HUI 216 - Unit 5, Topics 1-5
"Ancient Roman society"

Andrea Fedi

5.1 The monarchy

[Notes] — Ancient Rome was organized as a monarchy, following its foundation and during a period of approximately two centuries, 753 BC - 509 BC (see also this Wikipedia article). Most Roman sources agreed that there were seven kings, a number that modern studies cannot deny or confirm.
These are the seven kings of Rome during the period of the monarchy, and the years of their reigns: Romulus (753-717), Numa (717-673), Tullus Hostilius (673-641), Ancus Marcius (640-616), Tarquinius Priscus (616-579), Servius Tullius (578-535), Tarquinius Superbus (535/534-510/509)

Legends of the monarchy

[Notes] — Some of the kings listed in the original Roman sources are probably legendary, e.g. Romulus and Numa, and sometimes their biographies or their accomplishments appear simply to reflect the meaning of their names, following the ancient principle that a person's name is indicative of his/her destiny (nomen, omen):

  1. the name Romulus is associated with Rome
  2. Numa is associated with numen (=deity)
  3. Hostilius is associated with the word 'hostile'
  4. Marcius is associated with the Roman God of war, Mars
  5. Servius is associated with servus (=slave)
  6. Tarquinius is associated with the Etruscan city of Tarquinii

Memories of the monarchy

[Notes] — It should be noted, to correct the idea of the legendary nature of the historical accounts about the seven kings of Rome, that Romans preserved and venerated the hut of Romulus.
The Black Stone, believed to be the oldest Latin inscription ever found, may have marked the place where Romulus was buried (more pictures here).
Modern linguists have also confirmed that the names of some of the kings appear to be of Etruscan origin, a possible indication of the presence of Etruscans in early Roman society, a fact already reported or suggested by Roman sources.

Fact or legend?

[Notes] — Italian archaeologist Andrea Carandini has recently revived the thesis of the historicity of Romulus and the other Kings (see this 2007 New York Times article).
His lectures about the origins of Rome, made for Rome's university students and for the community, have been very successful, with up to 5000 people in attendance.
Many other scholars, such as historian Gary Forsythe, believe that "Rome's seven kings are to a large degree stereotypical figures to whom ancient writers ascribed archaic institutions and practices on the basis of simplistic reasoning" (read more about it here).
Forsythe observes that "Numa, whose name appears to be akin to numen, was characterized as having done nothing during his reign except to establish all aspects of the state religion. 'Tullus Hostilius' nomen suggested belligerence to the ancients, who therefore regarded him as a very warlike monarch. The nomen of the Tarquins was interpreted to mean that Tarquinius Priscus had immigrated to Rome from the Etruscan city of Tarquinii. Thus, we should not be surprised by the ancient stories of Servius Tullius' supposed servile origin, or by the belief that he was responsible for establishing the rights and duties of freed slaves in Roman law."

Livy's History of Rome

[Notes] —Excerpts from Livy, History of Rome from its founding: Book 1, Preface: "The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian, and I have no intention of establishing either their truth or their falsehood. This much licence is conceded to the ancients, that by intermingling human actions with divine they may confer a more august dignity on the origins of states.

"A divine paternity"

[Notes] — Livy also wrote the following: "Now, if any nation ought to be allowed to claim a sacred origin and point back to a divine paternity that nation is Rome. For such is her renown in war that when she chooses to represent Mars as her own and her founder's father, the nations of the world accept the statement with the same equanimity with which they accept her dominion.

5.2 The Republic

[Notes] — The Roman Republic (509 BC - 27 BC) was organized around "the principles of the separation of powers and checks and balances": it had 2 consuls, a Senate, magistrates, popular assemblies (more info here).
Consuls were in charge of the government, with a limited mandate (one year, sometimes two); their powers under normal circumstances were kept in check by the Senate.
Even though Roman historians want us to believe that Rome became a republic from one day to the next, there are clues in documents and reports indicating that the consuls initially had almost the same power and functions as the kings that they replaced; then, gradually, those powers came to be restricted by the Senate and by other institutions.
Within the Roman Republic (click to visit a page of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), even the Senate evolved gradually from the preexisting monarchic institution of the Council of the King, whose members represented the wealthiest and oldest families in the community, whom the King consulted before making important decisions.
The word Senate comes from the Latin senes, which means "elders."

National character

[Notes] —Excerpts from Livy, History of Rome from its founding: Book 1, Preface: "The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these:

  • the life and morals of the community;
  • the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended.
  • Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies."

5.3 Classes in Roman society

[Notes] — Within Roman society there was a very strong connection between power and wealth, as one can expect to find in any society that is built around a premodern organization of political, social and economic activities.
The rapid growth of the economy and the territorial expansion were key factors in the evolution of Roman society: from the third century BC on, economic growth and military expansionism were tied, establishing the basis for increased social mobility (for the lower classes), and multiplying the instances of conflict of interest for the privileged members of the upper classes who had access to the government.
Roman society was organized by classes, based on income and taxation. Class conflict and social tensions were common.
The word classic comes from the Latin classis, which means "class," the class par excellence being the first one, to which the wealthiest Romans belonged: the assumption was that they incarnated those ideals of style and elegance traditionally associated with classical culture

The Patricians

[Notes] — The Patricians were the members of the wealthy and powerful elite that made up most of the Roman Senate.
For a while it was possible to become a member of this class by displaying bravery in war or extraordinary entrepreneurial skills: in time it became more and more difficult.
Some of the Patricians outlasted the Roman Empire, and, given their position of power in rural areas neglected by the central government, they were able to use their wealth and skills to transform into the feudal Lords of the early Middle Ages.

The Plebeians

[Notes] — The Plebeians were the members of the lower classes, within ancient Roman society.
They were assigned fewer votes when it came to deciding on key issues. Votes were based on income, and each class had a set number of votes, regardless of the size of its membership.
They created their own democratic institutions, constituting a sort of shadow government: they had their own public meetings, a Council, elected leaders (the Tribunes), a treasury, even laws called plebiscites (referendums).

Class wars

[Notes] — Romans were well aware of the social divisions that existed in their society. Roman society was a classist society.
Even marriage between Patricians and Plebeians was forbidden, in ancient times.
Social tension was regarded as a constant in their history, and not necessarily as source of problems: consider, for example, Machiavelli's take on this in his Discourses, book 1, chapter 4.
Reforms often followed popular protests, some of which were recorded in what may have been doctored historical reports, while others went unreported.
The Patricians held important positions within organized religion, and were in charge of compiling annals and other official historical accounts.

Political deals

[Notes] — In ancient Rome, distribution of food often opened the way to political deals during periods of famine.
Direct distribution of money was used to alleviate political pressure (keep in mind that personal debts often lead to slavery).
The process of colonization did the same, through the relocation of Roman citizens and the lease or free distribution of public land.
Military service, with its rules and rewards could also be used to generate support for public policy.
With the institution of social patronage, some plebeians became clients, and many patricians became patrons, a phenomenon that anticipated the social changes of feudalism.

A split society?

[Notes] — In Roman society, according to Livy, there was "a state within the state".
20th-century historian Arnaldo Momigliano encouraged scholars to revise the traditional representation of the two main social groups in Rome as entirely antithetic.
Momigliano stressed the constant interaction, the ongoing political dialogue between patricians and plebeians, rather than simply repeating the narrative the struggle of the orders which is the focus of traditional historical accounts.

Opposite views

[Notes] — Modern historians still have opposite views of class conflict within Roman society. Here are two examples.
"The plebeian movement was a remarkable phenomenon, as far as we know without parallel in the history of the ancient city-state" (T.J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome, 1995).
"The fact that according to the modern orthodox interpretation the struggle of the orders was otherwise unparalleled in the ancient world should immediately set off alarm bells and arouse grave doubts as to its historical validity" (Gary Forsythe).

5.4 The others

[Notes] — Many foreigners came to live in ancient Rome, worked or conducted their business there, but they had no political rights, and were not accorded the same legal rights as the Roman citizens.
In general, justice was administered differently when foreigners or slaves were brought to court (for ex., punishments were harsher).
Slaves were often prisoners of war, and not just soldiers of a defeated army, but also civilians captured and deported in the course of a military campaign.

Sources of slavery

[Notes] — These were their sources of slaves in ancient Roman society.

  • Individuals could lose their freedom because of unpaid debts.
  • Exposure of infants was not uncommon in ancient Rome, according to anecdotal evidence.
  • Slave breeding was also common.
  • Trade and kidnapping or piracy were other significant sources of slaves

Depending on when they were enslaved and how they were brought up, slaves could be professionals (doctors, teachers, administrators, managers, and also poets, musicians, actors, artists, etc.), and sometimes they continued to exercise their professions.

Familia urbana

[Notes] — The Latin famulus means "servant" or "slave." The word familia, from which the modern words "family"/famiglia derive, originally indicated all those that were in the power of the paterfamilias, the head of the family: from the underage members of the family (children, grandchildren) to the slaves, especially those who worked as personal attendants (see Pater familias).
Slaves were usually treated better in urban settings: sometimes they could earn enough money to buy back their freedom, or to facilitate the process of emancipation.


[Notes] — Manumission is "the act of freeing a slave."
It could be done by adoption, through a will, by enrolling a slave on the quinquennial census list of Roman citizens, or by direct unopposed claim.
Manumitted and freed slaves would become liberti, freedmen (a change which had social and legal implications).
Since a fee had to be paid to the state whenever a slave became a freedman, one can look at surviving administrative documents that listed the money coming into the budget of the Roman state yearly, and thus estimate the number of slaves who had become citizens: this number often was in the thousands.

Cultural Significance

[Notes] — This section and the next are based on excerpts from Bonnie Palmer, "The Cultural Significance of Roman Manumission" (1996).
Manumission of slaves was a common practice among ancient societies, but the Roman tradition of creating legal citizens of their liberated slaves was in striking contrast to the manumission customs employed by their neighbors.
In a letter written in the 3rd century BC, Philip V of Macedonia expressed admiration for this atypical incorporation of outsiders into the city-state: "the Romans, [...] receiving into their citizen-body even their slaves when they free them, giving them even a share in the offices, have by such means not only strengthened their country but also sent out colonies almost to seventy places."


[Notes] — Emancipation was not only the end of captivity for the Roman slave, it was also the culmination of a process of social integration.
The slave who had already been partially incorporated into Roman society through the social institutions of household, family, and patron-client friendships became politically assimilated into the Roman state.
Most slave-holding societies in both ancient and modern times have used some form of manumission as a means of including outsiders or outcasts into their communities to at least a limited degree, but the Roman practice of attaching full-citizen status to formal liberation was truly historically unique.

Familia rustica

[Notes] — Hundreds of thousands of slaves (possibly up to 1-2 millions at the time of the empire) were used to cultivate large estates, in areas of Southern Italy (especially Sicily, where most of the wheat used by the Romans came from), as well as in North Africa.
Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro, in his text On agriculture, written towards the end of the Republic, divides the "instruments" of agriculture into three classes: "the articulate comprising the slaves, the inarticulate comprising the cattle, and the mute comprising the vehicles."
However, during the age of the Roman Empire, in a period of wild capitalism, there is anecdotal evidence that more than a few liberti became very wealthy, sometimes millionaires.

Roman Imagination

  • "The master/slave relationship, as imagined in Roman literature, is not one of simple dominance and submission"
  • A racist ideology? Ethnicity, nature or morality
  • [Notes] —This section is based on Christopher Francese's review of William Fitzgerald, Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination (Cambridge UP, 2000).
    "The master/slave relationship, as imagined in Roman literature, is not one of simple dominance and submission."
    Attitudes of the free toward the domestic slave were complex. There is little evidence of a racist ideology justifying slavery in ancient Rome: slaves were not considered inferior because of their ethnicity, nature or morality.

    Born equal, free

    [Notes] — The idea that individuals are born equal and free is a modern concept, typical of the age of Enlightenment.
    Even Spartacus and his followers did not have any plans to eliminate the institution of slavery.
    In the ancient world slavery was often seen as a "social bond involving exchange of services and loyalty", an acceptable relation between parties of unequal status (see R. Zelnick-Abramovitz, Not Wholly Free, 2005).

    Property? Person?

    [Notes] — In Greece and Rome the slave is seen, at the same time, as a property and a person.
    Famous jurist Ulpian debates the economic value of injured slaves.
    Quintus Cicero rejoices at the news of the emancipation of Tiro, his famous brother's slave and secretary.
    Homicide and abuse of slaves by their owners were rarely punished.
    Stoics and Christians changed the frame of mind of slave owners (see Joseph Vogt, Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man, 1974).

    Different identities

    [Notes] — Some slaves had different statuses and privileges (which might explain the missing sense of common identity).
    Classical literature shows a wide variety of metaphors and themes in the representation of slaves:

    • the slave as an individual living in symbiosis with the master: the emphasis in this model is on cooperation, the mutual benefit, the matching intellects;
    • the slave as a pet boy (puer delicatus)
    • the slave as a substitute parent or tutor (paedagogus).

    Representation of slaves

    [Notes] — The slave could also be represented as a go-between, a convenient buffer between the free: the slave, within this kind of representation, does things denied to the free by the rules of social decorum, and, paradoxically, appears to be "privileged," because he/she is not bound by the same conventional norms as the master.
    Another character, common in theatrical representations, is the clever slave as mastermind, matchmaker, or con artist, outwitting the master and changing the destiny of members of the family.

    Slavery as a metaphor

    [Notes] — Some relationships between the free, in ancient times, were represented and understood through the metaphor of slavery:

    • the tyrant could be described as a slave master
    • the son and wife could be seen as slaves of the head of the family or paterfamilias
    • the religious convert could be perceived as a voluntary slave to a deity

    On the subject of slavery in ancient Rome, you can refer to Keith Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome (Cambridge UP, 1994).

    5.5 Meals of the Romans

    [Notes] — This section is based on excerpts from C.A.E. Luschnig, "Potes esurire mecum".
    For breakfast ancient Romans usually had cheese, olives, bread.
    Epityra was the name of a popular olive spread, made with pitted olives chopped and marinated in oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin, fennel and mint.
    In the Miles Gloriosus, a comedy by Plautus (3rd-2nd century BC), a servant explains that he puts up with his master, the "braggart captain" of the title, only because of the extraordinary olive dip that one can find at his house.

    Lunch, dinner

    [Notes] — The prandium (It. "pranzo"), the lunch of the ancient Romans, was served at noon. It might have consisted of a bowl of barley or another cereal, a slice of cold meat.
    In Plautus's play The Menaechmi, a lunch for three people includes bacon, ham, half a head of a pig (pork was probably the favorite meat of the Romans).
    The cena (It. "cena") started after 3:00 pm, and could last until 1:00 am (see what Suetonius tells us about the of Emperor Nero, in his biography).

    Wine, conviviality

    [Notes] — Romans produced a sweeter, stronger and thicker wine. It was usually made with grapes from Southern Italy, which were often left to dry for a while after they were picked up from the vine.
    Wine was usually mixed with water and also with honey (a mixture called mulsum).
    Wine could be chilled with snow or ice, as Pliny the Younger used to do.

    The great Cicero remarks that the Greeks called a party either "an eating-together" or a "drinking together" (a symposium), as if food and drink were more important that "sharing lives" (as emphasized by the Latin convivium).

    The triclinium

    [Notes] — The Roman dining room was structured around the use of the triclinia. Three benches or couches were arranged around the three sides of a table, with the fourth side left open for service by the slaves. Three or more people would recline on each couch with their heads toward the table: their position was determined by their status within the family or society (see picture).
    Upper-class women dined usually with the men, but often used chairs.

    Table manners

    [Notes] — Romans ate with their hands, and threw scraps of food on the floor (see this picture of a floor mosaic from the Vatican museums).
    "Greeks ate with their hands too, but wiped them on pieces of bread" which were thrown to the floor (for the dogs).
    Hand washings (with water or perfume) and wipings were frequent during a formal meal.
    Romans sometimes brought their own napkins to dinner. First-century AD poet Martial complained that there were guests, among the clients, who brought large napkins (mappae), and filled them up with food to take home.

    Sauces made with fish

    [Notes] — Garum and liquamen were favorite sauces among the ancient Romans. They were both made from fish entrails, salted and aged (fermented). They were added to nearly all dishes (fish and meat).
    The modern Italian word "liquame" refers to the material found in the sewage, suggesting that the Latin sauce must have had quite a pungent odor.

    Recipe of garum

    [Notes] — Recipe for garum (another recipe, from the PBS website):

    1. make a mixture of anchovies or mackerel, cover with salt;
    2. leave it out for one night, then put it into a vessel;
    3. place the vessel (open) in the sun for 2-3 months, stirring with a stick at regular intervals.

    The Colatura delle alici is a sauce still produced today in Cetara, similar to the one made by the Romans. Look at pictures of the first and second stage in the preparation of this sauce.


    [Notes] — Apicius's recipe book (1st? 5th? century AD) includes exotic ingredients and unusual recipes, such as: flamingo or parrot with dates and other fruit; dormice, fed with walnuts and chestnuts or stuffed with pork, pinenuts, and liquamen (about the custom of feeding animals with a special diet to add flavor to their meat, keep in mind that the Italian word for "liver," fegato, derives from "figs," because the Romans used to feed animals with figs, believing that this diet would make their livers larger and tastier); moray eels (raised and farmed in vivaria).
    Here you can find a 5-dish meal inspired by Apicius's recipes (in English).

    Petronius, Fellini

    [Notes] — Wealthy Roman Petronius (27-66 AD) wrote a novel, entitled Satyricon, which includes the famous description of an extravagant dinner offered by rich Roman freedman Trimalchio.
    This fictional dinner contains references to exotic dishes similar to those found in Apicius: read a few short passages from that scene.
    You can also read about Petronius's last dinner, before he was forced to commit suicide to avoid political persecution.
    The episode of Trimalchio provided the inspiration for a famous scene in a movie directed by Federico Fellini, Satyricon (1969). You can watch the scene of the dinner on YouTube (with English subtitles).

    The End

    Sirmione, view from the Grottos of Catullus