Most modern knowledge of life in Ancient Rome comes from writers such as historian Pliny the Younger, who lived in the 1st century A.D. At that time, social status determined how Roman citizens dressed, the legal privileges they had and even where they sat at public events. While citizens weren't equal under Roman law, non-citizens and slaves were considered beneath even the lowliest citizen.
Immediately beneath the emperor and his family, the patricians were ancient Rome's elite. The word "patrician" comes from the Latin word "patres," meaning "fathers," and the patricians were considered the fathers of the empire. These wealthy landowners provided political, religious and military leadership. Patricians even had the potential to one day rule the empire, as imperial succession wasn't strictly hereditary. Any patrician could possibly become emperor of Rome. They lived lives of extravagant luxury far surpassing that of most Romans, and enjoyed many legal privileges as well. For example, patricians were excluded from required military service. Patricians were well-educated in history, public speaking, literature and law.
The Senatorial Elite
Most Roman senators came from the patrician class, though not all of them did. Since senators weren't paid, it was a position only the wealthy could afford to hold. Senators had to have a minimum amount of property as well as previous military or administrative experience. Many had previously served as junior magistrates, the lowest political office in ancient Rome. The Senate was typically limited to 600 members, all of whom were male citizens 25 years of age and older. They sat in reserved seats at public events in the Roman amphitheater, and wore togas with broad purple stripes to indicate their status. Although they enjoyed high social status in ancient Rome, the Senate had very little power in the empire and they served at the pleasure of the emperor.
Equestrian Wealth and Power
Unlike the senatorial class, the equestrian class wasn't limited in number. As long as a male citizen had enough money and property to qualify, he could become a member of the equestrian class. Equestrians could be elected to some low-level government positions, and even could rise to the level of senator -- although this was uncommon. Equestrians were identified in public by a thin purple stripe on their togas and a gold ring they wore on one finger. Since Roman law prohibited senators from being actively involved in business or trade, equestrians frequently took on commercial roles. Many equestrians were successful miners or exporters, or took on public contracts to build aqueducts and roads.
The Plebeian Masses
All free Roman citizens who were not part of the patrician, senate or equestrian classes were plebeians. This was the bulk of the empire's population -- average working-class citizens who supported their families as farmers, craftsmen or laborers. Plebeians had no power individually and could not hold political office. However, through ancient Rome's patronage system, plebeians could gain access to authority indirectly. Upper-class Romans served as patrons for lower-class clients, who pledged their respect and favor in exchange for legal or financial assistance. It was possible for freeborn Roman citizens who became successful at their business or trade and accumulated wealth to move up to the equestrian class.
- BBC History: Ancient History in Depth -- Social Pecking Order in the Roman World
- VRoma: Roman Social Class and Public Display
- PBS: The Roman Empire Social Order -- Patricians
- PBS: The Roman Empire Social Order -- Plebeians
- PBS: The Roman Empire Social Order -- Senators
- PBS: The Roman Empire Social Order -- Equestrians
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images