Societal Patronage

This image shows the Roman class system in relation to patronage.                                                     Image courtesy of

The client-patron relationship system called patronage was what built most of the social and cultural infrastructure of the Roman Empire. Patronage was not just confined to the military and political aspects of the Roman lifestyle. Patronage was linked with public display of status, social ranking, the legal system, and even the arts of Roman Society.

Two classes, the upper class, and the lower class were the main classes of the hierarchal status system ancient Rome had. The upper class was comprised of the wealthy landowners who were most often involved in politics as senators, tribunes, and consuls, etc. These upper class members were usually part of the aristocratic group the Patricians. The Patrician ruling class existed since Romulus, who was one of the main founders of Rome, appointed 100 men to serve as senators in the 750s BC.  Roman Author Titus Livius, more commonly known as Livy, wrote about this action by Romulus in the first book of the 142 books he wrote about Rome’s History in around 30 BC. Livy described Romulus’s actions:

He created 100 senators; either because that number was adequate, or because there were only 100 heads of houses who could be created. In any case they were called the ‘Patres’ in virtue of their rank, and their descendants were called ‘Patricians‘” (Livy, Book 1.8).

Patres can be translated to “fathers”, which in fact re-iterates how these ruling class families were given positions of patriarchal social power from the very beginning of ancient Rome.

The wealthy business oriented Equestrian order (“Mounted Order”, “Knights”) social class was also part of the upper class. They were the lower of the two aristocratic upper classes in Rome. They ranked below the patricians socially but still had great wealth and social status. This was a club of military/cavalry types who enjoyed the privileges of wealth and social rank provided all while making money of their assets in foreign conquered countries. For the Roman upper aristocratic ruling class public appearance was extremely important. When traveling through the city and the forum the Roman elite desired to be recognized or recognized for their status and rank. To accomplish this they wore distinctive clothing and jewelry to help signify their status. Equestrians wore specifically colored cloth stripes on their togas or tunics to signify their statuses. The senators and patricians also wore wider specifically colored cloth stripes to signify their rank. The upper class patrons wanted to show they had power and made certain to remind their clients of this by their mannerisms and dress.

The lower class Roman citizens were most always the clients of the upper class patrons. The plebs or plebeians was the lower class that existed since the beginning of Rome just like the patricians. The common people were freeborn and plebeians respectively, but the lower class also consisted of freed-people (liberti).  Freed-people were former slaves who had been freed by their masters. The freed-people were now clients of their former masters. In the lower class also were Latins (Latini) who were from Roman colonies outside of Rome. There were some plebs who were wealthy, had political connections and better overall social standing but for the most part, plebs were part of the lower class.

Roman societal patronage was highly based around the Roman ideals of fides or loyalty.  Clients were loyal supporters of high standing families and at the head of those families were the patronus, or their patron. For this loyalty the patron rewarded their loyal clients with gifts of food and land. If a client needed any sort of legal representation or aid they called upon their patron for support. Patrons often handed out sportulas, which were monetary handouts for their support and loyalty. The patron received not just loyalty from their clients but they also had the respect, men for guarded escorts, and their political support.

In ancient Rome, things were very traditional, and all interactions whether they be political or social were done on a person-to-person basis. Every morning at daybreak patrons were greeted by their clients in an interaction called the salutatio. The salutatio was a morning greeting or a kind of calling hour where clients gathered in or outside the patron’s home to ask their patron for all different kinds of assistance and favors. Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman author, wrote De Oratore. In this historical dialogue written in 55 BC, Cicero mentions in the Third Book the idea of salutatio. Cicero wrote:

They mentioned, as an instance of this, Sextus Aelius; and we ourselves have seen Manius Manilius walking across the forum; a signal that he who did so, gave all the citizens liberty to consult him upon any subject; and to such persons, when thus walking or sitting at home upon their seats of ceremony, all people had free access, not only to consult them upon points of civil law, but even upon the settlement of a daughter in marriage, the purchase of an estate, or the cultivation of a farm, and indeed upon any employment or business whatsoever (De Oratore, Book 3, Verse 133).

The patron in this text has many clients at his doors asking for help with all different kinds of problems. The salutatio was also another example of how important social status was in societal patronage.

Often Roman historians, authors, and philosophers found themselves without the means the financially support themselves and their endeavors. Roman historian Livy was a client of Emperor Augustus. Livy wrote 142 books detailing the history of Rome from the founding onward. Greek historian who wrote about Roman history was a client of wealthy Scipio Aemilianus who gave him the financial support to do all his research in the many Roman libraries.

The system of the client-patron relationship did not die with Rome, instead forms of it transferred to medieval societies in the 10th century AD. Patronage in society played a major part in the lives of Romans whether they were the patrons or the clients.

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