Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Part I: SPQR

This is the first of a planned five-part series looking at the structure of the Roman Republic as another example of civic governance structures in antiquity, to match our series on the Greek polis. As with that series, we’re going to start by defining our community and its constituent parts in this part, before moving through the elements of its government in subsequent essays in this series.

Discussing the Roman Republic after already looking at the normal structure of a polis offers an interesting vantage point. As we’ll see, the Roman Republic has a lot of the same features as a polis: a citizen body, magistrates, a citizen assembly, all structured around a distinct urban center and so on. On the other hand, as we’re going to see, the Romans have some different ideas about the res publica (that’s their phrase which gives us our word ‘republic’). They imagine the republic differently than a polis and that leads to some meaningful differences in its structure and nature, even though it seems to share a lot of ‘DNA’ with a polis and in some sense could be described as an ‘overgrown’ city-state.

Which leads into the other major difference: size. We’re going to be taking a snapshot of the Roman Republic, necessary because the republic changed over time. In particular what we’re going to look at here is really a snapshot of the republic as it functioned in the third and second centuries, what Roman historians call the ‘Middle Republic’ (c. 287-91BC). Harriet Flower defines this period as part of “the republic of the nobiles” which as we’ll see is an apt title as well.

But even by the beginning of this period, the Roman Republic is enormous by the standards of a polis. While a polis like Athens or Sparta with total populations in the low hundreds of thousands was already very large by Greek standards, the Roman Republic was much bigger. We know that in Italy in 225 there was something on the order of three hundred thousand Roman citizens liable for conscription, which implies a total citizen population right around a million. And that massive polity in turn governed perhaps another two million other Italians who were Rome’s ‘socii’ (‘allies’), perhaps the social category at Rome closest to ‘resident foreigners’ (metics) in Greek poleis. This is in Italy alone, not counting Rome’s ‘overseas’ holdings (at that point, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia). In short, the Roman Republic may in some ways be shaped like a polis, but it was a full order of magnitude larger than the largest poleis, even before it acquired provinces outside of Italy. As you may imagine, that has implications!

But before we get to those implications, as always if you want to become a citizen of the ACOUP Republic, you can support this project on Patreon and even join the ACOUP Senate! Of course, socii readers are always welcome, but will have their comments judged under the ius gentium rather than the ius civilis. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live.

The Roman forum, viewed from atop the Palatine hill.

(Bibliography Note: This is going to be a just-the-highlights sort of note as this is the central topic of study for the history of the Roman Republic. The standard reference work on the structure of Roman politics is A. Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic (1999). A good introduction to how these systems changed during the early and middle republics is H.I. Flower, Roman Republics (2010). The debate about the nature of the republic, particularly if it was a democracy, has been quite active, see especially F. Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (1998) and then in response to Millar, H. Mouritsen, Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic (2001) and R. Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (2004). The pre-Millarian views are perhaps best summarized and discussed in J. North, “Democratic politics in republican Rome” Past & Present 126 (1990).1 Another key reference work I want to mention here, though it is mostly for specialists, is T. Broughton, Magistrates of the Roman Republic (1951, 1960), known simply as the MRR, a comprehensive reference list of every known Roman office holder from 510 to 30 BC, with summaries of all of their careers. A lot of the subsequent work on the Roman nobiles is dependent on this monumental resource (and unlike it’s imperial-era counterpart, the PIR, it’s not in Latin!). On Roman law, which we’ll get into later in this series, I think A.M. Riggsby, Roman law and the Legal World of the Romans (2010) is an excellent first step into both the practice and theory of the Roman legal system. Last but not least, when it comes to textbook treatments, I think the Boatwright, Gargola, Lenski and Talbert, The Romans: From Village to Empire (2011) does the best job of any in actually explaining the system in its full complexity. It’s the textbook I teach from.)

What is a Republic?

We can start with how the Romans defined their own republic, before we get into the constituent parts as they understood them. The Latin term for the republic was, naturally enough, res publica (from which the modern word republic derives). Res is a very common, earthy sort of Latin word whose closest English equivalent is probably ‘matter,’ with that wide range of possible meanings. Res can mean a ‘thing’ more generally, ‘matter’ in the scientific sense, but also in an abstract sense it can be an interest, a cause, a court case or other set of events, or property generally. Meanwhile publica means ‘public,’ in the sense of something held in common or collectively or done for the collective good or interest. That gives res publica a wonderful kaleidoscope of meaning – it is the collective property (the ‘commonwealth’) of the citizenry but also the communal affairs, the matters of collective concern, the actions undertaken for the public benefit and indeed even the public benefit itself.

It is the things held in common. That ambiguity of meaning actually matters quite a bit because what the res publica was and what was important about it was different for different people. But naturally for some res to be publica, that meant other res needed to be privata; much like the polis was a collection of oikoi (and thus its ability to reach within the oikos as a unit was limited) so too the res publica was a collection of familiae (a word we’ll come back to, because it is complicated; it does not neatly mean ‘family’), the affairs of which were privatae, private.

What I think is worth noting as one of those subtle differences is how this contrasts with the Greek conception of the polis: a polis was fundamentally a collection of politai (citizens) whose institutions were their politeia (government, state). But the res publica is not a collection of citizens (Latin: cives), it is something distinct from them, held in common by them.

We can see this principle in the interesting phrase the Romans used to represent the senate: senatus populusque Romanus, “The Roman Senate and People” – usually abbreviated to SPQR.2 The division there is striking: there is a Roman People (the populus Romanus) and a Roman Senate and in some sense these are non-overlapping groups that together compose the republic. The Senate is not some sub-group of the populus but a distinct one with is a co-equal element of the republic with the populus.

Via Wikipedia, the inscription on the Arch of Titus opening, somewhat extravagantly with SPQR spelled out, SENATUS POPULUSQUE·ROMANUS. Note how the Senate and the Roman people each occupy their own lines, as equal but distinct entities.

Not only is the res publica thus not simply a collection of citizens, but it is in a real sense understood as a shared interest of different groups in the community, of which the populus is only one group. The Romans, more comfortable with open hierarchy among the citizens, can understand the republic as a balancing act between the interests of the political and social elite (the exact composition of which changes over time, but their mouthpiece is the Senate) and the people. The elite do not represent the people, they are not a select group of the people, but instead a distinct interest within the state which has its own legitimate expression, balanced against the expression of the people.

If all of that doesn’t make much sense, don’t worry: we’ll see these principles work themselves out in the way the res publica works and is structured.

But for this week, we want to provide a baseline overview of the components of the republic, which we’ll break up three different ways: the types of people, the organs of the state and finally the physical layout of the republic as a place.

Omnes in Ordinem

Let’s start with people. One of the themes that is going to become really clear here over time is that the Romans are a lot more comfortable with open status distinctions among the citizenry as compared to the Greeks. A Greek polis might restrict the number of politai down to a very small number, but the expectation was that there was at least some nominal equality within that number. The Roman citizen-body is much larger, Roman citizenship is substantially more open to new entrants, but the Romans are also a lot more comfortable with status distinctions within the citizenry.

This isn’t, by the by, that the republic was more hierarchical than any polis; many poleis were more oligarchic in practice than the Roman Republic – they simply restricted the number of actual participating politai down to a tiny number. Rather the Romans were a lot more comfortable with open hierarchy and status distinctions among the citizenry (who at least notionally had full civic participation) and so those distinctions were public and formalized (though often then politely obscured in regular conversation) in ways that would have been socially unacceptable in a Greek polis. Roman law still shows a lot of concern for protecting the basic dignity of free citizens, but once that baseline is guarded, it is a lot more OK with some free citizens being ‘big men’ and other being ‘small men.’

Naturally the first distinction is between citizens – cives – and non-citizens. While as we noted, Greek thinking tends to understand the politai as an exclusively male, self-replicating ‘club’ of families, Roman citizenship is more expansive. For one, while it is ambiguous if women were considered citizens of Greek poleis, it is very clear that Roman women were cives, albeit cives with heavily restricted civic rights. There is thus no need in Rome for a class of ‘women of citizen status,’ because Roman women were simply citizens and could, in the right circumstances, pass on that citizenship to children. That has all sorts of follow-on implications: Roman women were valid targets of wills and bequests, they could own and inherit property, they could act as witnesses in court, bring court cases and indeed even argue such cases themselves (though that was rare), because those were the prerogatives of citizens. Which Roman women were. That said, political participation was limited to adult citizen males, with most offices having age requirements to serve.

Via Wikiepedia the so-called Togatus Barberini, a first century BC (mostly) statue of a Roman elite, wearing a toga, carrying the bust of his ancestors, both a handy visual for what the nobiles looked like, but also for the Roman toga. The toga – in particular the plain toga virilis, was the market of adult male Roman citizens, elite and non-elite.

That said, much like Greek political thought imagines the politai of the polis to be made up of oikoi, Roman legal and political thought understands the cives to be made up of familiae (singular familia). Familia is one of those dangerous Latin words because you want to translate it as ‘family’ (and sometimes can), but it has a bigger meaning than that. Put simply, a familia is the household of a free, adult male with no living male ancestors (the pater familias), including his wife (the mater familias), any sons they may have (married or unmarried) or unmarried daughters3, any children those children may have and all property – including enslaved people – owned by all of those individuals. An enslaved servant was thus a member of the familia, but not a ‘member of the family.’ Roman law understands the legal power of the pater familias within the familia to be absolute, to the point of being able to put any member to death (this seems to have almost never happened, but it was legally permitted). One could argue the state and Roman law exists between, but not within, these familiae: within the familia the pater familias is absolute and it is only outside the familia that his authority is balanced with the law or the state.4

A simplified diagram I use with students to explain how familiae are structured inside of a Roman gens. I should note that the placement of women in this diagram is in particular heavily simplified (it assumes all marriages are cum manu, which in this period they would almost certainly not all be) and I just don’t resolve the complicated question of the living mother on the top left (she may, depending on how she married and the status of her own father, be sui iuris, legally independent). I use this diagram early in my Roman history survey, and we return to it in a later lecture where we discuss Roman marriage laws. Note how all of the sons and even grandsons of the right-most familia remain in the familia of their father, since he is still living.

A larger unit than the familia is the gens, which we might translate as ‘clan.’ This was an extended family unit composed of patrilineally related familiae. It is the name of the gens which is the Roman’s nomen, the middle name of the three-part Roman name (the trinomen). Which, given that a Roman has three names, a praenomen (fore-name), a cognomen (after-name) and a nomen (name) and the gens forms the nomen – this was an important part of identity. Thus Publius Cornelius Scipio’s nomen is Cornelius because he is of the gens Cornelia (by far the largest of the Roman gentes); the cognomen Scipio indicates a branch of that very large gens, while Publius (the praenomen) is his personal name. The bonds of the gens seem to have been very tight in the early republic, where individual gentes even sometimes went to war on their own, but by the Middle Republic, this had loosened. Still, there does seem to have been a general expectation that gentes or branches of them stuck together; you’d expect Scipiones to support each other politically, for instance.

Outside of the cives, there are Latini (‘Latins,’ non-Romans under the ius latinum, “the Latin right.” by the late third century these are rarely ethnic Latins who mostly have Roman citizenship at that date, but other communities of socii or residents of the ‘Latin colonies’ (see below)), socii (allies whose communities have a relationship with Rome, but are not Latins), peregreni (foreigners whose communities have no alliance with Rome) and servi (slaves). And we shouldn’t leave this merely implied: Rome was very much a slave society with a large enslaved underclass who were on the whole very poorly treated; enslaved people probably made up something like 15-20% of the population of Roman Italy in this period. There is also an odd category, cives sine suffragio, ‘citizens without the vote,’ who were members of Italian communities who couldn’t participate in Roman politics but who had the valuable legal rights of Roman citizens (under the ius civilis) rather than the more limited rights of foreigners (under the ius gentium). We’ll deal with these distinctions more when we get to the courts (and I may write a general side-bar on the socii-system). Finally, another odd category are liberti, freedpersons. These were enslaved people freed by Roman masters; such individuals gained Roman citizenship but with a few disabilities, like the inability to hold major magistracies or generally to serve in the army (but their children would be freeborn Romans with no such limitations).

Instead lets stay focused here on the cives. Some readers may be familiar with at least some of the formal distinctions among citizens that existed among Roman citizens, particularly the patrician/plebeian distinction and concept of an ordo senatorius (‘Senatorial order’)and an ordo equester (‘the Equestrian order’). I am going to now politely ask you to scrap what you think you know so we can start over, because these concepts are often so badly mangled in popular treatments and even in survey courses as to be unhelpful.

So let’s start with patricians and plebeians. This was a formal legal distinction; one was by birth one or the other. At the dawn of the republic, the leading families in Rome at the time, who sat in the Senate when it advised the kings (and who thus founded the republic itself) where the patricii, a title derived from senators being called patres (‘fathers,’ often patres conscripti). And in the early decades of the republic, political offices were restricted to members of these key families. Everyone else – the vast majority of Rome’s households – were plebeians. The thing is, from the mid-fourth century to the early third century (the Lex Hortensia of 287 marks the end of this process) the legal distinctions between the two groups largely collapsed as rich plebeian families successfully pushed to be ‘let in’ to full participation in Roman government. Consequently, by the mid-third century the distinction between patrician and plebeian is mostly politically unimportant. It does matter for religious purposes and being a patrician from a famous family is a nice status marker to have, but elite plebeian families are not rare in the Middle Republic.

So, repeat after me: the patrician/plebeian distinction is not particularly meaningful in the Middle Republic. There are rich plebeian families in the Middle Republic who are influential in politics.5 Do not anachronistically forward-project the political struggles of the fifth-through-early-third centuries onto the struggles of the late-second or first centuries. Plebeian is not a synonym for ‘poor.’

Meanwhile, the idea of a senatorial ‘order’ is entirely anachronistic for this period. There is a Senate (and we’re going to discuss it in some depth). It has roughly 300 members (all male), whose membership confers no legal status in this period on their families. The ordo senatorius as an actual thing only comes into existence with Augustus, after the end of the republic. There is a senate and senators but no ‘senatorial order.’

What there are are what our sources call nobiles, a term of the Late Republic which (among others) H.I. Flower uses to define the system of the Middle Republic – usefully so. To be nobilis was to be ‘well known,’ – the word comes to give us our word ‘noble’ but it doesn’t mean that yet, it means ‘notable.’ Families that got into high elected office in repeated generations (these are going to be very wealthy families; politics is not a game for the poor in Rome, as we’ll see) joined this informal club of nobiles. The exact borders of this club shifted, though generally only slowly, with small but significant numbers of new entrants as older families faded into relative obscurity (sometimes to surge back into prominence). But the movement is slow: from one generation to the next, most of the families of the nobiles remain the same, in part because Roman voters fairly clearly assume that the sons of great politicians will be great like their fathers.

Finally we have one more system of hierarchy to discuss here: clientela and patrocinium (two sides of the same coin), or as we’d say in English, patronage. At Rome as in many societies it was common for less wealthy, less influential citizens to entrust themselves to the protection of more powerful families in a reciprocal exchange. These sorts of patronage relationships were common in many societies, but they often carried a strong social stigma (as in Greece, for instance). In Roman Italy, however, patronage relationships of this sort were much less stigmatized and even elite Romans might, early in their career, be the clients of older, more established Roman politicians.

The basic exchange was as followed: the cliens agreed to support their patronus politically (to vote and canvass for him) and militarily (to volunteer to serve when he commanded an army if he needed trustworthy men) and in exchange the patronus agreed to protect his cliens legally (representing him in court, using his influence) and financially (being a source of emergency loans). There were social expectations too: clientes were expected to visit their patronus in the morning at least some of the time and might accompany him to the forum (see below), so the patronus would benefit from the status gained by his crowd of clientes. At the same time, neither cliens nor patronus will call the relationship that in public unless the status divide between them is extremely wide: instead they will insist they are amici (‘friends’) whose relationship is amicitia (‘friendship’), politely disguising an obviously hierarchical relationship as an equal one to avoid injuring anyone’s honor.

As you may well imagine these different lines cross: the nobiles were generally patroni (although up-and-coming politicians, even those from nobiles families, might still also be the clientes of yet more established politicians, while simultaneously having clientes of their own), whose network of clients formed a political ‘base’ of support in Roman politics. No one had enough clientes to simply win elections on that basis, but the network of clientes (and their clientes, this system can be nested) provided the durable foundation of political power for the nobiles, as patronage relationships were assumed to be inherited from one generation to the next.

But it also meant that many cives existed in a web of explicit (if politely obfuscated) obligations: members of the familia to the pater familias, that pater familias as a members of a gens but also as a cliens to his patronus and so on. The households of the cives are thus not atomized free-radicals, but understand to be interconnected by obligation and hieararchy. They are not the res publica, rather the res publica is what they all share together: those webs of obligation, at the top of which are the patres of the whole community, the patres conscripti of the Senate, who are of course also the biggest patrons and the patres familias of the most noble (nobilissimae, while we’re doing Latin) families.

There is a real ‘everyone with a place, everyone in his place’ vibe to all of that (though social mobility in this system is low, it is not zero), but the Romans seem broadly to have been pretty comfortable with these forms of hierarchy.6

A Mixed Constitution

The Romans, at least by the Late Republic, understood their form of government to be a ‘mixed constitution,’ an idea that appears first in Aristotle but was first applied to the Roman Republic, in so far as we can tell, by Polybius (Polyb. 6.11ff). Cicero adopts the same framework to understand the res publica in, appropriately enough, De re publica (‘On the Republic’). What that meant for both Polybius and Cicero was that power was balanced between monarchic, oligarchic and democratic elements in the constitution (which was, to be clear, unwritten). As Polybius puts it:

The three kinds of government that I spoke of above [monarchy, aristocracy, democracy] all shared in control of the Roman state. And such fairness and properity in all respects was shown in the use of these three elements for drawing up the constitution and in its subsequent administration that it was impossible even for a native to pronounce with certainty whether the whole system was aristocratic, democratic or monarchical. This was indeed only natural. For if one fixed one’s eyes on the power of the consuls, the constitution seemed completely monarchical and even royal; but if on that of the Senate, it seemed again aristocratic; and if one contemplated the authority of the many, it seemed clearly to be a democracy.7

Readers of the series on the polis will immediately note the basics of polis government: magistrates (the consuls, though more as we’ll see), plus a gerousia (the Senate) and the ‘authority of the many’ which you might guess – correctly – to be vested in popular assemblies. And that is indeed the basic structure by which the res publica governs itself; in this way it resembles a polis quite a lot, but as we’ll see there are some important differences in how each of the organs functions.

First, we have the magistrates. Polybius has simplified this quite a bit to merely the most senior magistrates, the consuls, but the Romans had a whole system of elected magistrates, a progression of offices in a ‘career path’ they called the cursus honorum. Much like many (but not all) Greek magistracies, these are not boards of officials but rather each official is fully empowered to act in his own sphere during his time in office. We’ll get into these fellows in more depth later, but the high magistracies of the res publica were (in ascending order of importance) the quaestors (treasury officials), the aediles (public works officials), the tribunes of the plebs (a tricky magistracy we’ll discuss in more depth), the praetors (mostly handling courts) and the consuls.

Diagram of the cursus honorum I use in my lectures. Note that the quaestorship is the first real step on this ladder, whereas the military tribunate is more of a good preparation; think of it like a really solid internship. Don’t worry about the complexity here, we’ll discuss all of these offices (and a few others).
Boxes with white text are offices with a military character. Boxes in red are offices that grant imperium.

The praetors and the consuls (and dictators) had a power called imperium, which is what is the vast authority that leads Polybius to say they are nearly monarchs. We’ll get into imperium more later, but for now, imperium – literally the power of command – is the power to use legitimate violence on behalf of the state, either in the form of raising armies (external violence) or organizing courts (internal violence). While the imperium of a consul was superior to that of a praetor (so one could order the other), imperium itself was indivisible: you could not be a court official without also being able to command armies and vice-versa. These were, you may recall, powers that most poleis split up, but in Rome they come together, stuck together by the fact that to the Romans this was one power. That made the consuls – of which there were always two, each with the power to block the actions of the other – very powerful magistrates, almost absurdly so, compared to most Greek magistrates.

But Rome has a Senate, and oh boy does Rome have a Senate. The Senate has existed before the republic (and would exist after it) as an advisory body to the king, consisting of the heads of all of the most important elite families (who, after all, the king would want to listen to if he intended to stay king). And so it persisted into the republic as an advisory body to the magistrates, so that any magistrate looking to take an action might first ask the Senate if it seemed a good idea. The Senate has – and say it with me now (I make my classes chant this) – the Senate has no formal powers. Not a one. It cannot raise taxes, levy war, make laws, hold trials, nothing. It only advises, issuing opinions which are called senatus consulta.

Via Wikipedia, Cicero Denounces Catiline (1888) by Cesare Maccari, which I love even though it isn’t a particularly accurate depiction of the sort of space the Senate would meet in.

But remember, this is a system where the Senate is composed of the heads of all of the most influential families. Who hold sway over their large gentes. And all of their clients. If a Roman politician wanted to ever have any future at all for himself or the careers of his family, he had to work with the Senate. Consequently, while the Senate only advised the magistrates, the advice of the Senate was almost always obeyed, giving it a tremendous guiding power of the state. This particular sort of influence has a name, the auctoritas Senatus – the Authority of the Senate. In the republic, the way one becomes a member of the Senate was to win election to lower office and then gain the – usually pro forma – approval of the censors (officials elected every five years to take the census), so the Senate was effectively a body ex-magistrates, the most notable and successful of the nobiles. Thus the combined auctoritas of the Senate was immense indeed.

Finally, never to do things by half, Rome has not one or two but four popular assemblies, though one (the Comitia Curiata) might as well not exist by our period. The remaining three assemblies (the Comitia Centuriata, the Comitia Tributa and the Concilium Plebis) all can pass laws, they can all have a rare judicial function and they all elect magistrates (but different ones). Assemblies are pretty tightly controlled: they can only meet when convened by the right magistrate and can only vote on the proposal the magistrate puts to them (and cannot modify it or deliberate on it; up or down vote). That makes them seem quite weak except that they’re the only way to elect magistrates, the only way to pass laws (remember: the Senate cannot legislate, repeat until numb), the only way to declare war or ratify a peace treaty.

We’ll get into the complicated current arguments over just how democratic these assemblies really were, but I think Polybius here is owed some deference. While the assemblies were often just a consensus mechanism getting the people lined up collectively behind a decision reached by the magistrates and the Senate, so long as there were divisions in the oligarchy – and there were almost always divisions in the oligarchy – there was potentially a lot of power for assemblies to express. Though as we’ll see, the assemblies are not democratic in the ‘one person, one vote’ sense.

If the res publica was not simply a gathering of citizens nor was it – as we’ll see – a place (though it was in a place), it was these institutions and their balancing. These were, after all, things in common – res that were publica and it seems no accident that when writing on de re publica it is these things (along with law and the ideal sort of citizen) that Cicero writes.

The Republic in Place: Romae, Domi and Militiae

(Quick fun exercise for Latin students: what case are those Latin words in? Answer to follow!)

Of course the Roman Republic also existed in physical space. But whereas a polis could be understood as a place with a set of component spatial parts, the res publica was not a place or spatial designation itself. Instead, the republic existed in a specific place and that place was Rome. The Athenians could imagine moving the citizen body out of Attica and thereby re-founding Athens somewhere else (and indeed, explicitly threaten to do so, Hdt. 8.62), because the polis was the politae and went where they went. At the same time, as we’ve noted, in Greek the word polis could simply mean the urban core of the community; it could be a synonym of astu (‘town’).

Neither is true for the Romans. While in Greek the polis was both the place and the state (the word could mean both things), that synonymy doesn’t exist in Latin: the urbs is not the res publica, rather the res publica operates within the urbs. At the same time, Rome cannot move and the res publica can operate nowhere else, something the Romans understood to be a divinely ordained fate, a fundamental fact about the universe (the idea shows up in both Vergil’s Aeneid, of course, but also Cicero’s De re publica, inter alia). And so the res publica isn’t composed of component geographical spaces so much as it operates in or controls geographical space. Whereas the polis consisted of an urban core (the astu) and its hinterlands (the chora) in a real sense the Roman Republic lived only in Rome and just so happened to also control a countryside. Put another way, a polis was understood as being both the house and the yard, both equally specific to the politae; the Roman Republic was a thing that exclusively existed in the house, but exercised jurisdiction over the yard, which was outside of it. Once again this is a fine distinction I don’t want to overstress, but I think it is also a meaningful one.

Nevertheless, physical space does matter and it is worth discussing so let’s do so in two quick movements, first working outward from the edge of the city and then inward.

Rome itself was ritually defined by a sacred boundary, the pomerium around the city itself; the phrase means something like ‘beyond the [city] wall’ but in practice the pomerium might only imperfectly match the city’s actual defensive wall at any given time. The larger point is that this sacred boundary covered only the urban core: no part of Rome’s hinterland was within it; indeed as the city grew, large portions of the urban core were outside of it. The pomerium was a ritual boundary but one with legal significance. Weapons were banned within the pomerium and the powers of certain magistrates (those with imperium, a concept we’ll return to) were diminished within it, while the powers of other magistrates (the tribunes of the plebs) did not extend beyond it. Roman armies could only operate, legally, outside the pomerium so war was an activity that, by definition took place outside this zone (which is why the later stages of the dilectus must happen on the campus Martius, the ‘Field of Mars,’ which sits just outside the pomerium).

Via Wikipedia, a map of Rome during the Republic with the boundary of the pomerium marked out in red.

Outside of the pomerium was the ager Romanus, ‘the Roman field,’ a term which designated the territory directly controlled by Rome and inhabited by Roman citizens in Italy. By the third century, this was no small amount of territory but encompassed around a third of peninsular Italy, as the Romans tended, when they won wars, to strip defeated communities of some of their land, annexing it into the ager Romanus. Much of this territory was relatively close to Rome but some of it was not. Often the Romans founded colonies of Roman citizens in restive parts of Italy to serve effectively as garrisons or security bulwarks; some of these colonies retained Roman citizenship, while in others the colonists instead took citizenship in the new community and status as ‘Latins’ in Rome (thus leading to the situation that, by the late second century, most of the ‘Latin colonies’ are in fact transplanted Romans, not Latins, which goes some way to explaining their loyalty to Rome in a crisis). There were also municipia [towns] cum suffragio, that is towns that were locally self-governing but whose citizens were also Roman citizens and could participate in Roman governance.

Via Wikipedia a map of Roman territory in Italy by the end of the second century, with Roman territory (the ager Romanus) colored in green and the lands of the socii in red (light red for socii, darker red for the Latin colonies).

Then of course there was the rest of Italy, which the Romans understood, by our period (starting 287 BC) to be under the imperium populi Romani (‘the control of the Roman people,’ though imperium in this sense gives us our word ’empire’). The non-Roman communities of Italy were bound by treaty to support Rome in an ‘alliance system’ that was a thinly disguised system of imperial domination. We’ll talk more about this system in a separate post, but we should note that the Romans understand these as distinct communities under the imperium of the Roman people, not as constituent parts of the res publica.

Likewise, moving further out, beginning in 241, Rome begins establishing permanent control of territories overseas in what come to be the provinciae or provinces. Initially the word provincia simply indicated an assignment, a job for a Roman magistrate – generally a consul or praetor – to take an army somewhere and either wage war or ‘keep the peace.’ Over time those assignments became routine as Roman power expanded, leading to the understanding of the provinces as permanent administrative a geographical divisions. But fundamentally a province (at least, during the period of the republic) was a sphere of Roman foreign policy, to which a magistrate was sent with an army to administer.

One way to understand this is through a common binary opposition in Roman language: domi (‘at home’) vs. militiae (‘at military service’).8 If you weren’t domi (‘at home’) then you were militiae (‘at military service,’ sometimes also rendered as belli, ‘at war’). Much of Italy might be a grey area that could be both domi or militiae depending on circumstances (though sometimes Romae, ‘at Rome,’ replaces domi in the opposition, making it rather more specific), but the provinces were always militiae, a sphere of activity and service, a place the res publica exerted its imperium, but not a place it inhabited itself. As such in this period provinces have fuzzy, rather than defined outward borders: assuming a province isn’t an island, it can always be pushed further through more military activity. After all, military activity is what the provinces are for.

Moving instead inward into the city of Rome, the city itself sat along the Tiber; in this period it was not quite yet divided by it, but instead occupied the seven hills (and the lower ground between them) of the southern bank of the river. The seven hills, of course, are the Capitoline, Palatine, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal and Quirinal. The Capitoline hill (or Capitolium, which might also just refer to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the hill) was the Roman equivalent of an acropolis and was where Rome’s most important temples were, particularly the aforementioned temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximums, “Jupiter, the Greatest and the Best.”9 The Palatine hill, the central hill of the bunch, was the traditional seat of Rome’s upper-class, where the wealthiest families would have their houses. In the imperial period, it would become the normal site for the imperial residence itself, eventually leading to our word ‘palace.’ The Aventine hill, unusual in the bunch, sat outside the pomerium and seems both to have been associated with the plebeians as a sort of mirror to the patrician Palatine, as well as an association with foreign elements (both people and gods) transitioning into membership in the Roman community.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the seven hills of Rome. Note also the position of the campus Martius.

In the space between the six northern hills, hugging the slopes of the Capitoline and Palatine, was the forum Romanum. Originally a swampy, lowland space, it was drained in the seventh century creating a common space for the communities that had developed on Rome’s hills an probably marking the beginning of Rome’s coalescence into a single community. By the Middle Republic, it was the long-established center of Roman political life. It featured both key political and religious buildings. Of particular political import was the comitium, initially the site of Rome’s public assemblies (though by this point some of those have moved) as well as the curia Hostilia, the Senate’s primary meeting point (though it might meet elsewhere as well). Also on the forum was the rostra (literally ‘beaks’ or ‘rams’) a large speaker’s platform decorated with six warship rams (rostra) captured in 338 BC, which was the standard place for political events like speeches. The courts also operated in the forum.

From the Ancient World Mapping Center and thence from The Romans: From Village to Empire (2011), a map of the Roman forum. Not all of the locations in the table appear on the map, as I have snipped this insert out of a larger map for clarity. The Capitoline Hill would be just off of this map to the left and the Palatine just off of the map to the bottom, to give a sense of where the forum is.

It is difficult to overstate the centrality of the forum to Roman political life and thus the res publica. As we’ll see, Rome’s system of government is a face-to-face one, where basically all functions must be done in person. The forum was where that happened and political writers – especially Cicero – routinely stress the importance of being in the forum, of being seen in the forum and being heard in the forum as part of the job of one of the nobiles and indeed of course the thing that made one nobilis – notable, known – in the first place.

Also of note was the campus Martius, the ‘Field of Mars,’ which sits just outside the pomerium in the bend of the Tiber river to the north-west of the city. The campus Martius originated as Rome’s muster field where the army was drawn up at the start of the campaigning season. It was also where the Roman census took place (we’ll talk about this more when we get to magistrates). It was also a big, open assembly place and so as Rome grew larger, the most complex of Rome’s voting assemblies, the comitia centuriata, moves out into this space because it no longer really fit in the forum. In the Late Republic this space, no longer as essential as a military muster point, begins to be the site of building, both of temples and eventually private residences; in the imperial period it is wholly built up. But during the Middle Republic, this is mostly an open space, with just a few major structures.

All of which seems like too short an introduction to this tangled, messy thing called the res publica, but this post is already overlong and overdue, so it will have to serve. If anything, putting this series together in a messy, ad hoc manner is fully in character for the Roman Republic; as we’ll see it too is the result not of some deliberate plan or grand moment of foundation so much as the product of one messy ad hoc bandaid solution laid over another, over another.

  1. We’ll come to this later, but I think there is a tendency online for a lot of folks to essentially pronounce the Millarian-view of the republic as ‘dead,’ but this is not my experience among Roman historians, where often Millarian views, in weakened, modified forms, persist beyond Mouritsen and Morstein-Marx’s assaults. Of course we can’t write about this because you must have a last name starting with the letter M in order to write on Roman politics, by ancient custom. As we’ll see, I am a bit more Millarian, but for different reasons: I think some deference is owed to how Polybius understands the system he is observing to work and despite being very skeptical of democracy and desiring to be very approving of the Roman constitution, he feels the need to stress that its democratic elements work. I think we should believe him.
  2. ‘Romanus’ the adjective, modifies both senatus and populus, so both the Senate and the People are Roman. The phrase is often rendered into more idiomatic English as, “the Senate and People of Rome” to make that clearer.
  3. Simplification note: the place of married daughters in the familia gets very complex very fast and isn’t something to delve into here. Maybe we can deal with Roman marriage law in a later post.
  4. But in practice, custom and social expectations seem to have significantly restrained the actions of the pater familias. In particular the absolute power to kill or disinherit seems to have been exercised so rarely that it mostly belonged to legends (except for infant exposure, which does appear as a more regular practice in our sources; we are not well enough informed about the practice to estimate its magnitude. Exposed infants seem often to have been taken in and raised by other households as slaves. While older scholarship often assumed extensive sex-selective exposure, the gender ratios we see in our evidence doesn’t support that; likewise the evidence we have for marital fertility patterns suggests that exposure may have been rare for children born in wedlock and may have been more typical for children born out of wedlock, on this see Frier, “Demography” (2000), 803-4).
  5. But not many poor patrician families. Wealth and power in the republic tend to be sticky.
  6. When we do see conflict is when families which are notable cannot engage in politics (the Struggle of the Orders) or when families which ‘ought’ to be respectable free-holding farmers struggle to maintain that status (part of the crisis of the Late Republic).
  7. Polyb 6.11, trans. Paton rev. Walbank and Habicht with slight modifications by me.
  8. That’s right, Latin students: these were locative case nouns!
  9. It is the most defensible of the hills, but not actually the tallest (the Quirinal is higher).

182 thoughts on “Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Part I: SPQR

  1. When you were talking about domi vs militiae, I couldn’t help but think of Romani ite domum.

  2. Fascinating introduction, and I look forward to more to come, but as with most of these, it leaves me with a few questions.

    1) Where did censors stand in this magisterial hierarchy? They didn’t hold Imperium, which would imply they’re quite low on the proverbial ladder, but at the same time they seem to have tremendous power over other magistrates and the senate, being able to strip people out of their status if they wanted to.

    2) You said that weapons were banned in the Pomeranium. But I know that Rome itself was garrisoned during the 2nd Punic War, when they were worried about Hannibal storming the city. And while the sack after the Allia might be legendary, at the very least people like Livy believed that it was a thing and that you had a garrison holding out in the citadel somewhere. (Come to think of it, where would this citadel have been? On the Capitoline hill somewhere?) How did that square with the banning of weapons in the Pomeranium? Was that a band-aid thing suspended if the city itself was threatened?

    3) Concerning note 8, why is the Capitoline hill the most defensible if the Quirnal is the higher one?

    1. On your third question, you can see on the seven hills map that the Capitoline stands alone and must be climbed from the lowland, while the Quirinal can be approached along a ridge from the high ground to the northeast instead.

      1. I’m seeing suggestions elsewhere, including the Pomerium map, that the Quirinal was deemed to include the entirety of the ridge in question. Since the hill’s nominal boundary wouldn’t matter to an invading army, the point stands. The Quirinal, Esquiline and Viminal hills can be approached from higher ground outside the city without any natural obstacles and are therefore not good for a final defense once the enemy has taken the wall..

  3. One question I have: we’re focusing here on a snapshot of Rome in the middle republic. But that’s in the middle of a long period of expansion and transformation. Was the early Roman Republic closer to a polis, and then had to change as it grew? Or did Rome import a lot of Greek ideas, adopting the trappings of a polis?

  4. Just curious, & at the risk of projecting an even more massive anachronism onto the Middle Republic– was the “stickiness” of patrician wealth at all a function of poor patricians being able to marry into rich plebeian families? I’m thinking of the practice in early modern Europe where penniless aristocrats married wealthy but “low-born” merchant families– the aristocrats refilled their family coffers while the merchants got a high-status name. Were marriages of this sort common in the Middle Republic, or am I just introducing another anachronism?

    1. Well, sometimes. For example, Gaius Julius Caesar Dictator’s grandfather (also named G Julius Caesar) despite having the most aristocratic of patrician bloodlines was not wealthy enough for a political career. But he succeeded in marrying his daughter (Julia- they were all named Julia) to the up and coming and fabulously rich Novus Homo, Gaius Marius, and Marius’ money enabled Caesar’s father (yet again G Julius Caesar) to have a middling political career and membership in the Senate (also to marry an Aurelia, from another blueblood gens).

  5. Two questions about the role of gens in Roman society:

    1) Do we have any idea when the Romans outlawed polygamy? I ask because I get the impression “large extended patrilineages are very important” is mainly a feature polygynous societies, simply because it a lot easier for patrilineages to get really big in a polygynous society. This makes me wonder if the importance of gens might be a hold-over from a polygynous period in roman society—one that faded in importance as Rome got further and further temporally from the banning of polygyny.
    2) This is a more speculative issue, but I can’t help but wonder, if Rome had somehow been wiped out during that early Republican period where a gens might go to war on its own, would this be cited as evidence that the Roman republic was a non-state society?

    1. Statehood is a flexible enough concept that it is considerably tighter for more chronologically closer entities isn’t it? For the ancient era is it considered enough to have urban agglomerations?
      IIRC the city of Rome by 390 BCE had one of the biggest circuit walls by the mediterranean and the (old) temple of Jupiter already was up there with the biggest of greek temples.

    2. I’m not aware the Romans ever practiced polygamy. In general, Indo-European cultures have been monogamous. Of course the wealthier Romans could have slave concubines, and maybe sometimes free ones.

      1. I agree that polygamy does not seem to ever have been a Roman practice. But I would not think this is commonly Indo-European, unless you ascribe Persian and Indian marriage law to ‘local conditions’. I believe Norse leaders, jarls etc. used to have one wife and several concubines as well (though I guess that depends on where to draw the limit; of course many monogamous cultures have tolerated some form of concubinage too)

        1. Swedish law actually kept some degree of rights for recognized concubines well post-christianization, including some degree of inheritance rights. (technically the legal category of “children of concubine” didn’t disappear until 1734!)

          1. The knight, the lady, and the priest : the making of modern marriage in medieval France by Georges Duby has some interesting stuff about the removal of concubinage as an official status.

          2. This is formally true, as Sweden published one of the first total codification of civil and criminal law that year. (Technically, all subsequent Swedish and Finnish legislation is modifications of this code.) Only the older Church law of 1686 and the constitutional law remained in force.

            However, I think that the main issue was that Swedish law had a civil concept of marriage until 1686: purely formally, the marriage was formed when the legal wedder (usually the father) gave the daughter publicly into marriage using an antiquated legal formula, and the spouses accepted this by going to bed together:
            I give my daughter to be an honourable wife, to have half of the bed, the locks and keys, and every third penny that you have and that you may have in removable property and to all the rights that Uppland’s law and Saint Eric give, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

            As you see, this legal formula forswears all other women from the marriage bed. There was no legal concubinage in the late medieval Swedish law.

            What you call “concubines” was technically “bethrothed”. The Swedish law considered children born of a betrothed woman to be legitimate, and it also provided that any children born extramaritally would become legitimate when the parents married. However, only an unmarried man could have a betrothed. A betrothal was a serious issue, the breaking of which was a criminal matter with heavy financial and ecclesiastical penalties.

        1. One of the heroines of the Hindu religious epic Mahabharata is actually a woman with five husbands (all brothers). This isn’t precisely religiously “sanctioned”, and it’s hedged around with all sorts of caveats and pious fretting, and of course what’s permitted to mythical heroes isn’t necessarily permitted to normal people, but still, it’s fascinating to me that South Asia (and greater Tibet which in some ways is culturally strongly linked to South Asia) are the only major parts of the world where polyandry has ever been a thing. (And when it was a thing it usually took this form, fraternal polyandry).

          I’m not sure whether that was an Indo-European tradition though, versus something indigenous to South Asia.

          1. That’s not that great an example.

            Canonically, Arjuna cheats on Draupadi several times.

            Krishna even tells Arjuna to go kidnap his sister for the purpose of forced marriage.

          2. “That’s not that great an example.”

            I didn’t say, nor do I believe, nor would I ever say, that Vedic-era India (or premodern Tibet, or some of the Indian tribal societies, or any other societies that accepted polyandry) were consistent with modern liberal sexual mores, or were doing so for liberal or feminist reasons. Their reasons were quite different. I do think though, that some cultures within South Asia and Tibet have historically featured fraternal polyandry (which is fairly unusual elsewhere in the world), that I think you can see this reflected in the epic literature, and that even within the epic itself you see considerable unease about it, and an effort to impose more recognizably patriarchal values. That’s my (limited) point.

    3. Concerning 1) We do not know. We do not know when and why the Greeks and Romans (and other Mediterranean communities) abolished polygamy. It is curious that those peoples where civic government instead of kingship was common were also the ones that didn’t practice polygamy. I do see a logic to this, if the elite doesn’t want any of them to become too powerful, it make sense for them to make sure marriages (and thus alliances) among the elite a equally distributed. But afaik non of the legendary Roman kings is said to have had multiple wifes.

      Concerning 2) I would say only if the majority of wars we knew of were done by gentes. If there is the occasional time a family goes to war, but most wars are by the romans as an entire community, we would probably think it was a state-society (though it depends a bit on the definition).

      1. Not all kingships are the same. I believe the Roman kingship was elective. And while I think the Greek ones weren’t, the Odyssey shows Telemachus having to deal with an assembly. So _if_ we assume that a sort of warrior egalitarianism is behind monogamy (“one full wife per warrior”), that might still apply even before city-state republics.

        Not sure what the Germanic or Celtic tribes/kingdoms would tell us. Or the Aryans over in India.

        1. Or the arabs, for that matter.

          I think one argument I saw is that rather than some kind of “one man one wife” thing, the primary motive is to try to curtail elite alliance-making-via marriage. Which can be something useful either for a monarchy trying to clamp down rivals (when they’re not doing it themselves of course) or a republic worried about aristocratic cliques.

      2. The Greeks did not abolish polygamy – it just was rare. Hellenistic monarchs adopted the practice without much comment. For that matter, most marriages where polygamy is permitted are monogamous, as only the rich can afford multiple wives. Royalty had many wives, but this often was for diplomatic reasons.

        1. But the Hellenistic monarchs were Macedonian/of Macedonian background, a society that did have established kingship in contrast to the Greek poleis. I am not aware of any cases of polygamy in one of the poleis.

          1. I can’t think of any examples of polygyny, but Spartan polyandry is claimed by Xenophon, Plutarch, and Polybius.

          2. I saw a reference to where Athenian men took a second wife after military disaster – both to provide for them and to encourage the rapids replacement of lost citizens. Given the paucity of sources, the best guess is that there was no formal law, just a strong custom of monogamy.

      3. I don’t know why the concept of “abolishing” polygamy comes in, absent some preparation. Many hunger-gatherer societies are monogamous, so there is no need to posit the abolition of polygamy in any particular Bronze Age culture.

        1. I believe that the baseline of Indo-european culture is monogamy. Tacitus states that the Germans were monogamous and that German women were chaste outside of marriage.

    4. Of course men have had something on the side forever, and taken advantage of slaves and poor women, but formal concubine was, under Roman law an inferior form of marriage. You couldn’t have a wife and a concubine or two concubines.

    5. “I ask because I get the impression “large extended patrilineages are very important” is mainly a feature polygynous societies, simply because it a lot easier for patrilineages to get really big in a polygynous society. ”

      This is a bit surprising because clan structures in Scotland (and in lots of other places) were, or at least set themselves up as, large extended patrilineages – all the Macdonalds were supposedly patrilineal descendants of one original Donald, that is what “Mac Donald” means! – and Scotland wasn’t a polygynous society.

      (“clann” means “descendants” in Gaelic).

  6. My favorite fact about the word res: The institution of the agentes in rebus, ‘rebus’ being a conjugation (ablative, I think) of ‘res’. Generally translated ‘those active in matters’, or more loosely ‘the ones who do stuff’. The maximally vague euphemism for “the Emperor’s internal spies”.

    ‘Rebus’ is also where we get the name for those word puzzles that make you sound out some images to get a word or phrase.

    1. As I seem to recall at least one major Roman defeat that resulted in part from both consuls going out with the army, being unable to agree who was in charge, and deciding to take turns on opposite days, resulting in some very unwise “This way! No, that way!” maneuvering…

      I can only say “probably.” 😛

      1. Cannae, which resulted in the practical annihilation of the entire Roman army in one day. There was (supposed to be) personal tension between the two consuls, but the alternation was a matter of law, not indecisiveness.

  7. Caption to ‘Diagram of a genus’: “Note how all of the sons and even grandsons of the left-most familia “. Should that not be right-most familia? The other (living) pater-familea don’t have grand-children (probably because those are the right-most paters nephews, i.e. a generation younger than him).

  8. “the advice of the Senate was almost always obeyed”

    I can’t find it now, but I read a description of the procedure by which the Church of England elevates bishops. There were various procedures to sift the field, but eventually the king or queen (as appropriate) “nominated” a candidate, and — what a surprise! — the diocesan College of Canons always just happened to elect that candidate! It was described along the lines of “like pushing a man out of a third-floor window and recommending that he fall”.

    1. There is a great letter from Henry II to the canons of some place or other, commanding them to have a “free and open election” for their new bishop- “but under no circumstances elect anyone other than my clerk Roger”

    2. Hilariously nowadays the Vacancy In See Committee tells the PM (technically they still send two names, but one’s explicitly circled since Gordon Brown came to office and, as a devout Presbyterian, theologically objected to bishops too much to exercise even the slightest personal thought over the matter), who to recommend the King advise the College of Canons to elect. So it’s while not quite the same people, a roughly similar idea of who should make the choice as the original election by the canons, but with most of the procedures in between still part of the process as formalities.

        1. That’s what you get when you establish an Act of Union with a country with a different religion and actually let them participate in government.

          1. The British PM just over a hundred years ago was a Presbyterian, and also wasn’t (by modern standards) British at all; today we would think of him as Canadian.

      1. For a little while now, since Musk decided to limit the number of tweets one can view depending on one’s account status, the twitter sidebar has been empty – probably because a little-publicized part of the change was that people without twitter accounts couldn’t see any tweets at all. The current state of the sidebar mirrors what you get if you click on one of the tweets, then on our esteemed host’s name. This state of affairs has apparently also broken threading – each tweet is only visible on its own, even if you click on it.

        IOW, great work, Elon.

  9. What about great grandchildren? Where they not part of their great grandfather familia? Or were they simply so rare as to not be worth talking about?

    1. Given the general shortness of life and the Roman elite male’s tendency towards late marriage living g. grandfathers were probably rare. If however g. grandchildren existed they’d be part of the Familia unless the father ot grandfather had been emancipated. I think.

      1. Was life actually generally short? Average lifespans give a false sense of pre-industrial societies; high infant and child death rates drag the average lifespan down considerably. If you made it past 10, and didn’t die in battle, you could generally expect to see 60 or even 70 in many societies, meaning that if you lived you likely would see your grandchildren.

        1. Cato the Elder lived to be eighty five but he didn’t see his great grandsons. Late marriage.
          Graveyards indicate death in the forties or fifties was common.

        2. There’s a significant range, but lifespan was significantly shorter even accounting for infant mortality. (infant mortality is how you get average life expectancy in the 30’s-40’s)

          But of course, average is average: There’s always a chance of beating the odds. But 80 was notably old, rather than “just the age people are expected to get to” as it is nowadays.

        3. Really complicated. It is true that life expectancy at birth changes dramatically when U-5 mortality begins to be controlled at first by some fairly simple hygiene and health measures, including sanitary water supplies and hand washing. But, even looking at the US, there has been a substantial change in life expectancy among adults over the last 120 years.

          The following numbers are from US government publications and represent total population experience (life insurance and annuity experience will differ). They represent expectation of life at various ages and the years for which they were calculated.

          @ birth
          1901 49.2
          1939 63.6
          2020 77.0

          1901 42.8
          1939 48.5
          2020 57.7

          1901 28.3
          1939 31.0
          2020 39.3

          1901 11.9
          1939 12.8
          2020 18.5

          At each age there has been an increase in expectation during the last 120 years, but the biggest jump was at birth. Even at age 65 there has been an appreciable increase, so much so that Social Security is developing real financial problems.

          Further, it is instructive to look at the genealogies of royal families in various historic eras. When reading a history of the Thirty Years War a few years ago I was struck by the number of monarchs who died in bed in their 50s. Few of them lived to 70. Maximilian of Bavaria was a wild outlier who lived to 78. None of them starved to death, unlike their subjects. The same thing is true among other royal houses. Victoria lived to be 81. Her great-great granddaughter Elizabeth was 96.

          1. With regard to royals, I’ve read that their diet was a contributing factor. They ate rich foods, lots of processed grains, and foods that weren’t as nutritious as those that the peasants ate. Peasants were eating whole-grain bread, for example, while royals were eating bleached white bread. “Honey disease”–diabetes–was, if not common, at least not unknown among royals, but would have been VERY rare among the peasants (those who had it genetically probably wouldn’t survive lean periods, and their diets weren’t the type to cause it). That probably is one cause.

          2. Dinwar: The peasants died like flies no matter that their diet complied with 21st century food neurosis of Americans. The important thing about royals was not what they ate, it was that they ate regularly.

          3. I think Dinwar has a point. Yes, food insecurity would carry off the poor (especially old and children) in a way that it wouldn’t elite. But elite diets could have real health problems that can’t be dismissed as “neurosis”:

            gout from too much meat
            bad teeth and maybe diabetes from too much sugar (early modern Europe, anyway)
            beriberi from too much white rice (Asian not European problem)

            By all food science I know, a diet of whole grains and beans and vegetables is indeed healthier than a diet of white bread and meat. It’s _also_ true that a continuous diet of white bread and meat is healthier than a _famine interrupted_ diet of whole grains and beans.

            So by modern standards, poor people could die early of famine or famine-assisted disease, while rich people die early of gout or tooth infection or heart attack or beriberi, depending on period.

          4. “The peasants died like flies no matter that their diet complied with 21st century food neurosis of Americans.”

            My comment was specifically regarding why royals died early. You are correct in stating that starvation is worse than a bad diet (referring to dietary science as “21st century food neurosis of Americans” is asinine and totally uncalled for, by the way), so the data you presented has an apparent contradiction. Poor diet among the rich potentially explains that apparent contradiction.

          5. You can see the results plainly enough if you just read the biographies. Caesar is born around 100, his dad is dead in 85. marc antony is born in 83, his dad dies in 73. Octavian is born in 63, his dad dies in 59. Cato is born in 95, his dad dies in 91. the roman system were you weren’t really a legal adult until your dad died would never have worked if it was common for people to live long enough to had adult sons active in politics.

            Looking at the results more statistically at marriage records, the cambridge companion claims that 1/3 of romans had lost their fathers by 15 and 2/3s by 25. By 40, it was 14/15.

          6. If the head of household is a four-year-old, who’s actually running things? His mother?

          7. Poor nutrition most frequently leads to degenerative disease. I think that the biggest reason for shorter lifespans in the past was infectious disease. It’s not just plague and smallpox but the recurrent intestinal and respiratory disorders which afflicted everyone (but especially the poor and the urban dwellers). Of course, actual malnutrition reduces disease resistance, but that doesn’t apply to the rich. A good recent book on this topic is Plagues upon the Earth by Kyle Harper.

          8. formerlycassander: Good point. The great tragedy of my life is that my father died at 70 — far too young –, when I was 45.

            Bullseye: Excellent question. I hope that Professor Devereaux can enlighten us on Roman Family Structure, as he does on so much else.

            Dinwar — Mindstalko: I apologize for dismissing diet science so cavalierly. Your trust in it is much like that of my wife. She too is distressed by my unbelief.

            Nonetheless I think it is unhistoric to ascribe the mortality of persons who lived with out the benefit of modern science to any one particular cause. European royalty may have eaten the wrong foods, but they had a multitude of other health problems too. Ones they had a very limited ability to cope with.

            They had to deal with infections. Less than 100 years ago (1924) Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister on his toe. Antibiotics are from the second half of the 20th century.

            The understanding of how infectious diseases are caused and transmitted is also very recent. Robert Koch announced the discovery of the tuberculosis bacterium and the proof that it caused the disease less than 150 years ago (1882). The existence of viruses was not and their role in disease was not established until the 20th century

            Childbirth was very dangerous. Many women died in childbirth, and very young at that. In 1847, Semelweiss tried in vain to get his colleagues at the Vienna General Hospital to wash their hands before examining women in labor. Sterile surgery was invented by Lister in 1867, but was not widespread until the 1890s.

            Mindstalko mentioned gout. Here is what the US Government’s National Institues of Heath says:

            “Gout happens when urate … builds up and forms needle-shaped crystals in your joints. … However, not everyone with high urate levels develops gout. … Researchers continue to study how genes and environmental factors contribute to a buildup of urate in your blood.”


            In other words, they still don’t know.

            BTW, Gout is not usually fatal although it can be comorbid with things that are.

            Life is dangerous, indeed it is invariably fatal. We should be immensely grateful for modern medicine, and hopeful that it will continue to progress, but we must look on the past without any idea that there is a univariate explanation for the way it was or that we could have done better.

          9. Royals in the Middle Ages may have died early, e.g. Edward IV, but they were able to keep their children alive. Huge broods were sired by Edward I and III in England and by some of the Capet kings of France. Whatever the quality of food available, there seems to have been enough of it that no royal, and few noble, children were affected by famine. There seems to have been a rather abrupt decline in royal fertility after about 1500, at least in Western Europe. I wonder why?

          10. OTOH at the other end there’s poor Queen Anne of Britain, who had 17 pregnancies and zero children reaching adulthood, thus causing Parliament to pick Hanover as a successor.

          11. Kings lost children, too. John and Alfred the Great were the last of a number of sons. Edward II was the last son of his father’s first marriage — his father did manage to have surviving sons from his second, but he had four from his first and only one survived.

          12. Quite so. Queen Anne of England who ruled from 1702 to 1714 was pregnant 17 times. Only five of those resulted in living infants. two them died as newborns, two as toddlers, and the only one to survive infancy died at the age of 11. That failure resulted in the Hanoverian succession. Because most British royalty married women from Germany until the future George VI married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Elizabeth II was the first monarch in two centuries to have a British mother. As Elizabeth was only half British, Charles does not have that distinction.

          13. Bullseye: an obvious high profile 4 year old paterfamilias was Gaius Octavius Thurinus jr.
            His father was a senator but was he a homo novus or noble? His grandfather had held Roman central office but only at the level of military tribune, so not qualifying level for senator/nobility. His father had only held local office in Velitrae. Then again Gnaeus Octavius Rufus was described as a quaestor around 230 BC. Did it qualify his descendant 4 generation later as “noble” or “homo novus”? The younger Gaius Octavius Thurinus himself described his father as “homo novus with no senatorial background”.
            The expraetor Gaius Octavius died in 59 BC leaving an orphaned son who was at most 4 (born on 23rd September 63 BC). The boy´s mother Atia did survive.
            Atia remarried, to one Philippus, when Gaius was 6 years old. And Philippus had little interest in his stepson, so the boy was raised mainly by his maternal grandmother Julia, who died when her grandson was 12.
            And when the boy was 18, he destroyed his family by accepting adrogation by then deceased Gaius Julius Caesar. Both his mother and stepfather told him not to do so, but he did it anyway.
            How was the legal guardianship of Octavius´ property handled when the moderately well-off orphan was passed around from father to mother to grandmother to whoever minded him after age 12?

          14. @Walter Sobchak:

            Mary of Teck, mother of King George V was born in the UK, to a daughter of Queen Victoria, largely raised there, and indeed lived her entire life there before marriage except for like two years. She was British, and so Edward VIII and George V both had a British mother.

            Elizabeth II is also absolutely full British.

          15. Elizabeth II, may she rest in peace, was the daughter of a British woman, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon
            but her father Geo VI was the son of
            Mary of Teck & Geo V son of
            Alexandra of Denmark & Edward VII son of
            Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha & Victoria daughter of
            Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld & Prince Edward son of
            Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz & Geo III son of
            Augusta of Saxe-Gotha & Prince Fredrick son of
            Caroline of Ansbach & Geo II son of
            Geo I of Hanover & Sophia Dorothea of Celle.
            Geo I’s connection with the English throne was that his grandmother was Elizabeth Stuart daughter of James I of England (and VI of Scotland).
            So Geo VI was 1/2048th British & Elizabeth II was 2049/4096ths British

          16. Mary of Teck was not a grand daughter of Victoria. She was the child of Prince Francis, Duke of Teck & Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge who was the daughter of
            Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel & Prince Adolphus son of Geo III see above.
            Mary of Teck and Victoria were both descended from Geo III and were both German.

          17. If you ask me, anyone born and raised in Britain is British. If you base it on ancestry, then all European royalty are descended from foreigners so nobody is from anywhere.

          18. You favor the American rule of jus soli `(citizenship by birth in a place), but jus sanguinis (citizenship by inheritance) was far more common.

            In the case of England/UK, the fact that the Hanoverians were foreigners was a feature not a bug for the Whig Grandees who ran the country from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until the reform of the Lords in 1911. In the beginning of their reign, the Hanovers didn’t have a native power base and had to concede power to Parliament, a concession Parliament never gave up. The American Revolution was the flip side of that. Geo III did not have the instinctive loyalty of enough of the colonists to be able to suppress the Revolution and hold on to the colonies.

          19. @Walter:
            If you’re going to be like that about it, British nobility have been German, Norman, and Scottish in the last few centuries. Basically none of them have been British, because the genetically British are the Welsh. Or possibly the unnamed people the Welsh conquered.

            Worrying about genetic purity when it comes to the monarchy of the UK is madness.

          20. I am not at all concerned with genetics, they are all north European White people. I am interested in politics and culture. The background of the genetics is here:
            After the end of the Ice Age, when the ice that covered Britain melts, Britain is populated by hunter gatherers. Around 4000 BCE, they are displaced by agriculturalists from the Mediterranean, who built Stonehenge. Around 2500, they in turn are turfed out by Indo-European speaking people (Bell-Beaker) from the continent, and by 2000 BCE the old stock is less than 10% of the genetics of the Island. Around 1000 BCE, yet another wave of migrants distantly related to the Bell-Beakers arrived from mainland Europe. They overwrote the genetics of England and Wales again, and probably brought the historic forms of Celtic languages with them.

            The Romans conquer Britain in the First Century CE and have a large cultural, but minimal genetic impact. They leave in 410 CE. The Germanic (Angles, Saxons, & jutes) invasion/migration begins. They become culturally and politically dominate, but even in East Anglia their genetic impact is limited. The highest proportion of Germanic genetics today is about 50% in East Anglia. In the West Country that drops, but even in Wales there is still a substantial Anglo-Saxon genetic imprint. The Norman invasion of the 11th century CE is culturally important and created the basis of the the modern British State and politics. Magna Carta comes from the conflicts between the Anglo French Plantagenet dynasty and the English nobility, the Common Law is created by the Plantagenets as a tool in that conflict, and the first Parliament is called by a Norman Simon de Montfort. But, their genetic impact is trivial.

            As I pointed out above the foreignness of Geo I and Geo II is politically important. Geo III tries to be politically relevant, fails, and goes mad. After that Britain is a parliamentary republic and the monarchs are mere symbols.

  10. Wow, I love your new layout! I used to have to read in Firefox reader mode because I can’t cope with a dark background, but this is so much more readable!

  11. Random question, were magistrates part of the senate? That is, if you were a senator, then got elected praetor, and then a few months later something you cared about came up in the senate, could/would you sit in the senate and debate it?

    1. Yes. Magistrates were elected from members of the senate, except for quaestors, Tribunes the Plebs and of the Soldiers.

      1. You’ve got it backwards. You had to be a magistrate *before* joining the Senate. (I think you joined the senate after completing your term as magistrate, but I’m not sure.)

        From the post:

        “In the republic, the way one becomes a member of the Senate was to win election to lower office and then gain the – usually pro forma – approval of the censors (officials elected every five years to take the census), so the Senate was effectively a body ex-magistrates, the most notable and successful of the nobiles.”

        1. For the higher offices, i.e. not quaestors or tribunes, candidates needed* to have held the lower offices, so they would be members of the Senate before being elected.

          *I’m not entirely sure if this was an actual law or one of those customs that’s so firmly observed it’s basically a law

      2. This is reversed. We know because the counter-example is Pompey’s first consulship in 70, when he was elected consul without having held any of the other magistracies. He also requested and received from Varro a guide on how the senate worked because he had never attended a meeting before becoming its president.

          1. But AFAIK, the violation was of the cursus honorum. The custom was not that consuls had to be members of the Senate, but that consuls had to have been praetors (and aediles, and quaestors) before. It’s just that those prior magistracies would get you into the Senate by the time of your consulship.

            Pompey skipped the cursus, and therefore wasn’t in the Senate, but the core violation was skipping the cursus, rather than not being a Senator.

            AIUI, anyway.

    2. Yes, if you are elected while in the Senate you stay in the Senate. In fact, you get preference in speaking order. (Current Consuls speak, then ex-Consuls, then current Praetors, then ex-Praetors, etc.)

      1. I think the question was magistrates who aren’t already in the Senate. Do they join the Senate immediately, or wait until after they finish their terms?

        1. Morstein-Marx (2004) describes the lex Atinia to provide that tribunes of the plebs be able to sit in the senate during their magistracies. There was also a difference between formal senators and those who were permitted to vote in senate meetings. Lintott 1999 p 69.

  12. The Togatus Barberini photo seems to have gotten very stretched vertically, compared to the original on Wikipedia

  13. Rome was built on the south bank of the Tiber River. So, I take it that in the two maps above, the top of each map is East, the bottom is West, and here the river runs East to West? Which is odd, because the shape of the island would suggest West (bottom of the map) to East flow.

    1. Its a normal north south map, you can look on google maps or equivalent and see the same picture. The Tiber near Rome flows towards the southwest, Rome is built to the southeast, which is fudged into “the south bank” in the descrip[tion.

      1. Looked at it more closely, I think is is twisted slightly counterclockwise, so what normally looks like a meandering southwest flowing river looks like a north south river instead. You’ll still recognize everything if you look at a different map.

    1. Ditto. In fact maybe such a post at the top of the comments could be a regular thing.

  14. Something that is not quite clear to me about the latin phrase “res publica”. When the romans said that, are they interpretting the phrase literally to mean “stuff concerning the public”, or do they use “res publica” as a fixed phrase that means “the republic” and is *derived* from the once-literal meaning? E.g. like in English we say “law and order” to mean an abstract concept that is somewhat distinct from literally “legal things plus orderly things”.

      1. And in the same way, the locative isn’t productive by the time you write about, is it? So the same might apply to domi and militiae (and isn’t “domi militiaeque” a set phrase that means something like “come what may”?)

        1. wiki says the locative absorbed by the genitive in Classical Latin, cf. how the PIE instrumental case is absorbed by the ablative (despite both locative and instrumental persisting in Slavic languages)

  15. We’ll get into the complicated current arguments over just how democratic these assemblies really were…

    Which is going to be even more complicated if people aren’t clear about what our standard of democracy is. Are we comparing the Roman Republic to its immediate successors, to Greek poleis, to modern nation-states? What period, for both the Republic and the point of comparison? Are we just considering how democratic the systems are to the average citizen, or to the average adult male (citizen, slave, or otherwise)?

    Democracy can’t be meaningfully described as a binary. Which is unfortunate, because comment sections tend to collapse nuanced issues into simple binaries…

    1. Also important is the distinction between formal and informal freedom. It sounds like Rome was happy to formalize restrictions where other ancient polities would conceal them.

    2. Millar 1999 in the last chapter, “What sort of democracy?”, tries to minimise the problem of participation. Mouritsen 2001 does a rough estimate in terms of how many people you can physically fit in the forum and arrives at perhaps around 11,000. The level of participation in the actual machinery of the republic was low. There are no cases where the Romans were all too concerned about trying in any sense to increase participation. Beyond that, we know little.

      I’d be one of the people which Devereaux (at note 1) might call the anti-Millarians. If you asked me how democratic Rome was, I would answer “little” and call the claims of Roman democracy exaggerated. A formally sovereign people at the beck and call of the magistrates, represented by a few thousand of millions, who very rarely if ever reject anything before them, is not really “democratic”. The contiones, thought to provide popular input to the magistrates, are highly one-sided and for listening only; they provided meaningful feedback the same way a Trump rally provides meaningful feedback on Trump’s popularity in the population writ large.

      1. Is it really that much more democratic to be able to vote “D” or “R” once every few years?

        If it isn’t, what functioning democracies would you say exist in the world, that are as large or larger than the Middle Republic?

        1. Because that’s not the extent of american democracy. There’s a whole host of lower elections, and also internal party democracy. The end point of the presidential elections (f.ex.) is just the end point of a massive process of democratic choice across all sorts of levels of society. (the fact that many americans ignore those other processes, and that engagement is low, is a real problem of democracy, both american and otherwise, but it’s a very distinct way of doing things to the roman one)

          1. “There’s a whole host of lower elections, and also internal party democracy.”

            The first of these can at most give you the right to vote “D” or “R” once or twice per year. The second makes the parties *less* responsive to the average voter.

            Of course, there may be referenda, but generally you can only vote on the proposal put to you (and cannot modify it or deliberate on it; up or down vote).

            I don’t really see how voters in any large democracy are much closer to the levers of power, or can convey more bits of information, than in Rome. (Although the voting rights are more evenly spread.)

          2. In fact most USA citizens don’t avail themselves of as much political participation as they could; ward elections and precinct-level caucuses devolve to the handful of people who care to take note of them. Not to even mention town hall meetings, lobbying, petitions, rallies to demonstrate the breadth of support for a cause, etc., etc. Democracy isn’t meant to be a spectator sport.

          3. Oh boy, voting and information theory! (‘bits’)

            So, US: general election is one bit, which party. But primaries are often open to all voters, or any who claim the right label, rather than being “internal party”. In a competitive presidential selection you might have 4 candidates on each side, or 8 on one vs. an incumbent in the other party, so that can be 3 bits. Of course that’s every 4 years, so about 3/4 bit a year.

            Then there’s House elections, I’ll optimistically say 2 bits (4 primary candidates), every 2 years, 1 bit a year. 0.5 if you’re less optimistic. Also Senate elections, every 6 years but two of them, 2 bits * 2 Senators /6 years = 2/3 bit a year, or 1/3 pessimistic. Total federal voting, 1.58-2.42 bits a year.

            Of course, if you want things to actually get done, then that constrains how independent your votes can be; splitting party votes makes decreasing sense. Assuming your Congress votes match your presidential vote, that would give 1.16-1.58 bits/year.

            States would be roughly similar, though often one party has basically no chance, so the real choice happens in the primary. Local government structure varies, sometimes including many more elections (school board! judges!). One could guess 3-5 bits a year.

            States or cities with referenda do give more choice; those often have initiatives too, so it’s not just a matter of what the legislature deigns to put in front of you.

            I don’t know enough about Roman elections, or how often the assemblies refused proposed laws. As a structure, and just looking at male citizens in the city, the Roman constitution might not be democratically egregious — except for the explicit plutocratic weighting of votes, which is a pretty big gap.

            For a higher choice system, there’s Switzerland. PR legislature, so elections will have a decent bitrate. But it’s easy to have referenda challenge laws, or to propose initiatives and I think they average around 12-16 a year (3-4 every 3 months), so that’s a bitrate of 12-16 a year, + elections, _just at the federal level_, not to mention canton and local levels. Plus I imagine that the threat of easy referenda keeps the legislature looking over their shoulder.

  16. It seems to me that with the limited corpus of surviving written works from Rome, modern scholars are familiar with a great deal of it. But what was familiar to the Romans themselves? Would a Roman of the middle republic be familiar with most of the earlier works that modern scholars are familiar with? I’m thinking of this in response to “the exact borders of this club shifted, though generally only slowly, with small but significant numbers of new entrants as older families faded into relative obscurity.” It makes me think about the process of fading into obscurity *back then* when some of those same families are still known at least somewhat thousands of years later.

    1. Its actually the other way around. Other than Polybius, all surviving accounts of Roman history were written by people whose lives overlapped with Augustus or one of the later emperors. No complete account of Roman history written earlier survive except for short inscriptions and brief quotations and paraphrases in later writers. So we can only guess how a well-read Roman in the year 1 would have responded to a reading of Livy, because we can’t read the things they had read.

    2. Literacy in Rome wasn’t like today (rounding error off 100pc) and the texts that we have today were largely produced after the fall of the republic. But it does seem that Romans in the late republic had some idea of their own history. Cicero many times makes references to earlier events and draws on exempla from the middle republic. Presumably they had to mean something to his audience if they were worth including.

      Brutus (the famous one) held the names Brutus and Caepio, both of which served as “liberators” in republican myth. But speaking just for myself I can’t expect that they had a very accurate conception of their history in the same way that modern citizens generally do not. And what conceptions they had were spun for political ends (eg Brutus to justify tyrannicide).

  17. “…the network of clientes (and their clientes, this system can be nested)” and also “clientes were expected to visit their patronus in the morning”. So how did this work in a physical sense? You receive visitors for a while then go on to do your visits or does everyone know who the root of the tree is and just go there for one big congregation?

    1. I imagine mileage varied.

      On the one hand, you didn’t necessarily have to call on your patron every day, and your patron isn’t an idiot. If he knows you’re a busy man in your own right with a client network of your own to manage, well, that makes you useful to him. It’s probably part of why he wanted you as a client in the first place. So he usually isn’t going to pressure you to waste time hovering around him to the point where you dangerously neglect your own affairs.

      On the other hand, this sort of thing is probably one reason why truly high-status Romans at the top of the patronage network tended to have homes the size of small palaces. A really important Roman aristocrat should be able to host a very large arriving party of clients and the clients of clients all at once, in principle.

    2. I think ‘visit’ here is stretching the word. If it was at all like later English or Indian custom, one ‘visited’ by showing up and being seen to do so. In England one sent in one’s card. In India one showed up in the durbar hall (or, in modern times, on the front lawn of the politician’s home), said hello to the secretary and went home. The big man would have a rotating list of clients he wanted to check in with personally, and any favours that demanded more would be communicated through the secretary.

    3. It’s also worth remembering that going to see someone was the main form of communication in any pre-industrial society. Even a written note had to be delivered. (If you read Pepys’s diary he spends a remarkable amount of time wandering around London looking for people.)

      So visiting your patron in the morning would be a good way to check in. “Does the boss want to see me? Well, tell him I stopped by and I’ll see him in the Forum.” Or “Tell the boss I’ve got something he’s going to want to hear.”

  18. If I’m a citizen and a man, but my father is a living non-citizen, who is the paterfamilias?

        1. Per this very post, freedmen were citizens, though second class:

          “These were enslaved people freed by Roman masters; such individuals gained Roman citizenship but with a few disabilities”

          That said, I thought of a scenario: someone owns father and son as slaves, and frees only the son. But in this case it seems pretty obvious that the son would be the paterfamilias of his new family.

          1. Another scenario could be due to the concept of Conubium mentioned in this earlier blog post

            To summarize, Roman citizenship could be inherited from the mother instead of the father if either there wasn’t a legal marriage, or if that right had been expanded to an allied population.

            So a Roman citizen of a non-citizen father could for instance, happen if the father was from a Roman colony in Italy without roman citizenship but with the right of conubium. (Let’s assume the father had moved to Rome prior to the marriage to ensure that it’s Roman citizenship that matters and not citizenship in the other community)

      1. I can think of a few possibilities:

        1) AFAICR, Women are citizens and can pass down citizenship to their children. There are apparently restrictions on what counts as a legal marriage for this, but I think there is room for cases where a marriage to a non citizen is still legally recognized and produces citizen children.

        2) I’m pretty sure citizenship can be revoked.

        1. 1) According to Ulpian (see Title IV and V here):

          In a legally contracted marriage, children follow the citizenship of the father. Without a legally contracted marriage, children are not under patria potestas but sui iuris. It also seems that there was a law issued in the first century (Lex Minicia) that said that without legally contracted marriage, if the father isn’t Roman the children would follow his status.

          I do not know what implications a child being sui iuris has while it is a minor. According to what Bret wrote about it didn’t protect them from being exposed. Some googling lets me believe they would be under guardianship, but by who I don’t know.

          2) I would assume in that case the children become sui iuris.

        1. I don’t _think_ the Republic had a naturalization process, so “becoming citizen” would most likely be because citizenship had been extended to your whole people or city.

          The empire had “service guarantees citizenship” but that’s rather later, and family law might have changed.

          1. Freed slaves automatically became 2nd class citizens but their children were Freeborn and full citizens. Individuals could obtain citizenship without going through slavery by gift of a citizen in which case you took their praenomen and nomen. There had to be rules about who could do this and who was eligible but I don’t know them.
            Unlike the Greek polis Rome had an open citizenship.

  19. The difference between the male and female citizen is neatly reflected in the way that “matron” is not the feminine of “patron” in modern English. For that we have to use “patroness.”

    1. And the different meanings of “patronise” also occasionally cause entertainment.

      In the US it’s still quite common to use “patronise” to mean “visit as a customer” – in the UK that usage is very old-fashioned and almost obsolete, and we really only use it to mean “compliment in a belittling way”. Hence the amusement of reading a report of a US scandal in which it was revealed that a politician had been “patronising strippers”.

    2. I’ve got to come up with some justification for calling someone a “matron of the arts.”

  20. I greatly enjoyed this reading. Was the case locative that you were asking about? Perhaps I skipped over your answer. Thank you for the informative discussion. Scott Fisher

  21. When the auctoritas of the Senate began to be challenged by the assembly the system began to spin out of control. Obvious self interest on the part of senate and senators undermined the faith and respect required to maintain their auctoritas. Dissenting used the tribal assembly and Tribunes to get their way, starting with the Brothers Gracchi. Conflict between the bodies turned violent and the whole system became unbalanced and ran hot until it blew up. At least that’s how it seems to me.

  22. There are two maps of the pomerium above. The first shows the Capitoline hill as being outside of the red line which represents the pomerium according to the caption. The second shows the hill as inside the pomerium?

    Which is correct?

    1. Checking the link for the second one, the red line is an actual physical wall rather than the legal border.

      1. Leaving me more deeply confused. Why was the temple of Jupiter, the highest god, outside of the boundaries of the sacred area?

        1. Consider the original definition of pomerium, minus the complications.
          Pomerium was to be a strip 30 feet wide, on the inside of the city wall, which was not allowed to be built on or cultivated, and was marked with marker stones.
          Which means that before the legal and ritual function, it had the practical function of being a passable road along the inner side of the wall. And so the wall itself plus the street along the wall were outside the legal and ritual borders of the city, as the military zone. The city started at the street front of building lots of the inner side of the street.
          Now the exception of Capitolium makes sense. It was supposed to be the citadel of the city – so an inwards extension of the military zone. It had to be outside the pomerium to be allowed tio be fortified against the city…

  23. Quaestor, aedile, and praetor really sound like Roman starter Pokémon names. 😛
    “Aedile, go! I choose you!”

  24. Question: suppose I am a Roman attempting to acquire a Patron. How exactly would I go about doing so? If my predecessor had one, would I “inherit” the relationship? What if I have no such social capital to inherit?

    1. The question a potential patron would ask is “what can you do for me?”. If you’re really a nobody you don’t expect or try to get a really high-placed patron (unless maybe you save him from drowning when your ship goes down). In modern USA terms, think ward heeler politics. You maybe aren’t going to be part of a presidential candidate’s election staff but maybe you can perform the boots-on-the-ground work for a potential city council member.

      1. Would it be that different from now (other than the hereditary aspect)? How do you get a patron (also called a mentor, rabbi, sponsor, etc.) in corporate America today? It depends, but obviously mutual benefit is crucial.

    2. I believe it was typically hereditary, and new citizens would become clients of the person that have then citizenship (who would also give them their name)

  25. “And in the early decades of the republic, political offices were restricted to members of these key families. Everyone else – the vast majority of Rome’s households – were plebeians. The thing is, from the mid-fourth century to the early third century (the Lex Hortensia of 287 marks the end of this process) the legal distinctions between the two groups largely collapsed as rich plebeian families successfully pushed to be ‘let in’ to full participation in Roman government. Consequently, by the mid-third century the distinction between patrician and plebeian is mostly politically unimportant. It does matter for religious purposes and being a patrician from a famous family is a nice status marker to have, but elite plebeian families are not rare in the Middle Republic.

    So, repeat after me: the patrician/plebeian distinction is not particularly meaningful in the Middle Republic. There are rich plebeian families in the Middle Republic who are influential in politics.”

    And yet it did continue to have relevance.
    Lex Genucia, 342 BC, specifically required that one of the consuls should be plebeian. It was observed. It does not seem to have specifically required that the other consul should be patrician, but it was only in 172 BC that two plebeian consuls were elected for one year. Two plebeian censors came late in 2nd century, and also attracted adverse comment.
    For political importance – the useful career step of popular tribune was legally unavailable for patricians. In Late Republic, one Claudius actually got adopted as “Clodius” to become a plebian.
    So, after the resolution of Conflict of Orders in 4th century, the Roman elite had a formal powersharing agreement – and it mattered which partner of the agreement one was born into.
    Also, “plebian” never meant “poor”. The key for Conflict of Orders was that the patricians were a closed elite (like the citizens of Greek republics… could the Plebians have resembled Metics?) – and since the new rich were legally excluded from power, they functioned as leaders of the poor, who were also plebian. Now, the resolution of the Conflict of Orders had been that the new rich were incorporated into politics as a group with separate promised rights (popular tribunes, one of the consuls…)… but by that, they were in practice detatched from the poor. Also, the line between “patricians” and “plebians” was left fixed in male line, which meant that by 90 BC, a “plebian” might be “new money” in the sense of dating from 100 BC… or “new money” from 400 BC and descendant of people who got office back in 367 BC.

  26. Now I’m curious: would it make sense to see the clientela-and-patrocinium system as an ancient ancestor of the way interpersonal relationships still often seem to work in Italian and Italian American organized crime?

    1. As the sociologist John Levi Martin pointed out, nested hierarchies are the only form of organisation that scales. – so they found everywhere there are large complex societies (pretty much all corporations have a pyramidal org chart). The contrast with Greece is interesting – the stress on the formal equality of male citizens kept them small and their political systems rudimentary by Roman standards.

      1. I’ve wondered how history might have changed if someone had come up with representative democracy in Greek/Roman times. Coloniae sending tribunes to Rome, perhaps.

        1. Remember, the Romans didn’t have paper! It’s remarkable they had as much record keeping as they did. I’m not sure modern forms of democracy would be possible without it.

          1. Is paper necessary? We’re not aiming for perfect democracy. Seems like having _someone_ from the colonies and provinces with a formal say in what’s going on is better than no voice at all and an empire run by a city government.

        2. A Roman actually came up with it, in Middle Republic. During the hard times of Second Punic War, some Roman senator proposed that every city still loyal to Rome should be represented by two senators in Rome.
          The Roman senators shouted down that proposal.
          I did not catch the full text of the story – specifically, whether the two representative senators into Rome were to have been elected by people or senate of the city they were represented, or handpicked by the Roman censors (or Roman dictator). The proposal was shouted down either way.
          When Middle Republic ended by Social War, Italy formed a Senate of 500 Senators. How were the Senators of Italy chosen?

  27. Bret’s takedown of the tweet about leading Roman legions leads to an interesting thought experiment on how your family background would translate into Roman terms.
    In my own case my father would come from a family of small landowners and entrepreneurs. He would have been a Roman citizen and served in the legions. I will assume he survived. My mother would have been the daughter of a highly educated immigrant, a natural philosopher or engineer who probably earned or bought citizenship. This would leave me, assuming they met and married under Roman conditions, A Third, or maybe Second class Roman Citizen woman married to a man of similar or slightly better class and a grandmother. None of us would be leading legions.

    1. An interesting thought experiment….My family was certainly notable in the town I grew up in–multiple family members were on the town council, in charge of the fire department, etc. Plus my father was an engineer. My mother came from farming stock, which would have translated to peasants (I love my maternal line, but they’d be the first to admit they’re not upper-crust by a long shot).

      We’d have been citizens, and I definitely would have served in the legions. But unless something spectacular happened, I’d never have risen very far–I’d either have been killed (having poor eyesight), or would have served my time unexceptionally and then gone back home to marry and gotten involved in construction. I also probably would have gotten more involved with the farming aspect, helping my mother’s side get contracts to supply grain to the legions. I’d have been a hereditary client to a particular family, too (from my grandfather’s relationship with the male head of that family). So, not poor, but not particularly well-off and certainly not a leader of legions or in the senate. A medium sized fish in a small pond.

    2. Not hard in my case; both my parents are the children of farmers and my dad served in the military (albeit in the USAF). I’d probably be at the tail end of my own military service, looking to head home and use some of my loot to set up my own household and family.

    3. Wow, this is tough. My maternal grandfather came from a line mostly of prosperous farmers. He was a lawyer, so maybe he would have been a Cicero-style novus home, though he was hardly as professionally successful as Cicero. My other grandfather was a police detective–I don’t know what that might equate to. Some of my remoter male-line ancestors called themselves gentlemen, although so far as appears they didn’t have a coat of arms, and my mother’s male-line ancestors claimed to have a coat of arms, so maybe we would be patricians. Or maybe the censors would rat us out.

      I actually don’t know who policed patrician status. Did the censors do that, like the heralds in early modern England?

      1. Not patrician status as such but senatorial membership, equities membership and Roman Citizenship.
        I’d ignore your paternal grandfather’s profession as it didn’t exist in Ancient Rome and go with the claims of gentlemanly birth. Maybe both grandfather’s would be Advocates in Rome of country gentry background, maybe even hold some minor magistracies and make it into the Senate. If so they would be of a rank to officer a legion if not lead it. So far you’re the highest ranking of us.

        1. I would suggest that Police Detective might equate to a member of one of the Urban Cohorts. Perhaps even a Centurion, possibly Tribune. Although that’s not until the Imperial era. (More questionably it might be the equivalent to one of the Frumentarii, the Emperor’s Private Agents.)

      2. “I actually don’t know who policed patrician status. Did the censors do that, like the heralds in early modern England?”

        Did it need policing? Patrician status was patrilineal, and the patrician family names were well known. So claiming patrician status would mean claiming a name that wasn’t yours.

  28. I am reading Flower’s “Roman Republics” and she seems to set a lot more store by Marius and his supposed military reforms (pp. 67 and 76). Just an interesting contrast to the post from a couple of weeks ago about those.

  29. Another question: How did the Republic handle the kind of men who, in today’s colloquial US English, would be called “failsons”? That is, young men from rich and powerful families who were simply not particularly good at the things young men with their background and station in life were theoretically supposed to be good at?

    If you should try to tell me that people like that didn’t exist in ancient Rome, I probably wouldn’t believe you. But perhaps the most likely answer is something like “Men like that usually didn’t make it into the historical records, so we don’t know much about them”?

    1. The most famous “failson” in history is probably Commodus. So we know that they happened!

      I’m certainly no expert, but my guess is that high mortality rates in the legions took care of a lot of these people. If you’re not good at fighting, and a significant right of passage is to be in an aggressive army that firmly believes that the men should fear the officers more than they do the enemy (look up “decimate” sometime!), odds are good you don’t make it through the right of passage.

      1. Commodus did not fail as a wastrel and neerdowell like most failsons. He exploded and destroyed the Antonine system to the eternal detriment of the Empire. It is one of the most profound ironies of history that his father, who practically invented self examination, did not see what a nut job his son was and how much he should have been kept away from power.

        1. Commodus seems to have been a model son and given no warning of his instability. IMO he got supreme power way too young and it corrupted him thoroughly.

          1. Every time a psycho shots up a school, they interview a neighbor who says he was such a nice quite boy, so polite. Later on it turns out that he tortured stray cats.

            Heraclitus said: “ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων” [ethos anthropoi daimon] usually translated as character is fate.

            Organic brain syndrome is always a possibility, but the odds are that the daimon was always there, and that a fond father refused to see it.

        2. Marcus’ options were: let his son inherit, or kill his son. It takes a particular kind of person to be that ruthless *and* that selfless.
          (Expecting someone to kill a relative for what they could do after you’re dead is a very high bar.)

          1. I last read the Meditations in a previous millennium, but I don’t think Marcus was a “it’s their problem when I’m gone” kind of guy.

            Nor were his options limited to kill him or crown him. The Roman Empire was not a patrimony like medieval European kingdoms (but not the HRE or the Papacy), where rulership (imperium) was assimilated to property rights and subject to rules like primogeniture. This was an important reason why Roman Emperors often appointed their heirs as co-Emperors, which is what Marcus did with Commodus.

            As pater familias, Marcus had the right to kill Commodus. But, he had no obligation to transfer the imperium to his son. He could have followed the practice of his Antonine predecessors and adopted a man he thought worthy and made him co-Emperor. He could have shipped Commodus off to Tanais. The Empire might have lasted longer if he had.

          2. Not, of course, that it is impossible for the Antonine system to have gone off the rails with a bad non genetic appointment. The Roman constitution suffered from two major problems, First, it concentrated all power in the single person of the Emperor. That is what systems engineers call a single point of failure. Second, it never developed a method of succession that was unambiguous and clear to all. Brutal, destructive battles over succession were a defining feature of its history. That the Antonine system lasted a century was a small miracle. Diocletian’s attempt to create something like that lapsed in to chaos before he died.

        3. My intent with that comment was mostly to make a joke. The second paragraph was more the meat of my comment–a “failson” probably wouldn’t have survived the army, or if they did they’d either be humiliated or spurred into more vigorous action. Rome’s military discipline was not gentle, and those aspects that would contribute to being a “failson” would be those that would get you in a lot of trouble in the legions.

          “…who practically invented self examination…”

          I have a controversial take here….I’ve read The Meditations a few times, and while there’s some insights in it, I think this is taking things too far. Epictetus is a much better author, and in my opinion a keener observer of human behavior, and lived well before Marcus. I’ve used Epictetus’ advice in my life; the only times I’ve used Marcus’ advice is when it matches Epictetus. (I read “The Meditations” prior to “The Golden Sayings”, for what it’s worth.)

          I should also note that while I find some of the techniques of Stoicism useful, the actual philosophy is significantly less so. I can see it being valuable to a certain kind of person or in certain conditions, but it’s got some pretty serious flaws as well. It’s likely, at least in my opinion, that those flaws are what caused Marcus to so seriously screw up with regards to his opinion of Commodus. To be clear, I’m not saying Stoicism caused Commodus. I’m just saying, I don’t think Stoicism could have prevented Commodus.

          Now I’m going to go hide under a rock, as I’ve no doubt annoyed a significant number of people here. 😀

    2. I know of a few possible examples, though later than the period Bret is discussing. In the Late Republic and early Empire wealthy men who did not sit in the Senate would be equites, the second tier of Roman aristocracy. They might engage themselves with business (which senators were not supposed to) or do any of the non-political aristocratic pastimes like sponsoring or themselves writing literature.
      One such example is the Emperor Claudius, whose family hindered him from getting a career due to his disabilities; instead the sources claim he spent his time writing history books as well as gambling and drinking. Suetonius’ Life of Claudius chapters 2-6 is an amusing portrait of his early life.

      1. As clients, they could be quite valuable because of the pretext that the patron was not involved in business, the client was.

    3. Wouldn’t they be just like most unsuccessful people of wealthy stock in all eras, mutatis mutandis? After a brief and undistinguished career in some minor military or civil office, they would retreat to the country and manage the family estate, or a portion of it, with middling competence?

  30. The basic exchange was as followed: the cliens agreed to support their patronus politically (to vote and canvass for him) and militarily (to volunteer to serve when he commanded an army if he needed trustworthy men) and in exchange the patronus agreed to protect his cliens legally (representing him in court, using his influence) and financially (being a source of emergency loans). There were social expectations too: clientes were expected to visit their patronus in the morning at least some of the time and might accompany him to the forum (see below), so the patronus would benefit from the status gained by his crowd of clientes.
    [ . . . ]
    As you may well imagine these different lines cross: the nobiles were generally patroni (although up-and-coming politicians, even those from nobiles families, might still also be the clientes of yet more established politicians, while simultaneously having clientes of their own), whose network of clients formed a political ‘base’ of support in Roman politics.

    Hierarchy trees. This sounds almost like feudalism. Urban feudalism.

    At the same time, neither cliens nor patronus will call the relationship that in public unless the status divide between them is extremely wide: instead they will insist they are amici (‘friends’) whose relationship is amicitia (‘friendship’), politely disguising an obviously hierarchical relationship as an equal one to avoid injuring anyone’s honor.

    In contrast with their usual practical approach, like with those tribunes — legitimizing exploits that don’t completely disrupt the process.
    I wonder whether this mechanism would remain healthy for longer if it became an openly accepted and respectable form of partnership early on, without this unofficial fig leaf. I mean, senate and plebes accepted that both parts are necessary and some balance is needed, and it worked, right?

    1. Organization on a large scale pretty much has to be a nested hierarchy; you can’t have everyone report directly to the top when you have ten thousand people.

  31. Well, of course. “No man rules alone” applies recursively. What makes the structure more feudal-like is encapsulation (wouldn’t they think “client of my client is not my client”?) and asymmetrical partnership contract/symbiosis involving protection.

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