diagram of social classes

Social Classes in the Late Republic

Rome was a highly hierarchial and class-conscious society, but there was the possibility of mobility between most classes (indicated in the diagram above by dotted lines) because by the second century BCE class was no longer determined solely by birth. The classes described below superseded the old patrician/plebeian distinction, though certain elements of dress and religious positions and rituals were still reserved for patricians. There was a large gulf between the wealthy upper classes (the senatorial and equestrian classes, shown on the pediment of the temple above), and the poorer lower classes, though it was still possible—although quite difficult—to move upwards by acquiring sufficient wealth.

Upper Classes

Women: Although membership in these classes was dominated by the same families over many generations, the classes themselves were defined according to male activities rather than birth. Women's place in these classes was therefore somewhat problematic. However, there came to be a customary acceptance that women belonged to the social class of their fathers and then of their husbands, although the women had no special dress that distinguished their status. This female participation in social status began to crystallize and formalize under Augustus, who explicitly included the daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of senators in his law prohibiting members of the senatorial class from contracting legal marriages with freedpeople.

Belonging to one of these upper classes had many significant consequences for Romans besides prestige, for social class determined one's economic and political opportunities, as well as legal rights, benefits and penalties. Rome had nothing comparable to our middle class; the gulf between these two upper classes and the much larger lower classes was immense. However, as long as one was a freeborn Roman citizen there was at least a slight possibility of moving into the equestrian class through the acquisition of wealth. Entry into the senatorial class, even for wealthy equestrians, was extremely difficult, since for centuries a small number of elite families had monopolized this class.

Lower Classes

Women: Since the lower classes were not defined by male activities, there was no problem with including women; female and male children were automatically members of the social class of their parents (except for freedpeople, since only one generation could be “freed”). If the parents were Roman citizens and had contracted a legal Roman marriage, the children followed the social status of their father (i.e., they were Roman citizens). However, in the case of Latins, foreigners, and slaves, children took the social status of their mother, even if their father was a freeborn Roman citizen.

Social Classes in the Empire

During the Empire, most of these social classes continued, although after the grants of full citizenship in 212 CE the foreigner and Latin classes (except for Junian Latins) virtually disappeared. There was a new and tiny class at the very top of the social pyramid, comprising the emperors and their families, indicated at the very top of the above diagram. From the time of Augustus, the state was identified with the imperial household (domus), and the women belonging to that household naturally became associated with imperial status, imperial titles such as Augusta and mater castrorum (“mother of the military camps”), and even some forms of power, although these women (like all Roman women) were formally excluded from political offices and the emperors consistently stressed their domestic roles. There was also a new category in the class of freedpeople, since freedmen of the emperor were frequently given important bureaucratic posts, garnered a great deal of wealth, and exercised considerable influence. Even imperial slaves had a certain status. Thus the imperial household created status anomalies in several of the social classes.

The nature of the senatorial class also changed during the Empire. Although the Senate and magistrates continued to exist, they no longer had any real political power, and their membership in this class depended ultimately on the favor of the emperor. Nevertheless rank retained its importance and became even more clearly marked and formalized. In fact, elite women during the Empire also openly laid claim to the social status associated with rank. By the end of the second century CE, the word clarissimi and the feminine clarissimae (“most distinguished”) became a kind of title denoting male and female members of the senatorial class. In the third century CE, the law explicitly divided Romans into two groups, the honestiores (“more honorable people,” including senators, equestrians, municipal officials, and soldiers) and the humiliores (“more insignificant people,” including all other groups). Legal penalties were significantly more harsh for the latter group, and women as well as men were included in this division.

Public Display: Patronage

Public display of status was a very important feature of Roman society. It was not enough to belong to one of the upper classes—status and rank had to be seen, to be publicly recognized, in order to be meaningful. Hence the clothing of upper-class Roman males had distinctive features which made their rank immediately visible to all around them (for more information, see Roman Clothing).

The patron-client relationship was also a major instrument for the public display of status. The Romans called mutual support between upper-class men of relative—though competitive—equality amicitia, “friendship.” However, nearly every aspect of Roman life was affected by the widespread system of patronage, based on publicly acknowledged inequality between patron (patronus) and client (cliens); the prevalence of patronage in Roman society was both a result and a cause of its hierarchical, status-conscious nature, as well as of the wide gulf between the upper and lower classes.

There were two types of patronage:

Personal patronage extended to a man's or woman's freedpeople as well as to freeborn individuals of a lower status, but the former involved legally binding duties and services that the freedperson owed his or her patron in exchange for manumission. Public patrons expected to receive public acknowledgment from their client groups in the form of statues and inscriptions; personal patrons expected various forms of public displays of deference such as the morning greeting (see below), accompanying the patron to the Forum, etc. During the Republic, both types of patrons demanded political support from their clients; this type of support became much less significant in the Empire, though social support and deference remained very important. The patronage system made possible the rich legacy of Roman literature, since wealthy patrons provided authors with a livelihood and expected in return commemoration in the literature or at least enhanced status as intellectuals. For example, Maecenas, a wealthy and influential equestrian associated with the court of Augustus, was the patron of the poets Horace and Vergil.

An important daily public ritual associated with patronage was the salutatio, or morning greeting, when clients flocked to the homes of their wealthy patrons. This was a formal occasion, requiring both patron and client to wear togas; thus the difference in their clothing would be another visual reminder of their difference in status. Clients clustered in the atrium, the vestibule, and even the streets outside the patron's house, waiting to be summoned individually to greet the patron in his tablinum; after the greeting they might be required to accompany the patron to the Forum or lawcourts if he needed a public entourage. Certainly there could be a paternalistic benevolence on the part of the patron and loyalty on the part of the client, but nevertheless public display was at the heart of the system. Patronage was the grease that kept the wheels of the Roman economy, society, and politics turning.

Like other public aspects of Roman society, the rituals of patronage derived from the male lifestyle. However, because upper-class women participated in the Roman status structure and could manage their own wealth (including freeing slaves), they could serve as both public and personal patrons. Inscriptions throughout Italy and the provinces commemorate women as public patrons; another page details the impressive buildings erected by three major civic donors in the Roman east, Plancia Magna, Aurelia Paulina, and Regilla. The image at right, for example, shows a statue of Eumachia, a priestess and wealthy woman who put up a large public building in the Forum of Pompeii and was a public patron of the guild of the fullers, who erected this statue in her building. The inscription reads, “The fullers [dedicated this statue] to Eumachia, daughter of Lucius, public priestess.” In fact, participation in public patronage seems to have been considered an honorable activity for a woman throughout Roman history. Personal patronage was more problematic, however, especially if a woman's clients were men, since it seemed to undermine the concept of natural male superiority and created opportunities for sexual innuendo. Nevertheless, elite Roman women certainly did serve as patrons for men, especially during the Empire, when connections to the imperial family gave women access and influence in the court.

Public Display: Imagines

An imago (plural, imagines) was a wax portrait mask of a man who had held high political office (curule aedile and up). A funerary relief of two freedpeople dating from the end of the first century BCE is flanked by their portrait busts in cupboards with the doors thrown open, imitating the way that aristocratic families displayed the imagines of their ancestors in cupboards (armaria) in the atrium of their houses, where they could be seen and admired by all clients and visitors. A similar funerary relief displays two facing portrait busts on either side of the inscription. The imagines played an even more dramatic role in elite families' major public events, such as funerals, when appropriately costumed actors actually wore the masks and impersonated these distinguished ancestors during the funeral procession through the city and the public eulogy in the Forum (the Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century BCE, provides a detailed description of such a funeral which underlines the significance of the imagines). The more imagines a family could display, the more status it had. Thus the denial of the right to make an imago of a particular man and to display it publicly was a severe punishment that could be imposed if he was convicted of a crime or proscribed; during the Empire, this was part of a strategy called damnatio memoriae, the official “erasure of memory.”

In sculptures like the statue on the left, imagines are often portrayed as portrait busts, though they were actually wax masks that could be worn. In this statue a senator, clad in an elegantly draped toga, proudly holds the busts of his grandfather (resting on a palm-tree support probably indicating that he was a successful general) and his father; note that the head of the statue, while ancient, does not belong to the body (detail: portrait busts). Originally imagines could only be displayed at the funerals of male relatives, but by the end of the Republic they were on display at the funerals of distinguished women as well. The lid of this sarcophagus of an aristocratic woman during the Flavian period (c. 80 CE) shows the deceased woman holding the bust of a distinguished ancestor.


Barbara F. McManus, The College of New Rochelle
January, 2009