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Patrician (ancient Rome)

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Patrician (ancient Rome)

The term patrician (from Latin: patricius) originally referred to a group of ruling class families in ancient Rome. Although the distinction was highly significant in the early republic, its relevance waned after the Struggle of the Orders (494 BC to 287 BC) and by the time of the Late Republic and Empire, membership of this group was only of nominal significance. After the fall of the Western Empire it remained a high honorary title in the Byzantine Empire. Medieval patrician classes were once again formally defined groups of leading burgess families in many medieval Italian republics, such as Venice and Genoa, and subsequently "patrician" became a vague term used for aristocrats and the higher bourgeoisie in many countries.


  • Origin 1
  • Roman Republic and Empire 2
    • Status 2.1
    • Patricians vs. plebeians 2.2
    • Patrician families 2.3
      • Gentes maiores et minores 2.3.1
  • Late Roman and Byzantine periods 3
  • References 4
  • Sources 5
  • External links 6


According to Livy, the first 100 men appointed as senators by Romulus were referred to as "fathers" (Latin "patres"),[1] and the descendants of those men became the patrician class.[2] The patricians were distinct from the plebeians because they had wider political influence, at least in the times of the Republic. As the middle and late Republic saw this influence stripped, non-patricians (i.e., plebeians) were granted equal rights on a range of areas, and quotas of officials, including one of the two consulships, were exclusively reserved for plebeians. Although being a patrician remained prestigious, it was of minimal practical importance. Excepting some religious offices, plebeians were able to stand for all the offices that patricians could, and contrary to popular belief, plebeians of the senatorial class were no less wealthy than patricians at the height of the republic.

Roman Republic and Empire


Patricians were historically afforded more privileges than plebeians. They were better represented in the Roman assemblies. The Comitia Centuriata, the main legislative body, was divided into 193 voting centuriae (centuries). The first two houses (which consisted largely of patricians) together had 98 centuriae, a number which was enough to obtain a majority, despite the fact that they were fewer in number. That meant that if the patricians acted in concord, they could always determine the result of the voting of the people's assembly. So, although it was not forbidden for plebeians to hold magistracies, the patricians dominated the political scene for centuries.

In the beginning of the Republic, all priesthoods were closed to non-patricians. There was a belief that patricians communicated better with the Roman gods, so they alone could perform the sacred rites and take the auspices. This view had political consequences, since in the beginning of the year or before a military campaign, Roman magistrates used to consult the gods. Livy reports that the first admission of plebeians into a priestly college happened in 300 BC[3] when the college of Augurs raised their number from four to nine. After that, plebeians were accepted into the other religious colleges, and by the end of the Republic, only minor priesthoods with little political importance like the Salii, the Flamines and the Rex Sacrorum were exclusively filled by patricians.

In the list of the names of the Romans who held magistracies (the Fasti), very few plebeian names appear before the 2nd century BC. The turning point were two laws, the Lex Licinia Sextia of 367 BC that ascertained the right of plebeians to hold the consulship, and the Genucian law of 342 BC that made it compulsory that at least one of the consuls be a plebeian.

The ancient patrician gentes whose members appear in founding legends of Rome disappeared as Rome started becoming an empire and new plebeian families rose to prominence, such as the Decii and the Sempronii. Families such as the Horatii, Lucretii, Verginii and Menenii seem to vanish after the 2nd century BC. Others, such as the Julii reappear only at the end of the Republic. There are some cases where the same gens name was shared by patrician and plebeian clans (for example the Appii Claudii were patricians and the Claudii Marcelli were plebeians).

The patrician and plebeian classes came into conflict during the conflict of the orders which saw the gradual decrease in patrician privileges, and increasing equality for plebeians.

Patricians vs. plebeians

The distinction between patricians and plebeians in Ancient Rome was based purely on birth. Although modern writers often portray patricians as rich and powerful families who managed to secure power over the less-fortunate plebeian families, plebeians and patricians among the senatorial class were equally wealthy. As civil rights for plebeians increased during the middle and late Roman Republic, many plebeian families had attained wealth and power while some traditionally patrician families had fallen into poverty and obscurity.

Patrician families

The following gentes were regarded as patrician, although they may have had plebeian members or branches.

A number of other gentes originally belonged to the patricians but were known chiefly for their plebeian branches.

Gentes maiores et minores

Among the patricians, certain families were known as the gentes maiores, the greatest or perhaps the most noble houses. The other patrician families were called the gentes minores. Whether this distinction had any legal significance is not known, but it has been suggested that the princeps senatus, or Speaker of the Senate, was traditionally chosen from the gentes maiores.

A. H. J. Greenidge[5] lists the Aemilii, Claudii, Cornelii, Fabii, Manlii, and Valerii as the leading six families. The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology suggests that the gentes maiores consisted of those families that had settled at Rome in the time of Romulus, or at least before the destruction of Alba Longa. The noble Alban families which settled at Rome in the time of Tullus Hostilius then formed the nucleus of the gentes minores; these included the Tulii, Servilii, Quinctii, Geganii, Curiatii, and Cloelii.

However, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquities suggests that the Alban families were also included among the gentes maiores, and that the gentes minores consisted of the families admitted to the patriciate under the Tarquins and in the early years of the Republic. In any case, the distinction cannot have been based entirely on priority, because the Claudii did not arrive at Rome until after the expulsion of the Etruscan kings.[6][7][8][9]

Late Roman and Byzantine periods

Patrician status still carried a degree of prestige at the time of the early Roman Empire, and Roman emperors routinely elevated their supporters to the patrician caste en masse. The prestige and meaning of the status were gradually degraded, and by the end of the 3rd-century crisis patrician status, as it had been known in the Republic, ceased to have meaning in everyday life. The Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) reintroduced the term as the Empire's senior honorific title, not tied to any specific administrative position, and from the first limited to a very small number of holders.[10][11] The historian Zosimus even states that in Constantine's time, the holders of the title ranked above the praetorian prefects.[12]

In the Western Roman Empire, the title was sparingly used and retained its high prestige, being awarded, especially in the 5th century, to the powerful magistri militum who dominated the state, such as Stilicho, Constantius III, Aëtius, Boniface, and Ricimer.[10] The eastern emperor Zeno (r. 474–491) granted it to Odoacer to legitimize the latter's rule in Italy after his overthrow of the rebellious magister militum Orestes and his pretender son Romulus Augustulus in 476. In the Eastern Empire, Theodosius II (r. 408–450) barred eunuchs from holding it, although this restriction had been overturned by the 6th century. Under Justinian I (r. 527-565), the title proliferated and was consequently somewhat devalued, as the emperor opened it up to all those above illustris rank, i.e. the majority of the Senate.[13]

In the 8th century, the title was further lowered in the court order of precedence, coming after the magistros and the anthypatos. However it remained one of the highest in the imperial hierarchy until the 11th century, being awarded to the most important stratēgoi (provincial governors and generals) of the Empire.[10] In the court hierarchy, the eunuch patrikioi enjoyed higher precedence, coming before even the anthypatoi.[14] According to the late 9th-century Klētorologion, the insignia of the dignity were ivory inscribed tablets.[15] During the 11th century, the dignity of patrikios followed the fate of other titles: extensively awarded, it lost in status, and disappeared during the Komnenian period in the early 12th century.[10] The title of prōtopatrikios (πρωτοπατρίκιος, "first patrician") is also evidenced in the East from 367 to 711, possibly referring to the senior-most holder of the office and leader of the patrician order (taxis).[10][16] The feminine variant patrikia (πατρικία) denoted the spouses of patrikioi; it is not to be confused with the title of zostē patrikia ("girded patrikia"), which was a unique dignity conferred on the ladies-in-waiting of the empress.[10]

The patrician title was occasionally used in Western Europe after the end of the Roman Empire; for instance, Pope Stephen II granted the title "Patricius of the Romans" to the Frankish ruler Pepin III.[10] The revival of patrician classes in medieval Italian republics, and also north of the Alps, is covered in Patricianship.


  1. ^ Kenny Zeng, 2007, A History Of Ancient and Early Rome
  2. ^ Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1:8
  3. ^ Livy, Ab urbe condita, 10.7.9
  4. ^ The Marcii had both a patrician and plebeian branch. The patrician branch claimed descent from the Kings of Rome, particularly Ancus Marcius, and thus used the cognomen Rex. See Gary D. Farney, Ethnic identity and aristocratic competition in Republican Rome (Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 22–25, 79 et passim.
  5. ^ Greenidge, Abel Hendy Jones, Roman Public Life (London: MacMillan, 1901), page 12.
  6. ^ Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, William Smith, Editor.
  7. ^ Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita, i. 30, ii. 16.
  8. ^ Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, Second Edition, Harry Thurston Peck, Editor (1897)
  9. ^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (1970).
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Kazhdan (1991), p. 1600
  11. ^ Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Roman Emperor, Christian Victor, 2010:240.
  12. ^ Zosimus, Historia Nova, II.40.2
  13. ^ Bury (1911), p. 27
  14. ^ Bury (1911), p. 124
  15. ^ Bury (1911), p. 22
  16. ^ Bury (1911), p. 28


  • Kurt Raaflaub, ed. Social Struggles in Archaic Rome: New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders (Blackwell Publishing, 2005)
  • Gary Forsythe, 2005, A Critical History of Early Rome. University of California Press.

External links

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