Wealth and Status

First families

The origins of a social elite

Class in classical Greece 

Athens may have been ‘democratic', yet it was anything but equal. There were grand and humble, rich and poor, free citizens, and slaves. (There were also ‘metics' – immigrants who, though free, weren't classed as citizens so had no right to representation.)

Pre-classical Greece was a warlord society. A local chieftain, in his hilltop stronghold, would gather a group of supporters, their families and slaves around him. He'd use his power to take a share of the peasants' produce and levy tolls on merchants passing through. In return, he'd provide protection of a sort. He might raid neighbouring settlements and share the spoils among his warriors; the people knew a strong lord would keep them safe.

These little centres were the origins of Greece's cities. Traders and craftsmen prospered there, gained economic influence and eventually (especially in Athens) a political voice. But the old elite still had disproportionate power and wealth. Every citizen had to be ready to help defend his city: the poorest worked as rowers on the galley-ships. For the more prosperous tradesman, it was a mark of honour to be able to afford the shield, spear, helmet, breastplate and leg-armour of the hoplite infantryman. Because they could maintain a military horse and ride into battle with the cavalry, the elite were known as hippeis (‘horsemen' or ‘knights').

The Roman Republic

Rome grew up in the shadow of the Etruscan civilization, centred in the region to the north of Rome. For several generations, its people were ruled by a line of Etruscan kings, the Tarquins. Tiring of their oppression, in 509 BCE, the leading families of Rome rose up to expel them. They called their newly-independent state a ‘Republic' (from the Latin phrase res publica – ‘the people's thing').

But the ‘people' or ‘public' here were really those first families who had helped drive out the Tarquins. They were the ones who occupied official positions and had a voice in the Senate. And it seemed only fitting for these equites (again, the word means ‘horsemen') to lead the army when it went out on campaign. 

The city fathers

As a military power, Rome was male-dominated and governed by ‘fathers'. Power in the Roman home rested with the paterfamilias – the father of the family (see Parents and Children) whilst people pledged their loyalty to the patria or ‘fatherland.'

The ruling elite were known as ‘patricians', who had the authority of fathers within Rome and derived their prestige from a long line of distinguished patres (‘fathers') or ancestors. There were always opportunities in the army for young men of courage, talent and resourcefulness, so some degree of social mobility was achieved. Even so, the founding elite had obviously started off at a great advantage, and – given that victorious generals were allowed to keep a considerable proportion of any spoils of war – many became fabulously rich.

The patronage system

Patron and client

The word patronus is derived from the Latin pater, ‘father' and refers to a ‘father figure', mentor or protector of some kind. In ancient Rome there was a web of patronage stretching from the top of society to the bottom. Wealthy, powerful patrons all had poorer, weaker ‘clients'. 

In return for money, gifts, advice or other help, clients gave their patrons practical or political support, cheering their public speeches or backing them up in court. It wasn't a simple ‘trade' in cash or favours: more an ongoing relationship. Clients, their wives and children became almost an extension of the patron's family. When a master released a slave, the libertus (‘freedman') continued as his client. Likewise, a retiring legionary might continue his connection with his old commander as his patron. It suited an important public man to have his own band of supporters further down the social scale, just as it suited them to be able to call upon his help when needed.

Abuses of patronage

The patronage system helped ensure that the masters of Rome remained at the service of the wider public; that the benefits of rank and wealth trickled down the social scale. But the patron–client relationship wasn't always so cosy. Writing around the end of the first century CE, the satirical poet Juvenal describes a dinner at which exotic slave-boys bring their lord the finest wine while his lowly clients drink only water. Whilst the patron eats the best food, he looks disdainfully down the room to where his clients pick at meagre scraps.

It's not that the host is poor, writes Juvenal:

Far from it – that's not it at all. He just likes to watch you suffer. What comic turn could be more amusing than someone's disappointed stomach? … You like to think of yourself as a free man, the guest of an illustrious personage, but he can see (and you have to admit that he's right) that you're just a slave – captured by the delicious smells coming from his kitchen.

Riches and reputation

Competitive hospitality

Disdain for the arriviste

Juvenal and other writers were scathing about the pretensions of social-climbers, such as the freedman ‘with the chalk of the slave market still upon his ankles' – who's made a fortune in the Middle East and treats Roman senators as his equals. ‘Nowadays we worship money as a god', Juvenal concludes. 

Hospitality and status

In the Satyricon by Petronius, the character Trimalchio is a former slave who's won himself stupendous wealth in business. He secures his social status by entertaining on a sumptuous scale. (The modern American author F. Scott FitzGerald took him as his inspiration for The Great Gatsby.) Trimalchio is looked at askance by those patrician ‘friends' who at the same time can't resist his lavish hospitality. 

‘Let's eat. … Four dancers stepped quickly forward in time to the music and with a flourish removed the top of a great dish, revealing plump fowl, sows' udders and a hare with wings attached to its midriff to make it look like Pegasus … After we'd applauded, the next course was carried in: … a deep round tray with the signs of the Zodiac around the rim. By each sign, Trimalchio's chef had set out some appropriate delicacy or other.'

While Trimalchio's dinner placed some sort of emphasis on food, in 64 CE, Tigellinus, the commander of the Emperor Nero's guard, gave one which was almost pure show. Tigellinus had come from a humble background: he represented ‘new money'. The old elite (who feared the newcomers as a threat to their own prestige) regarded it as vulgar showiness. However, his generosity had a purpose: lavish giving was often a power-play in ancient Rome.

'Building' a reputation

In 27 BCE, the leading general Octavian seized power and made himself the first Emperor of what had been the Republic. To win over his citizens, he instigated a succession of public works, building sumptuous new temples, a forum (city square) and public baths. It was no exaggeration when he later claimed:

‘I found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble.'

The splendour he'd instituted reflected back on Octavian and seemed to confirm the appropriateness of the new title he had given himself as ruler of the Empire: Augustus (‘impressive' or ‘imposing').

There is evidence that others did the same. In the open-air theatre excavated in Pompeii, an inscription in the ground marks the private seat of city official Marcus Holconius Rufus. Having made his family's fortune in the wine trade, and in manufacturing bricks, he set out to carve out a patrician prestige for it by running for office and funding public works. This great theatre seems to have been one such gift.

Marcus was just one of thousands who endowed Rome's physical fabric and cultural life and thereby gained prestige. Given the work they created and the consequent prosperity, the economic benefits were also immense.

The importance of public image

Domestic life was not considered significant. Although it opened on to an unroofed patio inside, the private Roman townhouse was shut off to the world, presenting nothing but blank walls to the passer-by. The life that really mattered was lived in public – in the streets and forums, the bathhouses and courts, the senate-rooms. Here the Roman citizen met his friends, made speeches, argued with his opponents or did business with his colleagues. It was a person's public status which signified his identity rather than his private life.

The one overriding object for a wealthy Roman, as he addressed the senate, ran for office, collected dependent ‘clients' or endowed public works, was to achieve existimatio. Although this refers to reputation or civic honour, the fact that it comes from the verb existere (literally, ‘stand out from', or ‘emerge') underlines how indivisible the person and his public persona were considered: without his reputation the Roman did not exist.

The will to power

The importance of ‘people power'

The story of democratic Athens is one of tyranny overthrown by a state's free citizens, just as Rome won freedom by the expulsion of the Tarquin kings. So it's no surprise to find, in the great Greek dramas and the writings of the Roman Republic, a suspicion of despotism and an emphasis on people-power. 

Ambition was viewed warily at the level of individual morality as well. A person's pride in his prestige and honour was viewed as a virtue, but a virtue in excess became a vice (see The Golden Mean). Hence the idea of hubris, an overreaching pride and ambition that dragged the individual down.

The dangers of personal ambition

  • The most famous mythical example of hubris is that of Icarus, who was able to fly with the assistance of the wings his inventor father Daedalus made him. Constructed out of feathers, held together with wax, they were fine at lower altitudes, but Icarus in his excitement forgot his father's warnings and flew up towards the sun. The wax melted; the wings fell apart; and Icarus hurtled down to his death. 
  • In Sophocles' tragedy Antigone (about 440 BCE), Antigone and her sister Ismene are left bereaved when their brother Polyneices dies fighting for the throne of the city of Thebes. The city's new ruler, Creon, gives the order that Polyneices' body is to be left unburied, as a punishment. This is not only an end of utter ignominy, which is hugely distressing for his family, but also a direct challenge to the known will of the gods, who insist on certain ceremonials for the dead. Creon's arrogant defiance is hubristic, and it was this that damned him in the eyes of Sophocles and his audiences more than any offence to the sisters' feelings, or to ‘propriety' itself.

From Republic to Empire

As Rome's power, prosperity and territories grew, so it became harder to uphold its republican principles. Victorious generals possessed extraordinary power and wealth. By definition, they were charismatic leaders; their legions would act like private armies to advance their ambitions while the ordinary people would do anything for their heroes. In 53 BCE, alarmed at the adoration being accorded to Julius Caesar, who had just conquered Gaul (modern France), the Senate ordered him to forsake his command and return to Rome. He did return, but at the head of what was now effectively an invading army. He ruled as dictator till his assassination in 44 BCE.

Caesar had been emperor in all but name and after his execution there was no question of returning to the republicanism of former times. The civil war which followed was fought by factions who followed leading generals. In 27 BCE, the victor Octavian gave himself the title Imperator: in theory it just meant ‘general', but it was the origin of our word ‘Emperor'. 

A change in attitudes was inevitable. The Roman poet Virgil doesn't talk of ‘hubris' or question the Emperor's right to rule. All the same, though, the values he sketched out in his great epic poem the Aeneid lay great emphasis on a sense of pietas that includes both what we would call ‘piety' (religious observance) and public duty. Rome's legendary founder Aeneas (a refugee from Troy) is at once a commanding general and a modest, conscientious man – just as the emperor was both the ruler and the servant of the state.

A yearning for simplicity

Being the rulers of the world in the greatest city ever seen must have been extremely exciting for the Romans. But living so much at the centre of things was stressful: there was a great deal of nostalgia for former, simpler times; a harking back to the peaceful ease of the Golden Age. Poets celebrated the rural life – Horace wrote yearningly of his little house in the country, while Virgil wrote poetic stories about the innocent flirtations of shepherds and shepherdesses in the fields, amidst their flocks. (These examples were to have a lasting influence in the western literary tradition and were much imitated in English, between the Elizabethan and Augustan eras.)

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