When we talk about how the Romans defeated Carthage or how the Romans built an empire we often just talk about „the Romans“. But just like in any society there were different social classes that the Romans would be separated in.
During the Roman republic, all roman citizens rich enough (depending on the time at least 100.000 Denarii) were called Equites. Senators (at least 250.000 Denarii) were Equites who had managed to be voted into at least the public office of Quaestor! Every other roman citizen was inside the group of Cives Romani.
Let`s find out more.
Technically every roman citizen could run for a public office. But since campaigning for a public office was extremely costly only members of families both of patrician and plebeian nobility had an actual chance of winning.
The roman aristocracy, the senators, saw themselves as serving nobility meaning that their rank of a senator was tied to having served a public office.
Because of that, it is important to note that only men who had served in the Roman senate were part of the senator class! Men from noble families who had not served a public office yet were not part of the senator’s class but were seen as Equites! When a young man from a noble family would want to start a political career he would, as soon as he met the requirements, try to get voted into the lowest office of the cursus honorum, more on that here.
While a man from a patrician family would usually run for the office of quaestor an aspiring politician from a plebeian family would usually aim for the office of tribune of the people.
Originally the Senate was only reserved for patricians but that had changed during the early development of the roman republic.
More on the offices of quaestor and tribune of the people in my article here. Now technically a patrician could also switch to the status of plebeian by being adopted by a plebeian. That was sometimes done to gain a political advantage.
Generally, the senator class defined itself as a class of landowners. The requirement of land ownership was also used to separate themselves from the class of Equites who had usually made their fortune in trade.
Especially during the expansion of Rome that class was able to accumulate large estates, often at the cost of small farmers. More on that here.
Following the lex claudia de nave senatorum from 218 BC senators and their sons were prohibited from engaging in (the highly profitable) high-distance trade.
Now that obviously didn`t stop the senator class. They just used middlemen to invest in long-distance trade. But being at least officially prohibited from long-distance trade was actually the main difference between the senator class and the Equites.
In early Rome, more on that here, Equites were just the Roman citizens who were wealthy enough to own a horse and fight on horseback.
The classification of Equites as a military class disappeared during the 3rd century BC. After that, the Equites (=knights) were just another social class that in the Roman hierarchy was ranked under the Senator class.
Since the Equites started out as a military class of citizens rich enough to afford a horse the membership in that class was always bound to a certain capital.
During the Roman Republic, all men rich enough (depending on the time at least 100.000 Denarii) were called Equites. And senators were only those Equites who had managed to be voted into at least the public office of Quaestor!
Do you want to find out what buying power a Denar had and how many Sesterces were one Denar? Please check out my article here for more information.
Because of that kind of mobility the strict separation between the senator class and Equites class is difficult. Senators could be forced to drop out of the senator class for example due to immoral behavior. It was the job of the Censor to remove unworthy men out of the senator class. More on the roman office of Censor here.
But it could also go the other way.
Equites from families in which no man had served in a public office of the cursus honorum yet, so-called homi novi (= new men), like Marcus Tullius Cicero, Marius, or Cato the Elder could become senators.
The Cives Romani made up the rest of the Roman citizens. Every man having the full roman civil right would be a part of that class. And since the only limitation to the class of Equites was money, not descent, every Roman citizen had the theoretical chance of rising into the highest offices.
That kind of social permeability was actually one of the 3 reasons that made Rome so successful. More on the other two reasons in my article here.
There were also the classes of slaves and freed slaves. But since these did not have the full roman civil right I will only talk about them briefly.
One big part of the success of Rome was its social permeability. In theory, the son of a freed slave could become emperor of the roman empire. Now in reality that kind of social rise was rare but it actually happened! Please check out my article here for more information on how Pertinax, the son of a freed slave, could become roman emperor.
While freed slaves themselves only had a reduced roman civil right that kept them from holding political & military offices, their sons had full Roman citizenship with all privileges.
So the sons of freed slaves were able to run for public offices if they met the requirements. More on the requirements for being voted into a public office here.
By the way. When a slave was freed he would also take on the name of his former master. More on that and on how Roman names worked in general in my article here.
A good part of the population of Rome and Italy were unfree slaves without any sort of influence. Please check out my article here to find out more about the 3 different ways to end up in slavery.
Due to slaves not having any influence I will not go any further in that class other than noting that while slaves were a separated class there was still some social mobility.
If a slave was freed, and that happened quite regularly then he would get a limited roman civil right and the status of a freed slave.
As such he was still loosely bound to his former master. But his children, while also being bound to the former master through the clientele system had the full roman civil right with all duties and privileges.
The idea that even a slave (who was not seen as a full-fledged human) could become a full-fledged human and a roman citizen can be traced back to the very beginning of Rome.
According to the legend Rome was founded by Romulus who in order to populate his new settlement created an asylum for people fleeing their past. Or in other words: A good part of the mythical Romans were probably fugitive slaves and other outlaws. And Rome was quite proud of that heritage, more on that here.
Please feel free to check out my article here for more information on the official roman founding myth. There I also go into depth on the actual scientific reality of how Rome was founded.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Heuß, G. Mann (Hrsg.); Propyläen Weltgeschichte. Eine Universalgeschichte, Band IV Rom – Die Römische Welt (Frankfurt a. Main 1986).
M. Junkelmann; Die Legionen des Augustus: Der römische Soldat im archäologischen Experiment (Mainz 1986).