Honors English II
17 February 2012
The Social Classes of Ancient Rome
Even in the times of ancient Rome, there were distinct differences between social classes based on financial status. The lines between these classes were fairly clear (Wells 729). According to a website called The Roman Empire of the First Century, “The social structure of ancient Rome was based on heredity, property, wealth, citizenship, and freedom.” The lives of ancient Romans depended greatly on their social status. The two main classes were Patricians and Plebeians (Nice 438). Surprisingly, considering how different they were, these two groups had a large amount of daily contact.
Patricians were not necessarily royalty or any type of senator. They were just simply the wealthier upper class of ancient Rome. They were the only citizens allowed to hold office (Nice 440). Patricians also had more privileges than the lower class. For instance, they were not required to fulfill some of the military duties others were (Roman Empire), and they were not as punishable by law as others (Wells 729).There were also differences in their family lives. Marriages were often times arranged in the upper class (Nice 440); they were also permanent. A patrician married one woman only, and divorce rates in this class were very low (Duggan 22). Patricians may have also had numerous slaves to their name, to do whatever work they pleased (Nice 441).
Plebeians were the lower class. They didn’t have much individual power, but there was a large number of them compared to everyone else, which gave them group power. Since the records of this class are not as common, not much is known about them. What we do know mostly comes from the documents of other social classes. Plebeians were not allowed to hold public office (Roman Empire); it wasn’t until 287 B.C. that they gained this right (Nice 441). Before 445 B.C., marriage between Patricians and Plebeians was strictly against the law (UNRV). Plebeians had a different outlook on marriage than Patricians; they believed that you could be married multiple times, as long as you only had one spouse at a time (Duggan 22).
Clothing generally represented one’s social status, primarily men’s. Men in ancient Rome generally wore two articles of clothing: a tunic and a toga. A tunic is a short garment that usually had short sleeves and was made of wool. It was worn under the toga. Patrician men had tunics made of white wool or other expensive linens, while Plebeian men had them made of whatever material was available. The second article of clothing, the toga, was a sheet-like garment usually made of wool. Togas could use up to nine yards of fabric. Only the citizens of Rome were allowed to wear them (UNRV). Those who were much higher on the social ladder, such as a senator or a form of royalty, usually had a purple border on their toga (Nice 440).
The differences in women’s dress were mainly in accessories, such as jewelry, make-up, hair styles, and perfume (UNRV). Married women were required to wear a stola (Nice 440), which was a sleeveless garment that fastened at the shoulder, gathered at the waist, and covered everything to a woman’s feet. They were also quite loose, and somewhat like a toga for women (UNRV). Women’s clothing was usually very bright in comparison to men’s. This was mainly due to the fact that unlike men, the color of a women’s wardrobe did not represent her social status; it could be any color that she pleased. Patrician women did however wear a palla, which was a covering used mainly for going outside. They also wore more make-up, jewelry, and perfume than Plebeian women (Nice 440).
In the rural areas, most people lived in sun dried brick homes. However, the wealthy farm owners lived in extravagant villas that were oftentimes nicer than the city homes. The Plebeian citizens that lived in town lived in apartment buildings called insulae. These buildings were made of wood and brick. They were usually crowded, unsanitary, and highly susceptible to fire or collapse (Roman Empire). Patricians had nicer larger homes. They were windowless houses built around outdoor areas. Much of the light came through skylights (Nice 438); a home like this was called a domus. Some of the much wealthier Romans would even have a domus and a countryside villa (Roman Empire).
Mealtimes were important to Romans. Breakfast and lunch were frequently eaten in town, but dinner was always observed in a home. Breakfast and lunch were usually light meals for both the poor and the wealthy. Poor Romans also had a light dinner; it usually consisted of bread and porridge. Meat and vegetables were eaten on rare occasions for them (Roman Empire). The wealthy would receive multi-course meals in the evening. They would usually have appetizers, an entrée, and even dessert (Nice 440). Dinner was especially important to Romans. Many Patricians hosted extravagant dinner parties surprisingly often to celebrate this meal (Roman Empire).
There was a great difference in education between the social classes. Although most children had at least the start of an education, some had better opportunities than others. Many children were taught by their parents at a young age, but wealthy families would sometimes have their slaves do that. From the age of about six to ten, the basic subjects were reading, writing, and math. Almost everyone who received an education after the age of about ten came from a Patrician family, and were mainly boys. They were expected to learn Latin and Greek grammar and literature, mathematics, music, astronomy, and many other subjects. Those who were given this advanced education were seen as very privileged young adults (Nice 442).
As demonstrated by this paper, ancient Roman life was very different for all of the citizens. Just like today, people had certain advantages and opportunities over others based on their financial standing. However, even the wealthiest royalty and the poorest peasants had some similarities in their daily lives: the biggest being that they all came together to make up the Roman empire.
Duggan, Alfred. The Romans. Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1964. Print.
Nice, Alex T. “Rome, Ancient”. The World Book Encyclopedia. 2009. Print.
The Roman Empire in the First Century
. Devillier Donegan Enterprises, 2006. Web. 1 Feb. 2012 <http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/order.html>.
UNRV History: The Roman Empire.
United Nations of Roma Victrix. 2003. Web. 1 Feb. 2012 <http://www.unrv.com/>.
Wells, Colin M. “Life and Culture During the Empire’s Golden Age.” Encyclopedia Americana Deluxe Library Edition. Grolier, 1990. Print.