CLASS RIGIDITIES IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Did the Roman Empire differ in its class rigidities and structure from the Republic? What happened to the social classes during the brutal reigns of the first century? During the centuries of rapid decline? Did Roman life lose its aristocratic tenor? Under the Emperors, did men rise from the bottom to the top?Next Page
The purpose of this chapter is to answer these and similar questions, to outline the main aspects of social class trends, and to correct some of the errors found in sociological interpretations of this era. The need for such correction is indicated, for instance, in the following statement quoted by Sorokin: 1
. . . as to the patricians, to the time of Caesar, there were only about fifteen patrician families surviving; all others were extinct. Even the equestrian and noble families that climbed at the time of Caesar and Augustus were extinct at the time of Claudius.
The Cambridge Ancient History, however, states that by the time of Vespian "the number of patrician families had shrunk considerably . . . " 2 From the time of Caesar to that of Vespesian was a span of 125 years.
Proscription and death. There can be no doubt that the upper classes in the city of Rome declined sharply through prosciption and death during the civil wars and the four Claudian reigns. Although three hundred optimates and two thousand equites had fallen in the cruel proscription of the second triumvirate, and for long periods executions continued daily; nevertheless the aristocratic elements did not lose their hold on Roman society. Although very few of the "most ancient patrician families" were left by the time of Claudius, 3 the fresh elements introduced by him and by Vespasian were not notably from among the business groups of the capital or from among the ex-slaves! Aristocrats were brought from Gaul and other outlying districts. Social class mobility was forestalled, so far as the highest classes were concerned. "Vespasian found it necessary to recruit the ranks of the aristocracy from Italy and the provinces." 4
Social mobility (in the sense of rising in social status by effort, intelligence, and enterprise into the higher and highest classes) was not characteristic of the first century, in spite of the many repeatedly empty seats in the senate. Sometimes, it is true, personal friends of the emperor, insiders, pimps of the imperial household, connivers, schemers, flatterers, did receive temporary recognition. Even some freedmen, like Pallas, were known throughout the Empire for their wealth and high favor, but these persons did not establish a new ruling class. At the end of the century an enlightened emperor, following the practice of rulers since Sulla, found recruits for high dignitaries among ancient families. The family life and procreative habits of the land owning aristocrats provided a stable upper class for centuries to come, even after the invasions.
In spite of the proscriptions and confiscation that characterized many of the actions of several of the early emperors, it would be incorrect to think that these dictators were enemies of the aristocratic way of life and of all aristocrats. On the contrary, they subsidized many noble families (an aristocratic practice to be repeated during the last reigns of the French kings before the revolution). Augustus "found it politic to subsidize many great families. The same policy had been continued by Tiberius, Nero, and Vespasian." 5 Augustus was especially solicitous of the welfare of the aristocrats. He purged the senate of those who had brought shame upon its name and appointed worthy new members to the highest group of the aristocracy, the patricians, so that their influence might not die out. 6
1. Pitirim Sorokin, Social Nobility (New York, 1927) p. 357.
2. S. A. Cook, et al., editors, The Imperial Peace, AD. 70 - 192, vol. IX of the Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge, 1936) p. 10.
3. Samuel Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius (London, 1925) pp. 70 - 71.
4. Loc. cit.
5. Ibid., p. 71.
6. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I (Modern Library edition, New York, 1932) pp. 53 - 54.