The senators not only had the prestige of wealth; the more powerful families had also "a practical monopoly of the highest prefectures and offices of the state. They were often descendants of men who had held such offices from time immemorial." 45 While the curiales were burdened to the point of despair and sometimes to the point of flight into serfdom and servitude, 46 the senatorial classes lived in "dignified tranquility and the enjoyment of that cultural society, so stately, and so exclusive, but so charming . . . . " 47Next Page
The net result was that the senatorial class, itself old at the time of Tiberius, was now entrenched in villas; meanwhile town life and all the classes attached thereto languished. This is one of the few times in human history when the middle classes were completely outwitted by the aristocrats. The new agrarianism strengthened the morale of labor and the dignity of the aristocracy, but it wiped out, temporarily, except in a few towns, the very existences of the trading, financial, and manufacturing classes.
Social mobility evaluated. Proof of relative social immobility during this era is shown in that "the plebeian class, composed of the various corporations of free laborers, artisans . . . could not furnish many recruits to fill the gaps in the curia." 48 Men were being drafted to assume curial responsibilities, but this only encouraged merchants not to keep their wealth in immobile form; trade was drying out; it gave way to peddling. Rostovtzeff bemoans the depression and invasions which "wiped out the flourishing centers of bourgeois life." 49
The limited degree to which upward mobility was possible during the era from the time of Aurelius to the sacking of Rome is shown in the following: 50
The law did not absolutely prohibit a curial from rising to another grade in society, but it made his progress so slow and difficult that escape by legal means was possible to very few. Even when a man had surmounted all barriers, and become an imperial functionary or a senator, his children, born before his elevation, were retained in their original rank, and his property remained liable for the municipal charges of his class. If a man attempted to hasten his rise, or his deliverance, by overlapping some of the stages of duty he was sent back to the original starting point.
Fustel de Coulagnes says that a plebeian could become a curial and a curial a senator; but, while saying this, he gives detailed accounts of how the curials deserted their posts and submerged themselves among the plebeians. 51
The net result of social class changes was that the curiales and other middle class elements fell out of sight. No one filled their places. The same is true of small independent farmers and coloni. Slaves became serfs, improving their lot by receiving the dignity of family life and personal freedom, within limits. The senators, long powerful, rose in power and prestige. They became centers of power, each at the head of a small realm. Or they became administrators or leading clerics.
Social class aspects of the invasion. Rome, which had once been foreignized by Greeks and other captives, now experienced the influx, first peaceably, later forcibly, although Roman resistance was not worthy of the name, of many Germans. These latter "settling in masses displace the Roman population, which disappears from the fields." 52 By the time of the break up of the Western Empire only small islands of Roman life were left, largely centered in the senatorial nobility and the clergy. 53
The Germans who came in at first were slaves, then tenant farmers and serfs and soldiers. But by the fifth century the Teutons came in such numbers as to provide their own social class hierarchy. They came, in fact, stratified. Their princes, carls, kings, and nobles generally began to partake of military and political power with the Romans. All the barbarians were not of low class! "Germans" were not a class by the constituents of a group of societies, all of which were stratified into aristocracies (nobility), free commoners, and servile groups. Many became or were "serfs" upon arrival.
45. Ibid., p. 254.
46. Ibid., p. 253.
47. Ibid., p. 254.
48. Ibid., p. 252.
49. M. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (New York, 1926) pp. 411 - 412.
50. Dill, op. cit., (38) pp. 256 - 257.
51 N. D. Fustel de Coulagnes, Histoire des institutions de l'ancienne France, vol. II (Paris, 1891) pp. 184 - 186.
52. Rostovtzeff, op. cit., p. 478.
53. Ibid., p. 479.