Social Classes in Ancient Rome

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Rome was a society based on family. Every family belonged to a social class which in turn, built Rome and enabled it to function and grow. History proves that without these social classes, Rome slowly deteriorated as the population grew smaller and smaller. These classes include the upper class, middle class, workers, and slaves. These classes held Rome together and can be argued that even in today’s world, The United States, has a very similar social class hierarchy. Each person in every class had a different experience in their everyday life. The major things that determined a person’s social class was their wealth, citizenship, and freedom Although the people in Rome were very boastful of their social class, these classes were not isolated. They often interacted daily depending on their jobs. Romans had very different lives depending on social class and economic status.

At the top of all the social classes was of course the emperor. The emperor was the only one allowed to wear a purple robe to show and boast his superiority. This set an example for the rest of the social classes and made them want to dress in a way that made it evident that they were part of that particular social class they belonged to. Although Rome fell to the mishaps of countless corrupt emperors, many of them did look out for the social classes and saw the value in everyone playing their part to thrive. For example, the emperor Hadrian traveled all over the west to places like France, Germany, Spain, and North Africa. “Hadrian’s travels were not junkets for play and sightseeing… His trail is blazed with an unending series of public works, fortifications for the frontiers, and monuments, temples, buildings, roads, aqueducts, and what not for everything else.” (Casson, 138)

Expanding and building roads brought new opportunities and developments for Rome’s citizens in agriculture and trade. Leaders like Augustus were not tyrants. He was basically a dictator of Rome and easily could have turned a blind ear to what the citizens were saying, but instead he interacted with them and looked for the opinions of classes and of the senate. This contributes immensely to giving Rome the longest period of peace known to man. The emperor lived in the imperial palace that was constantly being rebuilt or added to by succeeding emperors. They lived beyond lavish and were surrounded by slaves and servants to tend to his every need. The emperor also had the best seat for entertainment and chose if someone should be killed in a gladiatorial battle.

Below the emperor was the upper class. This class consisted of men who were part of the senate and the richest of the rich in Rome. To be determine to be in this class it was all political and economic based. The ones who were not in the political spectrum of the upper class chose to run businesses instead of being invested into politics to be successful. Their everyday life was what the common person thought of when thinking of living in Rome. They dressed apart and just being in the social class was not enough for them. They had to be seen and flaunt their status and life. They owned beautiful mansions and if located in Rome, were close to the imperial palace in the hills outside of Rome. The wealthy had slaves heating their baths and had access to the best educations. They had very close seating during the entertainment.

As Augustus boasted, “I found Rome a city of brick and left it one of marble.” (Casson, 30) the upper class owned massive amounts of property with spacious gardens and many were located in private villas. They often had big dinner parties and ate the most extravagant and expensive food. They enjoyed imported spices and “Italians drank wine from France and ate bread made of Egyptian grain, altars all over smoked with incense from Arabia or Ethiopia.” (Casson, 8) Since the houses were big they had room for slaves and servants to stay and tend to their every last need. If you had property, you had leverage and were considered rich. The rich owned many parts of the city and in “…public places stood buildings that only the rulers of an immensely wealthy state could afford to erect; its streets were thronged with men of all classes, with lofty officials and government slaves, with millionaire shipowners and bankers and a mass of chronic unemployed who lived off government handouts.” (Casson, 9) This made the classes coexist when there were strict codes of social class.

One thing that was part of the everyday life of people in the upper class was their participation in the system of patronage. The rich “patroni” would help out the people in the lower classes called “cliens”. The rich offered the poor protection, help with legal services such as representation, granted loans, and they also backed the client’s campaign for political candidacy. In turn the client was expected to offer any services they could to the patroni. The wealthy’s day consisted of half work and half relaxation. They only attended to their work or business in the morning and after that they would relax. The upper class will later also have the money and influence to dictate the power of Rome and have many emperors paid to be killed and replaced.

The next class under was the middle class also known as the Plebians. This class consisted of the working men in the city and the farmers. Some made enough to just get by and some lived comfortable to a certain extent. Their main goal was to work to provide for their family and pay their taxes. Their attire of their class was the toga. The majority of the middle class citizens lived in crowded apartments in the city and “…had no room for a corps of household slaves:…” (Casson, 35) Their social classes were marked off by blocks and were very distinguishable. “Business men and workers put in not only a full day but a full week.” (Casson, 34) He would wake up early in the morning and pay the mandatory morning call. While the man was at work the wife would be cleaning the house and tending to the children all day. Women did not have much power at all outside the house. Once in the home though, the power was in the women’s hands to a certain extent.

Also since there was no public transportation in Rome, the apartments became packed and only the wealthy could travel. One thing that helped the middle class immensely was that the roads Rome constructed. They connected many different cultures and ways of life. This made trading and selling goods much easier and gave Romans and opportunity to rank up in the social class. “…there was still throngs mired in desperate poverty, but previously only very few had been able to escape and now thousands did.” (Casson, 8) Mare Nostrum also was a big contributor to this too now enabling ships to sail safely for trade. This created opportunity for everyone. More Romans could make a fortune off of trading and selling than ever before. For the farmers, many thrived since agriculture was being bought and sold at a higher rate.

“Though commerce and industry were thriving aspects of ancient economic life, both were minor compared with agriculture.” (Casson, 25) Although many of these middle class citizens owned trade business’s, it was not uncommon for them to skip a day of work to go see the events held at the stadium. These events were held 135 days a year and were created to cater to the poorest of plebians. There were many in this class and when things like taxes got too high for this class, there was always fear of a mob rule and revolt. That is why the government created entertainment and welfare for the poorest to live off. The entertainment was much more violent than entertainment today. “The favored racetrack was the Circus Maximus, which held a quarter million people, five times as many as the combined capacity of Rome’s three theaters…” (Casson, 102)

This shows how much they valued these events. They would watch gladiators and animals fight to the death. The government would increasingly spend more and more on these events and make them more frequent to make sure the plebians would stay distracted from real life politics. This was labeled bread and circuses and kept the masses preoccupied to avoid revolt and starvation. Many of the plebians diets consisted on grain and water. Many suffered from malnutrition. All classes enjoyed these events but the plebians lived for it. The higher the class you were, the better seat you got closer to the action. Even slaves would attend and would stand at the crowded top to watch. The poor also did not have the opportunity to be educated so they didn’t know how to write.

The lowest class of Rome was the slaves. They were often mistreated and contributed greatly to holding Rome together. The slaves were forced by law to be their master’s property. A master could also kill a slave at any time for no reason. Slavery in Rome was not based on race at all. The slaves were captured by war and had no distinctive article of clothing. Some slaves lived better than others. If they were fortunate enough to have a master who would allow them to save their own money, they were granted to buy their own freedom. Even some plays from Rome hint on that some slaves made a lot more than just their freedom from their master. Trimalchio, from Petronius’s novel, The Satyricon, shares her story of success.

“… For fourteen years I was the master’s little darling. The mistress’ too… The gods were on my side-I became the head of the household, I took over from that pea-brain of a master… I will inherit a millionaire’s estate.” This was of course not common for a slave. Many had hard lives working on farms and doing jobs no one else would want to. The slave life was very rigorous and they were treated inhumane. The life of a Roman citizen all depended on the class they were in. Set apart by status and clothing, they all coexisted side by side in the Rome’s mixing pot of a city. These classes’ built Rome and in turn, there were opportunities for economic and social advancements for many.

Cite this paper

Social Classes in Ancient Rome. (2021, Jul 18). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/social-classes-in-ancient-rome/

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