An Elite Class That Ruled Over the 99%. Sound Familiar? It All Began with the Patricians of Rome
In ancient Rome, the patricians (from the Latin word patres, meaning ‘fathers’) were one of the main classes of Roman society. They were the ruling class, and enjoyed great prestige as well as special privileges, which they gladly lorded over the other inhabitants of Rome – for as long as they could.
Founding the Patrician Families
Some of the famous patrician families include the Claudii, the Julii and the Cornelii. According to some sources, the origins of the patrician class may be traced back to the founding of Rome. This class existed throughout the history of Rome (both the Republic and the Empire), and continued well into the Byzantine period.
It may be noted, however, that the nature of this class, for example, their rights and privileges, changed over time. During the Byzantine period, for instance, the word ‘patrician’ was reduced to an honorary title without the power that it once enjoyed.
“A promiscuous crowd of freemen and slaves, eager for change, fled thither from the neighbouring states. This was the first accession of strength to the nascent greatness of the city. When he [Romulus] was satisfied as to its strength, his next step was to provide for that strength being wisely directed. He created a hundred senators; either because that number was adequate, or because there were only a hundred heads of houses who could be created. In any case, they were called the “Patres” in virtue of their rank, and their descendants were called “Patricians.””
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The Pride of Romulus. (Public Domain)
Patrician Powers and Conflicts
The patricians enjoyed great prestige and privileges in Roman society. For example, at the beginning of the Roman Republic, only members of this class were allowed to hold offices in the priesthoods. This was due to the belief that the patricians were able to communicate with the gods better than the rest of the population. Therefore, it was they alone who could perform such priestly duties. During this same period of time, membership of the Senate was open only to the patrician class, though this privilege did not last.
Since the patrician class was created for the purpose of ruling, there would also be a social class / classes that was / were being ruled. One of these was the plebeian class, which eventually came into conflict with the patricians. The plebeians formed the majority of Rome’s population, and were involved in various important occupations. Thus, this group included farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, as well as the rank and file of the Roman army, in short, jobs that the patricians deemed unsuitable for their high position.
A young woman sits while a servant fixes her hair with the help of a cupid, who holds up a mirror to offer a reflection. (Public Domain)
As some of the members of the plebeian class became wealthy, they began demanding that their voice be heard as well with regards to the governance of the republic. Although they were reluctant to give up the absolute power they held, the patricians were aware that they needed the plebeians more than the plebeians needed them. The plebeians were also conscious of this, and threatened on several occasions to leave Rome altogether.
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This led to the Conflict of the Orders, also known as the Struggle of the Orders, which lasted from 494 BC to 287 BC. It resulted from the dissatisfaction felt by the plebeians regarding the status quo in Rome.As the plebeians formed the majority of Rome’s citizenry, secession was a powerful weapon at their disposal and it was used several times more after 494 BC. Each time the plebeians seceded, the patricians were forced to negotiate, and to concede to their demands.
In 451 BC, for example, the secession by the plebeians resulted in the appointment of the decemvirate, a commission of ten men. Another secession occurred in 445 BC, which resulted in the passing of the Canuleian Law.
This law allowed the patricians and plebeians to inter-marry. And as the Conflict of the Orders dragged on, the gap between the patricians and plebeians, in terms of privileges and rights, continued to decrease. It was also during this time that the plebeians were able to attain political power in the form of the Council of the Plebs, which was a legislative assembly that made laws affecting the plebeian class.
And at the end of the conflict, the Lex Hortensia was passed, which meant that all laws enacted by this Council applied to all Roman citizens, the patricians included. One importance of the conflict is that it contributed greatly in the development of the Constitution of the Roman Republic.
Gaius Gracchus, tribune of the people, presiding over the Plebeian Council. (Public Domain)
Prestige without Power
Nevertheless, the patricians were still able to maintain some political power. Over time, however, the fortunes of some patrician families waned, and its members no longer occupied positions of influence. At the same time, some of the plebeians were able to improve their lot in society. As a result, new patrician families were created.
Julius Caesar, for example, created new patrician families from the plebeian class so as to strengthen his own position. The patrician class existed well into the Byzantine period, though by this time, it was a title of prestige without much real power attached to it .
Top image: Marble relief of an elite Roman woman. The elite class in Rome were known as the patricians. Source: amelie /Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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