Roman Society

The Census

In the beginning was the census.

Every five years, each male Roman citizen had to register in Rome for the census. In this he had to declare his family, wife, children, slaves and riches. Should he fail to do this, his possessions would be confiscated and he would be sold into slavery.

But registration meant freedom. A master wishing to free his slave needed only to enter him in the censor’s list as a citizen (manumissio censu).
Throughout the entire republican era, registration in the census was the only way that a Roman could ensure that his identity and status as a citizen were recognized.

Fathers registered their sons, employers their freedmen. Primarily the census served to count the number of citizens and to assess the potential military strength and future tax revenue. Most important, the census transformed the city into a political and military community.

But the census performed a highly symbolical function. To the Romans the census made them more than a mere crowd, or barbarian rabble. It made them a populus, a people, capable of collective action.

To the Romans, the census was one of the foundation stones of their civilization.

With the census itself being of such importance, the job of compiling the lists was not simply left to anonymous scribes. It was overseen by two censors. These were incorruptible and noble-blooded men of substance who were appointed for their proven integrity and authority.

It was their role to scrutinize each man, carefully evaluating his riches and his rank and placing him in his rightful place within the civic hierarchy of Rome.

In assessing the lower ranks of Roman society, little was taken into account but their material belongings. However, for the citizens of high position in the hierarchy were subjected to the most penetrating gaze of the censor.
And it was an uncomfortable thing indeed, to be inspected in such a way. For very much was at stake.

The censors, looking into a man’s public and private lives, might decide to move a citizen a few rungs down the social ladder if he had, for example, turned a blind eye to his wife’s adulteries, committed perjury, fathered no children, appeared on the stage (actors were seen with contempt by Roman society) or failed to cultivate his land properly.

The civilized City

The entire concept of Roman life seemed to center around the city, be this the city of Rome itself or any other town.

The countryside was a nice place to retire to for a while in order to stay in touch with nature. Yet it was seen as an unsuitable place for a true citizen. Romans were after all social creatures, which craved being part of a society.

The truly civilized citizen had to be more than educated or successful. No, in the Roman mind set it was necessary to belong. The Roman needed a community, a family, or at least a group of friends around him. No better place was there for this than the city.

And so if one was to look at Roman cities merely as hives of economic life where people settled merely to find jobs, entertainment and convenience one would only see part of the picture.

The idea of living of cities, like with the Greeks, was a cultural statement in itself. To them it represented an advancement from the mere existence as a peasant living off the land. One might say they saw themselves as a further step in the evolution of man.

For it was the barbarian tribes who still lived dispersed all over the countryside. In the Roman mind, cities formed its inhabitants into greater, abler, nobler beings.

No-one more so than the highborn Roman was a citizen. For, if he was expected to succeed against all odds in his political career, continuing the lineage of his forefathers, then this was only possible in the city. Only there could he ever hope to win office and match father’s achievements. Only there could he exercise his rights as a citizen.

Though to be a citizen also meant to prove oneself. A Roman was always subject to the gaze of his fellow citizens. And it was in their eyes that he was to show himself a worthy person, respectful to his parents, loyal to his patrons, able in raising his family and just towards his slaves. Just as the Roman craved society, so was he made to prove himself worthy of membership in it.

The City of Rome

If Romans lived in cities throughout the empire, then their greatest city, naturally, was the city of Rome itself. Had it originally started as a small settlement on the Palatine Hill it had grown into the greatest city of the ancient world.

Read More: The Founding of Rome

The Forum

In the earliest days of Rome the Forum was an uninhabited swamp, but soon the marshy plain at the bottom of the Palatine Hill was drained and the first paved streets, most of all the Via Sacra, were built. The Via Sacra, the oldest Roman street, was to remain most important street at the very heart of the city.

From these early beginnings the Forum changed several times, but it always remained the center of Roman life. In the early days political life was restricted to the comitium the northern corner of the Forum whilst the rest of the open square would be occupied by the market.

In the later days of the republic the shops and the market were largely moved to make way for a greater public meeting space, as well as for Caesar’s Forum. Caesar built his new Forum on one side of the Via Sacra and the Basilica Julia on the other.

Generally it was Caesar’s contribution which initiated the Forum’s greatest splendour. Every emperor in turn set out to add to the architectural glory of Rome’s centre.

With the growth of the empire and the increase in Rome’s population the old Forum became to small to cope with the sheer weight of numbers. In time other fora were added, the Forum of Caesar, of Augustus, of Vespasian, of Nerva and that of Trajan.

The people in the Forum varied considerably as the day went on. Life in the Forum reached its height at about 11 o’clock each day (the Roman ‘fifth hour’).

Wheeled vehicles were prohibited from driving through the streets of Rome from sunrise until the Roman ‘tenth hour’ (4 o’clock in the afternoon) This meant that during the daytime pedestrians alone made up the huge crowds which filled the streets and squares, except for some wealthy people, particularly women, being carried in litters by their slaves.

During these busy hours in the city centre there was a tremendous hustle and bustle in the Forum. Affairs of state were debated in the offices. In the basilica businessmen made deals, financiers discussed loans and the money-change’s had their stands, and stood jingling their money noisily in their hands to attract the attention of any potential customers.

Close to the courtrooms the baying of the spectators and the loud voices of the lawyers could be heard from quite a distance. In other places perhaps the loud screeching of a quarrel or a fight, about to break out could be heard. Sometimes, if a public figure had died, his funeral procession would lead through the Forum. Fathers would traditionally bring their sons to the Forum when their offspring wore his toga for the first time.

As the empire expanded the crowds on the Forum became yet bigger and more colourful. It appeared that nearly every nationality was present on the Forum in the days of empire. But the Romans were not very fond of such foreigners. Most despised of all were the Orientals. Eastern businessmen and scholars were the targets of a traditional Roman hatred of the eastern civilizations (one need only look at the Roman attitude toward Cleopatra and Mark Antony).

Nobles would move about on the Forum always followed by a group of clients, eager to please their patron and sure to see that he came to no harm. Many such nobles flaunted their wealth, adorned in costly clothes, expensive rings and having with them exotic pets.

And where there was such wealth, there was of course also many doubtful characters moving about, keen to reap the benefit of such riches.
Quacks, soothsayers and charlatans of all shapes and sizes were all around.

The Forum may have lain at the heart of the centre of Rome, but it was not the only place of public life. Other areas too were busy during the day.

Shops and Markets

With the growth of the Forum the old market had been forced to go elsewhere. With the Forum being the centre of Roman life the shops obviously clung to as closely as they could. And so the streets leading from the Forum boasted many shops. The Via Sacra itself had shops, but so did the streets leading out of the Forum, foremost the vicus iugarius, the vicus tuscus and the argiletum.

The vicus tuscus is said to have been the host of many spice shops. The argiletum was host to many bookshops and shoe shops.

To the east lay the poor man’s market of Rome in the quarter of the subura, no selling foods more suited to those with limited money, like simple vegetables and chickens.

To the south of the Forum lay the velabrum, the general market, the forum boarium and the forum cuppedinis, the market for luxury goods. These were huge markets, feeding the greatest city of the world.

The wealthy Romans might go shopping near the saeptia in the Campus Martius where the luxury shops could be found, selling amongst other things the most expensive slaves in Rome.

The Subura

But the wealthy would stay well clear of the district east of the Forum known as the subura. This was the poorer part of Rome, not merely housing the less fortunate, but also the many prostitutes of the city.

The narrow alleys were notoriously dangerous to any stranger, with many criminals waiting to rob the purse of a hapless stranger. This is not to say that the subura was dangerous to all. There was indeed some distinguished patricians living there. Julius Caesar, for example, lived there, until he became pontifex maximus.

Though it was clear to all not be venture into certain parts of the subura, and particularly not to go there when darkness began to set. The subura also had a large market, where the poor and the slaves who were in charge of households did their shopping.

Vegetable stores were abound, barber shops, wool, merchants, blacksmiths, coppersmiths and other stores essential to daily life in Rome. Tough the atmosphere was very rough, and gangs controlled some of the streets.


All streets radiated from the centre of the city, leaving the forum they became broader and straighter, until at reaching the gates of Rome they led away to the rest of the empire in form of Roman roads.

A Roman’s Identity and Honour

It was to others that a Roman had to look for any confirmation of his ability and identity. In Roman society confirmation by others was sought as well as required.

Be they the elders of his family, his patron or his clients, army comrades, or even – in an election – the people of Rome; no Roman could be his own judge, but could see himself only through the eyes of others.

One needs also to consider that Romans didn’t know of modern day psychology and hence did not analyze their thoughts and feelings. They looked not inwards but to others to understand themselves. For it was the opinion of others which dictated the opinion a Roman ultimately held of himself.

‘A good man’ was hence a man deemed worthy by others, a man deemed honourable. But so too, in the Roman mind set honourable was only what was actually honoured. Glory or honour were also measured only in the recognition it drew from others.

Great, noble deeds might be done, but without people knowing of them there was no glory, no fame and no advantage to be gained from them.
And to Romans the only advantage to be gained from glory and honour was to use it to climb the social ladder.

Any credit among one’s fellow men gained by one’s ability, either in office or on the battlefield, was immediately used to further one’s political fortunes; all in the hope of finally achieving that distant goal – a seat in the Roman senate.

Hence any achievement was blatantly bragged about to make absolutely sure everyone knew about it. And anyone too dignified to do the bragging oneself, simply found others who would do it for them. And so in Rome, where nobility, military and political leadership were all intertwined, there would be no end of bragging, showing-off and a boundless supply of flattering rumours.

But in a society in which so much depended on the light in which others saw you, their view could not only elevate you, but so too it could destroy you.

Any news, be it good or bad, spread like wildfire in a society that spent much of the day gossiping in the public baths, or mingling at the forum. Graffiti was scribbled on walls, and in the inns drunken songs might ridicule the high and mighty. In the theatres actors would in their plays praise or deride public figures of the day.

And so Rome was a city of rumours, for the entertainment of the many and for the advancement of those whose worst fate could be, not to be talked about.

Nobility

Nobility was not simply bestowed upon an individual. It was gradually built up or torn down by a family. ‘Three fathers’ was the duration required to establish a man’s noble status. The father, grandfather and great-grandfather had each to have exercised a higher magistracy. In other words, for a child to be noble, it was essential that he had been subject solely to the authority of relatives who were magistrates. Even the nobility of Octavian, whose great-grandfather had been a mere freedman, was called into question. It mattered little that a man’s family had been noble in the past, an interruption of the three generations was all it took to deprive him of his noble status.

The Client System

A client was a loyal supporter to a high-standing Roman family. The head of the higher family would be the patronus, the patron. Clients acted as a kind of ‘clan’ to the patron. They supported him loyally in any venture, be it military or political.

Meanwhile the patron would aid his clients, representing their political interests through the office he held, or even defending them in the courts as their lawyer, should it be necessary.

This bond between patron and client was one of the very foundations of Roman society. Fides, loyally, was a prized virtue, which held together families, as well as the social order through the client system.

Such Roman loyalty was felt not merely to particular men, but to their families. And so, should a patron die, his client would hence support his heir. Should the client die, his son would support the same patron. Some noble families could indeed count on the support of very many people, in the city of Rome, as well as in the countryside towns.

More so, even entire kingdoms could become clients to the very Roman commander who had conquered them. And it is worth pointing out just how deep the Roman idea of fides ran. Titus Labienus had been a general of Julius Caesar’s throughout his conquest of Gaul.

But, whatever friendship might have formed between Caesar and his loyal commander, once the civil war began between Caesar and Pompey, Labienus had to change sides. For he was from Picenum, a town which was a client of Pompey’s.

This goes to show that the client system could also be very much military in nature – at least during the days of the Roman republic. A patron could raise an army, recruited from among his clients, if he had the means to maintain it. Or he could, should he desire, also create his own small force as a personal armed guard.

For this one needs to consider that, prior to the reign of Augustus, there was no such thing as a police force. A patron’s armed guard might therefore be used to protect the patron as well as his clients.

The client system truly formed the foundations of the Roman state. It created stability, as of course the unwavering loyalty of clients could keep families in power for centuries.

But so too did it create a kind of welfare network in a state which largely hadn’t the means to support the poor and deprived. The client system surrounding a patron would look out for its individuals. They would act as a kind of police, making sure no harm came to their own, that nothing was stolen from them.

Should one be struck down by poverty, the other clients, – and so too most likely the patron, – would see to it that one would get a loan, a daughter might be provided with a dowry, or at least the group would see to it that the deceased would get a decent funeral.

If the patron might not always provide help personally, it would most often be he who orchestrated it, perhaps asking other clients to help out one of his supporters who had fallen upon hard times. But the wealth of most patrons of course allowed him to hand out money to those they deemed deserving of such aid.

And so, maintaining guards, organizing any help, defending people in the courts, even openly handing out money, it is no wonder that the patrons were seen as protectors of their group.

It was for the purpose of representing their clients in court in was that most sons of high-ranking families were trained in law. And should matters fail and one struggle to get a retrial, then a patron might always call on some of his clients to stage demonstrations outside the courthouse, making their ‘public’ outrage heard over such ‘miscarriages of justice’.

It remains to be said that the word patronus later became the Italian word padrino, the expression used to describe the godfather in the Mafia. And, on closer inspection, the Roman client system with its loyalty and solidarity does show many similarities to the Mafia. It is also telling that the Mafiosi refer to a common cause as ‘la cosa nostra’ (our cause) and regard themselves as family, ‘la familia’.

The two traditional Parties – Populares and Optimates

The client system meant that Rome was never really a democracy. People voted at elections in accordance to their family loyalties. Political ideology didn’t play a major role.

Though in the later stages of the republic – roughly from the days of the brothers Gracchus onwards – there were two political parties, the Populares (‘people’s party’) and the Optimates (‘senatorial party’).

The Populares were for the extension of citizenship to provincials, for the cancellation of debt, and for the distribution of land. The Optimates were the opposing conservative force, defending the traditions of Rome and the existing order.

But this contest was far from being one between the poor and the rich. For people voted for their patrons, as they had always done. So a man might be poor but still vote as a client for the patron who was a staunch member of the Optimates.

If the struggle between the Optimates was not pitching rich against poor in Rome, then one can perhaps portray it as a contest between the new powers and the old. The old privileged families held sway in Rome and hence sought to prevent any change from reducing their powers.

Meanwhile the new powerful families, saw opportunities in winning more clients and supporters by championing the cause of the less privileged or excluded. For example, to speak on behalf of the Cisalpine Gauls or Samnites who did not enjoy citizenship meant, that, if they would ever be granted it, their loyalty – and hence their votes – would be with you.

And so the aim of the powerful families in the Populares party was clearly one of extending their own power. Any advantage to the poor was therefore merely a welcome side effect.

The great political clashes were hence only on the surface about ideology. In reality they were more about power than the public good. There were, to put it bluntly, no ‘socialists’ in Rome. No one acted on behalf of the poor, but rather sought to gain poor votes.

If therefore the likes of the brothers Gracchus (populares) held grand passionate speeches which enthralled their audiences, these must be seen as well crafted speeches of great orators who could make their point brilliantly and persuasively. But one shouldn’t therefore necessarily think that they were any less class conscious and aristocratic than any member of the optimates.

Some might argue that granting social rights to increasing numbers was a gradual, natural process, as new blood pushed into the positions of power, building and enlarging its own client system. The great politicians might far more have been playing a part in a great theatre play, fighting out their personal struggles for power, but playing their role as champions of a greater cause.

Rulers of the Republic

Rome was a realm of quasi kings: magistrates and senators. The senate, made up of former magistrates, was no doubt an imposing sight to behold, – much like the court of a monarch.

Yet the republican attitude of Rome, to an extent even under the emperors, remained utterly hostile toward the idea of kings. It was as though the attitude prevailed that a mere mortal on his his own could possible rule Rome and her empire. – One might even speculate that this mentality could have been the reason for the later deification of dead emperors.

The Roman passion for power is infamous. Latin even has two different words to describe a person’s power; potentia for personal power and potestas or political power.

But then to hold power in Rome was not comparable to political positions of a modern western state. Roman magistrates were not comparable to today’s government offices. Their powers were absolute.

Today’s governments separate the powers of the political rulers of the country (executive), the politicians making laws (legislature), and the judges who apply the law in the courts (judiciary). This however was not the case in ancient Rome. All such powers rested effectively with the highest magistrates, the consuls.

Not merely did the consuls hold tremendous power, but so, too, were they surrounded by symbols of ‘royal’ authority. Among them the lictors bearing the axes bound in rods, symbolizing their power over life and death, their purple striped tunic under the senatorial purple hemmed toga. And some of these symbols did indeed stem from the days when Rome had still been dominated by Etruscan kings.

And to the ordinary people of Rome their appearance must indeed have made them appear no less than kings.

But the consuls were not the only ‘kings’ in Rome. Other offices such as those of the praetors, aediles or quaestors, allowed their holders to make their own laws, oversee their enforcement and well as to prosecute and punish anyone who failed to abide by them. So they, too, enjoyed absolute power, although on a lower level.

This power of office was known as the provincia and it is hence no surprise that it eventually became the name for the ‘kingdoms’ Rome ruled over in its empire. For in those territories, the governors, held the same powers as consuls over their subjects.

More so, they were under far less scrutiny when ruling over the provinces than anyone holding office within the capital. And yet, their positions generally demanded that they had previously proven their worth in high magistracies before they ever were entrusted with the absolute power of provincial governor.

Far away from Rome, subject to the many temptations of power, it is perhaps littel wonder that many governors suffered delusions of grandeur. In the eastern provinces they were often worshipped as gods by a population used to treating their rulers in such fashion.

Also of course many saw their time abroad as a marvellous opportunity to enrich themselves off the backs of their helpless subjects.

But, if the provincia did offer immunity from prosecution then this only extended for one’s time in office. Thereafter one could be prosecuted for one’s misdemeanours.

And there was many a young man ready and waiting to make a name for himself by prosecuting a corrupt governor in the courts. When for example the governor of Gaul, Lucius Quinctius Flaminius, returned to Rome he was indeed prosecuted in 185 BC and expelled from the senate.

The Latin words res publica which are perhaps best translated as ‘public affairs’ are the source of today’s term ‘republic’.

Before setting out on reading about the history of the Roman republic, please find here the various offices and assemblies which were created in order to rule of the Roman state.

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