Ancient Roman society changed out of all recognition as the Romans conquered first Italy and then the Mediterranean world, and the very notion of what it was to be a Roman came to embrace all the peoples of the empire.
As in all pre-modern societies the economic base of the Roman society at all stages of its history remained agriculture; but on top of this an ever-more elaborate social organization grew up, to create one of the largest and most complex societies in the pre-industrial world.
Roman society originally grew out of several small farming communities in central Italy. Under a line of kings, and under the heavy influence, if not the outright political domination, of the advanced civilization of the Etruscans, to the north, the Romans formed themselves into a city-state, probably in the 7th or 6th centuries BCE.
The early city-state of Ancient Rome, under the kings and early Republic, was composed of a small urban hub, consisting of a central area of temples, forum (central square), public buildings, and a few streets bordered by shops, craft workshops and fast-food premises. Here were also the houses of the wealthier and more important families. The huts of poorer folk, the traders and craftsmen, would have surrounded this core, and so too would the dwellings of many farmers, who worked plots both outside and inside the city walls. These walls would have enclosed a much greater area than the size of the city’s population would have required, as its footprint would have been chosen for defensive purposes, utilising the lie of the land.
Small farming communities would have been scattered throughout Rome’s territory, which would have encircled the small city for about ten miles around. These hamlets housed those whose land was too far from the city core to walk to and from on a daily basis.
The bulk of the Roman citizens were independent farmers, owning the land they farmed. By the time of the early Republic, all male citizens had to do military service in the army, and the variable size of their farms is reflected in the citizens’ military obligations. Some had to provide full armour for themselves, a considerable expense. These formed the elite vanguard of the early Roman army, standing in the front line of battle. To go with this more dangerous position was a privileged position in the citizen body: for example they had a disproportionately more effective voice in Rome’s popular assemblies.
Other citizens had lesser military obligations, implying ownership of smaller farms, right down to the landless proletariat – poor day-labourers in town or countryside but still full citizens – who brought no armour and served as scouts and slingsmen rather than in the line of battle.
A small group of craftsmen and traders worked in the urban centre. Many of these urban workers were probably freedmen, whose family roots lay in other communities in Italy, and even beyond – brought to Rome in Greek, Etruscan or Phoenician ships. As citizens they too would have had to take their place in Rome’s many wars.
Slavery in early Rome
Slavery was an important institution in Roman society from its earliest days, as it was in all Mediterranean communities of the time. Most slaves were war captives, while others were former free citizens who had sold themselves (or had been sold by their families or creditors) into slavery for poverty or debt. Convicted criminals were also often enslaved.
In early Rome, slaves were mostly employed as farm hands. Even the smaller farms required a great deal of work, and each would have had one or two slaves. These would have lived with their owner’s family. On larger farms, more slaves would have been required, working under the supervision of a slave or freedman manager; they would have lived in their own accommodation, probably sheds near the family’s farmhouse. In wealthier households slaves were also employed as domestic servants, secretaries and tutors. Slaves who showed a particular skill as a craftsmen were often set up by their master in a workshop and put to work, sharing the income of his work. This was a sound form of investment for wealthier Romans.
The conditions under which slaves worked of course varied with the kind of masters and mistresses they had. Under Roman law at this time, masters had complete control over their slaves’ lives. They were able to punish them exactly as they saw fit, even to the point of death (though it has to be said here that the early Roman father had life-and-death authority over his wife and children too).
Freedmen and freedwomen
Many slaves were treated well, and after some years received their freedom. They then joined a distinct class in Roman society called freedmen and freedwomen. These were full Roman citizens, with all the legal protection that that afforded them, except that they did not have the vote and could not stand for election as a magistrate. Their offspring became full Roman citizens in every respect.
Some former slaves also became quite wealthy. In some respects, they were better placed for success than ordinary citizens: if they had been slaves in the household of a wealth family they had contacts who could invest in their businesses, or lend them money on good terms; and often they received sizeable inheritances when their former masters died.
Traders and craftsmen
Early Rome was not a major centre of international trade, such as Athens, Syracuse or Carthage, or indeed some of the wealthier Etruscan cities to its north. In economic terms it was essentially a local market town, trading in local produce. Nevertheless, from an early date it was larger than many of its neighbours, and our sources mention wealthy merchants (who attracted the ire of their fellow-citizens by selling grain at high prices in hard times – a traditional lament in pre-industrial societies). Even the richer merchants, however, were not accepted as equals by the landowning class which ruled Rome. They could join the equestrian class (see below), but without land there was no hope of them joining the senate.
The landowning class
These two groups, the equestrians and, at the top, the senators, formed the ruling class of Rome. They were landowners, whose farms were larger than the plots of ordinary Romans but which were nothing like the huge landed estates which came later. There are tales of distinguished Roman senators working their land themselves with the help of a few slaves. Indeed, the territory of a single city-state like Rome was not large enough to include large estates, unless the rest of the citizens were to be squeezed off the land – and they had too much power to allow this to happen.
The equestrians – equites – were those in the citizen community who could afford to bring horses to war as part of their military obligations. The word equites is often translated as knight, and they formed the cavalry of the early Roman army. They were nothing like the knights of medieval times: their armour was much lighter, they seldom took a pivotal part in battle, and their horses were smaller. Unlike medieval knights, who required a large amount of land to support them, Roman equites at this time owned comparatively small estates: large farms worked by several slaves. They were, however, the wealthiest group within the early Roman community, as being able to pay for and maintain horses was beyond the means of most citizens.
The senior officers of the Roman army (military tribunes) were drawn from the equestrian class: in later times they had to have served ten years in the cavalry before they became eligible to be appointed a military tribune. Since serving as a military tribune was almost a prerequisite for standing for higher office, all those equites wishing to follow a political career in the senate had to aim for this position.
Senators were drawn from the ranks of equites, thus belonging to the wealthier land-owning group within society. The word “senator” is derived from the word for “elder”; by long tradition a man had to have reached the age of 30 before becoming a member of the senate. In the early days men were appointed to the senate by the consuls, and later by the censors.
Theoretically any equestrian could aim for the senate. However, most new entrants to the senate had had fathers and grandfathers in the senate. In each generation a few able and ambitious “New Men” – Novi Homines – did manage to become senators, but the odds were stacked against those whose ancestors had not done so.
The senators thus formed a distinct, virtually hereditary, class within Roman society. Within this class, a small group of senatorial families provided consuls generation after generation. It was very rare indeed for a “New Man” to rise to the consulship (but it did happen: famous Roman statesmen such as Cato, Marius and Cicero were such). The families which produced the bulk of the consuls were known as the nobiles, the creme de la creme of Roman society.
The Romanization of Italy
The most obvious result of Roman expansion was the Romanization of Italy. This can be seen in the archaeological evidence, as former Etruscan, Greek and Italian towns gradually became remodelled along more Roman lines. Roman forums and Roman-style temples can be distinguished from what came before by subtle differences, but what tells a clear story is the gradual replacement of Etruscan, Greek and Samnite inscriptions with Latin ones.
This process was accompanied by the spread of Roman citizenship in Italy, and then abroad. Rome planted numerous colonies of Roman citizens throughout the Italian peninsula, at first tiny (300 settlers), later much larger (several thousand). Many smaller Italian towns, especially in central Italy, were incorporated into Roman territory, their inhabitants becoming full Roman citizens. Many larger towns were granted “Latin Rights”, a form of half citizenship which effectively gave their inhabitants all the rights of citizenship except the right to vote for Roman magistrates and stand for Roman public office. Sizeable “Latin” colonies were also founded up and down Italy. These Roman and Latin towns and colonies were centres of Romanization. Even those Latin towns which had not originally had a large Latin or Roman component gradually became Romanized, with Latin becoming the predominant language.
Some inhabitants of allied cities which had not been granted Roman citizenship were rewarded with such citizenship for faithful service to Rome; however, the majority of Italians were not Roman citizens until after the “Social War” in the early first century. This war led to the grant of Italian citizenship to all free Italians. The exception to this was the Cisalpine country of northern Italy, which had only been conquered properly in the second century); this received the Roman citizenship under Julius Caesar, in the mid-first century.
As citizenship spread throughout Italy, the landowning classes expanded enormously, as the elite classes of the Italian communities were absorbed into the Roman upper classes. In effect, the Roman ruling class expanded to become the ruling class of Italy. By the end of the second century BCE the equestrian class was drawn from towns throughout all Italy, and the senate too now included many members whose family origins lay in towns other than Rome. Because membership of the senate was a great deal more exclusive than that of the equestrian class, senators tended to come from towns and cities not too far from Rome; the towns of Latium especially contributed a large share of Roman senators.
With the expansion in the number of magitsrates to cope with the increasing responsibilities of the Roman state, senators were increasingly drawn from the ranks of ex-magistrates rather than being appointed to the senate by consul or censor. Competition for these magistrates therefore intensified, but it was the traditional families of nobiles who still predominated in holding the consulships.
Many of the landowning class also found their wealth multiplying many times over. When Rome annexed a slice of territory, it often set aside some of the conquered territory as public land. Some of this was then parcelled out to ordinary citizens, who settled it as colonists, but much of it was leased out to individual landowners, whether Roman or Italian. These landowners either sub-let individual plots to ordinary farmers or formed them into estates worked by slaves. In this way some families built up landholdings throughout Italy. It is easy to see that the families with the best contacts and most influence within the Roman government – the senators, and above all the nobiles – were best placed to benefit most from this practice.
From the beginning of the second century, Rome’s many foreign conquests led to massed waves of war captives flooding the slave-markets of Rome and Italy. Slave labour became cheaper than before, and this, coupled with new, more efficient (and ruthless) methods of utilizing slave labour to work the large estates, made them much more productive than before. As a result, the produce from such estates was cheaper than than that from the small farms of ordinary citizens.
These developments enriched the estate owners while squeezing the smaller farmers, many of whom had to sell up and become landless workers in the big cities, above all Rome. The last two centuries of the Republic saw the emergence of a huge proletarian class in Rome, on a scale not to be seen again until the industrial towns of modern times. Crowded tenement buildings took over whole districts of the city. These are often shoddily built; they regularly collapsed, killing the apartment holders and any unwary passers by. Fires were a common hazard in the congested streets. Private fire brigades emerged. Organized crime took hold, with the rise of gangs, linked to unscrupulous politicians, terrorising Romans both rich and poor. It was in this period that the practice began of ambitious politicians organising free bread to be doled out to supporters, and organizing gladiatorial combats and wild animal spectacles to curry favour with the masses.
Many Romans, both inhabitants of Rome and throughout Italy (and beyond), served with the army, often for many years at a time. In the second century this began to have a serious effect on poor farming families by robbing them of valuable manpower to work their farms, and may have contributed to the failure of many small farms. At the end of the second century soldiering became much more of a long-term career than it had been before, relieving the pressure on the citizen-body as a whole, at least for a time. With the rise of the great armies of the civil wars, however, hundreds of thousands of citizens could be under arms at any one time. Many of these were probably raised from non-Roman populations in the provinces, and hurriedly given citizenship on recruitment; however, the existing Roman citizens will have borne the brunt of the fighting, and a high proportion of adult male Romans must have spent many long years at war.
Roman citizenship spreads overseas
The spread of Roman citizenship was not limited to Italy. Roman citizens came to be found in all the lands under Roman domination.
Latin and Roman colonies were a major instrument of Romanization. The first overseas Latin colony, Italica, was founded in Spain at the end of the Second Punic War, for wounded veterans of the great campaigns there. Over the next two centuries colonies for Roman veterans were founded in Gaul, Greece, North Africa and Asia Minor.
Native tribal and civic leaders who had shown pro-Roman sympathies were rewarded with Roman citizenship. Roman and Italian businessmen settled in overseas cities to trade, taking advantage of the tremendous opportunities opened up for them by Rome’s conquests. Tax farming, military contracting, slave trading, mining operations, grain importing and the trade in war booty all provided lucrative work for those with the right contacts in Rome and the provinces. These contacts gave Roman and Italian businessmen an important commercial advantage over native merchants, and this frequently made them unpopular. However, as time went by they forged working relationships with local business communities, and during the first century BCE a pan-Mediterranean commercial network had grown up. Along with business dealings there also came exposure to Roman ways.
Roman interests were not limited to commerce. Senatorial and other landowners acquired overseas estates, notably in North Africa which, after Carthage’s downfall, became a major granary for the expansing population of Rome.
The social impact of the Civil Wars
In many cases the Roman soldiers’ years of service ended with being granted a farm in a new colony, either in Italy (where many communities were disrupted by the arrival of hundreds or even thousands of army veterans, with farms taken from the inhabitants handed over to them); or in the provinces. Numerous veteran colonies were founded all over the Roman world, in what must have been one of the more spectacular land-grabs in history.
The civil war period which brought the curtain down on the Republic was one in which many lost all they possessed, while others rose spectacularly in wealth and status. Many throughout the Mediterranean world were deprived of land and livelihood; Roman veterans on the other hand were granted new lands to settle. Their officers did even better. Centurions, who had originally joined the army as common soldiers, became the leaders of the new colonies and founded landowning families of their own.
In the upper classes, the ups and downs of fortune could be just as dramatic. Many equestrian businessmen made their fortunes, but many Italian landowners lost some or all of their estates to new colonists. Senatorial politicians and generals became fabulously wealthy from their generous share of the booty of conquest, but if the wheel of political fortune turned against them their enemies could grab their wealth and their lives from them. These years saw the disappearance of famous Roman families which had produced consuls generation after generation; in their place appeared many new men of obscure origin, from all over Italy.
The rise of a Roman commercial class
Early Rome had not been a major commercial centre; the expansion of Roman political power, however, went hand in hand with an expansion of Roman commercial interests. During the second century Rome became the leading commercial and financial centre in the Mediterranean world.
The great expansion in Roman rule did not lead to a corresponding expansion in the personnel or organisation of the Roman state (except the army). As a result, much of the work of governments was contracted out to private companies. These companies were organised by equestrian businessmen in Rome (it was frowned upon for senators to dirty their hands in business, and during the second century it became illegal for them); they became active in tax-farming and military contracting, as well as in other, more traditional branches of commerce – the shipment of slaves, wine, grain and other commodities. Roman and Italian merchants came to dominate the international maritime trade of the Mediterranean, which reached a level of activity not seen again until the 19th century. Industrial enterprises also grew in size and scope, with brick-making and mining operations laying the foundations of some dazzling family fortunes.
The financial sector grew in size and sophistication along with the expansion in commerce. Groups of equestrian businessmen formed banks which channeled investments to trading and contracting companies, and a remarkably modern-style market in stocks and shares seems to have grown up.
It was in the last two centuries BCE that ancient Rome became one of the most slave-based societies in world history. Roman conquests led to hundreds of thousands of captives being taken in chains to Rome and Italy; and the disruptions the wars caused, in lands all around the Mediterranean Sea, left communities vulnerable to raids by slave-raiders and pirates. In the early first century piracy, feeding off and stimulated by the slave trade, had become a major menace to sea travellers and dwellers on coasts and islands.
The slave markets of Rome and Italy did a flourishing trade, and the estates of wealthy landowners were stocked with cheap slaves working in chain gangs. Conditions were brutal. In early Rome, the law gave masters complete control over the lives of their slaves, but the simpler circumstances of those times meant that slaves often lived almost as members of the family – indeed the Roman idea of a family included slaves as well as the family itself. In the large estates which had now grown up, no such familiarity prevailed, and life for many slaves working was hopeless indeed. It is no wonder that the second and first centuries saw three great slave rebellions, the last of which (led by the gladiator Spartacus) caused panic in Rome itself. The ferocity with which it was put down is a measure of the fear that gripped society.
In fact, this rebellion (and the fact that the slaves were able to defeat several Roman armies sent against them) seems to have caused enduring changes in the attitude of Romans to their slaves. The law put a limit of the cruelty with which masters could treat their slaves, and Roman masters began to pride themselves in dealing with their slaves in a humane manner. External conditions played their part as well. Piracy was put down in the 60s BCE, and this must have reduced the supply of new slaves. Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul probably led to a temporary glut, but the long-term trend was down as the great conquests gradually gave way to more stable frontiers. This had a major impact on slavery in the Roman empire.
As we have seen, in later Republic, large slave-run estates arose in Italy, especially in the south. This situation continued into the early Empire, but with the stabilising of the frontiers, and the establishment of peace in the Mediterranean world and western Europe, the massive supply of slaves which had flowed from the continuous conquests of the late Republic began to dry up. Slaves became more expensive to buy, so that slave owners had to rely increasingly on natural reproduction to keep up their stocks. This implied treating slaves better than they had been under the later republic, and giving many of them some private space for families.
As a result, estates reduced their dependence on gangs of slaves and gave their slaves plots of land to cultivate, as sharecroppers and tenants. They were still slaves, tied to their estates, but their working and living conditions were immeasurably better than had been those in the chained slave-gangs of the late Republic. They were now able to raise families of their own, and had some share in the produce they grew.
Although not quite on the same scale as in the late Republic, slavery did of course remain a major social institution during the entire period of the empire. Large industrial enterprises such as mines and shipbuilding continued to use slaves on a large scale; and every household which had any pretensions at all to wealth had household slaves. In some of the houses of the rich a small army of slaves ran the house. Some of them were kept as footmen and attendants to show off the wealth of the householder. These were among the less usefully employed members of society.
The peasantry in Italy and the provinces
The free peasant farmers of earlier times in Italy had never died out – in fact archaeology suggests that their numbers had never declined to the extent that our sources suggest. However, this class hardly flourished under the Empire; cheaper food imported from overseas kept prices low. The government became increasingly concerned about the continued decline on their numbers, and instituted measures – by, for example, providing financial assistance to families looking after orphans – to maintain this class in Italy.
Great slave run estates had never been a feature of most provincial societies, and did not take root under the empire. In some parts, particularly in North Africa, great estates which had first grown in the later Republic continued to flourish, but these were farmed mostly by free tenants. Similarly in other provinces a villa economy was characterised by a largish slave-run farm surrounding a complex of buildings (the “villa”) in the centre of the estate, with the outlying areas under tenant farmers. Side by side with these landed estates were many independent farms worked by free peasants.
Within the free population of the empire there were many and varied divisions. The most obvious of these, as ever, was between the minority of rich and the majority of poor. Most of the poor worked on the land as peasant farmers or landless labourers; a minority worked in the towns and cities as craftsmen and labourers. The rich were mostly all landowners, even when they had other occupations as merchants, lawyers or officials. Anyone who acquired any wealth would buy land as soon as they could afford to do so, as it was by far the safest and most socially-acceptable form of investment (in this, the Romans were no different from most other pre-industrial peoples).
Though the rich all had estates in the country, they spent most of their time in the cities. The wealth from their country estates supported a sophisticated urban lifestyle, with their country villas usually acting as retreats from the pressures of city life. In the city they spent their time as lawyers, magistrates and local politicians, working in the law courts and running the affairs of the city, or as merchants active in business. They lived in large town houses, the larger of which took up an entire block of a city; on the outside these were surrounded by many small shops.
As in all ancient societies, there was only a small middle class. This was made up of the better-off peasant farmers or owners of small estates, and of the lesser merchants and more successful craftsmen and shopkeepers in the towns. Lesser officials, publicly-funded teachers and retired soldiers would also have added to their numbers.
Another social division within the empire was that between Roman citizens and others. Every free member of society was a citizen of one or other of the thousand or more cities which made up the empire, but a growing minority were also citizens of Rome. Anyone who had served as a local magistrate or on a town council was automatically given Roman citizenship, as were those who had served in the auxiliary regiments of the Roman army. Roman citizenship thus gradually spread throughout the length and breadth of the empire; in the provinces at least it tended to be the preserve of the wealthier members of society, but as time went on it penetrated down into the poorer sections. Finally, in 212, the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to every free person in the empire.
In the western provinces of the empire, in Gaul, Britain, Spain and North Africa, the spread of Roman citizenship went hand-in-hand with the increasing use of the Latin language. By the second century this was the lingua franca of the upper classes throughout this half of the empire. In the eastern provinces – Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt – Greek remained the lingua franca, and increasingly the language of government as well.
The Roman equestrian class, after spreading throughout Italy during the later Republic, under the empire spread throughout the entire Roman world. Only the wealthier inhabitants could do this as there was a strict property qualification. The outward sign of equestrian rank was a gold ring and a narrow crimson stripe on the toga. This qualified equestrians to serve as senior officers (prefects and tribunes) in the Roman army, and then, if they were fortunate, to hold important posts in the imperial administration, such as procurators (financial administrators) in the provinces and chief secretaries and accountants in Rome. These in turn were stepping stones to some of the most powerful posts in the empire, the prefectures of the grain supply, of Egypt and above all of the Praetorian Guard.
Most of the highest posts in the empire were still held by senators, however. Senatorial rank became hereditary, with the sons of senators being granted the the right to wear togas with the broad stripe of senatorial rank (the laticlavius), and ear-marked for a senatorial career from an early age.
However, the topmost ranks of Roman society seem to have become unable to reproduce themselves effectively under the empire. Why this should have been is something of a mystery, but the result was that the ranks of the senate had to be filled by new men, from Italy and the provinces. The senate now consisted of upwards of a thousand members, and the evidence suggests that, at any one time, only about half were sons and grandsons of senators. For the rest, admission was entirely in the emperor’s gift. The sons of important equestrian officials were granted the laticlavius, and were then eligible for a senatorial career. Others were from wealthy provincial families granted admission to the senate by the emperor. They were thus able to found senatorial families.
The senatorial class thus came to include an increasing number provincial families, firstly from the Latin-speaking west (Spain, Gaul and North Africa), later from the Greek-speaking east (especially Asia Minor and Syria). The provincialisation of this ruling class can be clearly seen in the origins of the emperors. In the early days of the empire, the emperors were drawn from the historic Patrician clans of the Julii and the Claudii. In the later first century the emperor Vespasian came from an Italian community near Rome. In the early second century Trajan and Hadrian came from Spanish families, while Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius had the blood of Gallic chieftains coursing through their veins. The later second century brought Septimius Severus, from a North African family, to the throne, whilst the later Severans (his grandsons) came from Syria, on the eastern frontier.
Articles on Ancient Rome and related topics:
History of Ancient Europe at the time when ancient Roman civilization flourished.
History of the ancient Middle East, showing the role the Roman empire played in that region.
Ancient Europe, showing the rise and fall of the Roman empire in the context of European history
The Middle East, showing the impact of the Roman empire on that region
The World when ancient Roman civilization flourished