Patrons and Clients in Roman Society

Scene of ancient Rome, 1901, by Prospero Piatti (1842-1902), oil on canvas, 66.5x105 cm
Scene of ancient Rome. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The people of ancient Rome were divided into two classes: wealthy, aristocratic patricians and poorer commoners called plebians. Patricians, or upper-class Romans, were patrons to plebian clients. The patrons provided many types of support to their clients who, in turn, rendered services and loyalty to their patrons.

The number of clients and sometimes the status of clients conferred prestige on the patron. The client owed his vote to the patron. The patron protected the client and his family, gave legal advice, and helped the clients financially or in other ways.

This system was, according to the historian Livy, created by Rome's (possibly mythical) founder, Romulus.

Rules of Patronage

Patronage was not just a matter of picking out an individual and giving him money to support himself. Instead, there were formal rules pertaining to patronage. While the rules did change over the years, the following examples provide an idea of how the system worked:

  • A patron could have a patron of his own; therefore, a client, could have his own clients, but when two high-status Romans had a relationship of mutual benefit, they were likely to choose the label amicus ("friend") to describe the relationship since amicus did not imply stratification.
  • Some clients were members of the plebian class but had never been enslaved. Others were formerly enslaved people. While freeborn plebes could choose or change their patron, formerly enslaved people called liberti, or freedmen, automatically became clients of their former owners and were obligated to work for them in some capacity.
  • Each morning at dawn, clients were required to greet their patrons with a greeting called the salutatio. This greeting could also be accompanied by requests for help or favors. As a result, clients were sometimes called salutatores.
  • Clients were expected to support their patrons in all matters, personal and political. As a result, it was possible for a wealthier patron to count on the votes of his many clients. Meanwhile, however, patrons were expected to provide a range of goods and services including food (which was often traded for cash) and legal counsel.
  • There was also patronage in the arts where a patron provided the wherewithal to allow the artist to create in comfort. The work of art or book would be dedicated to the patron.

Outcomes of the Patronage System

The idea of client/patron relationships had significant implications for the later Roman Empire and even medieval society. As Rome expanded throughout the Republic and Empire, it took over smaller states which had its own customs and rules of law. Rather than attempting to remove the states' leaders and governments and replace them with Roman rulers, Rome created "client states." Leaders of these states were less powerful than Roman leaders and were required to turn to Rome as their patron state.

The concept of clients and patrons lived on in the Middle Ages. Rulers of small city/states acted as patrons to poorer serfs. The serfs claimed protection and support from the upper classes who, in turn, required their serfs to produce food, provide services, and act as loyal supporters.

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Gill, N.S. "Patrons and Clients in Roman Society." ThoughtCo, Jan. 3, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, January 3). Patrons and Clients in Roman Society. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Patrons and Clients in Roman Society." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).