Social class in ancient Rome

Social class in ancient Rome was hierarchical, but there were multiple and overlapping social hierarchies, and an individual's relative position in one might be higher or lower than in another.[1] The status of freeborn Romans during the Republic was established by:

For example, men who lived in towns outside Rome (such as municipia or colonies) might hold citizenship, but lack the right to vote (see ius Latinum); free-born Roman women were citizens, but could not vote or hold political office.

There were also classes of non-citizens with different legal rights, such as peregrini. Under Roman law, slaves were considered property and had no rights as such. However, some laws regulated slavery and offered slaves protections not extended to other forms of property such as animals. Slaves who had been manumitted were freedmen (liberti), and for the most part enjoyed the same legal rights and protections as free-born citizens.

Roman society was patriarchal in the purest sense; the male head of household (paterfamilias) held special legal powers and privileges that gave him jurisdiction (patria potestas) over all the members of his familia – a more encompassing term than its modern derivative "family" that included adult sons, his wife (but only in Rome's earlier history, when marriage cum manu was practiced), married daughters (in the Classical period of Roman history), various dependent relatives, and slaves. The patron-client relationship (clientela), with the word patronus deriving from pater (“father”), was another way in which Roman society was organized into hierarchical groups, though clientela also functioned as a system of overlapping social networks. A patron could be the client of a socially superior or more powerful patron; a client could have multiple patrons.[2]

Togato, I sec dc. con testa di restauro da un ritratto di nerva, inv. 2286
The toga, shown here on a statue restored with the head of Nerva, was the distinctive garb of Roman male citizens.

Patricians and plebeians

Patrizio Torlonia
The Patrician Torlonia bust believed to be of Cato the Elder. 1st century BC
Busto maschile
Roman portraiture fresco of a young man with a papyrus scroll, from Herculaneum, 1st century CE

In the Roman Kingdom and the early Roman Republic the most important division in Roman society was between the patricians and the plebeians. The patricians were a small elite whose ancestry was traced to the first Senate established by Romulus,[3] who monopolised political power. The plebeians comprised the majority of Roman citizens (see below). Adult males who were not Roman citizens, whether free or slave, fall outside this division. Women and children were also not citizens, but took the social status of their father or husband, which granted them various rights and protections not available to the women and children of men of lower rank.

The distinction between patricians and plebeians in Ancient Rome was based purely on birth. Although modern writers often portray patricians as rich and powerful families who managed to secure power over the less-fortunate plebeian families, plebeians and patricians among the senatorial class were equally wealthy. As civil rights for plebeians increased during the middle and late Roman Republic, many plebeian families had attained wealth and power while some traditionally patrician families had fallen into poverty and obscurity. The first Roman Emperor, Augustus, was of plebeian origin, as were many of his successors. By the Late Empire, few members of the Senate were from the original patrician families, most of which had died out. Rome continued to have a hierarchical class system, but it was now dominated by economic differences, rather than the hereditary distinction between Patricians and Plebeians.

Originally, all public offices were open only to patricians, and the classes could not intermarry. Plebeians and Patricians were always at odds due to the fact that Plebeians wanted to increase their power.[4] A series of social struggles (see Conflict of the Orders) saw the plebs secede from the city on three occasions, the last in 297 BC, until their demands were met. They won the right to stand for office, the abolition of the intermarriage law, and the creation of office of tribune of the plebs. This office, founded in 494 BC as a result of a plebeian secession, was the main legal bulwark against the powers of the patrician class, and only plebeians were eligible. The tribunes originally had the power to protect any plebeian from a patrician magistrate. Later revolts forced the Senate to grant the tribunes additional powers, such as the right to veto legislation. A tribune’s person was sacrosanct, and he was obliged to keep an open house at all times while in office. Some patricians, notably Clodius Pulcher in the late 60s BC, petitioned to be assigned plebeian status, in order to accumulate the political influence among the people that the office of tribune afforded. The conflict between the classes came to a climax in 287 BC when patricians and plebeians were declared equal under the law.

Following these changes the distinction between patrician and plebeian status became less important, and by the Late Republic the only patrician prerogatives were certain priesthoods. Over time, some patrician families declined, some plebeian families rose in status, and the composition of the ruling class changed. A plebeian who was the first of his line to become consul was known as a novus homo (“new man”), and he and his descendants became “noble” (nobiles). Notable examples of novi homines are the seven-time consul Marius, and Cicero, whose rise was unusual in that it was driven by his oratorical and intellectual abilities rather than, as with Marius, military success. During the Empire, patricius became a title of nobility bestowed by emperors.[5][6]

Property-based classes

The census divided citizens into six complex classes based on property. The richest were the senatorial class, who during the Late Republic had to be worth at least 400,000 sestertii, the same as the equites; when Augustus reformed the senate during the first years of the Principate, he raised the property requirement to 1,000,000 sestertii.[7] The wealth of the senatorial class was based on ownership of large agricultural estates ( latifundium ), and by custom members did not engage in commercial activity.

Below the senatores in rank, but above others were the equites (“equestrians” or “knights”), with 400,000 sestertii, who could engage in commerce and formed an influential business class. Certain political and quasi-political positions were filled by equites, including tax farming and, under the Principate, leadership of the Praetorian Guard. Below the equites were three more classes of property-owning citizens; and lastly the proletarii, whose property was valued below 11,000 asses.[8]

Analysis of Roman Centuriate Organisation 509-241 BC *[9]
Class Census property rating

money (property)

votes per
Military Equipment


Patricians (historical aristocracy)
Senatores 400,000 sestertii (1,000,000 As)
Equites** 400,000 sestertii Horse, ...
Plebeians (commoners)
First (triarii) 100,000 As (100 iugera) 2 Helm, round shield, cuirass, greaves, sword, and spear.
Second (principes) 75,000 As (75 iugera) 1 Helm, round shield, greaves, sword and spear.
Third (hastati) 50,000 As (50 iugera) 1 Helm, oblong shield, sword and spear.
Fourth (leves) 25,000 As (25 iugera) 1 Oblong shield, spear or sword, javelin
Fifth 11,000 As (11 iugera)
12,500 As (12 iugera)
1 Slings (accensi) or javelins (velites)
Proles (landless poor)
Proletarii below 11,000 assēs Fleets (oarsmen)
* This was the system of the Centuriate Assembly and was the practice of the Servian constitution. Information arranged by Tim Cornell based on the works of Livy, Polybius, and Dionysius of Hallicarnasus.
For a contrasting version of the same or similar data, see the table in the Equites article.
** The equites class was available for both plebeians and patricians, and favored by ambitious young men in both groups.
At the period this was valid 1 Denarius was worth about 10 As; Luuk de Ligt puts the value of an iugerium at 1,000 As or 100 denarii as a recommended baseline because values fluctuate a lot and because of many factors.[10]


The Orator, c. 100 BC, an Etrusco-Roman bronze sculpture depicting Aule Metele (Latin: Aulus Metellus), an Etruscan man wearing a Roman toga while engaged in rhetoric; the statue features an inscription in the Etruscan alphabet


Free-born women in ancient Rome were citizens (cives), but could not vote or hold political office.[11] The form of Roman marriage called conubium, for instance, requires that both spouses be citizens; like men from towns granted civitas sine suffragio, women eligible for legal marriage were citizens without suffrage. The legal status of a mother as a citizen affected her son's citizenship.[12] The phrase ex duobus civibus Romanis natos (“children born of two Roman citizens”) indicates that a Roman woman was regarded as having citizen status, in specific contrast to a peregrina.

Latin Right

The Latin Right was a form of citizenship with limited rights. It was conferred originally on the allied towns of Latium in the Republican era, and gradually extended to communities throughout the Empire. Latin citizens had rights, but not the vote, although their leading magistrates could become full citizens.


Free-born foreign subjects were known as peregrini, and special laws existed to govern their conduct and disputes. These distinctions continued until 212 AD, when Caracalla extended full Roman citizenship to all free-born men in the empire.


Slaves (servi) were not citizens, and lacked even the legal standing accorded free-born foreigners. For the most part, slaves descended from debtors and from prisoners of war, especially women and children captured during sieges and other military campaigns in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Carthage. In the later years of the Republic and into the Empire, more slaves came from newly conquered areas of Gaul, Britain, North Africa, and Asia Minor. Many slaves were created as the result of Rome's conquest of Greece, but Greek culture was considered in some respects superior to that of Rome: hence Horace's famous remark Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit ("Captured Greece took her savage conqueror captive"). The Roman playwright Terence is thought to have been brought to Rome as a slave. Thus slavery was regarded as a circumstance of birth, misfortune, or war; it was defined in terms of legal status, or rather the lack thereof, and was neither limited to or defined by ethnicity or race, nor regarded as an inescapably permanent condition.

Slaves who lacked skills or education performed agricultural or other forms of manual labor. Those who were violent or disobedient, or who for whatever reason were considered a danger to society, might be sentenced to labor in the mines, where they suffered under inhumane conditions. Slaves subjected to harsh labor conditions also had few if any opportunities to obtain their freedom but died.

Since slaves were legally property, they could be disposed of by their owners at any time. All children born to female slaves were slaves. Some slave owners, as for instance Tacitus, freed slaves whom they believed to be their natural children. Slaves who had the education or skills to earn a living were often manumitted upon the death of their owner as a condition of his will. Slaves who conducted business for their masters were also permitted to earn and save money for themselves, and some might be able to buy their own freedom.

Over time, legislation was passed to protect the lives and health of slaves. Although many prostitutes were slaves, for instance, the bill of sale for some slaves stipulated that they could not be used for commercial prostitution.[13]

Freed men

Freed men (liberti) were freed slaves, whose free-born children were full citizens. The status of liberti developed throughout the Republic as their number increased. Livy states that freedmen in the Early Republic mainly joined the lower classes of the plebeians. Juvenal, writing during the Empire when financial Freedmen were often highly educated and made up the bulk of the civil service during the early Empire. The Augustan poet Horace was himself the child of a freedman from Venusia in southern Italy. Many became enormously wealthy as the result of bribes, fraud, or other forms of corruption, or were given large estates by the Emperor they served. Other freedmen engaged in commerce, amassing vast fortunes often only rivalled by those of the wealthiest nobiles. Many of the Satires of Juvenal contain angry denouncements of the pretensions of wealthy freedmen, some 'with the chalk of the slave market still on their heel'. Juvenal saw these successful men as nouveaux riches who were far too ready to show off their (often ill-gotten) wealth. Another famous caricature is seen in the absurdly extravagant character of Trimalchio in Satyricon. The majority of freedmen, however, joined the plebeian classes, and often worked as farmers or tradesmen.


  1. ^ Koenraad Verboven. (2007). The Associative Empire. Athenaeum 95, p. 861.
  2. ^ Carlin A. Barton. (1993). The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster, pp. 176–177. Princeton University Press.
  3. ^ Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 1:8
  4. ^ McKay, John P. (2013). Study guide for a History of World Societies, Volume A: To 1500, 51. Content Technologies.
  5. ^ "patricians." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 16 January 2011.
  6. ^ "plebeians." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 16 January 2011.
  7. ^ Peter Garnsey & Richard Saller. (1987) The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture, pp. 112f. Berkeley: University of California.
  8. ^ Joseph Wells, A Short History of Rome to the Death of Augustus (Plymouth: William Brendan and Sons, 1896), p. 16.
  9. ^ Based on Livy 1.43; Dionysius of Halicarnassus IV, 16-18. First referenced by Cornell, T.J. (1995). The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from Bronze Age to the Punic Wars 1000-264 BCE, 179.
  10. ^ Ligt, Luuk /de; Northwood, S. J. (2008-01-01). People, Land, and Politics: Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 BC-AD 14. BRILL. ISBN 9004171185.
  11. ^ Bruce W. Frier & Thomas A.J. McGinn. (2004). A Casebook on Roman Family Law, pp. 31–32, 457, et passim. Oxford University Press: American Philological Association.
  12. ^ See Frier and McGinn, passim, and A.N. Sherwin-White. (1979). Roman Citizenship, pp. 211 & 268. Oxford University (on male citizenship as it relates to marrying citizen women) et passim.
  13. ^ McGinn, Thomas A.J. (1998). Prostitution, Sexuality and the Law in Ancient Rome, p. 293. Oxford University Press.
Capite censi

Capite censi were literally, in Latin, "those counted by head" in the ancient Roman census. Also known as "the head count", the term was used to refer to the lowest class of citizens, people not of the nobility or middle classes, owning little or no property; thus they were counted by the head rather than by their property. Initially capite censi was synonymous with proletarii, meaning those citizens whose property was too small to be rated for the census. Later though, the proletarii were distinguished from the capite censi as having "appreciable property" to the value of 11,000 asses or less. In contrast, the capite censi are assumed to have not owned any property of significance.Gaius Marius, as part of the Marian Reforms of 107 BC, allowed these non-land-owning Romans to enlist in the Roman legions. For the first time, men no longer had to own property to fight for Rome. Because these men had no property, they became the clients of their generals and veterans looked to them for land or monies after demobilization. Since the reforms did not include a permanent demobilization method divorced from army commanders, soldiers became closely linked to their generals for the process of rewarding them for service on demobilization (retirement from active service). The lack of a permanent demobilization process run by the government in Marius' military reform would help facilitate the demise of the Roman Republic.

Classical Latin

Classical Latin is the form of Latin language recognized as a standard by writers of the late Roman Republic and Roman Empire. In some later periods, it was regarded as "good"/"proper" Latin, with later versions viewed as debased, degenerate, "vulgar", or corrupted. The word Latin is now taken by default to mean "Classical Latin." For example, modern Latin textbooks almost exclusively teach Classical Latin. Marcus Tullius Cicero and his contemporaries of the late republic used lingua latina and sermo latinus versions of the Latin language. Conversely, the Greeks used Vulgar Latin (sermo vulgaris and sermo vulgi) in their vernacular, written as latinitas, or "Latinity" (which implies "good") when combined. It was also called sermo familiaris ("speech of the good families"), sermo urbanus ("speech of the city"), and in rare cases sermo nobilis ("noble speech"). Besides latinitas, it was mainly called latine (adverb for "in good Latin"), or latinius (comparative adverb for "in better Latin").

Latinitas was spoken and written. It was the language taught in schools. Prescriptive rules therefore applied to it, and when special subjects like poetry or rhetoric were taken into consideration, additional rules applied. Since spoken Latinitas has become extinct (in favor of subsequent registers), the rules of politus (polished) texts may give the appearance of an artificial language. However, Latinitas was a form of sermo (spoken language), and as such, retains spontaneity. No texts by Classical Latin authors are noted for the type of rigidity evidenced by stylized art, with the exception of repetitious abbreviations and stock phrases found on inscriptions. For example, "IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM" ("Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum") was the titulus written on the placard above Jesus' head on the Cross, and is a rather famous example of Classical Latin.

Order of the Holy Sepulchre

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (Latin: Ordo Equestris Sancti Sepulcri Hierosolymitani, OESSH), also called Order of the Holy Sepulchre or Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, is a Roman Catholic order of knighthood under the protection of the Holy See. The Pope is sovereign of the Order. Founded as Milites Sancti Sepulcri attached to the Augustinian Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, recognised in 1113 by Papal bull of Pope Paschal II and of Pope Calistus II in 1122. It traces its roots to circa 1099 under the Frankish Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, "Defender of the Holy Sepulchre", one of the leaders of the First Crusade and first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It is an internationally recognised order of knighthood.

Besides the Canons Regular (the Fratres), early members included secular canons (Confratres or Sergentes), Milites Sancti Sepulcri, armed knights of valour and dedication chosen from the crusader troops. Together they vowed to obey the Augustinian Rule of poverty and obedience, and undertook specifically to defend the Holy Sepulchre and the holy places under the command of the King of Jerusalem. Still today, the order bestows Canons as well as Knights, with the primary mission to "support the Christian presence in the Holy Land".With the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem by Jerusalem in 1187 and Acre in 1291, the prerogative to adoube Knights of the Holy Sepulchre was transferred to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the highest Catholic authority in the Holy Land during the Middle Ages. In 1496, Pope Alexander VI vested the Grand Magistry in the Papacy. In 1847, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was restored by Pope Pius IX and the chivalric order was reorganised based on legal and spiritual ties to the Holy See. From 1949, Grand Masters have been Cardinals. It is the only order of chivalry, together with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, that is recognised and protected by the Holy See.

The order today is estimated to have some 30,000 knights and dames in 60 lieutenancies around the world, including monarchs, heads of state, and their consorts. The Cardinal Grand Master has been Edwin Frederick O'Brien since 2011, and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem is Grand Prior. Its headquarters are situated at Palazzo Della Rovere and its official church in Sant'Onofrio al Gianicolo, both in Rome, close to the Vatican City.

Outline of ancient Rome

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to ancient Rome:

Ancient Rome – former civilization that thrived on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world.

Outline of classical studies

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to classical studies:

Classical studies (Classics for short) – earliest branch of the humanities, which covers the languages, literature, history, art, and other cultural aspects of the ancient Mediterranean world. The field focuses primarily on, but is not limited to, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during classical antiquity, the era spanning from the late Bronze Age of Ancient Greece during the Minoan and Mycenaean periods (c. 1600-1100 BCE) through the period known as Late Antiquity to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, c. 500 CE. The word classics is also used to refer to the literature of the period.

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