Ancient Rome: Class and Social System

Ancient Rome: Class and Social System

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In this video, the various classes within Roman society, as well as the Conflict of the Orders are discussed.

Ancient Rome: Class and Social System - History


In this lesson, students will examine the various social classes and learn about the critical role that slaves, freemen, and plebeians played in the day-to-day operations of the Roman Empire. Students will learn about the various social classes and the life experiences of people from these classes. As a final activity, students will complete a creative writing assignment that addresses how the Roman class system and the use of slavery may have ultimately contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire.

Subject Areas:

World History, Social Studies, Economics, and Communication Arts

Grade Level: 6-12

Lesson Objectives:

  1. Participate in class discussion and group reading activities related to the social classes of the Roman Empire.
  2. View video clips and Web site content that illustrates the differences between the Roman social classes and provides clues about the way lower class citizens and slaves were treated by the upper class.
  3. View a map of products and trade routes used by the Roman Empire and use the information from the map to draw conclusions about the importance of slave labor.
  4. Complete a study guide by using primary sources such as the companion Web site to answer a number of questions about the Roman labor force.
  5. Participate in a class discussion about the long-term effects of a slavery driven economy on the Roman Empire.
  6. Complete a creative writing assignment about life in the lower social classes and the significance of the job s/he performs.

World History
Standard 9: Understands how major religious and large-scale empires arose in the Mediterranean Basin, China, and Indian from 500 BCE to 300 CE.
Standard 11: Understands major global trends from 1000 BCE to 300 CE.

Historical Understanding
Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective.

Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing.
Standard 3: Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions.
Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

Standard 5: Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.
Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.

Listening and Speaking
Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

Thinking and Reasoning
Standard 1: Understands the basic principles of presenting an argument.
Standard 3: Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences.

Working with Others
Standard 4: Displays effective interpersonal communication skills.

Estimated Time:
This should take two 90-minute class periods or two to three 50-minute class periods, plus additional time for extension activities.

  • Video clips necessary to complete the lesson plan are available on The Roman Empire in the First Century Web site. If you wish to purchase a copy of the program, visit the PBS Shop for Teachers [Purchase DVD or Video].
  • How does the amount of money a person has affect the way s/he might be treated by others in a given society? Give examples to support your ideas.
  • You have heard the saying, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." What does this mean?
  • When looking at social classes in almost every society, what requirements must be met in order to be at the top of the social order?
  • Which group(s) had the largest population and was most representative of the Roman citizenry?
  • Which group do you think was most important to the daily operations and work required to keep the Roman Empire functioning? Why?
  • How would you describe the lifestyle of an average Roman?
  • How do you think most people treated their slaves based on the words of Seneca?
  • Why do you think Seneca encouraged the Romans to "treat your inferior as you would like to be treated"?
  • Based on what you have seen and heard, what threat did people in the lower social classes present to Roman leaders?
  • In what way were the plebeians, slaves, and freemen critically important to trade in the Roman Empire?
  • How might the use of slave labor have enabled the Romans to be more competitive in the world market? Less competitive?

6. When students have completed the study guide, have them gather into a large group and discuss the answers for each question.

  • How would the absence of slave labor have impacted the spread of the Roman Empire and its wealth?
  • In what ways did slave labor cause the Romans to become lazy?
  • Was slave labor profitable? If so, how?
  • In what ways did the roles of Plebeians, slaves, and freeman in ancient Rome illustrate the saying "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer"?
  1. Students could receive participation grades for class discussion activities.
  2. An accuracy or completion grade could be assigned for work done on the Economics of Ancient Rome Study Guide.
  3. Students could earn a completion or accuracy grade for work done on the closing creative writing assignment.

1. Have students compare the economic impact of slave labor in ancient Rome with the economic impact of slave labor in the American south prior to the Civil War. Create a Venn Diagram to chart your comparisons.

2. Compare the Roman social classes with the social classes that exist in America today. Create a pyramid or chart that compares the two sets of social classes and discusses the similarities and differences between them.

Related Resources:

The Camelot Village Web site [] has a page on Trade Within the Empire []. This provides a discussion of the empire's monetary system and the values of various coins. There is also general information about trade and the economy.

The Geocities page on Trade [] offers a summary of trade practices and schedules in the Roman Empire.

The Trade in the Roman Empire map [

atlas/europe/interactive/map32.html] shows the trade routes and different trade items generated around the empire.

264-476: Social Class System and the Economy: Overview

The Roman Classes. At any time in Roman history, individual Romans knew with certainty that they belonged to a specific social class: Senator, Equestrian, Patrician, Plebeian, Slave, Free. In some cases they were born into that class. In some cases, their wealth or the wealth of their families ensured them membership. Sometimes a political honor could gain them entry to a class. In other cases, Romans could move from one class to another during their lifetime. Over time, the requirements for some classes and moving between classes changed, but at any given moment, there was never any doubt over which Romans belonged to which class. Because the members of one class might enjoy a standard of living far better, or far worse, than members of another class, struggles or even wars could break out over the rights and powers of a given class. One key to the Romans’ great success was keeping stability and order among the classes of their own people.

Economics of Empire. As they built and expanded their empire, the Romans earned, or at times demanded, the respect of the peoples, communities, and nations they incorporated into their empire. For hundreds of years, the Romans surpassed every other people they encountered in at least two respects: their military prowess and their ability to organize their empire in times of peace. The Roman economy, then, consisted of the millions of workers across the Roman Empire and beyond, who farmed, built, crafted, traded, educated, enjoyed, and managed a network of products and services in an organized system. This system became so vast and complex that wealthy Romans could purchase clothes made of silk from China, although the person who bought them might never have known where they came from or how they were made.

Rome: World Trade Center. As huge and diverse as the Roman economy became, however, no one could ever doubt what was the center for the entire system: the city of Rome itself. Aelius Aristides, a professional Greek lecturer in the second century C.E., described the network at its height:

Whole continents lie all around the Mediterranean Sea, and from them, to you, Rome, flow constant supplies of goods. Everything is shipped to you, from every land and from every sea, the products of each season, each country, each river and lake, the handiwork of the Greeks and other foreigners. Consequently, anyone who wants to see every one of these items must either travel over the whole world or just live in this city. Not only is everything grown or made by every nation available here, but it is available in abundance. So many ships dock here bringing their cargo from everywhere, during every time of the year, after every harvest of crops that the city seems like the downtown market for the entire world! You can find so much cargo from India, or, if you like, from Arabia, that the trees in those countries have been stripped bare and that the inhabitants in those countries would have to come to Rome to beg for their own products. Clothes from Babylon and decorations exported from farther away arrive here in greater amounts and more easily than the imports from the Greek islands of Naxos and Cythnos to Athens, just on the coast of their sea! Egypt, Sicily, and the cultivated lands of Libya in North Africa are your farmlands. Ships never stop coming and going, so it is amazing there is enough room on the sea, to say nothing of in the harbor, for them all.…Everything comes together here: trade, commerce, transportation, agriculture, metallurgy, every skill that exists or has ever existed, everything that is made or grows. [Translations by Wilfred E. Major]

Class Structure and the Economy. Because the city of Rome itself dominated and directed the form and function of the huge international economy, the class structure at Rome exerted a huge influence on the operation of the net-work throughout the empire. Usually, an official appointed at Rome governed a province and would inevitably expect the economy and class system of the sort with which he was familiar. Furthermore, he had the authority to shape and guide the local economy so it would fit the Romans’ plans. The Romans recognized several different classes in their society. While Romans of the various classes were not legally bound to particular professions or barred from others, the force of tradition and social pressure meant that in practice Romans of a particular class would most often occupy certain positions and perform specified types of work. Moreover, in many cases, membership in a particular class might legally require a specific level of wealth, which in turn would affect what professions the members of that class engaged in.

Patricians. The patrician class consisted of Roman nobles from the earliest days of the city. To be a member of the patrician class, one had to be born into it. Throughout much of the Republic, patricians dominated the important political and religious offices of government. Patrician families were historically prestigious, and through these offices and membership in the Senate they would have had control and influence over many financial dealings. By the end of the Republic, many of the patrician families had died out. The Roman emperors, beginning with Julius Caesar, were given the power to designate new patrician families, but within a few hundred years even this practice faded, and the entire class disappeared. Finally, the Emperor Constantine used the title patricius to recognize an individual’s service to Rome, but the ties to the hereditary Roman nobility no longer existed.

Senators during the Republic. As Roman power expanded through military conquest, the Senate became the most powerful and prestigious governing institution of Rome. The specific requirements for belonging to the Senate changed over time, but the Senate regularly included men who had served in some government office, such as quaestor, and all members were wealthy men who owned large amounts of land in Italy. The Senate controlled the finances of Rome and so was the most powerful single entity in the Roman economy. Theoretically, the members of the Senate were supposed to direct and make the best decisions for Rome without directly participating in business ventures. Strictly speaking, senators could not bid on the state contracts the Senate set up, nor could they own the large ships used for bigger trading ventures. Senators were also supposed to represent traditional Roman values, which meant in part playing the role of humble but hardworking farmers, and soldiers when necessary. Consequently, senators were not supposed to engage in menial labor or commerce. In practice, however, senators amassed and maintained their fortunes by doing favors for their friends and clients, as well as acting as secret partners in business ventures.

The Emperor. The emperor maintained direct control of Roman finances and assumed ultimate authority over financial decisions. This control dated to the formation of imperial administration under Augustus. He restructured state revenues so the taxes collected from provinces went directly to his coffers. Every emperor, therefore, controlled an enormous personal fortune with which he could gain leverage with individuals, such as senators, or whole groups, such as the military. Especially at times of crisis, it was the emperor and his court that had the responsibility and authority to institute and modify economic and monetary policy.

Senators during the Early Empire. By the end of the civil wars and the collapse of the Republic, the ranks of the Senate had swelled to its highest number, around one thousand. As Augustus gradually set up an imperial administration, the duties and membership of the Senate changed. When the rolls stabilized at six hundred, it became easier for sons to inherit their fathers’ senatorial positions, and the property requirement became one million sesterces (a Roman monetary unit). While in some ways these reforms stabilized the membership, the emperors controlled the membership substantially. An emperor could ensure the Senate consisted of his friends and supporters by manipulating the membership. The emperor could, for example, give or loan money to a supporter in order to meet the minimum property requirement to enter the senatorial order. The composition of the order also changed. Whereas at the start senators came almost exclusively from Italy, during the course of the early empire the makeup of the Senate began to reflect the expanding empire, and eventually the majority came from outside Italy itself. The Senate no longer served as the ultimate authority on finances and economic policy, but it was an important political body, and it controlled many key positions and offices from which senators wielded economic power, in addition to being wealthy and powerful individuals in their own right.

The Senate in the Late Empire. Beginning in the third century C.E., Diocletian, Constantine, and other emperors profoundly modified and weakened the power of Roman senators. Political and military offices previously available only to senators opened up to Equestrians. Over the course of a series of reforms, the order both expanded to more than two thousand members and lost what concentrated power it had. The Emperor Valentinian I even divided the Senate into three ranks. Economically, members of the Senate belonged to the wealthy but did not wield special economic force as senators.

Equestrians. The equites, “cavalry,” derived their origin from the earliest days of Rome in the military horsemen of the Roman army and their honorific positions. By the end of the Republic, however, the order had a property requirement of four hundred thousand sesterces and possibly called for additional qualifications as well. Unlike senators, equestrians tended not to seek or hold political office. On the other hand, where senators were forbidden or discouraged from engaging in commerce, equestrians often built their fortunes in trade or projects contracted by the Senate. Under the empire, the equestrians became more formally an aristocratic order second to the Senate. Equestrians occupied a wide range of posts, especially in local governments. As a class in which wealth was traditionally concentrated, indeed wealth was consistently the defining characteristic, the equestrian order was always an economic force.

Plebeians. The remaining freeborn population of Rome was called the plebs because in the earlier history of Rome, any citizen not born a patrician would be a plebeian. This class included people of a wide range of economic means. The wealthier constituents among plebs in fact struggled for and won the right to certain political offices during the middle years of the Republic. Many economic struggles continued for the plebeians, however. Since most wealth was rooted in land and property ownership, the plebeians clashed with the wealthier classes over the distribution and use of public and private lands. While the wealthier plebeians could border on the lifestyle of the aristocracy, some small landowners and farmers lived in harsh, destitute conditions.

Roman Citizens. A person was not necessarily a Roman citizen simply because he resided in Rome or within the Roman Empire. Roman citizenship was a formal, legal status that an individual had either by birth or was granted at some point. Official Roman citizenship granted critical rights and protections. For example, citizenship during the Republic meant the right to vote. Even more importantly, citizenship meant legal protection of a person’s body: a citizen would be subject to less violent penalties under the law and could not be executed for a crime. Consequently, peoples who allied themselves with the Romans or were conquered by them desired and even fought for citizen rights. Gradually, the Romans extended citizenship status to more and more people. In 89 B.C.E. all Italians officially became Roman citizens. In 212 C.E. all freeborn residents within the borders of the Roman Empire automatically became citizens.

Honestiores and Humiliores. All Roman citizens were not equal, however. An informal distinction existed between honestiores, which included prestigious individuals such as senators, equestrians, political officials, and military officers, and humiliores, individuals of lower rank. While no formal legal definition of these two groups is known, by the time that all freeborn inhabitants of the Roman Empire were granted citizenship status, the distinction had serious legal consequences. Roman law called for differing levels of punishment according to these categories for those found guilty of the same crime, and the punishments for humiliores were always more severe.

Slaves. Slaves constituted a huge portion of the population and their numbers increased as Rome conquered more and more territories and people. Romans consistently enslaved foreigners but not native Italians. Prisoners of war, children of slave mothers, and victims of piracy replenished the slave population throughout the history of ancient Rome. While all slaves lacked the protection and basic rights granted to Roman citizens and suffered the oppression characteristic of slavery, in terms of quality of life and economic means, slaves could live in a wide range of circumstances.

Freedmen and Freedwomen. Slaves could never acquire formal Roman citizenship, nor could they ever enter the senatorial, equestrian, or even plebeian classes. Some slaves could, however, acquire their freedom, at which point they became free (libertini). Whether a slave became free was entirely up to the slave’s owner. Masters freed slaves for a variety of reasons, some altruistic, and some selfish, and often a mixture of both. A few individuals achieved their freedom for their considerable skills in management and business and became extremely wealthy in their own right, although a freedman always owed his allegiance to his former master. Freedman or freedwomen retained their status for the rest of their lives, but their children would be born free.

Types of Economic Activity. What jobs did ancient Romans perform? How did the Romans make money? It may seem obvious that when the Roman military conquered an area, they profited by acquiring the wealth of the people who live there, but the Romans could conquer a town or country and make it even wealthier. How did a farmer in Italy make money from a military conquest hundreds of miles away? Why did millions of people pay money to the Roman emperor even though he was just one man? Moreover, while the Romans aggressively pursued wealth and power, they also expected that everyone always worked. Indeed, they always retained some suspicion of anyone at any time who was not working. Even “retirement” was a suspicious thing! So it is worth keeping in mind the general areas in which Romans worked and what classes of people in general did this type of work.

Agriculture. Although the Romans have earned great fame for their military, engineering, and cultural achievements, basic agriculture remained the foundation of the Roman economy. Ownership of farmland was the prerequisite for becoming a senator, for example, and hence for wielding large-scale economic and political power. The sizes of farms could vary widely. Some Roman citizens owned small plots of land and barely survived on what they could grow and sell. Some senators ran gigantic farming businesses on huge tracts of land and turned enormous profits. These senators would hire (or purchase, in the case of slaves) people to do the labor, as well as overseers, accountants, and others as necessary to maintain the business.

Infrastructure. The Romans consistently displayed their famous practicality by devoting many of their resources to establishing a basic infrastructure to meet fundamental human needs. When they conquered or annexed a city, they would build roads, buildings, and do more to establish or strengthen the infrastructure of the city and incorporate it into the network of the Roman Empire. Many people had to work together to set up the structures to acquire and distribute the basic needs of food, water, shelter, health, and safety. The agricultural base of the economy tried to keep foodstuffs in adequate supply. The Romans built miles and miles of aqueducts, many of which survive to this day, to supply water to individuals and also to irrigate farmland. They constructed temples, buildings, theaters, arenas, and other public works. All such works required architects, suppliers, and laborers in huge numbers. Brickmaking, for example, became an enormous industry. In the process of establishing networks to supply these basic needs and for transporting building materials, the Romans also made the transport and procurement of luxury items easier.

Public Administration. As the empire expanded, there was more need for people to devote their time just to making sure all the projects, whether military, public, or other, ran efficiently. Likewise, networks for moving materials, goods, and specific items became larger and more complex. Wealthier Romans, although the foundation of their wealth lay in their farmland, dominated these positions and used them to increase their wealth even more.

Trades and Crafts. Romans all over the empire and of every class needed, wanted, and used a wide variety of items that an individual could manufacture and supply. These products could range from small items such as spoons and clothes to household furniture and decorations. Romans also went to restaurants, hired skilled labor, and sought out a variety of services. As with many jobs, many people struggled to manage a subsistence living while some managed decent livings. Slaves and free citizens could work the same job, even side by side. Nevertheless, class distinctions mattered. Aristocratic Romans, even though they respected the industriousness of farming, despised the menial physical labor that went into many of those jobs, and despised those who performed them as well.

The Military. Whereas in the earliest days of Rome, wealthy Romans enlisted in the army and provided their own equipment, as Rome expanded through conquest, the army needed systematic funding. The army needed equipment and the soldiers had to be paid. Moreover, veterans, after they had completed their service, needed homes to return to or other benefits. On one hand, through conquest and other works, the army brought wealth and economic opportunities to Rome. On the other hand, because of the sheer power of the army, no one, not even the emperor, could risk ignoring the economic demands of the military.

Models of the Roman Economy. So far as it is known, no one among the Romans formally analyzed the economic system of Rome, so it can be difficult to describe more than a thousand years later how the vast network operated as a unit and how it changed over time. Moreover, while the Romans kept financial records and recorded elaborate contracts for work, only a handful of such documents have survived. Therefore, it is impossible for modern scholars to measure the activity of the Roman economy as they can modern ones. Still, it is useful to employ models in order to understand the system and talk about how the Roman economy all worked together. Finally, while the Romans employed mechanisms and techniques that today would be associated with a specific type of economy (for example, “capitalism”), most scholars would agree that the Roman economy was a unique type.

The Consumer City. While Rome and other cities within the empire were centers of power and wealth, they played a different role in the economy from modern cities. Many modern cities acquire economic power because they have factories or companies that generate wealth in and for the city. Because the economic power of the Roman economy derived ultimately from agriculture, urban areas were locations more for consumption than for production. For this reason, a city such as Rome in an ancient economy is called a “consumer city.” A consumer city is a hub for products, consumers, and exchange.

Investment and Banking. Wealthy Romans certainly invested. They would buy land or put money into trading ventures, for example. Nevertheless, some scholars argue that the Roman economy lacked a true investment and banking system with which to keep the economy expanding and improving. The economy remained static and was subject to crises. Other scholars argue that the investments the Romans made accomplished the same goals as a formal banking and investment system.

Subsistence. The Roman Empire clearly expanded in terms of people, territory, and resources, but this expansion does not necessarily mean the economic system grew. While the Romans devoted many resources to the establishment of a basic infrastructure to provide food, water, shelter, and other basic needs, some scholars believe that the Roman economy never grew enough to allow the bulk of its inhabitants to live much beyond what they needed to survive, that is, beyond the subsistence level.

Growth and Invention. The Romans accomplished many great feats of engineering. They built and created many structures and devices that still amaze people today. Still, the Romans did not invent or use inventions in many ways that seem commonplace today. Some historians believe that the Roman economy was geared toward stability rather than expansion. Consequently, the Romans did not foster invention nearly as much as they could have and even failed to capitalize on inventions that they did have.

Economic Policy. With any model of the Roman economy, one has to wonder whether the Romans ever looked at their economic network and tried to make decisions about it as an economy. They definitely made many financial decisions and established, for example, a far-reaching monetary system. Still, any attempt to model the Roman economy must wrestle with the question of whether the Romans simply did not think about their economic system, or whether they accomplished economic goals without overtly making economic policy, or whether they conceived of their system in some way quite different from modern economists. Unless someone can somehow discover the records and ideas of many of the key figures who made large-scale decisions for Rome, people may always have to speculate about this question.

A Multicultural and International Economy. The Romans commanded an empire and economy involving more people, more territory, more resources, and more different types of nations than perhaps any empire in ancient history, and they managed it for centuries. Whether through conquest or alliance, they constantly worked on ways to make new territories and peoples part of the empire, and yet they were quick to recognize the differences and value of the people and communities they encountered. They faced differences in language, religion, culture, tradition, as well as economic system. Today the world is increasingly developing a global economy, involving different peoples and nations literally all around the globe. The successes and failures of the Romans as they endeavored to create the largest and most complex economy the world had ever known still have much to teach about uniting a world in peacetime growth.

The class struggle

Here, the essence of the method of historical materialism is expressed with marvellous preciseness and concision. In the last analysis, it is the changes in the economic foundation that are the cause of great historical transformations, which we refer to as revolutions. But the relationship between the economic foundations of society and the vast and complex superstructure of legality, religion, ideology and the state that arises from it is not simple and automatic, but extremely contradictory. The men and women who are the true protagonists of history are by no means conscious of the ultimate causes and results of their actions, and the results of these actions are frequently at variance with the subjective intentions of their authors.

When Brutus and Cassius drew the daggers that struck down Julius Caesar, they imagined that they were about to re-establish the Republic, but in practice they brought about the destruction of the last vestiges of republicanism and prepared the ground for the Empire. Their republican illusions in any case were only a sentimental and idealistic fig-leaf to disguise their real class interests – which were those of the privileged Roman aristocracy that dominated the old Republic and was fighting to preserve its privileges. From this example we see the importance of carefully distinguishing what men say and think about themselves from the real interests that move them and determine their actions.

Marx explains that the history of all class society is the history of class war. The state itself consists of special armed bodies of men the purpose of which is precisely to regulate the class struggle, and to keep it within acceptable limits. The ruling class in all normal periods exercises control over the state. But there are certain periods, when the class struggle reaches a pitch of intensity that goes beyond the “acceptable limits”. In such revolutionary periods, the question of power is posed. Either the revolutionary class overthrows the old state and replaces it with a new power, or else the ruling class crushes the revolution and imposes a dictatorship – the state power in an open and undisguised form, as opposed to the state power in a “democratic” guise.

However, there is a further variant, which in different forms has been seen at different moments in history. Engels explains that the state in all normal periods is the state of the ruling class, and this is perfectly true. However, history also knows periods that are not at all normal, periods of intense class conflict in which neither of the contending classes can succeed in setting its stamp firmly on society. A long period of class struggle that does not produce a decisive result can give rise to the exhaustion of the main contending classes. In such circumstances the state apparatus itself – in the form of the army and the general who heads it (Caesar, Napoleon) – begins to raise itself above society and to establish itself as an “independent” force.

The creation of a legal framework to regulate the class struggle is by no means sufficient to guarantee a peaceful outcome. On the contrary, such an arrangement merely serves to delay the final conflict and to give it an even more violent and convulsive character in the end. The expectations of the masses are heightened and concentrated, and their aspirations are given ample scope to develop themselves. Thus, in modern times, the masses develop great illusions in their parliamentary representatives and the possibility of solving their most pressing problems by voting in elections. In the end, however, these hopes are dashed and the struggle takes place outside parliament in an even more violent manner than before – both on the side of the masses and on that of the propertied classes who do not cease to prepare illegal conspiracies and coups behind the backs of the democratic institutions. Though they swear by “democracy” in public, in reality the ruling class will only tolerate it to the degree that it does not threaten their power and privileges.

Where the contending classes have fought themselves to a standstill with no clear result, and where the struggle between the classes reaches a kind of state of unstable equilibrium, the state itself can rise above society and acquire a large degree of independence. The case of ancient Rome was no exception. In theory, the Roman Republic in historical times was “democratic”, in the sense that the citizens were the electorate and ultimate power resided in the popular Assembly, just as today everything is decided by free elections. In reality, however, the Republic was ruled by an oligarchy of wealthy aristocratic families that exercised a stranglehold over political power. The result of this contradiction was a lengthy period of class struggle that culminated in civil war, at the end of which the army had elevated itself above society and became the master of its destiny. One military adventurer competed with another for power. A typical example of this species was Gaius Julius Caesar. In modern times this phenomenon is known as Bonapartism, and in the ancient world it assumes the form of Caesarism.

In modern times we see the same phenomenon expressed in fascist and Bonapartist regimes. The state raises itself above society. The ruling class is compelled to hand power over to a military strong man, who, in order to protect them, concentrates all power into his hands. He is surrounded by a gang of thieves, corrupt politicians, careerists greedy for office and wealth, and assorted scum. Naturally, the latter expect to be well rewarded for services rendered, and nobody is in a position to question their acquisitions. The ruling class is still the owner of the means of production, but the state is no longer in its hands. In order to protect itself it has reluctantly to tolerate the impositions, thieving, insults and even the occasional kick from its Leader and his associates, to whom it is expected to sing praises from morning till night, while silently cursing under its breath.

Such a situation can only arise when the struggle between the classes reaches the point of deadlock, where no decisive victory can be won either by one side or the other. The ruling class is not able to continue to rule in the old way, and the proletariat is not able to bring about a revolutionary change. The history of the Roman Republic is an almost laboratory example of this assertion. In ancient Rome a ferocious class struggle ended precisely in the ruin of the contending classes and the rise of Caesarism, which finally ended in the Empire.

Ancient Pompeii’s Society & Social Structure

As has already been mentioned Pompeian society was a mixture of cultures with a Samnitic root to which Greek and Roman cultures had been grafted. In a simplistic fashion this varied provenance can be said to have given Pompeian society its principal attributes: provincial, hard working, open to external cultures, entrepreneurial. It is an interesting [&hellip]



As has already been mentioned Pompeian society was a mixture of cultures with a Samnitic root to which Greek and Roman cultures had been grafted. In a simplistic fashion this varied provenance can be said to have given Pompeian society its principal attributes: provincial, hard working, open to external cultures, entrepreneurial.

It is an interesting detail that recent analysis of the human bones found in Pompeii by Dr. Estelle Lazer tell us a fair amount about the population of the time. Studying the bones of Pompeian society we can learn much about Ancient Roman society and the individual’s lifestyle and health: The surprise is that the life expectancy and proportion of obese people is similar to that found in modern society:

  • Average height was pretty much as it is today in modern Naples: 1.67m for men and 1.54m for women.
  • 10% of society was showing symptoms of obesity
  • A minority of women were suffering from a superficial hormonal disfunction and HFI (slight thickening of the frontal bone of the skull which some physicians believe is actually present in approx 12% of the modern population)
  • Lifespan was longer than previously expected: the age range of the bone sample was similar to one you would expect today.
  • The incidence of age-related diseases was similar to that of today.

Pompeian society was split in number of ways, rather than hazard a pure list we attempt to give a picture of how these groups might have intersected to create Pompeii’s social structure:

Social Groups in Pompeii male : female slave : libertus : plebeian : noble local civilian : foreigner (merchants)
Rich : poor Both Roman men and Roman women had a right to personal wealth All classes of Roman citizen could aspire to wealth, slaves included. Merchants as well as locals could be rich or poor
Trade groups and guilds Most trades were open to both sexes. Some trades were exclusive to men, eg politics. Trade groups and guilds were likely for plebeians or freed slaves. The nobility would have their “clientes” run their businesses. Foreigners could take local residence and patronage of a local nobleman. Likely arrived via maritime trade routes.
Religion Both male and females could follow the traditional religions. The head of the family (pater familias) was responsible for family rites (ancestors). Some public religions might have a greater male or female focus, particularly the “mystery” religions of Eastern provenance such as Dionisiac religion so famous for the painting in the villa of the mysteries. All (subject to sex/pertinence for the given religion.) All
Other (eg games supporters, or “late night drinkers”) All All All

Whilst elections were open to all citizens, city/municipal/political roles were in reality difficult to achieve and required access to a great deal of private wealth. As such they implied belonging to or being heavily sponsored by the elite.

There are a number of examples of how this multicultural assemblage reflected itself in the development of the city:

  • religious beliefs were widespread and included eastern religions imported via the trade routes from very early on.
  • Architecture including the palaestra, baths and theatre
  • Established trade with a broad variety or regions across the Mediterranean, ranging from Gaul to the eastern Hellenic Mediterranean and Egypt.

Roman domination and Sulla’s colonisation in 80BC set the print of Pompeii’s final social structure: the definition of a written constitution together with a clear system of rule and political career path for magistrates (the Roman “cursus honorum”) which largely reflected that of Rome itself and would rarely require the Roman senate’s involvement except in extreme cases. The top of the social ladder was therefore the equivalent of Rome’s two consuls: the “Duovirs”. As in other Roman cities this provided a clear path accessible to (almost) all citizens who could therefore aspire to climb the social ladder. Petronius’ Trimalchio would be the extreme example of this social mobility.

Of course things are never a clear black and white: there were a number of classes of people not permitted to participate in such elections, for example actors, dancers, prostitutes and gladiators. And even other lower class citizens might find it prohibitive since a degree of personal wealth was required which implied that in reality political tenure was generally for the rich.

Society was not only split into rich and poor or upper class and lower class, but also in more articulated sub groups, such as groups of supporters at the games, crafts and guilds like the fullers, bakers or muleteers (see below) or indeed by religious belief.

An example: Nowadays we can visit Pompeii and see how the house of Gaius Julius Polibius has been restored and made part of a hi-tech tour (holograms and all!). He was a libertus – a freed slave – His bakeries had made him rich and he was very active in society. At the time of the eruption he was candidate for political office. In a touching example of the public and private spheres of a single family, excavation of his house in the town centre brought a room to light within which the skeletons of 13 people were found. Two of them holding hands, another aged 16 or 17 was pregnant. DNA analysis has shown them all to belong to the same family.

We know of Gaius’ bid for office thanks to graffiti such as

“The muleteers urge the election of Gaius Julius Polybius as duovir”

“I ask you to elect Gaius Julius Polybius aedile. He gets good bread.”

The two graffiti above, short as they are, give many clues to the well developed structure of Pompeian society:

  • They tell us about Polybius the nouveau riche baker who had aspired to being elected aedile and duovir (presumably at different times),
  • the fact that they are written at all suggests that the broader population actively participated and made a difference in such elections,
  • they tell us that there was obviously an open choice of breads (and opinion as to what was a good or bad bread): from this we might deduce that other trades were also equally well developed.
  • and last but not least that there were recognised social groups with which people could readily associate (or dissociate) themselves, in this case the group being “the muleteers”.

One of Pompeii’s wonders is the numerous and varied examples of written records which lay witness to its extremely fluid yet highly structured society.

At its zenith, the Roman Empire included these today’s countries and territories: most of Europe (England, Wales, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Gibraltar, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine), coastal northern Africa (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt), the Balkans (Albania.

Christians were occasionally persecuted—formally punished—for their beliefs during the first two centuries CE. But the Roman state’s official position was generally to ignore Christians unless they clearly challenged imperial authority.

From ethnic identity to civic identity

Such a system worked well for so long because the body politic was still small enough that the Romans’ numbers did not stop those crucial cultural ties that bind from keeping the system balanced and efficient. Take away those cultural linkages that made Romans see each other as members of a common enterprise, however, and decay quickly set in. Unfortunately, Rome’s very success and expansion began to undermine the very constitutional system that made the republic’s success possible.

First, expansion brought with it the incorporation of new lands and peoples that quickly made Rome’s city-state political system incredibly unwieldy. This was because the only way to hold down large territories for lengthy periods of time was not through brute force, but through a system of indirect rule that incorporated the elites of conquered, subject peoples into the very imperial system that had conquered them. Deserts, as Tacitus once said, the Romans could make, but the taxes and manpower that created them were not something Rome could produce at will.

The resulting solution of indirect rule was common in all ancient empires, of course, but in Republican Rome, local elites were often granted the same citizenship rights as the residents of Rome itself, effectively transforming Roman identity away from a tightly-bound ethnic identity that tied rich to poor together and toward a much looser civic identity premised on mutual inclusion and equal rights in the same political system. Importantly, however, full exercise of citizenship’s political rights required one to actually reside in Rome, which nicely neutralized any potential political threat expanding citizenship to subject peoples might have actually entailed.

This transformation of Roman citizenship away from a form of ethnic identity and into a form of civic identity proved immensely useful, and it is largely responsible for the relative lack of ethnic rebellions experienced by the empire. Indeed, it was only those subject peoples who were denied this identity by dint of their economic status, such as slaves, or those who chose to cling to their primordial identity, such as the Jews, who engaged in large-scale, identity-based rebellions against Roman rule. In contrast, all other rebellions were primarily civil wars that pitted different groups of Roman citizens against one another for political control of the Roman state.

So, the advantage of this type of open citizenship was clear – it could produce buy-in to the growing empire by those it conquered and, as a result, greatly increase the amount of territory and manpower Rome could efficiently command. Such was its power that even when the great Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded the Italian peninsula and occupied much of Southern Italy for years, most of Italy — conquered by Rome though it had been — remained stoutly loyal to Rome.

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Watch the video: Lesson 6 Ancient Roman Social Classes: May 21, 2020 1:47 PM