The only periods of social confusion, then, were two decades in the center of each of the two centuries, one the first century BC. and the other the first century AD. In the confusion which accompanied the establishment of the empire, the upper classes in Rome were themselves numerous enough to fill the gaps caused by death and proscription. In the dark days of Caligula (who appointed a horse to the senate) and Nero, ascent on the social scale (in the social whirl) did not establish a new social class. Sporadic rises, themselves exceptions, were characterized by their temporary nature. The actual ruling classes of Roman society either retained status or disappeared to give way to their aristocratic cousins from or in the provinces.Next Page
The plebs of the early Empire. During the period of imperial prosperity the artisans were occupied, entertainment was furnished, bread was free, misery was not widespread, the treasury was not bankrupt, the plebs lounged in the Forum by day and slept in insulae by night. There was little to report about them. Little was reported.
Only in the collegia does one see what was happening to the social relationships on this lower level of society. Here the same feeling for rank and tendency toward gradation that characterized the upper classes was noticeable. Dill states: 15
We have drawn attention . . . to the strict gradation of social rank in the city polity. The same characteristic is repeated in the collegiate organization. In these humble plebeian coteries, composed of "men without a grandfather," perhaps, whose father was a slave, or of men who were slaves themselves, there emerges, to our astonishment, a punctilious observant of shadowy distinctions, which is an inheritance from the exclusive aristocratic pride of the old republic.
These collegia elected patrons from among the middle classes, and sometimes from among the public officials of the Empire. The humbler colleges had to be content with rich freedmen. But in fraternizing with the plebs, the patron did no lose his dignity. He sat in pomp, ate the best food, and was wrapped in self-importance.
Slaves and ex-slaves in the early Empire. The influence of slaves and freedmen upon the social class structure and the extent to which they shifted their social position by gaining admission into the classes of free citizens are difficult to estimate for this early period of the Empire. Two neglected facts, however, should be emphasized at the outset: (1) some slaves carried in their persons the culture, education, training, and attitudes of the middle and upper classes of Greece and Asia Minor; (2) many successful Greeks did not spring from slavery. These latter often descended from free Greeks who had been both enterprising and successful in the Hellenic world and dominated and controlled large portions of Roman business. The "disappearance" of true Romans, the alienation of the free Roman population, which went on at a rapid rate during the first century A.D., was not altogether a result of manumission. Much immigration facilitated the foreignization of Italy.
Many slaves were the managers of their owners' enterprises; some even reached their hands into the imperial treasury, which was the emperor's household fund. What they did as slaves, they repeated two-fold as freedmen.
If the freedmen were to have had an effect upon the upper classes, this was surely greatly hampered and checkmated by the introduction of provincial aristocrats into senatorial ranks. Such as Rome's was of filling the voids at the top, left by lines which had died out or had been murdered.
The replenishing of the ranks of the aristocracy from far-flung cities and districts may have been a slap in the face of some of the novi homines who had humiliated the senate by carrying on intrigues within the palace. Certain it is that the new aristocracy was not recruited even from these successful freedmen, although some of them were so well versed in philosophy, rhetoric, and languages as to consider even the cultivated Romans beneath them. Still they could not officially rise; Rome was committed to social class exclusiveness.
Although some very high imperial offices were held by freedmen until the time of Hadrian, they were "very exceptional cases. In the bureaus of finance, it has been discovered from the inscriptions that the officials were all of equestrian rank." 16
15. Ibid., p. 270.
16. Ibid., p. 116.