Ancient Roman society changed, as you might expect, over the course of its >1000 year history. Although the underlying classes of Slave–Plebeian–Equestrian–Patrician essentially remained the same, the divisions between social classes became increasingly blurred and the balance of power in Roman society shifted dramatically. For example, the position of women in Roman society also developed towards increasing levels of freedom and independence, slaves achieved increasing rights. As plebeians and senators gradually lost power the Roman army gradually grew in political significance. Interestingly, around the time of the fall of the Roman empire, society completely transformed and was reshaped under Christianity.
The transformation and evolution of Roman society went hand in hand with a transformation of the Romans themselves as individuals and hence changes in numerous other aspects such as Roman morality, the Roman economy, Religion and Roman art. Whilst morality and economy can be considered as co-factors in shaping Roman society, art is likely a reflection of it.
It is not surprising that the Roman authorities were constantly concerned about social unrest and ways to prevent it: Juvenal’s “Panem et circenses” (Satire 10) was perhaps the lowest denominator in this respect but a deeper look at urban planning and Roman architecture soon show that extremely high levels of sophistication were achieved. For example, we can take a look at security and crowd control at the amphitheatres such as that of ancient Pompeii: the criteria adopted by the Romans to manage Roman society were at least at a par if not more advanced than those applied in modern stadia.
Roman society and government
To this, we have to superimpose the structural changes in the form of government which clearly had an impact on the relative importance of the Roman social classes with respect to ruling power. The hate of kings and the consequential shift from Kingdom to Republic brought about the emergence of Magistrates and bureaucrats whilst the shift to an Empire with totalitarian regime brought a shift in the importance and meaning of these positions. The hole left by the reduced meaning of voting was filled by “Panis et Circensis”: bread and circus games. The Roman calendar came to have as many as 180 days of festivities. Almost half the population lived off social security.
Impact of technology and the economy on Roman society
Understanding Roman society and social structure may seem restricted to interpreting historical texts, but the 20th century has also brought the beginnings of a more scientific approach to archeology (see “Processual archeology” and “post-processual archeology”). This is giving better insights into our thinking about population segmentation and life expectancy and how it was affected by changing lifestyles, particularly as Roman society became richer and food and a balanced diet became more readily available. Also as Roman cities equipped themselves with the Roman technology and Roman building techniques required for improved health such as sewage systems and freshwater aqueducts so the cities and society could grow in size and complexity. The impact of such factors had an enormous influence on the population of the Roman empire and hence its ability to grow economically as well as in military terms.
Comparing Roman society and modern society
Recent research at ancient Pompeii and of Pompeian society has gone as far as scientific analysis of the bones of individuals and thus enabled comparison of pompeian society and modern society amazingly the cross-section of society was similar to one we might expect today.
The average height of men and women was similar to that of people living in that region today as was the incidence of age-related pathologies. Most importantly the life expectancy was far greater than we have previously thought. People were generally “healthy”, with a growing incidence of obesity similar to that in modern society but with one significant gap: oral and dental care likely caused by grit from flour mills (see “the lady of Oplontis”). Which leads us to another insight of the factors affecting the development of Roman society: whilst Roman medicine was highly advanced it clearly wasn’t comparable to the support available to modern day civilisation.
Changes in Roman Society through time
The four images below give an outline picture of the structure of society and government throughout ancient Rome’s history…
Before going on to read about the five principal classes within Roman society: Patricians, Plebeians, Slaves, Liberti and Clients. it is worth having a look at our page about the definition of “Romans” where as well as giving a glimpse of the different definitions of what Roman society was we also outline how Roman society changed between the early days and at the time of the fall of the Roman empire. Somewhere in the middle, we have Roman society under the rule of Nero.
A peek at Roman Society during the age of Emperor Nero
Whilst writing the pages on Emperor Nero, it became apparent that human actors such as Nero, Seneca, Agrippina, Poppea Sabina, Tigellinus, Sporus embody the extremes of Roman society, Roman economy, government, Roman philosophy, Roman religion, Roman law and roman morality. It was a moment in time where the very definition of “Romans” reached its most evident contrasts and tensions and underwent important transformations: All vestige of republican ideals of people power came face to face with the effects of multiculturalism, class rights, the power of the rich aristocracy and increasingly despotic ruling styles.
Curiously it was also a period of time when Roman women acquired increasing independence from men and indirect influence over state affairs. Nero’s mother, Agrippina the younger was a prominent example yet the trendsetter for such freedom was her mother Agrippina the Elder.
It was also a period when laws began to be passed to protect the rights of slaves – for example promoting the rights of a family to remain united or of individuals to be treated to health by their owners. New religions from the East such as Mithraism and Christianity began to take hold.
A doleful aspect of this inexorable shift in society were the numerous yet largely unheeded texts regarding morality – Ancient Roman morality “mores” and what it was to live a “good life”. The likes of Cato followed by Cicero and Seneca spanned a period of a few hundred years chiming the same warning bell: Much as they could see that Roman society’s future wellbeing lay in issues of ethics and morality (albeit with their own peculiar inconsistencies) they were unable to prevent the inexorable evolution of personal and class interests, the unparalleled enjoyment of luxury – at the expense of “Romanity”.
“Neroism” was Nero’s objective and plan for a transformed Roman society. The transformation of emperor Augustus’ concept of Roman emperor towards an oriental form of despotic yet luxurious rule. Unparalleled public and personal profligacy were something which most parts of society, except the armed forces, were happily enjoying. Some disaffected factions might plan to assassinate Emperor Nero, certainly not to give up on the wellbeing they enjoyed, but simply to change the master under whom they did so.
Excessive state spending under Nero was accompanied by heavy taxation of the provinces, economic depression, and a growing degree of hostility in the army: Whilst they fought to control the northern and eastern confines of the empire, the Emperor was enjoying his theatrical and artistic tour of Greece and Egypt; so he was forced back to Rome to attempt to quell the uprisings, which he eventually achieved by committing suicide.
So the time of Nero, or the century of Nero, was also a moment in Roman history during which we can see a shift in the balance of Roman society with declining relevance of the plebeian masses on the one hand and the increased importance of the Praetorian guards and the Roman army in nominating the emperor.
In stark contrast to early Roman society, when the Roman army was largely made up of the wealthy aristocracy (who could afford to arm themselves), society at the time of Nero had a net divide between the now hugely wealthy land-owning aristocracy and essentially plebeian army who’s individuals were more interested in small and medium enterprise, land to build themselves a home on and a pension.
This became particularly apparent when Nero died and the year of the four Caesars followed: the various Caesars being nominated by different military factions with or without support from the Senate. The final victor was emperor Vespasian –a general born of a tax collector enlisted and made it through the ranks. As plebeian poverty made itself felt, increasing numbers of people turned to state aid (annona – the Roman grain supply) and the famous Roman public entertainment as a diversion in a world where the only remaining options were to sell oneself into slavery or join the professional Roman army.
It is interesting to conjecture that this stark view of Roman society at the time of Nero might also have been held by Petronius Arbiter, writer and friend of the emperor who published the great “Satyricon”; a work of Roman satire with its many parodies of Roman society of the day and perhaps of Emperor Nero’s court itself. Whilst Seneca bemoaned the state of affairs in traditionally Roman soberness, Petronius used it and interpreted it into a pure exhibition. Both men lost their lives prematurely.
This page about the Structure of Roman society was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for mariamilani.com