Roman Society During the Period of Kings and the Republic

Structure of Roman Society in the Roman Kings and Roman Republican Periods

For the Romans, it was not true that all people are created equal. Roman society, like most ancient societies, was heavily stratified. Some of the people resident in ancient Rome were enslaved, and lacked any power of their own. Unlike those enslaved in the modern era, those enslaved in ancient Rome could win or earn their freedom.

In the early years, at the top of Roman Society were kings who held supreme power, but soon enough the kings were thrown out. Likewise, the rest of the social hierarchy was also adaptable:

  • The lower, plebeian class, by nature the majority of the Roman population, wanted, demanded, and got more.
  • A wealthy class developed between the nobles and plebeians.

Enslaved People in Roman Society

Engraved illustration of enslaved people standing on a platform in Ancient Rome from Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, Literature and Art, Published in 1851.

bauhaus1000 / Getty Images

At the top of the Roman hierarchy were the patricians and when there was one, a king. At the opposite end were the enslaved who were powerless. Although a Roman Paterfamilias 'father of the family' could sell his children into enslavement, this was rare. A person could also become enslaved as a child abandoned at birth and through birth to a child of an enslaved person. But the main source of Roman enslavement was warfare. In the ancient world, those captured during war became enslaved (or were killed or ransomed). The Roman peasantry was mostly replaced by large landowners with plantations on which enslaved persons were forced to work. Not only landowners had enslaved people. Enslavement became highly specialized. Some enslaved people earned enough money to buy their freedom.

The Freedman in Roman Society

Roman collared slaves

Jun / Wikimedia Commons

Newly freed enslaved persons could become part of the plebeian class if they were citizens. Whether or not a manumitted (freed) person became a citizen depended on whether they were of age, if their enslaver was a citizen, and whether the ceremony was formal. Libertinus is the Latin term for a freedman. A freedman would remain a client of his former enslaver.

The Roman Proletariat

Tullia driving over the dead body of Servius Tullius

UIG / Getty Images

The ancient Roman proletariat was recognized by King Servius Tullius as the lowest class of Roman citizens. Because the economy relied on enslavement, proletarian wage-earners had a hard time getting money. Later, when Marius reformed the Roman army, he paid the proletarian soldiers. The bread and circuses made famous during the Roman Imperial period and mentioned by the satirist Juvenal were for the benefit of the Roman proletariat. The name of the proletariat refers directly to their chief function for Rome—the production of Roman proles 'offspring'.

The Roman Plebeian

Roman plebeian. (1859-1860).

NYPL Digital Gallery

The term plebeian is synonymous with lower class. The plebeians were that part of the Roman population whose origin was among the conquered Latins (as opposed to the Roman conquerors). Plebeians are contrasted with patrician noblemen. Although over time the Roman plebeians were able to amass wealth and great power, the plebeians were originally poor and downtrodden.

Equestrian

Roman art, From Algeria, Musee De Tipasa (Archaeological Museum)
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Equites came to be a social class just under the patricians. Their number included Rome's successful businessmen.

Patrician

Silver bust of Roman patrician, from the House of the silver bust, archaeological site of La Villasse, Vaison-la-Romaine, Provence-Alpes-Cote dAzur, France, Roman civilization, 3rd century
De Agostini / C. Sappa / Getty Images

The patricians were the Roman upper class. They were probably originally relatives of the patres 'fathers' - the heads of the families of the old Roman tribes. In the beginning, the patricians held all the power of Rome. Even after the plebeians won their rights, there were vestigial positions reserved for patricians. Vestal virgins had to be from patrician families and Roman patricians had special marriage ceremonies.

Roman King (Rex)

Roman coin

Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The king was the head of the people, chief priest, a leader in war, and the judge whose sentence couldn't be appealed. He convened the Roman Senate. He was accompanied by 12 lictors who carried a bundle of rods with a symbolic death-wielding axe in the center of the bundle. However much power he had, he could be kicked out. After the expulsion of the last of the Tarquins, the 7 kings of Rome were remembered with such hatred that there were never again kings in Rome. This is true despite the fact that there were Roman emperors who were monarchs with as much power as the kings.

Socal Stratfication in Roman Society - Patron and Client

Roman party
nicoolay / Getty Images

Romans could be either patrons or clients. This was a mutually beneficial relationship.

The number of clients and sometimes the status of clients conferred prestige on the patron. Roman clients owed their votes to the patron. Roman patrons protected their clients, gave legal advice, and helped the clients financially or in other ways.

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.