Ancient Roman society

In ancient Rome the imperial city was the largest urban center of its time, with a population of about one million people (about the size of London in the early 19th century, when London was the largest city in the world), with some high-end estimates of 14 million and low-end estimates of 450,000. [Duiker, 2001. page 149.] [ [ "Abstrat of" The population of ancient Rome.] by Glenn R. Storey. HighBeam Research. Written 1997-12-1. Accessed 2007-4-22.] [ [*.html#note6 The Population of Rome] by Whitney J. Oates. Originally published in "Classical Philology". Vol. 29, No. 2 (April 1934), pp101-116. Accessed 2007-4-22.] The public spaces in Rome resounded with such a din of hooves and clatter of iron chariot wheels that Julius Caesar had once proposed a ban on chariot traffic during the day. Historical estimates indicate that around 20 percent of the population under jurisdiction of ancient Rome (25–40%, depending the standards used, in Roman Italy [N.Morley, "Metropolis and Hinterland" (Cambridge, 1996) 174-83] ) lived in innumerable urban centers, with population of 10,000 and more and several military settlements, a very high rate of urbanization by pre-industrial standards. Most of these centers had a forum and temples and same type of buildings, on a smaller scale, as found in Rome.

Class structure

Roman society is largely viewed as hierarchical, with slaves ("servi") at the bottom, freedmen ("liberti") above them, and free-born citizens ("cives") at the top. Free citizens were themselves also divided by class. The broadest, and earliest, division was between the patricians, who could trace their ancestry to one of the 100 Patriarchs at the founding of the city, and the plebeians, who could not. This became less important in the later Republic, as some plebeian families became wealthy and entered politics, and some patrician families fell on hard times. Anyone, patrician or plebeian, who could count a consul as his ancestor was a noble ("nobilis"); a man who was the first of his family to hold the consulship, such as Marius or Cicero, was known as a "novus homo" ("new man") and ennobled his descendants. Patrician ancestry, however, still conferred considerable prestige, and many religious offices remained restricted to patricians.

A class division originally based on military service became more important. Membership of these classes was determined periodically by the Censors, according to property. The wealthiest were the Senatorial class, who dominated politics and command of the army. Next came the equestrians ("equites", sometimes translated "knights"), originally those who could afford a warhorse, who formed a powerful mercantile class. Several further classes, originally based on what military equipment their members could afford, followed, with the "proletarii", citizens who had no property at all, at the bottom. Before the reforms of Marius they were ineligible for military service and are often described as being just barely above freed slaves in terms of wealth and prestige.

Voting power in the Republic was dependent on class. Citizens were enrolled in voting "tribes", but the tribes of the richer classes had fewer members than the poorer ones, all the "proletarii" being enrolled in a single tribe. Voting was done in class order and stopped as soon as a majority of the tribes had been reached, so the poorer classes were often unable even to cast their votes.

Allied foreign cities were often given the Latin Right, an intermediary level between full citizens and foreigners ("peregrini"), which gave their citizens rights under Roman law and allowed their leading magistrates to become full Roman citizens. While there were varying degrees of Latin rights, the main division was between those "cum suffragio" ("with vote"; enrolled in a Roman tribe and able to take part in the "comitia tributa") and "sine suffragio" ("without vote"; unable to take part in Roman politics). Some of Rome's Italian allies were given full citizenship after the Social War of 91–88 BC, and full Roman citizenship was extended to all free-born men in the Empire by Caracalla in 212. Women shared some basic rights with their male counterparts, but were not fully regarded as citizens and were thus not allowed to vote or participate in politics.


The basic units of Roman society were households and families.Duiker, 2001. page 146.] Households included the head (usually the father) of the household, "pater familias" (father of the family), his wife, children, and other relatives. In the upper classes, slaves and servants were also part of the household. The head of the household had great power ("patria potestas", "father's power") over those living with him: He could force marriage (usually for money) and divorce, sell his children into slavery, claim his dependents' property as his own, and even had the right to punish or kill family members (though this last right apparently ceased to be exercised after the 1st century BC).Casson, 1998. pages 10-11.]

"Patria potestas" even extended over adult sons with their own households: A man was not considered a "paterfamilias", nor could he truly hold property, while his own father lived. [ [ Family Values in Ancient Rome] by Richard Saller. The University of Chicago Library Digital Collections: Fathom Archive. Written 2001. Visited 2007-4-14.] During the early period of Rome's history, a daughter, when she married, fell under the control ("manus") of the "paterfamilias" of her husband's household, although by the late Republic this fell out of fashion, as a woman could choose to continue recognizing her father's family as her true family. [Adkins, 1998. page 339.] However, as Romans reckoned descent through the male line, any children she had would belong to her husband's family. [Adkins, 1998. page 340.]

Groups of related households formed a family ("gens"). Families were based on blood ties or adoption, but were also political and economic alliances. Especially during the Roman Republic, some powerful families, or "Gentes Maiores", came to dominate political life.

Ancient Roman marriage was often regarded more as a financial and political alliance than as a romantic association, especially in the upper classes. Fathers usually began seeking husbands for their daughters when they reached an age between twelve and fourteen. The husband was almost always older than the bride. While upper class girls married very young, there is evidence that lower class women often married in their late teens or early twenties.


In the early Republic, there were no public schools, so boys were taught to read and write by their parents, or by educated slaves, called ', usually of Greek origin. [ Lecture 13: A Brief Social History of the Roman Empire] by Steven Kreis. Written 2006-10-11. Accessed 2007-4-2.] Adkins, 1998. page 211.] Werner, 1978. page 31.] The primary aim of education during this period was to train young men in agriculture, warfare, Roman traditions, and public affairs.a] Young boys learnt much about civic life by accompanying their fathers to religious and political functions, including the Senate for the sons of nobles.a] The sons of nobles were apprenticed to a prominent political figure at the age of 16, and campaigned with the army from the age of 17 (this system would still be in use among some noble families well into the imperial era).a] Educational practices were modified following the conquest of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the 3rd century BC and the resulting Greek influence, although it should be noted that Roman educational practices were still significantly different from Greek ones. [Duiker, 2001. page 143.] a] If their parents could afford it, boys and some girls at the age of 7 were sent to a private school outside the home called a ', where a teacher (called a "litterator" or a , and often of Greek origin) taught them basic reading, writing, arithmetic, and sometimes Greek, until the age of 11. [ Roman Education] . Latin ExCET Preparation. Texas Classical Association. Written by Ginny Lindzey, September 1998. Accessed 2007-3-27.] a] Beginning at age 12, students went to secondary schools, where the teacher (now called a "grammaticus") taught them about Greek and Roman literature.a] a] At the age of 16, some students went on to rhetoric school (where the teacher, almost always Greek, was called a "").a] a] Education at this level prepared students for legal careers, and required that the students memorize the laws of Rome.a] Pupils went to school every day, except religious festivals and market days. There were also summer holidays.


Initially, Rome was ruled by kings, who were elected from each of Rome's major tribes in turn. [Matyszak, 2003. pages 16-42.] The exact nature of the king's power is uncertain. He may have held near-absolute power, or may also have merely been the chief executive of the Senate and the people. At least in military matters, the king's authority ("Imperium") was likely absolute. He was also the head of the state religion. In addition to the authority of the King, there were three administrative assemblies: the Senate, which acted as an advisory body for the King; the Comitia Curiata, which could endorse and ratify laws suggested by the King; and the Comitia Calata, which was an assembly of the priestly college which could assemble the people in order to bear witness to certain acts, hear proclamations, and declare the feast and holiday schedule for the next month.

s were made automatic members of the Senate, though most of his reforms did not survive.

The Republic had no fixed bureaucracy, and collected taxes through the practice of tax farming. Government positions such as quaestor, aedile, or praefect were funded from the office-holder's private finances. In order to prevent any citizen from gaining too much power, new magistrates were elected annually and had to share power with a colleague. For example, under normal conditions, the highest authority was held by two consuls. In an emergency, a temporary dictator could be appointed. Throughout the Republic, the administrative system was revised several times to comply with new demands. In the end, it proved inefficient for controlling the ever-expanding dominion of Rome, contributing to the establishment of the Roman Empire.

In the early Empire, the pretense of a republican form of government was maintained. The Roman Emperor was portrayed as only a "princeps", or "first citizen", and the Senate gained legislative power and all legal authority previously held by the popular assemblies. However, the rule of the emperors became increasingly autocratic over time, and the Senate was reduced to an advisory body appointed by the emperor. The Empire did not inherit a set bureaucracy from the Republic, since the Republic did not have any permanent governmental structures apart from the Senate. The Emperor appointed assistants and advisers, but the state lacked many institutions, such as a centrally planned budget. Some historians have cited this as a significant reason for the decline of the Roman Empire.


The roots of the legal principles and practices of the ancient Romans may be traced to the law of the twelve tables (from 449 BC) to the codification of Emperor Justinian I (around 530 AD). Roman law as preserved in Justinian's codes continued into the Byzantine Empire, and formed the basis of similar codifications in continental Western Europe. Roman law continued, in a broader sense, to be applied throughout most of Europe until the end of the 17th century.

The major divisions of the law of ancient Rome, as contained within the Justinian and Theodosian law codes, consisted of "Ius Civile", "Ius Gentium", and "Ius Naturale". The "Ius Civile" ("Citizen law") was the body of common laws that applied to Roman citizens. [Adkins, 1998. page 46.] The "Praetores Urbani" ("sg. Praetor Urbanus") were the individuals who had jurisdiction over cases involving citizens. The "Ius Gentium" ("Law of nations") was the body of common laws that applied to foreigners, and their dealings with Roman citizens. [Duiker, 2001. page 146.] The "Praetores Peregrini" ("sg. Praetor Peregrinus") were the individuals who had jurisdiction over cases involving citizens and foreigners. "Ius Naturale" encompassed natural law, the body of laws that were considered common to all being.


Ancient Rome commanded a vast area of land, with tremendous natural and human resources. As such, Rome's economy remained focused on agriculture and trade. Agricultural free trade changed the Italian landscape, and by the 1st century BC, vast grape and olive estates had supplanted the yeoman farmers, who were unable to match the imported grain price. The annexation of Egypt, Sicily and Tunisia in North Africa provided a continuous supply of grains. In turn, olive oil and wine were Italy's main exports. Two-tier crop rotation was practiced, but farm productivity was overall low, around 1 ton per hectare.

Industrial and manufacturing activities were smaller. The largest such activity were the mining and quarrying of stones, which provided basic construction materials for the buildings of that period. In manufacturing, production was on a relatively small scale, and generally consisted of workshops and small factories that employed at most dozens of workers. However, some brick factories employed hundreds of workers.

The economy of the early Republic was largely based on smallholding and paid labor. However, foreign wars and conquests made slaves increasingly cheap and plentiful, and by the late Republic, the economy was largely dependent on slave labor for both skilled and unskilled work. Slaves are estimated to have constituted around 20% of the Roman Empire's population at this time and 40% in the city of Rome. Only in the Roman Empire, when the conquests stopped and the prices of slaves increased, did hired labor become more economical than slave ownership.

Although barter was used in ancient Rome, and often used in tax collection, Rome had a very developed coinage system, with brass, bronze, and precious metal coins in circulation throughout the Empire and beyond—some have even been discovered in India. Before the 3rd century BC, copper was traded by weight, measured in unmarked lumps, across central Italy. The original copper coins ("as") had a face value of one Roman pound of copper, but weighed less. Thus, Roman money's utility as a unit of exchange consistently exceeded its intrinsic value as metal. After Nero began debasing the silver denarius, its legal value was an estimated one-third greater than its intrinsic.

Horses were too expensive, and other pack animals too slow, for mass trade on the Roman roads, which connected military posts rather than markets, and were rarely designed for wheels. As a result, there was little transport of commodities between Roman regions until the rise of Roman maritime trade in the 2nd century BC. During that period, a trading vessel took less than a month to complete a trip from Gades to Alexandria via Ostia, spanning the entire length of the Mediterranean.Scarre 1995] Transport by sea was around 60 times cheaper than by land, so the volume for such trips was much larger.

ee also

*Timeline of ancient Rome
*History of Rome
*List of topics related to ancient Rome
*Roman agriculture
*Timeline of ancient Rome
*Constitution of the Roman Republic
*Sino-Roman relations
*Roman legion



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Further reading

* Cowell, Frank Richard. "Life in Ancient Rome". New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1961 (paperback, ISBN 0-399-50328-5).
* Gabucci, Ada. "Rome (Dictionaries of Civilizations; 2)". Berkekely: University of California Press, 2007 (paperback, ISBN 0520252659).
* Wyke, Maria. "Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History". New York; London: Routledge, 1997 (hardcover, ISBN 0-415-90613-X, paperback, ISBN 0-415-91614-8).

External links

* [ Ancient Rome portal at "Encarta Encyclopedia"]
* [ Gallery of the Ancient Art: Ancient Rome]
* [ United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History]
* [ Nova Roma - Educational Organization] about "All Things Roman"
* [ MariaMilani.Com]
* [ "The Private Life of the Romans" by Harold Whetstone Johnston]
* [ Ancient Rome] resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library.

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