Friday, 7 January 2011


In republican Rome, the 'patricians' were an aristocratic caste who were, according to the Augustan Age historian Livy, the descendants of the hundred 'patres' (fathers), appointed by Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome, to form his advisory council or 'Senate'. Other members of the new community on the Tiber were known as 'plebeians. When the kings were expelled in 510 B.C. and the executive of the new republic was headed by two 'consuls', elected annually by the Centuriate Assembly, these two appointments came from the ranks of the patricians, who alone were eligible to sit in the Senate.

In the same way, at the beginning of the Republic, the ranks of the priesthood were closed to non-patricians, since there was a belief that patricians communicated better with the Roman gods and only they could perform the sacred rites and take the auspices. The two great priestly Colleges of Pontiffs and Augurs were exclusively in the hands of the 'patres' or patricians. The Pontifex Maximus was the head of the College of Pontiffs, which controlled the many other priesthoods. The Pontiffs were the guardians of the 'ius divinum' (the law of the gods), and hence could determine what was 'fas' (lawful) and 'nefas' (unlawful) and which days were 'fasti' (lucky and suitable for public business) and 'nefasti' (unlucky and not suitable for public business). Pontiffs also interpreted prodigies or omens. As a result they had considerable political power. Scarcely less powerful politically was the College of Augurs, who took the auspices (i.e. interpreted the entrails) at public sacrifices and declared the signs vouchsafed by the gods. Another guild of priests, the Fetiales, were responsible for undertaking the rituals effecting war and peace, and together with fetial priests in other Latin towns they helped to  build up a primitive international code. Their monopoly of the priesthood was an important constituent factor of the patricians' dominance of Rome in the Early Republic. According to one view the Senate was originally composed of patrician families who held positions within the priesthood, and, indeed, that it was a religious advisory body or council of religious elders whose assent was necessary in the case of new laws since only they could confirm that such laws were in keeping with the 'mos maiorum' (custom of our ancestors).

The patriciate itself was composed of two groups of 'gentes'. The first, 'the gentes maiores' were the six 'gentes' chosen by Romulus to form the nucleus of his hundred 'patres'. These were the following : the Fabii, Valerii, Cornelii, Claudii, Aemilii and Manlii. The other group, the 'gentes minores' were probably admitted to the Senate at a later date, and included the following families still represented in the Senate in the First Century B.C.: Sulpicii, Servillii, Postumii, Julii, Quinctii, Furii, Marcii Reges, Sergii and Quinctilii. Patrician families that had either died out or ceased to be represented in the Senate include: the Aebutii, Aquillii, Cloelii,  Foslii,  Geganii, Horatii, Lucretii, Menenii, Nautii, Papirii, Pinarii, Potitii, Verginii and Veturii.

The first two hundred years of the internal history of Rome saw the so-called 'Struggle of the Orders' in which the  plebeians sought to break the patricians' monoply of power. Gradually, despite the dogged resistance of the patricians, the plebeians prevailed. In 367 the Lex Licinia Sextia gave them the right to be elected to the consulship, and, when this did not have the desired effect, the Lex Genucia of 342 made it necesssary for one consul to be a plebeian. The patricians' monopoly on the priesthood was also broken in 300 when   five  out of nine pontiffs and four out of the eight augurs had thenceforth to be plebeian, and from 230 the Pontifex Maximus was elected by seventeen tribes chosen by lot from the thirty-five tribes of the Tribal Assembly. Gradually plebeians were admitted to the Senate and in 287 the Struggle of the Orders culminated in the Lex Hortensia by which the decrees or 'plebiscita' of the Concilium Plebis Tributum were given the force of law with or without the approval of the Senate.

However, despite the plebeians' constitutional victory, patricians continued to exercise a degree of political power and influence out of proportion to their actual numbers, at least until the middle of the Second Century B.C. Furthermore, many of Rome's greatest military leaders were patrician. During the Second Punic War (218-202 B.C.) Hannibal's efforts to defeat the Romans, after his great victories of 218-16, were frustrated by the veteran Q. Fabius Maximus 'Cunctator' (the Delayer), and eventually he was defeated by P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus at Zama in 202. Previously Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal had been defeated and killed at the  Metaurus in 207 by C. Claudius Nero. In the first half of the First Century the Greeks were overcome in a series of campaigns. T. Quinctius Flamininus defeated Philip V of Macedonia at Cynocephalae in 197, L. Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus (his elder brother P. Africanus acting as one of his legates) defeated Antiochus III of Syria at Magnesia in 189, and L. Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus crushed Perseus of Macedonia in 168. Paullus' son, P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus, who had been adopted by the son of the elder Africanus, led the Roman army to its final victory over Carthage in 146. All these great generals were patricians.

However, from about the second quarter of the Second Century B.C. a significant decline in the number, and  hence in the power and influence, of patricians set in. This situation was basically related to their social exclusiveness and reluctance to intermarry with plebeians, which from the beginning of the republic had led to a steady decline in the number of them appearing in the Fasti (the record of curule or consular appointments). As early as 445 the Lex Canuleia had apparently abolished the ban on marriage between patricians and plebeians decreed in the Twelve Tables of 452, but in practice it took a very long time for the social barriers to come down. In this context, it is necessary to take account of the fact that patricians adopted a much more complicated marital procedure than that followed by other Romans. Whereas plebeians were married by a ceremony called  'coemptio', a fictitious sale by a father of his daughter, in which a wife would say "Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia" (Where you are master, I am mistress), thus implying a relationship of equality, or by the process of  'usus', which simply required a twelve month period of cohabitation, patricians followed the ancient rite of 'confarreatio', their equivalent of our holy matrimony, in which the marrying couple sat together and solemnly offered a cake of spelt ('farreus panis') in the presence of the Pontifex Maximus and the Flamen Dialis, following which procedure a wife came under the complete control ('manus') of her husband. The sacred nature of the patrician marriage service symbolised the social exclusiveness which they practised. On top of this self-imposed ban on inter-marriage with plebeians, a policy tantamount to a sentence of class suicide, the decrease in patrician numbers following the Fifth Century B.C. was partly due to their losses on the field of battle, in which, from the outset they had always borne their full share. Indeed, at the battle of the Allia in 390, when the Romans were disastrously defeated by the invading Gauls and after which Rome itself was sacked, their casualties must have amounted to a high proportion of their total muster. (In this one is reminded of the Edwardian aristocracy at the battle of the Somme.) As a result of these factors the number of patrician 'gentes' recorded in the historical record drops from fifty-three in the Fifth Century to twenty-nine in the Fourth. This process continued, despite the prominence of patrician families and individual patrician leaders. During the Third Century the number of patrician 'gentes' supplying curule magistrates dropped to fourteen, and in the Senate plebeians began to outnumber the patricians heavily. Thus, it is estimated that in 179 B.C. there were 88 patricians and 216 plebeians in the Senate, of which 63 and 110 were of curule rank respectively. Of these 88 patrician senators, 55 came from the six 'gentes maiores' and as many as 23 from the Cornelian 'gens' alone.  As has been indicated above, it was from about this time that the position of patricians, both numerically and politically, began to decline drastically. 172 was a turning point, as it was in this year that two plebeian consuls were elected for the first time. From 179 onwards, until the effective ending of the republic in 28 B.C. the number of patrician consulships totalled 111 out of 347, i.e. 32%. That means that, whereas in the period from the Lex Genucia in 342 down to 179, half of consulships were patrician, in the Late Republic the proportion dwindled to about a third, and this reflects to some extent the extent of the decline in their political influence. By the end of the Republic the patriciate had declined very considerably in number, with only fifteen patrician 'gentes' still  appearing in the Senate.

The patriciate remained, however, significant in the First Century B.C. when an astonishingly high proportion of the revolutionaries of the age came from its ranks. This list includes L. Cornelius Sulla Felix, L. Cornelius Cinna, M. Aemilius Lepidus (cos. 78), L. Sergius Catalina, C. Julius Caesar, P. Clodius Pulcher, M. Aemilius Lepidus (cos I. 46) and, by adoption, C. Julius Caesar Octavianus. It is surely remarkable that the real revolutionaries of the age came not from the 'novi homines' (new men), or even from the merely noble, but from the most ancient and revered section of the Roman aristocracy. In order to understand this apparent paradox and to get behind the psychological make-up of men like Sulla and Caesar, one cannot do  better than quote from that masterpiece of Roman historical scholarship, "Roman Revolution" by Professor Ronald Syme:

"Most conspicuous of all is the group of nobiles of patrician stock. Caesar, like Sulla, was a patrician and proud of it. He boasted before the people that his house was descended from the immortal gods and from the kings of Rome. Patrician and plebeian understood each other. The patrician might recall past favours conferred upon the Roman plebs: he could also appeal to the duties which they owed to birth and station. The plebs would not have given preference and votes against Caesar for one of themselves or for a mere municipal dignitary. In the traditional way of the patricians, Caesar exploited his family and the state religion for politics and for domination, winning the office of pontifex maximus: the Julii themselves were an old sacerdotal family. Sulla and Caesar, both members of political patrician houses that had passed through a long period of obscurity, strove to revive and re-establish their peers. The patriciate was a tenacious class; though depressed by poverty, by incapacity to adjust themselves to a changing economic system, by active rivals and by the rise of dynastic plebeian houses like the Metelli, they remembered their ancient glory and strove to recover leadership.......

"The patricians were loyal to tradition without being fettered by caste or principle. Either monarchy or democracy could be made to serve their ends, to enhance person and family.  The constitution did not matter  - they were older than the Roman Republic. It was the ambition of the Roman aristocrat to maintain his dignitas, pursue gloria and display magnitudo animi, his sacred duty to protect his friends and clients and secure their advancement, whatever their station in life. Fides, libertas and amicitia were qualities valued by the governing class, by Caesar as by Brutus. Caesar was a patrician to the core. 'He was Caesar and he would keep faith,' " (From 'Roman Revolution', by Ronald Syme, 1939, pp. 68-70.)

By the end of the Republic the patriciate appear to have lost almost all of their political significance. It was only in the area of state religion that the patricians maintained any advantages. Although they only maintained a  monopoly of a few priestly posts without political significance, such as the 'Rex Sacrorum' (King for Sacrifices) and the three 'Flamines', each dedicated to Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus (the deified Romulus), patricians were still more likely to be elected to priestly colleges than plebeians and tended to be so elected at an earlier age than plebeians. In the political sphere, a patrician could reach the consulship at an earlier age than a plebeian, (because he could by-pass the tribunate) and certain honorific posts such as 'princeps senatus' (leader of the Senate) and 'interrex' ( a commissioner to hold consular elections where no consul was in post) were still by tradition the preserve of patricians. These limited privileges, while they represented mere vestiges of their former predominance, helped nonetheless to give patricians  a certain social significance which remained tangible:

"They (the plebeians) never really succeeded in attaining complete social equality for a certain aloofness from which Cicero also had to suffer remained characteristic of the patrician families, reduced though they were in numbers and in real influence by Cicero's day. Then and for many years afterwards they sought to mark themselves off from the crowd and to maintain that much-prized 'social distance' or prestige for which nearly everybody in a competitive society strives to a greater or lesser extent. One little habit of theirs long served to puzzle later ages: patricians wore on their shoes little images of the crescent moon." ( F.R. Cowell, "Cicero and the Roman Republic, 1948, pp. 134-5.)

It is not without significance that the first emperor, Caesar Octavianus had become a patrician when he was adopted by his great-uncle Julius Caesar, and Octavian, or Augustus as he was known from 27 B.C. was given the power to create further patrician families by the Lex Saenia of 30 B.C. From then onwards the patriciate became considerably swelled in numbers, with families thus honoured coming not only from the old plebeian nobility, such as the Calpurnii Pisones, the Claudii Marcelli, the Domitii Ahenobarbi, the Junii Silani and the Sempronii Gracchi, but also a number of new families of more recent pedigree. These included the Aelii Lamiae, the Appulei, the Asinii, the Cocceii, the Sentii Saturnini, the Silii Nervae, the Statilii Tauri and the Vipsanii Agrippae.  The social exclusiveness of the old patriciate, which went back to the regal age, was therefore lost:

"Under the principate the number of patricians was far higher than that of nobiles. The proportion had suffered a complete reversal. Whereas at the end of the republic only fifteen patrician gentes were still represented in the senate and some of the most important noble families were not in fact patrician, the nobiles now formed a small and steadily decreasing minority within the patriciate." ( Matthias Gelzer, "The Roman Nobility", 1969, p.153.)

However, the first five Roman emperors, members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, were all patricians of the old kind: Augustus, by adoption into the Julian 'gens'; Tiberius a Claudian by birth and later a Julian through his adoption by Augustus; Gaius Caligula a Julian through his father Germanicus' adoption by Tiberius; Claudius a Claudian by birth; and Nero a Claudian through his adoption by Claudius. Furthermore, when the Julio-Claudians were extinguished by Nero's suicide in 68, the first emperor not of that family, Ser. Sulpicius Galba, was a member of one of the few still surviving families of the old patriciate. Furthermore a number of old patrician families experienced a significant, if brief, resurgence in the time of the Julio-Claudian emperors (27 B.C.-68 A.D.). These families were the Aemilii Lepidi, the Claudii Nerones, the Cornelii Dolabellae, the Cornelii Lentuli, the Cornelii Sullae, the Fabii Maximi, the Sulpicii Galbae and the Valerii Messallae. Like candles that burn most brightly just before they are extinguished, so the old Roman patriciate blazed up in glory just before its final denouement.


Cornelia 67 (Scipiones 21, Lentuli 18, Cinnae 6, Cethegi 4, Dolabellae 4, Arvinae 2, Blasiones 2, Cossi 2, Merulae 2,  Rufini 2, Sullae 2, Merendae 1, Scapulae 1)
Valeria 35 (Corvus 9, Flacci 8, Messalla 8, Laevinus 4, Poplicolae 3, Faltones 2, Potiti 1)
Aemilia 34 (Lepidi 14, Paulli 6, Mamercini 5, Barbulae 4, Papi 3, Scauri 2)
Fabia 29 (Maximi 18, Ambusti 4, Licini 2, Pictores 2, Buteones 1)
Sulpicia 19 (Petici 5, Galbae 4, Longi 3, Gali 2, Saverriones 2, Camerinus 1, Paterculus 1, Rufus 1)
Claudia 18 (Pulchri 11,  Caeci 2, Nerones 2, Caudices 1, Crassi 1, Centhones 1)
Manlia 18  (Torquati 8, Vulsones 4, Inperiosi 3, Capitolini 2, Acidini 1)
Postumia 18 (Albini 14, Megelli 4)
Julia 16 (Caesares 15, Libones 1)
Servilia 13 (Caepiones 6, Ahalae 3, Gemini 3, Tuscae 1)
Papiria 9 (Cursores 7, Crassi 2)
Quinctia 8 (Flaminini 4, Capitolini 2, Claudi 1, Crispini 1)
Furia 7 (Camilli 3, Phili 2, Pacili 1, Purpureones 1)
Marcia 2 (Reges 2)
Nautia 2 (Rebili 2)
Veturia 2 (Philones 2)
Foslia 1 (Flaccinator 1)



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