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Posted on July 27th, 2012, by

Ancient Rome reached an extraordinary level in development and once became the dominant power in the ancient world. Its impact was so important, that the influence of ancient Rome could be traced in the eras following, even after the fall of the Roman Empire. Today, it is still possible to trace the impact of Roman culture and civilization. At the same time, the civilization’s social structure was considered unequal and had an enormous gap between the ruling elite and ordinary people. In fact, the principles of inequality and discrimination prevailed in the Roman society, since the ruling elite was in a privileged status compared to the rest of the Roman society.

One can still find historical artifacts, proving the existing difference between the ruling elite and ordinary Romans. In addition, there are numerous literary sources of ancient authors, such as works by Titus Levis, Plutarch, Suetonius and others who depicted in details the life of Roman society, including the life of Roman emperors and nobility[1]. It could be said that there was a strict social hierarchy that divided Roman citizens into different social classes. The difference between the ruling elite, consisting of patricians; and ordinary people, who were called as plebs, was particularly important. The ordinary people (plebs) had lower titles and status in Roman society. They were deprived of opportunities for a high status in Roman society or to join the ruling elite. In the era of Augustus and Nero, these opportunities were minimal and the success of a representative of plebs was rather an exception than a norm[2].

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Plebs lived in poverty and relied on the generosity and charity of the ruling elite. In this case, it is possible to refer to Augustus, who claimed that he financially supported the plebs and it was a kind of charity since he underlined that he spent his own money to support plebs[3]. Similarly, Nero also attempted to support ordinary people when Rome suffered from the great fire and the supply of food was unstable, namely, the emperor decided to reduce the price of grain to support plebs[4].

At the same time, representatives of plebs did not have equal rights compared to patricians. For instance, they could not be elected in the Senate and get the authority, while patricians comprised the Senate, could take the authority and administrative positions in the Roman Empire. In fact, plebs could have only its representatives in the Senate, tribunes, which were supposed to protect their rights, but, in actuality, their real power was very limited, especially in the epoch of the empire[5], when the emperor had all the power in Rome. Basically, plebs could serve in the Roman army, namely in the infantry that was one of the basic units of the Roman army. In this respect, it is worth mentioning the fact that the military service was often the only way representatives of plebs could avoid starvation and poverty[6]. In contrast, patricians appropriated the lion share of material values produced by plebs and slaves or received in the result of military campaigns. The wealth disparity between plebs and patricians was huge and plebs often faced the threat of starvation that forced patricians to supply food to plebs. Otherwise, plebs could be starved to death and patricians were deprived of their sources of military recruits for the army.

Hence, this support was not charity and in fact, it was a necessity. The ruling elite was forced to support plebs in order to prevent any possible rebellions and growing frustration of large groups of people. The latter was highly probable because ordinary Romans lived in poverty, which noticeably compared to the fabulous treasures of the ruling elite who shared the wealth accumulated within Roman Empire and used it in their own interests, while the plebs were mainly used to satisfy the growing needs of the ruling elite. For instance, roman artisans were representatives of plebs, the Roman army, infantry and other units but chivalry were also comprised by plebs.

Consequently, without plebs patricians could hardly protect their property, organize military operations and buy commodities they get used to, which were produced by Roman artisans.

At the same time, it should be said that Romans paid a lot of attention to their traditions and laws, established by their ancestors. Even Augustus, who actually had almost unlimited power in Rome, pretended to obey the laws and norms of his ancestors. For example, he refused the dictatorship that gave him legal and almost unlimited power in Rome, but he refused from such offers[7]. On the other hand, Augustus readily accepted the tile of the “father of nation”¯[8]. In such a way, the example of Augustus shows the extent to which old traditions were important for ordinary Romans, since they did not accept monarchy and absolute power of a monarch; and even dictatorship, was exceptional for Romans.

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Furthermore, it should be pointed out that, in spite of socio-economic difficulties, ordinary Romans still paid a lot of attention to entertainment, like gladiator shows and fights, which were organized and sponsored by the ruling elite and were free of charge for ordinary people. At the same time, it was viewed as a virtue for a ruler to organize such shows[9].

Thus, in conclusion, it is important to underline that the ruling elite attempted to maintain the balance among ordinary people preventing starvation but, at the same time, it did not improve the social status of plebs. Instead, the ruling elite constructed its wealth and power exploiting and slaughtering plebs in numerous wars initiated by Rome.



[1] Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press2004), p. 175

[2] Matyszak, Philip. Chronicle of the Roman Republic. (London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2003), p.249

[3] Johnson, R. (ed.). “The Great Events by Famous Historians.”¯ The National Alumni. (1905, Vol. III), p.128-129.

[4] Naphtali, L. and R. Meyer. Roman Civilization: Source Book II: The Empire. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), p. 10,11,14,16,19.

[5] Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press2004), p. 127

[6] Matyszak, Philip. Chronicle of the Roman Republic. (London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2003), p.234

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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