Social classes in Roman society

Senatores (High Nobility)

The basis for this class was political. It included all men who served in the Senate, and by extension their families. This class was dominated by the nobles (nobiles), families whose ancestors included at least one consul. The first man in his family to be elected consul, thus qualifying his family for noble status, was called a “new man” (novus homo), although this term was used in varying senses—it could refer to an equesterian who was the first in his family to be elected to political office and thus join the senatorial class, or to a man from the senatorial class who was the first in his family to be elected consul and thus join the nobles, or most dramatically to an equestrian like Cicero who was elected consul. Senators had to prove that they had property worth at least 1,000,000 sesterces; there was no salary attached to service in the Senate, and senators were prohibited from engaging personally in nonagricultural business, trade or public contracts. Men of the senatorial class wore the tunic with broad stripes (laticlavi).

Equites (Low Nobility)

The basis for this class was economic. A man could be formally enrolled in the equestrian order if he could prove that he possessed a stable minimum amount of wealth (property worth at least 400,000 sesterces); by extension his family members were also considered equestrians. However, if an equestrian was elected to a magistracy and entered the Senate, he moved up to the senatores; this was not particularly easy or frequent. Equestrians were primarily involved in the types of business prohibited to senators. Equestrians wore the tunic with narrow stripes (angusti clavi).

Plebs (Commoners)

Members of this class were all other freeborn Roman citizens. The special mark of dress for citizen males was the toga. All Roman citizens had conubium, the right to contract a legal marriage with another Roman citizen and beget legitimate children who were themselves Roman citizens.

Latini (Latins)

Members of this class were freeborn residents of Italy (until 89 BCE, when they were all granted full citizenship) and of certain other Roman municipalities who had some legal rights but were not full Roman citizens. Former slaves who had been informally freed by Roman citizens were a special category, “Junian Latins.”

Peregrini (Foreigners)

Members of this class were all other freeborn men and women who lived in Roman territories. In 212 CE most freeborn people living within the Roman empire were granted Roman citizenship.

Libertini (Freemen)

Members of this class were men and women who had been slaves but had bought their freedom or been manumitted. They were not fully free because they had various restrictions on their rights and owed certain duties to their former masters, who now became their patrons, but they could become citizens if their former masters were citizens and they had been formally manumitted; they were not, however, eligible for public office. This was the one class it was not possible to leave, though the class encompassed only one generation. The next generation, their freeborn children, became full citizens (i.e., members of the commons, though there was a social stigma attached to being a freedman’s son) and could even become equestrians if rich enough. Freedpeople had low social status, and most were probably fairly poor, but it was possible for them to achieve some success in a trade, and a few might even become wealthy. They had no special distinction of dress, though their names indicated their status as freedpeople.

Servi (Slaves)

In Roman Empire there was a system of chattel slavery where human beings were born into slavery or sold into slavery through war or piracy. Slaves were the property of their owners by law, but by custom some slaves (especially urban, domestic slaves) might be allowed their own savings (peculium) with which they might later buy their freedom, or their masters could manumit them, so some mobility into the previous class was possible. Roman slavery was not racially based, and slaves had no special distinction of dress, though slaves who had run away were sometimes made to wear metal collars with inscriptions such as the following: “I have run away. Capture me. When you have returned me to my master you will receive a reward.”

Social classes in Roman society

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