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Roman society

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Fresco showing a Roman couple
Fresco showing a Roman couple

Life at that time could be a nightmare and a trial for some people whereas it was full of entertainment, peace and wealth for the others. As a rule Roman world used to be presented as a place full of weal and prosperity where people are happy and sure about being safe because their country is a power with a great army, well-developed economy generating a high income. However underneath there was hiding a totally different world: misery, hunger and total disregard for human dignity.

In Rome, as it was in the whole ancient world, there was a distinct division for 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 wealthiness 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 few of them emphasized such social division as the Romans did.

The term “plebeians” in 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 citizen used to live in the countryside. Roman society always had an agricultural character. The society’s attitude towards 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 were 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 hence could serve in the army, those who provided the country only with children and finally those who had neither the 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 the 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 role 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, threatening with the refusalof a military service or even leaving Rome and founding a new city were able to force the limitations in 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 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 of veto. 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 the 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 was intended to work in a city or in the countryside where living conditions were primitive. Their owners needed 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, ran the 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 the extreme severity. In the cases of the most terrible guilt they were being 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 on 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 there were freed with their owners’ will. A freedman stayed with a family as a reliable man, secretary or administrator. The imperial freedmen could become evan high-ranking officials.

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

In the beginning of the country’s existence there were only 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 a half of Roman population during the time of Republic and the Empire. They were perceived as something worse than animals, close to a tool.

The series of uprisings in the end of the 1st century BCE became a lesson for the Romans which soon led to establishing the colonates which main idea was to let the land for an 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 switch to defense. Those on the other hand provided the country wit lots of slaves and, as a result, the prices of cheap workforce increased and they became hard to get. This system quickly spread over the whole 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 the 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 father (pater familias) who commanded rights to life and death. He also decided about the marriages or ceremonies. Roman citizens were classified into 5 categories and there was a rule that each of them was to field certain amount of properly equipped people for the army. Additionally the citizens gathered in the districts called centuriae.
In the beginning or the Roman Republic there were to 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 which main reason was benefiting from the provinces by the equites. As a result 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.(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 and caused serious social and political problems. They were called the proletarians which derives from the Latin world proles (offspring) because they had nothing but the 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 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. They were manipulated by the politicians. The farmers supported the army with their recruits, but after loosing 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 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 the 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 the caesar’s consent and it was not so common. For instance caesar emperor Pertinax, son of a freedman were able to sit on the throne despite his birth.

In 212 BCE 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 the 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 barber whereas women made their haircuts and put on jewelry with the slaves’ help. During the day the Romans went to the circus or theatre and during the night they took a bath and after that went for dinner and rest. In the Roman cities in Italy
wealthy people lived in the residences surrounded by the bunches of slaves. Their houses were mostly ground-floor with the secluded inside yard. Some of them had gardens. The poorer people lived in small, cramped places in the two or three-storey (sometimes even six or seven) tenements houses (insulae). Dark rooms had no toilets and running water. In the countryside there were built typical farmhouses but also magnificent residences called the villas which only the most wealthy people could afford. It was also the place where they relaxed away from the city noise.

Family was crucial for the Romans. The Latin name familia involved mother, father, children, slaves and the closest relatives. Father was the head of the family and the master of the house. He set the 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 assuming any office. The Romans wore necklaces, rings, chains, bracelets and breast pins. Although there were many goldsmiths’ and jewelers’ workshops in Rome, most of the jewelry 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 the emeralds, sapphires, pearls and diamonds. Roman basic garment was toga – huge, semicircular piece of woolen baize draped on the arms. Women had to wear woolen robe 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 the ancient Rome shaking hands was a common gesture (dextrarum iuncitio dexiosis). Friends greeted each other with a kiss in the lips (osculum) – this custom was adopted by Augustusfrom 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 being 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 | Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

Cicero w I wieku p.n.e. pisał: 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. In the 1st century BCE Cicero wrote:” Everything that is estimable has its source in four essential values: the first is educations, the second – utility for the society, the third – the greatness of a spirit and the fourth one – moderation.” Cicero suggested that those criteria apply in almost all the aspects of human life but they are nowhere so emphasized as they are in the choice of a proper occupation. Cicero divided all types of work into three wide categories. in the first one he included all the jobs “”demanding more senses but also bringing undoubtedly benefit, such as the job of a doctor, architect or a teacher”.
The second group were the occupations which Cicero considered to be “humiliating”, to wit trade and craft. To the third group, according to Cicero “the least estimable”, belonged those who took care of satisfying the sensual needs of others providing them with food (fisherman, butcher, cook) or entertainment (dancers, actors). When Cicero wrote that work is, according to him, the noblest human occupation, he had in mind the greatest land possessors, not the scratching around peasants.

He claimed though that a man forced to earn for a living may gain a respect using his intelligence to achieve good results. The orator admitted that the effort of lawyers, doctors, teachers or architects profits the 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 with the Roman citizenship. However, the doctor who were 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 the 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 therm arose in the midtown of Rome. Most of the craftsmen were freedmen, trained in a 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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