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Roman society

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Fresco showing a Roman couple
Fresco showing a Roman couple

Roman society has changed throughout history. In Rome, as it was in the whole ancient world, there was a distinct division between rich and poor citizens. In the capital of the Empire, there was a huge gulf and nobody even tried to hide it. Those differences in wealth were on view mainly in the contrast to the lavishness of the new rich’s residences (whose fortune was the result of the Empire’s development) with the misery of the tenements inhabited by the Roman proletariat. The Romans accepted those distinctions as a normal state of things, without any resistance. In any case, there was hardly any ancient civilization which considered it a problem, they rather tended to accept it. But still, only a few of them emphasized such social division as the Romans did.

The term “plebeians” at different times described different social classes. Conquests and giving the right to vote to the new social groups widened the number of full citizens. Typical Roman citizens used to live in the countryside. Roman society always had an agricultural character. Society’s attitude towards the land which supported it was multifarious, but it was always considered to be fundamental. This truth about the early history of Rome is obscured by the glory of the Empire period – the vision of a huge, parasitic city.

Roman society was divided into two groups. One of them was patricians (from the Latin word patres which means fathers), a group of full citizens, including the most prestigious and wealthy houses. They were a privileged social class, had full political rights and, to the moment, an exclusivity in assuming offices.

The other group were the plebeians who were not full Roman citizens. It was the vast majority of the whole society which derived from the conquered peoples settling in Rome. They were free but – again to the moment – did not have any rights. The eldest patricians sat in the Senate being the advisory council which helped to take the most important decisions concerning the country and society. Roman society of that time was characterized by the absolute power of a father who decided about his family members’ life and death.

A city (fresco)

Farmers, sometimes even extremely poor were the free people of the early Republic. In terms of law Roman society was divided into many categories according to a complicated rule going back to the Etruscan domination. Those divisions influenced the votes but had no economic meaning and mattered less than a simple division into those who could afford the arms and hence could serve in the army, those who provided the country only with children and finally those who had neither a family nor the fortune. The lowest class were slaves.

The owners of smaller farms began to pauperise more quickly in the 2nd and 3rd century BCE. Simultaneously, the aristocracy’s wealth grew thanks to the conquests. It was a long-standing process which resulted in new social and political divisions. Also granting citizenship to Rome’s allies became popular.
So the number of citizens increased, but their influence on the country’s decisions and politics fell simultaneously.

Group portrait (reverse glass painting) from c. 250 CE depicting a mother, a son and a daughter. It is believed to be the family of Valentinian III

Plebeian secession

Wealth began to perform more and more significant roles but it was not the only thing that mattered. It was also important that all the decisions in Rome were made without the political representation of citizens inhabiting some new territories of a spreading city who could express their opinion. As a result, the plebs, threatened with the refusal of military service or even leaving Rome and founding a new city were able to force limitations on the Senate’s power and its officials.

Two people, a faun and a Silenus (fresco) More about this fresco.

From 355 BCE one of the consuls was chosen from the plebs and from 287 BCE the regulations of the Plebeian Council became operative. However, the valid limitation of a ruling class was brought by the establishment of the tribunate (ten tribunes plebes chosen in a popular vote). Available both by day and by night for the citizens who felt aggrieved, the tribunes could advance the bills and had the right to veto them. The role of the tribune rose during the turbulent time of fight in the Senate.


The same as all ancient societies also the Roman was based on slavery. It was possible to become a slave by birth, as a captive, a prisoner of war, while being caught by a slave trader or sold by their own family, or while being not able to clear a debt. The situation of slaves was different. It depended on the fact whether a slave intended to work in a city or in the countryside where living conditions were primitive. Their owners needed a just workforce, imposed ruthless discipline and took no care of the slaves.

Among the slaves, there were a lot of well-educated people, mostly the Greeks who were hired as lectors, secretaries or caretakers and educators of their masters’ sons. It also happened that they were trusted with more responsible jobs such as running the library or rewriting the books. The other slaves had less demanding jobs, they were their masters’ body servants. They were also janitors, repairmen, and ran craft workshops or regular shops. Their income was passed on to the public purse of a city which owned those slaves.

Sea fishing (mosaic)

A slave was totally dependent on his master and could be punished with extreme severity. In the cases of the most terrible guilt, they were condemned to death by crucifying. Sometimes the owner passed the culprit to the man organizing the games and then the poor thing was thrown to the lions in the arena. However, the owners were avoiding losing their slaves as they were paying a heavy price for them and preferred to dismiss the disobedient ones to the countryside.

The slaves acquiring themselves well were being freed by their masters or received an agreement for buying their freedom. Sometimes they were freed with their owners’ will. A freedman stayed with a family as a reliable man, secretary or administrator. The imperial freedmen could become even high-ranking officials.

The exploitation and harsh treatment of slaves led to a series of uprisings in the latter part of the Roman Republic. The biggest and most dangerous one was the uprising of Spartacus (73-71 BCE).

At the beginning of the country’s existence, there were only a few slaves. It was caused by the huge amount of peasants living off their land. It was the time of the great conquests when the slaves became a matter of interest. They were skilled, demanded no payment and easily became cheap but precious trade objects. More often than not they were working in Sicily and in what is now Italy. The slaves were more than half of the Roman population during the time of the Republic and the Empire. They were perceived as something worse than animals, close to a tool.

The series of uprisings at the end of the 1st century BCE became a lesson for the Romans which soon led to establishing the colonates whose main idea was to let the land for a usufruct to the smaller lessees. They were obliged to pay the rental payments and to work a few days off in the owners’ estate. Many different social, industrial and political aspects influenced the development of colonate but one of the most important ones was the decline in the expansive wars and the switch to defence. Those on the other hand provided the country with lots of slaves and, as a result, the prices of the cheap workforce increased and they became hard to get. This system quickly spread over the whole of Italy.

Forming of the Roman Empire

Roman society can be described as ancestral. A house consisted of connected families, welded with the tradition of a common ancestor. It is estimated that between 100 and 300 houses existed in ancient Rome. They were members of the communities called the curiae. There were 30 of them and each numbered 10 houses. The ranking member of a family was a father (pater familias) who commanded rights to life and death. He also decided about marriages or ceremonies. Roman citizens were classified into 5 categories and there was a rule that each of them was to field a certain amount of properly equipped people for the army. Additionally, the citizens gathered in the districts called centuriae.
At the beginning of the Roman Republic, there were two social classes: the plebeians. Two centuries later appeared the third class, The Equites, i.e. riders earned their living with trade, finances, intermediation, taxes and the exploitation of natural resources. In the 2nd century BCE, there was a conflict between the aristocracy and the equites whose main reason was benefiting from the provinces the equites. As a result of this conflict, the system of the Republic was disturbed and replaced by the Empire.

Types of clothing in Roman society. The Romans’ outfit consisted of a tunic and a covering garment, toga. The citizen’s tunic was made from white pure wool whereas the senators and the equites wore tunics ornamented with stripes.

During the Republic, a huge number of people without any land appeared which caused serious social and political problems. They were called the proletarians which derive from the Latin word proles (offspring) because they had nothing but children.

Roman Senator, had a chance to one public appearance during the Senate’s debate. According to the law, he could not have been interrupted until he had finished his speech

Roman senators had a chance to one public appearance during the Senate’s debate. According to the law, he could not have been interrupted until he had finished his speech. They were manipulated by the politicians. The farmers supported the army with their recruits, but after losing the land they could not serve in the army which became small and fragile. Thus there was made an attempt to undertake an agrarian reform which would provide the landless citizens with land and, consequently, regenerate the army. However, the reform did not go through. Finally, the problem was solved by introducing a voluntary army.

In a way, the structure of Roman society during the Empire was a reflection of this from the Republic. The most important person in the Empire was obviously caesar with his closest family. After him, there were the senators, after the equites and then decurions. Decurions were the elite of provincial cities. They had certain eligibilities similar to the senators’ in matters of local administration, finances and judicial proceedings.
At the bottom of the heap, there were lower classes called humiliores, counting among them the plebeians from the cities and the countryside, slaves and freedmen.
Roman society during the Empire was marked by the possibility of social advancement from the lower classes. However, it was possible only with caesar’s consent and it was not so common. For instance, emperor Pertinax, the son of a freedman was able to sit on the throne despite his birth.

In 212 CE Caracalla decided to give Roman citizenship to all the free men in the Empire with his Edict of Caracalla alias Constitutio Antoniniana. Then the society began to divide itself according to civil criterium.

Everyday life

The Romans were marked by their habits – they got up early, quickly dressed up and prepared for their daily round. In the richer families, men visited barbers whereas women made their haircuts and put on jewellery with the slaves’ help. During the day the Romans went to the circus or theatre and during the night they took a bath and that went for dinner and rest. In the Roman cities in Italy, wealthy people lived in residences surrounded by bunches of slaves. Their houses were mostly ground-floor with a secluded inside yard. Some of them had gardens. The poorer people lived in small, cramped places in two or three-storey (sometimes even six or seven) tenements houses (insulae). Dark rooms had no toilets or running water. In the countryside, there were built typical farmhouses but also magnificent residences called villas which only the most wealthy people could afford. It was also the place where they relaxed away from the city noise.

The family was crucial for the Romans. The Latin name familia involved the mother, father, children, slaves and the closest relatives. Father was the head of the family and the master of the house. He set an example for his sons knowing that they would replace him after his death. A woman needed to take care of the house: clean, cook, weave and look after children. If she was a member of a wealthy family most of her tasks were made by the slaves whom she instructed. Nevertheless, the poor women took care of everything on their own. They did not have much to say without the right to vote or assume any office. The Romans wore necklaces, rings, chains, bracelets and breast pins. Although there were many goldsmiths’ and jewellers’ workshops in Rome, most of the jewellery came from the workshops of the Greek artists in the Middle East, in Alexandria and Antakya. The valuables were primarily made only from silver but later they began to be ornamented with emeralds, sapphires, pearls and diamonds. The Roman basic garment was toga – a huge, semicircular piece of woollen baize draped on the arms. Women had to wear woollen robes called the stole (stola). Tunics with ornamented edges were fashionable during the Empire. Shoes and sandals were made from leather. Children wore the smaller versions of the adults’ outfits.


In ancient Rome shaking hands was a common gesture (dextrarum iuncitio dexiosis). Friends greeted each other with a kiss on the lips (osculum) – this custom was adopted by Augustus from the East. The measure of the kiss was its length. The kiss – also between men and strange women meant equality. Osculum was like a butterfly kiss, far different from the passionate suavium. People being lower in the hierarchy greeted those from the upper classes with a hand kiss, kiss on the cheek, on the robe’s hem or feet. This custom in the latter part of the Latin civilization became called adoratio.

Attitude towards jobs

Augustus was a great supporter of marriage and fidelity (it did not interrupt any of his affairs) and he tried persistently to force people to start the families, particularly numerous. Senate passed a disadvantageous succession and fiscal law for not married and childless people. Despite his constant efforts, the number of marriages did not rise.
Autor: Rosemania | On license Creative Commons 3.0

Cicero in the 1st century BCE wrote: “Everything worthy of respect has its source in four basic values: the first is education, the second is usefulness to society, the third is the greatness of spirit, and the fourth is moderation. Cicero suggested that these criteria apply to all aspects of human life, but nowhere do they seem to emphasize more than in choosing the right occupation. Cicero divided all types of work into three broader categories. He included in the first one such professions that “require a greater understanding, and also bring undoubted benefits, such as the work of a doctor, architect or teacher”. Activities that Cicero considered “degrading” were the next category, namely of engaging in trade or crafts. The third group, considered by Cicero “the least worthy of praise”, included those who were involved in satisfying the sensual needs of others by providing them with food (fishermen, butchers or cooks) or entertainment (dancers and actors). When Cicero wrote that farm work is the noblest occupation of man, he meant great landowners, not peasants toiling in the field.

He claimed though that a man forced to earn a living may gain respect by using his intelligence to achieve good results. The orator admitted that the effort of lawyers, doctors, teachers or architects profits society. Some of the jobs could guarantee great richness. Nevertheless, many representatives of the “estimable” professions did not earn much more than the unqualified workers, some of them were even being harassed because of their birth. Cesar tried to emphasize the merits of Greek doctors, granting them Roman citizenship. However, the doctor who was not able to deal with the epidemics were not respected by the general Roman public.

Among their critics, there was Pliny the Elder who said “Only a doctor can kill a person with impunity”1. The upper class’ whims together with the purchasing power of the soldiers returning home caused a demand for many goods – from furniture and building materials to jewels and perfumes. Finally, even the basic stuff was made not at home but in the small workshops connected with the shops, called tabernae. Many of them arose in the midtown of Rome. Most of the craftsmen were freedmen, trained in slavery. There were hardly any qualified artists and the best ones travelled changing their workplace.

  1. Pliny the Elder, Natural history XXIX.8
  • Alfoldy Geza, Historia społeczna starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2003
  • Jaczynowska Maria, Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Warszawa 1984
  • Łoposzko Tadeusz, Historia społeczna republikańskiego Rzymu
  • Ziółkowski Adam, Historia Rzymu, Poznań 2008

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