by Kevin Blood
In the Roman citizenry there existed two distinct social classes or orders. The patricians (patres – fathers) and the plebeians (plebs – multitude). To understand the political, social, economic and military developments that happened in the Roman Republic, it is important to understand how early republican society functioned and was organised according to this class system.
The patricians were a select few who owned large amounts of land and they were of noble birth. This gave them a privileged status within the state. To be a patrician you had to be able to trace your ancestry back to the original clans who settled the Seven Hills of Rome. The patricians totally controlled the state by monopolizing authority. They monopolized the senate and the position of consul, and they controlled the assembly. Patricians also controlled the state’s religious bodies through domination of the two major colleges of priests – the Augurs and the Pontifices. Religion and politics were not separate, and religion played a central role in the political decision making process.
Furthermore, patricians controlled the courts – all criminal and civil law was their jurisdiction. The fact that the legal code was unwritten and only patricians could administer and interpret it meant they could bend the law to suit themselves, which they did. They could make it up as they went along. In order to maintain the strict separation of the two social classes, patricians could not intermarry with plebeians. Patricians in this era had a special form of marriage, the only one of three at the time thought to be recognized by the gods. They were married by confarreatio, by the pontifex maximus and the flamen Dialis (priest of Jupiter). In this form of marriage the bride was entitled to a share of possessions and of the religious duties of the household.
Patricians owned significant amounts of land and they could afford to lease big tracts of public land (ager publicus) from the state. This aristocratic class did not sully their hands with industry or trade, these aspects of the Roman economy were left to plebeians and foreigners, e.g. Greeks.
Patricians also dominated the highest officer ranks of the army, and especially the cavalry. Entrance into the military was based on property qualifications, because a soldier was responsible for providing his own kit. While away on campaign it was easy for a patrician to keep his properties productive, as they could afford the associated expenses.
The plebeians were the mass of the Roman citizenry, those not part of the patrician order. They were small farmers, those who worked in in the crafts, labourers and traders. They were excluded from legal, political, economic and religious rights. The Plebeians were subject to the power and authority of the consuls. The consuls had power over the lives of the citizens, against their authority there existed no right of appeal. Plebeians were excluded from public office and the aristocratic senate. In the assembly, plebeians who were not clients (tenants or dependents) of patricians could be outvoted by those who were. Plebeians were also kept out of the administration of the state’s religious institutions and major priesthoods.
Subject to a legal system dominated by patricians, the plebians often found themselves suffering cruelty and injustice. They did not have knowledge of the laws, nor could they administer any aspect of the legal system. When a decision was handed down to them, no matter how unjust, they had no right of appeal. Any notion for plebeians and their descendants of climbing the social ladder by marrying a patrician was quashed by the fact that they were not legally allowed to marry a patrician, but if they did marry any children from the marriage would automatically be classed as plebeian. Marriage for plebians took two forms – marriage by coemptio (fictitious purchase of the bride to be from her father), or by usus (co-habitation).
Plebeians who were clients of a patrician were granted land by them in return for political and economic support. The prospect of dire poverty among the plebeian order was very real, and they often had to be absent from working their land because of a duty to do military service. This often led them to fall into debt, the debt law (unwritten) was very harsh. Also, during wartime they had to pay a military tax (tributum). No share of public lands was granted to them and they could not graze their livestock on them. Trade was one way plebeians could make a lot of money, and some become wealthier than patricians. With the power and influence money brought them they felt that they should have political rights, and they resented the fact that they did not.
Plebeians could serve in the army, but while they did they had to leave their lands unattended. It was during military crisis that membership of the Roman army could benefit the plebeian order, it allowed them to exert pressure on the patricians to make reforms. A rich plebeian who could afford cavalry equipment could,within the ranks of the army, achieve a kind of equality with the patricians.
At a glance the casual observer can see that the Roman system of the early republic was deeply skewed in favour of the patricians. The grievances of the plebeians, and their striving for equality lasted in Rome’s internal history for over 200 years of the early republic. The unwillingness of the patrician order to share power would be the source of great conflict and social upheaval during this period of Rome’s history. An understanding of the importance of social relationships between Roman citizens, the different degrees of political responsibility each held, the importance of religion in both private and public life and the military obligations of each social class is a vital part of understanding the subsequent changes that occurred in the lives of Romans during the middle and late republican periods, and beyond.