There is no reason to believe that when the clients escaped from serfdom into freedom there was any marked degree of social advancement. They were, it is true, freed from the perhaps more toilsome routine of agriculture, but their status in the growing city as a part of the mass of unheralded plebeian proletarians cannot be said to have been much above the very base of the social pyramid.Next Page
The legal and political rise of plebeian elements. The extension of political rights to commoners has tended to monopolize the attention of social theorists; they have frequently lost sight of the social classes because of the dramatic aspects of the political struggle.
From the social class point of view the significant fact during this period was the division of the plebs, clearly and markedly, in high class plebs and the masses. The introduction of money, which could be passed from hand to hand without religious ceremony, enabled some plebs to remain or become wealthy. 23 They displayed their riches, arranged themselves into social ranks in true social class fashion. "Some [plebeian] families were prominent, some names increased in importance. A sort of aristocracy was formed among the people . . . . " 24 The plebs "followed the lead of this new aristocracy, which they were proud of possessing." 25 Not all plebs could aspire to high position; not all did. "If the plebs were somewhat indifferent, there was a plebeian aristocracy that was ambitious." 26 There are the upper class commoners who conspired and struggled to abolish political and connubial disabilities, as a matter of pride. Tenney Frank designates those plebeians who gradually won approximate equality with the patricians as "property-holding plebeians." 27
Out of these ambitious and prominent groups, in addition to the overwhelming majority of persons related to the ancient nobility, the new nobility of office was formed. Many of the newly ordained official nobility were patricians, many were the younger branches of old patrician gentes, some were descendants of aristocratic plebeians. The artisan class of plebeians and the amorphous mass of Roman proletarians did not present candidates for judgeships or the senate in numbers great enough to arouse comment even in socially class conscious Rome.
Sorokin, although documented history does not corroborate his statement, says: 28
The period after 449 BC . . . . . to the middle of the fourth century BC . . . . could be regarded as the period of an intensive circulation because during this period the plebeians obtained almost a complete equality with the patricians, and in this way passed from a lower to a higher stratum.
Whatever circulation was approved in that century had already taken place; law ratified a de facto situation. Furthermore, the plebeians, at least the great mass of them, obtained no semblance of equality with the ancient patrician families. The mass of plebs lived very lowly existences indeed. Finally, it is absurd to state that a whole mass, such as the majority of plebs were, could "pass from a lower to a higher stratum." This is somewhat equivalent to saying that the workers in the Soviet Union rose and inherited the places of the ousted nobility, or that the blacks after 1865 took their places as the equals of their former masters. (The situation of the ordinary plebs was less disturbed, changed, or improved than that of these remotely analogous illustrations.) Sorokin's confusion of social equality with limited political rights illustrates the kind of error into which even prominent sociologists can fall.
The Republic reaches middle age. Tenney Frank 29 reports that the Punic wars enhanced the prestige of the senatorial nobility. Furthermore, this "new aristocracy" performed so well that it entrenched itself in power. He also notes the depletion of the ranks of free farmers and the growth of large estates. These data indicate that the middle age of the Republic was not one of social class mobility upward, except, to a limited extent among the equites, that is, the capitalists, merchants, and contractors.
23. Ibid., p. 364.
24. Ibid., p. 365.
25. Ibid., p. 366.
26. Ibid., p. 405.
27. Tenney Frank, "The Roman World," Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. I (New York, 1937) p. 45.
28. Sorokin, op. cit., p. 148.
29. Frank, op. cit., p. 45.