Regarding this period, however, Sorokin makes the following generalization, intimating much social class mobility: 7Next Page
. . . . after the end of the Republic, the upper classes began to be filled by climbers from still lower strata -- the freemen, slaves and barbarians. In this way, "the shovel of social selection" dug deeper and deeper until it reached the very bottom of the social pyramid.
The validity of this statement becomes more uncertain the more one reads the carefully documented histories of the period.
The new aristocracy and the rôle of wealth. It is said of Vespasian, who was chiefly instrumental in setting up the aristocracy which was to characterize the Empire as the patricians and optimates had characterized the Republic, that he was "prudent" and given to making sound choices in selecting the provincials. 8 Münzer notes that in this new nobility were many famous family lines of republican Rome. 9 These new senators (not new men), with the titles of illustris and spectabiles, were patrons of the new satellite cities and otherwise were usually agricultural magnates. Both their property and their positions of honor were hereditary through the centuries. 10
It is possible, even probable, that among this new aristocracy, established after more than a century of purging, based largely on the strongest surviving aristocratic families of the Empire, there were at least some representatives of the new equite group. But the social classes were not diffused. There was a high class, practically the same as before, except for losses due to purges and the inclusion in the senate of provincial aristocrats. Wealth, in general, however, was not strong enough to crash the top circles, even in this period of their greatest weakness and reorganization. Dill reports that after the local aristocracy of curial rank, came, in order of social precedence, members of the knightly [equestrian] class and the order of Augustales." 11 The last mentioned were a special group of rich men who were denied the honors of higher social class. The order of precedence was, then, such as before: aristocrats, capitalists and financiers, and new middle class elements made up largely of rich Greeks. Wealthy freedmen received a decoration of dubious social prestige value, the order of Augustales. 12 Trimalchic was the classic example.
But the equites, in those days of peace and prosperity, could not ordinarily expect to ascend the social ladder. They are referred to as a part of the middle class, along with the descendants of the old citizen farmers and soldiers. It was they who had to share "a large number of freedmen" the trade and industry of the far flung Empire. 13 Whenever the leaders of industry did found a senatorial house, they closed the door as soon as they entered, for their descendants were to be found, four and five centuries later, expressing contempt for manual industry and tracing themselves back to "Scipio or even to Aeneas or Agamennon." 14
It was not at the end of the third century AD. but at the end of the first that Rome set her social class structure in order, so far as the upper classes were concerned. If the equites remained in the middle class, as the Cambridge Ancient History states, and if the new aristocracy became frozen for centuries to come, as Fahlbeck and Dill describe, then it is correct to refer to Rome as aristocratic and rigid in social class from her inception to her end. The following statement by Sorokin, then, would appear to be somewhat exaggerated:
It is possible to say, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that the period from the last century of the Republic to that of the third century AD. was in general a period of intensive mobility.
7. Sorokin, op. cit., p. 497.
8. Cook, et al., op. cit., p. 10.
9. Friedrich Münzer, Römische Adelsparteien und Adelsfamilien (Stuttgart, 1920) p. 375.
10. Pontus E. Fahlbeck, Die Klassen und die Gesellschaft (Jena, 1922) p. 330.
11. Dill, op. cit., p. 215.
12. Ibid., p. 216.
13. Cook, et al., op. cit., vol. XI, p. 761.
14. Dill, op. cit., p. 253.