The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Social Order
Mosaic of Roman farmer with cattle and plough
Traditionally, Roman society was extremely rigid. By the first century, however, the need for capable men to run Rome’s vast empire was slowly eroding the old social barriers.

The social structure of ancient Rome was based on heredity, property, wealth, citizenship and freedom. It was also based around men: women were defined by the social status of their fathers or husbands. Women were expected to look after the houses and very few had any real independence.

Dressed to impress

The boundaries between the different classes were strict and legally enforced: members of different classes even dressed differently. Only the emperor was allowed to wear a purple toga, while senators could wear a white toga with the latus clavus, a broad purple stripe along the edge. Equestrian togas had a narrow purple stripe (clavus augustus).

Although the classes were strictly defined, there was a lot of interaction. Slaves and some freemen worked the in homes of the upper classes, like the senators and patricians. Soldiers also mixed with their officers.


Roman society also involved a system of patronage. Members of the upper classes – the patroni – offered protection to freedmen or plebeians, who became their "cliens." Patronage might consist of money, food, or legal help. Traditionally, any freed slaves became the cliens of their former owner.

In return, patroni received respect and political favors. During the empire, cliens were required to offer daily greetings to their patroni, and the number of these greeters helped determine social status. On the frontiers of the empire, Roman generals served as patroni for the people they conquered, while Roman provinces or cities often sought out an influential senator to act as patroni and oversee their interests in Rome.

The chosen few

Despite the inflexibility of Roman society, advancement was always possible for the select few. Wealth and property were well-known routes to social advancement, as was patronage by the emperor – at one point, Caligula even made a horse a senator.

Over time, society did become more fluid. Augustus expanded the equestrian order and hired them into senior administrative positions. By the end of the first century, equestrians were recruited into the Senate.

Membership of the equestrian class was not restricted to Italian-born citizens, so letting equestrians into the Senate was a big step. Over time, the Senate would be open to Roman citizens from outside Italy. By the end of the first century, even the emperor himself would be born abroad.

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Writers - Petronius
Writers - Juvenal

Related Links:

Emperors   Emperors
Women   Women
The Roman Empire

Republic to Empire

Age of Augustus

Years of Trial

Empire Reborn


Social Order
- Patricians
- Senators
- Equestrians
- Plebians
- Slaves & Freemen
- Soldiers
- Women
- On The Frontiers

Life in Roman Times


Enemies and Rebels


The Roman Empire - In The First Century