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Roman Society: Roman Social Classes

The Roman Empire was comprised of a social order that was more or less exclusive. The Roman Empire was divided into broad social categories: the upper class and the lower class. These two categories were divided on the basis of an expansive gap based on economic, military and political power, as there was no middle class in first-century Roman society.

The Upper Class in Roman Society

The Roman upper class was comprised of three groups: the patricians (patres); the senators (senatores) and the equestrian class (equites):

  • patricians: derived from the Latin word patres, meaning father, this class consisted of the individuals who were second to power only to the Emperor and his family. The patricians held significant political and military authority and were extremely well educated. Because succession to the Roman throne during the first century was not always hereditary, there was often much friction and competition amongst patrician males for power. Patrician women were expected to be obedient to their husbands and to serve as an example of chastity.
  • senators: the senatorial class was based on political status. This class was reserved to men and the families of men who served in the Roman Senate. The senatorial class was dominated by nobles, who were deemed so on the basis that they had a minimum of one consul in their family. The first man to be elected a consul in his family was referred to as a novus homo, Latin for a “new man”.
  • Men in this class wore a tunic decorated with broad stripes, which was known as a laticlavi. The role of women in the senatorial class was seen as problematic, and women were eventually only recognized as belonging to the same social class as their fathers and their husbands.
  • equestrians: the basis for this Roman social class was economic. Males could enroll in this class if they possessed a certain amount of wealth (property that was worth a minimum value of 400 000 sescterces). If a man from this class was elected to the magistracy, he entered the senatorial class; however, this was not an easy feat as equestrians were involved in business activities that were forbidden to senators under Roman law. Roman men who belonged to the equestrian class wore tunics decorated by narrow stripes, which were known as the angusti clavi. Like women belonging to the senatorial class, women in the equestrian class had a limited role and their status depended on their fathers and husbands.

The Lower Class in Roman Society

The lower class of first century Roman society was comprised of the following groups:

  • commons (pleabs): this lower class consisted of all other freeborn Roman citizens in addition to the above classes. Members of this group wore a “tog” and held the right to legal marriage with another Roman citizen.
  • Latins (Latini): comprised of freeborn Italian residents (until 89 BCE, when these individuals were granted full Roman citizenship) as well as former slaves who had been freed. These individuals held certain political rights but were not recognized as full citizens of the Empire under Roman law.
  • Foreigners(Peregrini): this group consisted of all other freeborn men and women who were born in the territories of the Roman Empire. In 212 CE, most of the individuals of this group were given full Roman citizenship.
  • Freedpeople (Liberti): the freedpeople of Rome were individuals who were former slaves but who had since either bought their freedom or otherwise emancipated from slavery. The freedpeople held limited rights and in many cases they owed certain obligations to their former duties. It was not possible to leave this class. The children of individuals of this class became full Roman citizens at birth, meaning that the Liberti class comprised only one generation.
  • Slaves (Servi): slaves under the Roman Empire were either born into slavery or purchased as slaves through either piracy or war. While Roman law dictated that slaves were the property of their owners, some slaves (usually urban, domestic slaves) were allowed to maintain a modest amount of savings, with which they could eventually buy their freedom, or be manumitted by their masters. Individuals of this social class generally did not wear a distinct form of dress; however slaves who had run away often wore metal collars bearing inscriptions that outlined a monetary reward if they were returned to their master, whose name was also included on the collar. Slavery during the Roman Empire was not racially based.
  • Women in the lower classes: because the lower classes of Roman society were not demarcated based on male-dominated activities, women were automatic members of the social class of their parents (except for the freedpeople, as this class lasted for only a single generation). If a child’s parents were Roman citizens who had also contracted a legal Roman marriage, the child assumed his father’s social status. However, in the case of the Latins, foreigners and slaves, a child assumed the social status of his mother, even if his father was a freeborn Roman citizen.

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