The evolution of Social Structure in Rome needs to be considered both in terms of >1000 years time span as well as the huge geographical extension it reached. At it’s greatest extent the Roman Empire reached three continents and some 20-25% of the global population.
The simplest assumption would be of a single Latin-Mediterranean Caucasian ethnic group with a strong pyramidal social structure; based on hereditary castes, with a hereditary king or emperor at the top and slave women and children at the very bottom. The reality, also proven through recent DNA studies, was far more articulate: Rome was a multi-ethnic society, with a high degree of social mobility enabled through an evolved Roman economy clear Roman laws, open trade, unequaled infrastructure and job specialisation.
The evolution of the social structure in Rome makes us consider if and to what degree it may be that that social structure is not necessarily a “one size fits all” model. It can be adjusted and modified in line with a number of factors, though not always with positive outcomes.
From Archaic Roman Kingdom to Republic and multi-ethnic Empire
Rome started as a more traditional Roman Kingdom ruled and influenced by the three predominant peoples of the region: Latins, Sabines and Etruscans. The last of the Roman kings – Tarquin the Proud – is known for having been a tyrant, leading to civil unrest and the founding of an electoral representative republic.
The Roman Republic evolved a more socially “just” system of rule than the preceding period of Kingdom. It gave the Plebeian class a greater degree of power and say in law and government.
A number of social wars and struggles between Patricians and Plebeians followed, the most significant of which is probably the right to cut price grain for the poor and needy, but there were many others too. Politically these two strata of society were embodied in the Optimates (interests of the Patrician class) versus the Populares (interests of the Plebeian/working class).
Several civil wars were essentially a confrontation of Optimates versus Populares with great generals such as General Marius, Sulla, Julius Caesar and Pompey taking one or the other side in a winner-takes-all when previously they would have been close collaborators in foreign campaigns. It’s a wonder they managed to have these internal struggles whilst also successfully pursuing foreign wars!
The Patricians controlled the Senate and through it they controlled the Magistrates and Consuls. At first the Senate acted as advisor to the Magistrates but later it actually ordered them about.
The Plebeians managed to enforce their own assembly through which they elected Tribunes. These had the power to veto and to defend the individual against the state (defend the Plebeians against the power of the Patricians and Senate). They also managed to enforce a number of laws which were more just and equal, for example permitting intermarriage between social classes.
The Gracchi brothers were of Patrician background though they stood for social reform in favour of the Plebeians. Both of them ended up being murdered but they continue to be an inspiration to all revolutionaries of Social inclination for the land and social reforms they instigated.
By degrees the Plebeians obtained the right to name Tribunes with Military Powers – something very close to a Consul (but not quite) and eventually the right to having a Plebeian sit as one of the two ruling Consuls (elected by vote).
An interesting case at the very end of the Republic is Julius Caesar: His mother Aurelia belonged to a highly influential family, her own father having been elected Consul. However the Aurelia gens to which she belonged (see Roman names) were Plebeians and possibly of Sabine descent: Laws created during the Republic meant she could rightfully be married to Gaius Caesar the elder, a Patrician with whom she gave birth to Julius. Much later in time the Aurelia gens was upgraded to Patrician status and ultimately the name was subsumed across the Empire when Emperor Caracalla, himself of the Aurelian descent granted citizenship to all free citizens of the empire.
Structure of the Roman State during the Empire
With the advent of the Roman Empire there was further evolution in social structure. Roman influence, laws, trade and transport reached increasing numbers of people. Urbanisation increased and Rome’s population reached as many as a Million inhabitants (estimates range from 750,000 to 1.2million). This flow of people and cultures meant that Roman civilisation became truly multi-ethnic.
The first emperor, Augustus was the adoptive son of Julius Caesar. He won the leadership position through a lengthy civil war against the likes of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. He made sure the people of Rome didn’t see in him an autocrat as he knew this could well lead to the same reaction which had caused Caesar’s murder. He invented a new inconspicuous title for himself ‘Imperator’.
Declining power of the Roman Senate
Augustus cleverly managed to take power whilst at the same time seemingly preserved the republican system of state. On the surface, the Emperor had power over military and war concerns whilst the Senate managed day to day running of bureaucracy and law. In reality Augustus held the reins of power in every aspect of life.
The earliest blow to the Senate’s power had been dealt by Julius Caesar, who ensured that the proceedings of the Senate should be made public every day through what is the first daily newspaper the “Acta Diurna”. Successive emperors further reduced the Senate’s power until by the end of the empire it was little more than a local council.
Later emperors were increasingly autocratic and the form of rule shifted towards military tyranny and on to ostentatious emperor-gods such as Nero or Diocletian. However they always understood that ultimately the power lay in the hands of the broader people – hence making it essential to appease them with sufficient cheap food and entertainment on a regular basis. In line with such shifts, the position of slaves was increasingly safeguarded, whilst (rich) women won increasing degrees of power and independence.
In the style of Oriental rulers emperors expected their subjects to regard them as superior Emperor gods of Rome. They removed themselves from the common man by interposing deeper and deeper layers of professional bureaucrats, mostly liberti (freed slaves). Emperor Constantine went as far as moving the capital of the Empire eastward to Constantinople (Istanbul). Not surprisingly the power of the Senate was by this time reduced to little more than that of a local government.
However, in spite of his absolutist approach Constantine is remembered as “Constantine the Great” for his many successful reforms and above all for providing the fertile ground on which the Christian faith grew throughout the empire. Rome became the recognised centre of the Catholic church with the Pope (Pontifex Maximus) at its head. Once the city was all but abandoned to the chaos of the Dark and Middle Ages the church was the only remaining (organised) institution capable of managing local government.
The prominent “SPQR” Senatus Populusque Romanus, meaning Belonging to the Senate and People of Rome, had once symbolised the power of Rome and its institutions. By the Middle Ages it came to be popularly known to stand for “Solo i Preti Qui Regnano”: only priests rule here.