In much of daily life status distinctions based on age, gender, occupation, education and wealth may have been more relevant than legal status alone. The same man could derive status from several co-existing roles: he might be a citizen, an ex-slave, a carpenter, a Briton, a father and a husband. Depending on context, one or all of these identities may have affected how he acted and interacted with others.
For the mass of the urban population, however, we can question whether social mobility was ever a reality. For some, legal status could change; non-citizens could become citizens; a slave could become a free man. This was upward mobility and could bring real advantages, but unless this legal change was accompanied by an economic change the individual may have felt few immediate benefits.
The tomb of Vergilius Eurysaces in Rome©Social factors cut across the strict legal divisions. Wealth, unsurprisingly, was one such factor. People could amass a fortune, and money could buy status symbols.
For the mass of the free population, did legal status matter? Citizenship may have conferred certain advantages, but these may have been little noted – or just taken for granted – by the urban poor, and by the end of the first century AD it was observed that the toga – the visual symbol of citizenship – was little worn.
Citizens can be further divided into the privileged and the non-privileged – with some Roman citizens being very clearly distinguished by their power and privilege. These were the senators, equestrians and the provincial elite.
Slaves were the possessions of their masters and the latter had the power of life and death over them. Slavery was not, however, always a life-long state. Slaves could be – and regularly were – given their freedom.
On the one hand all this suggests that status distinctions mattered, on the other that status could be disputed, contested and even invented. There were clear levels on the Roman social ladder, but not everyone could be – or wished to be – neatly categorised.
Under the emperors the citizen vote in Rome was curtailed, but citizenship expanded rapidly across the empire, and was given as a reward to individuals, families and whole settlements. In AD 212 the emperor Caracalla expanded the franchise to all free inhabitants of the empire.
Being a Roman Citizenby JF Gardner (Routledge, 1986)
Unlike other members of the elite, the slaves were not serious rivals to Imperial power. Besides, a slave was at the mercy of his master; he could easily be dismissed or punished. Freed slaves were also bound to their former masters, whether the master was an emperor, a senator or an artisan.
The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Cultureby P Garnsey and R Saller (Duckworth, 1987)
For many Roman people, their unchanging place in the Roman social order was accepted or taken for granted. For others the maintenance, negotiation and re-negotiation of their status position became crucial, and this can be seen in the way that the language and symbols of status were manipulated.
Some people claimed to be citizens when they were not, or wore clothes suggesting senatorial or equestrian status, or tried to sit in the reserved seats at the theatre and amphitheatre. Others sought to define their status and that of their guests in the food, seating plans and entertainment offered at their dinner-parties.
Trimalchios story suggests social mobility. The system rewarded hard work, ambition and the accumulation of wealth, but there were limits. Birth remained important, and new citizens, however wealthy, could be stigmatised by their past. Ex-slaves in particular could not escape the taint of slavery, and were not allowed to hold high office.
Under the emperors, the senate continued to represent the citizen upper crust.
Even for those without great wealth or access to power, there were opportunities to enhance social status and gain recognition among their peers. Many organisations – such as the army, and trade or religious guilds (often organised for burial purposes) – operated on hierarchical principles. In these settings people could hold office and obtain titles, whereas in the wider world they could not.
Beneath him, the senators acted in their turn as patrons to the lesser senators, and throughout society these relationships were replicated. Thus, through the patronage system, the lower strata of the Roman population could gain some indirect access to power and authority. A client might look to his patron for financial assistance, or legal help. In return the patron received respect, favours and a retinue of followers.
The senate was the traditional ruling body of Rome, and under the emperors the senate continued to represent the citizen upper crust. The senate was usually limited to 600 members, and entrance was dependent on property qualifications and election to key offices.
The main legal distinctions were between those who were free, and those who were slaves. All inhabitants of the empire were either free or in servitude. Slaves were either born into slavery, or were forced, often through defeat in war, into it.
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On the streets of Rome citizens, non-citizens, slaves and ex-slaves may have mingled quite freely, showing few observable symbols of their status, and confusion could well have arisen over peoples exact legal situation.
Valerie Hope is a lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University. Her research interests are centred on Roman funerary customs and monuments. Publications include Death and Disease in the Ancient City and Constructing Identity: The Roman Funerary Monuments of Aquileia, Mainz and NÎmes.
At the end of the first century AD, the Roman administrator, poet and writer Pliny the Younger (today known particularly for his letters) attended a dinner party. He noted that the food and wine on offer differed in quality. The guests were not being treated equally. Instead the host was mirroring status distinctions in the standard of the food and beverages he presented to his guests.
Trimalchio, the fictitious freed slave invented by the Roman writer Petronius, had all the trappings that Roman money could buy. He lived in a vast house, wore extravagant clothes, owned many slaves, entertained lavishly and even built his own grand tomb.
As Plinys observations show us, in Rome – and across the empire – status mattered. Who and what you were affected how you were treated and how you treated others. In the eyes of Roman law, people were not equal. Legal status helped to define power, influence, criminal punishments, marriage partners, even dress and where you sat in the amphitheatre.
We can also note that the highest ranking slaves and freed slaves of the emperors could become wealthy – thanks to their proximity to the seat of power, which allowed them to wield considerable authority. In many ways it was their servility that allowed these men to become so close to the emperor.
In Rome – and across the empire – status mattered.
In time it became possible to break down some social boundaries. Rome and the empire needed new blood, and even the senate was not a closed body. The ex-slave could not hold office, but eventually his descendants might. The emperor Vitellius was said to have been descended from a freed slave; and the emperors Trajan and Septimius Severus came from provincial families.
The equestrian order was traditionally limited to those who were entitled to a public horse. There were no limits to equestrian numbers, but property requirements had to be met. Senators were recognised by a toga with a broad purple stripe, while the equestrian wore a toga with a narrow purple stripe and a gold finger ring.
Roman society was a seething mass of complex and competing relationships. In such a cutthroat world, how did you attain and display your status?
Whether you were in or out of the leading circles was signalled in the Republic by the division of the population of Rome into patricians – in origin the powerful and established land-holding families – and plebeians, basically the rest of the (free) population. And in the late empire the termshonestioresandhumilioreswere employed to denote the privileged and the humble.
In an age before mass personal documentation, there were few ways to prove who and what you were. So, for example, illegal marriages were contracted between citizens and non-citizens either through ignorance or mistake. Unless a legal crisis arose, people may have taken their legal status – and that of others – for granted.
Such dependency relationships were a marked feature of Roman life.
Such dependency relationships were a marked feature of Roman life. There was a dense and complex patronage network, and this united people of diverse backgrounds, wealth and standing. The emperor eventually became the ultimate patron, and as time went on, without his support and favour, even the most ambitious senator could not hold high office.
These nouveaux-riches citizens could be mocked and despised for copying their social betters. Money could not buy everything, and individuals such as Trimalchio could find themselves in an incongruous position, fabulously wealthy but not part of high society.
Rome and the empire needed new blood.
He was portrayed as grotesque, but he may not have been that far removed from reality – it is known that freed slaves did advertise their own personal success stories. The tomb built by the freed slave Eurysaces still stands in Rome. It was built in the shape of a giant oven, decorated with scenes of baking.
Roman society is often represented as one of social extremes – with the wealth, power and opulence of an emperor existing alongside the poverty, vulnerability and degradation of a slave. But beyond this, how and why was Roman society stratified? What were the major distinctions that shaped and influenced peoples lives?
From the end of the first century BC, Rome and the Roman empire were ruled by a succession of emperors. Political and military power was concentrated in their hands, and they represented the pinnacle of the imperial status hierarchy.
The powerful were defined by the privileges they enjoyed, and knowledge of some of these aspects of their lives has been handed down to us, but unfortunately the symbols of privilege tell us little about the lives and status expectations of the powerless masses.
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Legal status marked some fundamental boundaries in the life of a Roman man or woman. It mattered whether a person was a senator or a slave, and arguably it was at these extremes that legal status mattered the most. Certainly, our understanding of the Roman social order is coloured by ancient sources that tend to focus on the importance of status display and status symbols in elite, urban and male circles.
This of course may not have concerned Trimalchio, or others like him; he had his money, and the trappings that it bought, and within his own house he was king. Although others may have expected Trimalchio to be ashamed of his past, it doesnt necessarily follow that he felt so himself.
All free inhabitants were either citizens or non-citizens. Only citizens could hold positions in the administration of Rome and the other towns and cities of the empire, only citizens could serve in the legions, and only citizens enjoyed certain legal privileges.
Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empireby J Huskinson (Routledge, 2000)
Travel back in time toAncient Britainand create your own stone circle.
Eric (voiced by Daniel Roche) visitsRoman Britain, where he lives a life of privilege.
In an age before mass personal documentation, there were few ways to prove who and what you were.