, that social perspectives do not change; they must be the way they are. The ‘is’ and ‘ought to be’ of the world are the same.”
“Thus, a slave might dream of manumission but hardly of abolition. For women, “there were no alternative lifestyles and aspirations either offered or considered—no inkling that Romano-Grecian women ever conceived of a world different from the one they were born into.” In such a harsh world, being a soldier—one of the legionaries Polybius mentions, slicing up humans and animals—was actually one of the easier fates: “The army was the only institution in the Roman world that could more or less guarantee social as well as financial advancement if one worked hard and lived long enough.” Even the amenities of the Roman world, like the famous public baths, lose their lustre in Knapp’s grimly realistic portrait: “The baths offered not only social interaction but a lack of hygiene shocking even to contemplate . . . whatever dirt, grime, bodily fluids, expulsions, and germs people brought with them to the baths, the water quickly shared with other bathers.”
Early Roman Society: Gens (Clans), Curia and Tribes
Scholars are fairly well agreed that the city of Rome grew out of a settlement of Latin shepherds and farmers on the Palatine hill; and that this first settlement slowly expanded by taking in and uniting with itself the settlements established on the other hills. But to understand more fully the beginnings of this little city-state, we must look at the way in which the people were organized; how they were ruled; and how their society and government were held together and made strong by a common religion. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
Roman Gens: A number of families which were supposed to be descended from a common ancestor formed a clan, or gens. Like the family, the gens was bound together by common religious rites. It was also governed by a common chief or ruler (decurio), who performed the religious rites, and led the people in war. \~\
Roman Curia: A number of gentes formed a still larger group, called a curia. In ancient times, when different people wished to unite, it was customary for them to make the union sacred by worshiping some common god. So the curia was bound together by the worship of a common deity. To preside over the common worship, a chief (curio) was selected, who was also the military commander in time of war, and chief magistrate in time of peace. The chief was assisted by a council of elders; and upon the most important questions he consulted the members of the curia in a common place of meeting (comitium). So that the curia was a small confederation of gentes, and made what we might call a little state. \~\
Roman Tribes: There was in the early Roman society a still larger group than the curia; it was what was called the tribe. It was a collection of curiae which had united for purposes of common defense and had come to form quite a distinct and well-organized community, like that which had settled upon the Palatine hill, and also like the Sabine community which had settled upon the Quirinal. Each of these settlements was therefore a tribe. Each had its chief, or king (rex), who was priest of the common religion, military commander in time of war, and civil magistrate to settle all disputes. Like the curia, it had also a council of elders and a general assembly of all people capable of bearing arms. Three of such tribes formed the whole Roman people. \~\
Social Classes in Ancient Rome
The people of Republican Rome were basically divided into three classes: the slaves, who had virtually no rights; the plebeians, ordinary people that included ex-slaves (freedmen); and the patricians, the descendants of the first ruling families, who by their ancestry were allowed to serve in the Roman senate. The internal history of the Republican Rome is marked by conflicts between the patricians and the plebeians, who wanted and eventually received more political power.
The upper classes and elite consisted of landowners, military officers, government officials and administrators and wealthy soldier-landowners who were similar to medieval knights. Together they made up less than 1 percent of the population. Rich Romans had land, slaves, livestock and wealth. They could easily be identified by their clothes. The historian Michael Grant said the standard of grand villas built in Pompeii "was never achieved again until the 19th century, To pay for their indulgences, many rich Romans, particularly in Italy, exploited the slaves, farmers and peasants under their control. One scholar wrote: "They were permitted to do a great deal — as long as they did nothing constructive."
Dr Valerie Hope of the Open University wrote for the BBC: ““The main legal distinctions were between those who were free, and those who were slaves. All inhabitants of the empire were either free or in servitude. Slaves were either born into slavery, or were forced, often through defeat in war, into it. Slaves were the possessions of their masters and the latter had the power of life and death over them. Slavery was not, however, always a life-long state. Slaves could be - and regularly were - given their freedom. [Source: Dr Valerie Hope, BBC, March 29, 2011. Hope is a lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University.|]
Book: “Roman Social Relations,” 50 B.C. to A.D. 284 by Samsay MacMullen, a historian at Yale.
Plebeians and Patricians
The idea of citizenship first evolved in ancient Greece. Roman mythology claims that the Roman idea of citizenship was created by it legendary rulers but more likely the idea was imported at least in part from the Greeks. The Athenians had a form of citizenry that excluded a lot of people but did grant certain rights those who possessed citizenship.
In the early days of Rome, patricians were the ruling class. Only certain families were members of the patrician class and members had to be born patricians. The patricians were a very small percentage of the Roman population, but they held all the power. All the other people were Plebeians.
Over time the separation between the patricians and the plebeians was gradually broken down, with old patrician aristocracy passing away, and Rome becoming in theory, a democratic republic. Everyone who was enrolled in the thirty-five tribes was a full Roman citizen, and had a share in the government. But we must remember that not all the persons who were under the Roman authority were full Roman citizens. The inhabitants of the Latin colonies were not full Roman citizens. They could not hold office, and only under certain conditions could they vote. The Italian allies were not citizens at all, and could neither vote nor hold office. And now the conquests had added millions of people to those who were not citizens. The Roman world was, in fact, governed by the comparatively few people who lived in and about the city of Rome. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
“But even within this class of citizens at Rome, there had gradually grown up a smaller body of persons, who became the real holders of political power. Later, this small body formed a new nobility—the optimates. All who had held the office of consul, praetor, or curule aedile—that is, a “curule office”—were regarded as nobles (nobiles), and their families were distinguished by the right of setting up the ancestral images in their homes (ius imaginis). Any citizen might, it is true, be elected to the curule offices; but the noble families were able, by their wealth, to influence the elections, so as practically to retain these offices in their own hands. \~\
Rise of the Plebeians in Rome
In early Rome, the plebeians had few rights. All of the government and religious positions were held by patricians. The patricians made the laws, owned the lands, and were the generals over the army. Plebeians couldn't hold public office and were not even allowed to marry patricians. Starting around 494 B.C., the plebeians began to fight against the rule of the patricians. This roughly 200-year struggle, called the "Conflict of the Orders", resulted in the plebeians gaining more rights, including the right to run for office and marry patricians. The Plebeians made their greatest gains by staging strikes: leaving the city for a while, refusing to work or fight in the army. The primary concessions that the plebeians obtained from the patricians was the Law of the Twelve Tables, which guaranteed basic rights of all Roman citizens regardless of their social class. [Source: Ducksters]
According to Metropolitan Museum of Art: “During the early Republic, power rested in the hands of the patricians, a privileged class of Roman citizens whose status was a birthright. The patricians had exclusive control over all religious offices and issued final assent (patrum auctoritas) to decisions made by the Roman popular assemblies. “However, debts and an unfair distribution of public land prompted the poorer Roman citizens, known as the plebians, to withdraw from the city-state and form their own assembly, elect their own officers, and set up their own cults. Their principal demands were debt relief and a more equitable distribution of newly conquered territory in allotments to Roman citizens. Eventually, in 287 B.C., with the so-called Conflict of the Orders, wealthier, land-rich plebians achieved political equality with the patricians. The main political result was the birth of a noble ruling class consisting of both patricians and plebians, a unique power-sharing partnership that continued into the late first century B.C. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]
In the 5th century B.C., the tyranny of the decemvirs produced a more enlightened class of patricians, more sympathetic to Plebeian concerns. The passage new laws raised their hopes The Plebeians had already gained great successes, but there was still something else for them to obtain, in order to have full equality in the state, citizenship. At this time, plebeians already possessed the lowest right, the commercium; they could hold property and carry on trade just like any other Roman citizens. They had just just obtained the conubium, or the right of contracting a legal marriage with a patrician. They had also the suffragium, or the right of voting, in the assemblies of the centuries and of the tribes. As regards the honores, or the right of holding office, they could be elected to the lower offices, that is, could be chosen tribunes of the people and aediles; but could not be elected to the higher offices, that is, could not be chosen consuls and quaestors. What the plebeians now wanted was a share in the higher offices, especially in the consulship. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
Plebeians Allowed to Elect Government Officials
Eventually the plebeians were allowed to elect their own government officials. They elected "tribunes" who represented the plebeians and fought for their rights. They had the power to veto new laws from the Roman senate. As time went on, the legal differences between the plebeians and the patricians diminished. The plebeians could be elected to the senate and even be consuls. Plebeians and patricians could also get married. Wealthy plebeians became part of the Roman nobility. However, despite changes in the laws, the patricians always held a majority of the wealth and power in Ancient Rome. [Source: Ducksters]
The three citizen assemblies of the Roman Republic (not including the Senate): 1) All 3 assemblies included the entire electorate, but each had a different internal organization (and therefore differences in the weight of an individual citizen's vote). 2) All 3 assemblies made up of voting units; the single vote of each voting unit determined by a majority of the voters in that unit; measures passed by a simple majority of the units. 3) They were -called comitia. specifically the comitia curiata, comitia centuriata, and comitia plebis tributa (also the concilium plebis or comitia populi tributa). [Source: University of Texas at Austin ==]
Curiate Assembly: oldest (early Rome); units of organization: the 30 curiae (sing: curia) of the early city (10 for each of the early, "Romulan" tribes), based on clan and family associations; became obsolete as a legislative body but preserved functions of endowing senior magistrates with imperium and witnessing religious affairs. The head of each curia ages at least 50 and elected for life; assembly effectively controled by patricians, partially through clientela). ==
Centuriate Assembly: most important; units of organization: 193 centuries, based on wealth and age; originally military units with membership based on capability to furnish armed men in groups of 100 (convened outside pomerium); elected censors and magistrates with imperium (consuls and praetors); proper body for declaring war; passed some laws (leges, sing. lex); served as highest court of appeal in cases involving capital punishment. 118 centuries controlled by top 3 of 9 "classes" (minimum property qualifications for third class in first cent. B.C.-HS 75,000); assembly controlled by landed aristocracy. ==
Timeline of major events: 353 B.C.: Caere granted civitas sine suffragio (citizenship w/o vote or eligibility for office)
340 B.C.: Latin allies demand full voting rights, Roman citizenship?
Livy makes the Latins demand full citizenship and voting rights — no more ius Latinum.
300 B.C.: Lex Valeria guarantees provocatio for citizen w/in pomerium. Lex Ogulnia opens some priesthoods to plebeians.
Citizens in the Roman Empire
Government officials were elected by Roman, citizens. Citizens could vote; had rights and responsibilities under a "well administered system of criminal and civil law. Men of both the upper and lower classes could be citizens. Women and slaves were not allowed to be citizens
Dr Valerie Hope of the Open University wrote for the BBC: “All free inhabitants were either citizens or non-citizens. Only citizens could hold positions in the administration of Rome and the other towns and cities of the empire, only citizens could serve in the legions, and only citizens enjoyed certain legal privileges. From the end of the first century B.C., Rome and the Roman empire were ruled by a succession of emperors. Political and military power was concentrated in their hands, and they represented the pinnacle of the imperial status hierarchy. Under the emperors the citizen vote in Rome was curtailed, but citizenship expanded rapidly across the empire, and was given as a reward to individuals, families and whole settlements. In A.D. 212 the emperor Caracalla expanded the franchise to all free inhabitants of the empire. [Source: Dr Valerie Hope, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]
“Citizens can be further divided into the privileged and the non-privileged - with some Roman citizens being very clearly distinguished by their power and privilege. These were the senators, equestrians and the provincial elite. The senate was the traditional ruling body of Rome, and under the emperors the senate continued to represent the citizen upper crust. The senate was usually limited to 600 members, and entrance was dependent on property qualifications and election to key offices. |::|
“The equestrian order was traditionally limited to those who were entitled to a public horse. There were no limits to equestrian numbers, but property requirements had to be met. Senators were recognised by a toga with a broad purple stripe, while the equestrian wore a toga with a narrow purple stripe and a gold finger ring. |::|
How One Became a Roman Citizen
Citizenship was generally passed down from father to son. The easiest way for non-citizens to become citizens was join the military. After being discharged for 20 years of service soldiers became citizens. The completion of military service provided citizenship not only to the soldier but to his entire family. Even barbarians were recruited with these promises.
Any male regarded as worthy, regardless of ethnic background, could become a Roman citizen. E Pluibus Unum , the words featured on all American coins, meant that on any position in the empire was open to suitable candidates regardless of ethnic group or background. Within a fairly short time, the conquered people were made citizens of Rome and given all the rights and privileges that status entailed. Septimius Severus, a North African general became emperor of Rome and served for 18 years. Trajan, one of Rome's greatest emperors was from Spain.
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “When a foreigner received the right of citizenship, he took a new name, which was arranged on much the same principles as have been explained in the cases of freedmen. His original name was retained as a sort of cognomen, and before it were written the praenomen that suited his fancy and the nomen of the person, always a Roman citizen, to whom he owed his citizenship. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org]
“The most familiar example is that of the Greek poet Archias, whom Cicero, in the well-known oration, defended; his name was Aulus Licinius Archias, He had long been attached to the family of the Luculli, and, when he was made a citizen, he took as his nomen that of his distinguished patron Lucius Licinius Lucullus; we do not know why he selected the praenomen Aulus. Another example is that of the Gaul mentioned by Caesar (B.G., I, 47), Gaïus Valerius Caburus. He took his name from Caius Valerius Flaccus, the governor of Gaul at the time that he received his citizenship. To this custom of taking the names of governors and generals is due the frequent occurrence of the name “Julius” in Gaul, “Pompeius” in Spain, and “Cornelius” in Sicily.”
Townspeople in the Roman Empire
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Equites. Members of the equestrian order made up the aristocracy of the municipia as the “nobles” did at Rome. Conspicuous among them were the retired army officers, occasionally tribunes, but more often the centurions who were sometimes retired with equestrian rank, particularly the primipilarii, or men who had attained the chief centurionship of their legions. Such a man might come back to cut a big figure in his home town (patria), or might settle in the province where he had seen service. In either case inscriptions often survive to tell us of his war record and his benefactions to his native town. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]|
“Augustales. Below and apart from these were rated the wealthy freedmen. Ineligible for office and council as they were, a special distinction and an opportunity for service and generosity were provided for them in the institution of the Augustales, a college of priests in charge first of the worship of Augustus and then of the following emperors. Each year the decuriones selected a board of six (seviri) to act for that year. At the public ceremonies of which they were in charge they were entitled to wear a gold ring like that of the equites and the bordered toga. They paid a fee on election, provided the necessary sacrifices, and proudly rivaled the decuriones in gifts to the community. |+|
“Plebs. Then came the plebs, the citizens not entitled to serve in the council, and below them the poor freedmen. These were the men who kept or worked in the small shops and made up the membership of the many guilds of which we find traces at Pompeii and which must have been very much the same in other cities. However hard their work and simple their fare, they could not have found their life mere drudgery. They expected the magistrates to see to it that bread and oil, the two great necessities of life, were abundant and cheap in the markets. They also expected them to furnish entertainment in the shape of games in the amphitheater and theater and of feasts as well. Even small towns had their public baths, where the fee was always low, and was sometimes remitted for longer or shorter periods by the generosity of wealthy citizens.” |+|
Strengths of the Roman System
Edward Gibbon wrote in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”: “The Greeks, after their country had been reduced into a province, imputed the triumphs of Rome, not to the merit, but to the fortune, of the republic. The inconstant goddess, who so blindly distributes and resumes her favours, had now consented (such was the language of envious flattery) to resign her wings, to descend from her globe, and to fix her firm and immutable throne on the banks of the Tiber. A wiser Greek, who has composed, with a philosophic spirit, the memorable history of his own times, deprived his countrymen of this vain and delusive comfort by opening to their view the deep foundations of the greatness of Rome. [Source: Edward Gibbon: General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West from “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Chapter 38, published 1776]
“The fidelity of the citizens to each other, and to the state, was confirmed by the habits of education and the prejudices of religion. Honour, as well as virtue, was the principle of the republic; the ambitious citizens laboured to deserve the solemn glories of a triumph; and the ardour of the Roman youth was kindled into active emulation, as often as they beheld the domestic images of their ancestors. The temperate struggles of the patricians and plebeians had finally established the firm and equal balance of the constitution; which united the freedom of popular assemblies with the authority and wisdom of a senate-and the executive powers of a regal magistrate. When the consul displayed the standard of the republic, each citizen bound himself, by the obligation of an oath, to draw his sword in the cause of his country, till he had discharged the sacred duty by a military service of ten years.
“This wise institution continually poured into the field the rising generations of freemen and soldiers; and their numbers were reinforced by the warlike and populous states of Italy, who, after a brave resistance, had yielded to the valour, and embraced the alliance, of the Romans. The sage historian, who excited the virtue of the younger Scipio and beheld the ruin of Carthage,has accurately described their military system; their levies, arms, exercises, subordination, marches, encampments; and the invincible legion, superior in active strength to the Macedonian phalanx of Philip and Alexander. From these institutions of peace and war, Polybius has deduced the spirit and success of a people incapable of fear and impatient of repose. The ambitious design of conquest, which might have been defeated by the seasonable conspiracy of mankind, was attempted and achieved; and the perpetual violation of justice was maintained by the political virtues of prudence and courage. The arms of the republic, sometimes vanquished in battle, always victorious in war, advanced with rapid steps to the Euphrates, the Danube, the Rhine, and the Ocean; and the images of gold, or silver, or brass, that might serve to represent the nations and their kings, were successively broken by the iron monarchy of Rome.”
Diversity of the Roman Empire
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill of the University of Reading wrote for the BBC: “One of the most astonishing features of the Roman Empire is the sheer diversity of the geographical and cultural landscapes it controlled. It was a European empire in the sense that it controlled most of the territory of the member states of the present EU, except part of Germany and Scandinavia. [Source: Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“But it was above all a Mediterranean empire, and pulled together diverse cultures, in Asia (the Near East), Egypt and North Africa that have not been reunited since the spread of Islam. This represented a vast diversity, including language (two 'international' languages were still needed for communication, Greek as well as Latin, let alone local languages) and relative development - they spoke of 'barbarians' versus Romans/Greeks, where we would speak of first and third world. The planting of cities, with their familiar apparatus of public services and entertainment, was a sign and instrument of the advance to 'first-world' status. |::|
“But while we can still admire the effectiveness of this city-based 'civilisation' in producing unity and common cultural values in diverse societies, what we might look for from a contemporary perspective, and look for in vain, is some conscious encouragement of the 'biodiversity' of the different societies that composed the empire. |::|
“Vast regional contrasts did indeed continue, but there is little sense that the emperors felt an obligation to promote or protect them. The unity of the empire lay in a combination of factors. The central machine was astonishingly light compared to modern states - neither the imperial bureaucracy nor even the military forces were large by modern standards. The central state in that sense weighed less heavily on its component parts, which were largely self-governing. |::|
“But above all the unity lay in the reality of participation in central power by those from the surrounding regions. Just as the emperors themselves came not just from Rome and Italy, but Spain, Gaul, North Africa, the Danubian provinces, and the Near East, so the waves of economic prosperity spread over time outwards in ripples.” |::|
Common Values That Unified the Roman Empire
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill of the University of Reading wrote for the BBC: “The unified empire depended on common values, many of which could be described as 'cultural', affecting both the elite and the masses. Popular aspects of Graeco-Roman literary culture spread well beyond the elite, at least in the cities. Baths and amphitheatres also reached the masses. It has been observed that the amphitheatre dominated the townscape of a Roman town as the cathedral dominated the medieval town. [Source: Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“The underlying brutality of the amphitheatre was compatible with their own system of values and the vision of the empire as an endless struggle against forces of disorder and barbarism. The victims, whether nature's wild animals, or the human wild animals - bandits, criminals, and the Christians who seemed intent on provoking the wrath of the gods - gave pleasure in dying because they needed to be exorcised. |::|
“There was also a vital religious element which exposed the limits of tolerance of the system. The pagan gods were pluralistic, and a variety of local cults presented no problem. The only cult, in any sense imposed, was that of the emperor. To embrace it was as sufficient a symbol of loyalty as saluting the flag, and rejecting it was to reject the welfare of all fellow citizens. |::| “Christians were persecuted because their religion was an alternative and incompatible system (on their own declaration) which rejected all the pagan gods. Constantine, in substituting the Christian god for the old pagan gods, established a far more demanding system of unity. |::|
“We are left with a paradox. The Roman Empire set up and spread many of the structures on which the civilisation of modern Europe depends; and through history it provided a continuous model to imitate. Yet many of the values on which it depended are the antithesis of contemporary value-systems. It retains its hold on our imaginations now, not because it was admirable, but because despite all its failings, it held together such diverse landscape for so long.”
Augustus' Social or Moral Legislation
Along with attempts to restore the old Roman religion, Augustus wished to revive the old morality and simple life of the past. He himself disdained luxurious living and foreign fashions. He tried to improve the lax customs which prevailed in respect to marriage and divorce, and to restrain the vices which he felt were destroying the population of Rome. But it is difficult to say whether these laudable attempts of Augustus produced any real results upon either the religious or the moral life of the Roman people. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
In attempt to boost the declining birth rate Augustus offered tax breaks for large families and cracked down on abortion. He imposed strict marriage laws and changed adultery from an act of indecency to an act of sedition, decreeing that a man who discovered his wife's infidelity must turn her in or face charges himself. Adulterous couples could have their property confiscated, be exiled to different parts of the empire and be prohibited from marrying one another. Augustus passed the reforms because he believed that too many men spent their energy with prostitutes and concubines and had nothing for their wives, causing population declines.
Under Augustus, women had the right to divorce. Husbands could see prostitutes but not keep mistresses, widows were obligated to remarry within two years, divorcees within 18 months. Parents with three or more children were given rewards, property, job promotions, and childless couples and single men were looked down upon and penalized . The end result of the reforms was a skyrocketing divorce rate.
Suetonius wrote: He revised existing laws and enacted some new ones, for example, on extravagance, on adultery and chastity, on bribery, and on the encouragement of marriage among the various classes of citizens. Having made somewhat more stringent changes in the last of these than in the others, he was unable to carry it out because of an open revolt against its provisions, until he had abolished or mitigated a part of the penalties, besides increasing the rewards and allowing a three years' exemption from the obligation to marry after the death of a husband or wife. When the knights even then persistently called for its repeal at a public show, he sent for the children of Germanicus and exhibited them, some in his own lap and some in their father's, intimating by his gestures and expression that they should not refuse to follow that young man's example. And on finding that the spirit of the law was being evaded by betrothal with immature girls and by frequent changes of wives, he shortened the duration of betrothals and set a limit on divorce.” [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum — Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars — The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]
Meaning, and Display Status in Ancient Rome
Dr Valerie Hope of the Open University wrote for the BBC: “Legal status marked some fundamental boundaries in the life of a Roman man or woman. It mattered whether a person was a senator or a slave, and arguably it was at these extremes that legal status mattered the most. Certainly, our understanding of the Roman social order is coloured by ancient sources that tend to focus on the importance of status display and status symbols in elite, urban and male circles. [Source: Dr Valerie Hope, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]
“Whether you were 'in' or 'out' of the leading circles was signalled in the Republic by the division of the population of Rome into 'patricians' - in origin the powerful and established land-holding families - and 'plebeians', basically the rest of the (free) population. And in the late empire the terms honestiores and humiliores were employed to denote the privileged and the humble. |::|
“The powerful were defined by the privileges they enjoyed, and knowledge of some of these aspects of their lives has been handed down to us, but unfortunately the symbols of privilege tell us little about the lives and status expectations of the powerless masses. For the mass of the free population, did legal status matter? Citizenship may have conferred certain advantages, but these may have been little noted - or just taken for granted - by the urban poor, and by the end of the first century A.D. it was observed that the toga - the visual symbol of citizenship - was little worn. |::|
“On the streets of Rome citizens, non-citizens, slaves and ex-slaves may have mingled quite freely, showing few observable symbols of their status, and confusion could well have arisen over people's exact legal situation. |In an age before mass personal documentation, there were few ways to prove who and what you were. So, for example, illegal marriages were contracted between citizens and non-citizens either through ignorance or mistake. Unless a legal crisis arose, people may have taken their legal status - and that of others - for granted. |::|
“In much of daily life status distinctions based on age, gender, occupation, education and wealth may have been more relevant than legal status alone. The same man could derive status from several co-existing roles: he might be a citizen, an ex-slave, a carpenter, a Briton, a father and a husband. Depending on context, one or all of these identities may have affected how he acted and interacted with others. |::|
Wealth, Influence and Connections in Ancient Romes
Dr Valerie Hope of the Open University wrote for the BBC: “Social factors cut across the strict legal divisions. Wealth, unsurprisingly, was one such factor. People could amass a fortune, and money could buy status symbols. Trimalchio, the fictitious freed slave invented by the Roman writer Petronius, had all the trappings that Roman money could buy. He lived in a vast house, wore extravagant clothes, owned many slaves, entertained lavishly and even built his own grand tomb. [Source: Dr Valerie Hope, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]
“He was portrayed as grotesque, but he may not have been that far removed from reality - it is known that freed slaves did advertise their own personal success stories. The tomb built by the freed slave Eurysaces still stands in Rome. It was built in the shape of a giant oven, decorated with scenes of baking. |::|
“We can also note that the highest ranking slaves and freed slaves of the emperors could become wealthy - thanks to their proximity to the seat of power, which allowed them to wield considerable authority. In many ways it was their servility that allowed these men to become so close to the emperor. Unlike other members of the elite, the slaves were not serious rivals to Imperial power. Besides, a slave was at the mercy of his master; he could easily be dismissed or punished. Freed slaves were also bound to their former masters, whether the master was an emperor, a senator or an artisan. |::|
“Such dependency relationships were a marked feature of Roman life. There was a dense and complex patronage network, and this united people of diverse backgrounds, wealth and standing. The emperor eventually became the ultimate patron, and as time went on, without his support and favour, even the most ambitious senator could not hold high office. |::|
“Beneath him, the senators acted in their turn as patrons to the lesser senators, and throughout society these relationships were replicated. Thus, through the patronage system, the lower strata of the Roman population could gain some indirect access to power and authority. A client might look to his patron for financial assistance, or legal help. In return the patron received respect, favours and a retinue of followers. |::|
“Even for those without great wealth or access to power, there were opportunities to enhance social status and gain recognition among their peers. Many organisations - such as the army, and trade or religious guilds (often organised for burial purposes) - operated on hierarchical principles. In these settings people could hold office and obtain titles, whereas in the wider world they could not. |::|
Social Mobility in Ancient Rome
Dr Valerie Hope of the Open University wrote for the BBC: “Trimalchio's story suggests social mobility. The system rewarded hard work, ambition and the accumulation of wealth, but there were limits. Birth remained important, and new citizens, however wealthy, could be stigmatised by their past. Ex-slaves in particular could not escape the taint of slavery, and were not allowed to hold high office. [Source: Dr Valerie Hope, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]
“These nouveaux-riches citizens could be mocked and despised for copying their social betters. Money could not buy everything, and individuals such as Trimalchio could find themselves in an incongruous position, fabulously wealthy but not part of high society. |::|
“This of course may not have concerned Trimalchio, or others like him; he had his money, and the trappings that it bought, and within his own house he was king. Although others may have expected Trimalchio to be ashamed of his past, it doesn't necessarily follow that he felt so himself. |::|
“In time it became possible to break down some social boundaries. Rome and the empire needed new blood, and even the senate was not a closed body. The ex-slave could not hold office, but eventually his descendants might. The emperor Vitellius was said to have been descended from a freed slave; and the emperors Trajan and Septimius Severus came from provincial families. |::|
“For the mass of the urban population, however, we can question whether social mobility was ever a reality. For some, legal status could change; non-citizens could become citizens; a slave could become a free man. This was upward mobility and could bring real advantages, but unless this legal change was accompanied by an economic change the individual may have felt few immediate benefits.” |::|
“For many Roman people, their unchanging place in the Roman social order was accepted or taken for granted. For others the maintenance, negotiation and re-negotiation of their status position became crucial, and this can be seen in the way that the language and symbols of status were manipulated. Some people claimed to be citizens when they were not, or wore clothes suggesting senatorial or equestrian status, or tried to sit in the reserved seats at the theatre and amphitheatre. Others sought to define their status and that of their guests in the food, seating plans and entertainment offered at their dinner-parties. On the one hand all this suggests that status distinctions mattered, on the other that status could be disputed, contested and even invented. There were clear levels on the Roman social ladder, but not everyone could be - or wished to be - neatly categorised.” |::|
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2018