Social Class System and the Economy: Overview

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264-476: Social Class System and the Economy: Overview

The Roman Classes. At any time in Roman history, individual Romans knew with certainty that they belonged to a specific social class: Senator, Equestrian, Patrician, Plebeian, Slave, Free. In some cases they were born into that class. In some cases, their wealth or the wealth of their families ensured them membership. Sometimes a political honor could gain them entry to a class. In other cases, Romans could move from one class to another during their lifetime. Over time, the requirements for some classes and moving between classes changed, but at any given moment, there was never any doubt over which Romans belonged to which class. Because the members of one class might enjoy a standard of living far better, or far worse, than members of another class, struggles or even wars could break out over the rights and powers of a given class. One key to the Romans’ great success was keeping stability and order among the classes of their own people.

Economics of Empire. As they built and expanded their empire, the Romans earned, or at times demanded, the respect of the peoples, communities, and nations they incorporated into their empire. For hundreds of years, the Romans surpassed every other people they encountered in at least two respects: their military prowess and their ability to organize their empire in times of peace. The Roman economy, then, consisted of the millions of workers across the Roman Empire and beyond, who farmed, built, crafted, traded, educated, enjoyed, and managed a network of products and services in an organized system. This system became so vast and complex that wealthy Romans could purchase clothes made of silk from China, although the person who bought them might never have known where they came from or how they were made.

Rome: World Trade Center. As huge and diverse as the Roman economy became, however, no one could ever doubt what was the center for the entire system: the city of Rome itself. Aelius Aristides, a professional Greek lecturer in the second century C.E., described the network at its height:

Whole continents lie all around the Mediterranean Sea, and from them, to you, Rome, flow constant supplies of goods. Everything is shipped to you, from every land and from every sea, the products of each season, each country, each river and lake, the handiwork of the Greeks and other foreigners. Consequently, anyone who wants to see every one of these items must either travel over the whole world or just live in this city. Not only is everything grown or made by every nation available here, but it is available in abundance. So many ships dock here bringing their cargo from everywhere, during every time of the year, after every harvest of crops that the city seems like the downtown market for the entire world! You can find so much cargo from India, or, if you like, from Arabia, that the trees in those countries have been stripped bare and that the inhabitants in those countries would have to come to Rome to beg for their own products. Clothes from Babylon and decorations exported from farther away arrive here in greater amounts and more easily than the imports from the Greek islands of Naxos and Cythnos to Athens, just on the coast of their sea! Egypt, Sicily, and the cultivated lands of Libya in North Africa are your farmlands. Ships never stop coming and going, so it is amazing there is enough room on the sea, to say nothing of in the harbor, for them all.…Everything comes together here: trade, commerce, transportation, agriculture, metallurgy, every skill that exists or has ever existed, everything that is made or grows. [Translations by Wilfred E. Major]

Class Structure and the Economy. Because the city of Rome itself dominated and directed the form and function of the huge international economy, the class structure at Rome exerted a huge influence on the operation of the net-work throughout the empire. Usually, an official appointed at Rome governed a province and would inevitably expect the economy and class system of the sort with which he was familiar. Furthermore, he had the authority to shape and guide the local economy so it would fit the Romans’ plans. The Romans recognized several different classes in their society. While Romans of the various classes were not legally bound to particular professions or barred from others, the force of tradition and social pressure meant that in practice Romans of a particular class would most often occupy certain positions and perform specified types of work. Moreover, in many cases, membership in a particular class might legally require a specific level of wealth, which in turn would affect what professions the members of that class engaged in.

Patricians. The patrician class consisted of Roman nobles from the earliest days of the city. To be a member of the patrician class, one had to be born into it. Throughout much of the Republic, patricians dominated the important political and religious offices of government. Patrician families were historically prestigious, and through these offices and membership in the Senate they would have had control and influence over many financial dealings. By the end of the Republic, many of the patrician families had died out. The Roman emperors, beginning with Julius Caesar, were given the power to designate new patrician families, but within a few hundred years even this practice faded, and the entire class disappeared. Finally, the Emperor Constantine used the title patricius to recognize an individual’s service to Rome, but the ties to the hereditary Roman nobility no longer existed.

Senators during the Republic. As Roman power expanded through military conquest, the Senate became the most powerful and prestigious governing institution of Rome. The specific requirements for belonging to the Senate changed over time, but the Senate regularly included men who had served in some government office, such as quaestor, and all members were wealthy men who owned large amounts of land in Italy. The Senate controlled the finances of Rome and so was the most powerful single entity in the Roman economy. Theoretically, the members of the Senate were supposed to direct and make the best decisions for Rome without directly participating in business ventures. Strictly speaking, senators could not bid on the state contracts the Senate set up, nor could they own the large ships used for bigger trading ventures. Senators were also supposed to represent traditional Roman values, which meant in part playing the role of humble but hardworking farmers, and soldiers when necessary. Consequently, senators were not supposed to engage in menial labor or commerce. In practice, however, senators amassed and maintained their fortunes by doing favors for their friends and clients, as well as acting as secret partners in business ventures.

The Emperor. The emperor maintained direct control of Roman finances and assumed ultimate authority over financial decisions. This control dated to the formation of imperial administration under Augustus. He restructured state revenues so the taxes collected from provinces went directly to his coffers. Every emperor, therefore, controlled an enormous personal fortune with which he could gain leverage with individuals, such as senators, or whole groups, such as the military. Especially at times of crisis, it was the emperor and his court that had the responsibility and authority to institute and modify economic and monetary policy.

Senators during the Early Empire. By the end of the civil wars and the collapse of the Republic, the ranks of the Senate had swelled to its highest number, around one thousand. As Augustus gradually set up an imperial administration, the duties and membership of the Senate changed. When the rolls stabilized at six hundred, it became easier for sons to inherit their fathers’ senatorial positions, and the property requirement became one million sesterces (a Roman monetary unit). While in some ways these reforms stabilized the membership, the emperors controlled the membership substantially. An emperor could ensure the Senate consisted of his friends and supporters by manipulating the membership. The emperor could, for example, give or loan money to a supporter in order to meet the minimum property requirement to enter the senatorial order. The composition of the order also changed. Whereas at the start senators came almost exclusively from Italy, during the course of the early empire the makeup of the Senate began to reflect the expanding empire, and eventually the majority came from outside Italy itself. The Senate no longer served as the ultimate authority on finances and economic policy, but it was an important political body, and it controlled many key positions and offices from which senators wielded economic power, in addition to being wealthy and powerful individuals in their own right.

The Senate in the Late Empire. Beginning in the third century C.E., Diocletian, Constantine, and other emperors profoundly modified and weakened the power of Roman senators. Political and military offices previously available only to senators opened up to Equestrians. Over the course of a series of reforms, the order both expanded to more than two thousand members and lost what concentrated power it had. The Emperor Valentinian I even divided the Senate into three ranks. Economically, members of the Senate belonged to the wealthy but did not wield special economic force as senators.

Equestrians. The equites, “cavalry,” derived their origin from the earliest days of Rome in the military horsemen of the Roman army and their honorific positions. By the end of the Republic, however, the order had a property requirement of four hundred thousand sesterces and possibly called for additional qualifications as well. Unlike senators, equestrians tended not to seek or hold political office. On the other hand, where senators were forbidden or discouraged from engaging in commerce, equestrians often built their fortunes in trade or projects contracted by the Senate. Under the empire, the equestrians became more formally an aristocratic order second to the Senate. Equestrians occupied a wide range of posts, especially in local governments. As a class in which wealth was traditionally concentrated, indeed wealth was consistently the defining characteristic, the equestrian order was always an economic force.

Plebeians. The remaining freeborn population of Rome was called the plebs because in the earlier history of Rome, any citizen not born a patrician would be a plebeian. This class included people of a wide range of economic means. The wealthier constituents among plebs in fact struggled for and won the right to certain political offices during the middle years of the Republic. Many economic struggles continued for the plebeians, however. Since most wealth was rooted in land and property ownership, the plebeians clashed with the wealthier classes over the distribution and use of public and private lands. While the wealthier plebeians could border on the lifestyle of the aristocracy, some small landowners and farmers lived in harsh, destitute conditions.

Roman Citizens. A person was not necessarily a Roman citizen simply because he resided in Rome or within the Roman Empire. Roman citizenship was a formal, legal status that an individual had either by birth or was granted at some point. Official Roman citizenship granted critical rights and protections. For example, citizenship during the Republic meant the right to vote. Even more importantly, citizenship meant legal protection of a person’s body: a citizen would be subject to less violent penalties under the law and could not be executed for a crime. Consequently, peoples who allied themselves with the Romans or were conquered by them desired and even fought for citizen rights. Gradually, the Romans extended citizenship status to more and more people. In 89 B.C.E. all Italians officially became Roman citizens. In 212 C.E. all freeborn residents within the borders of the Roman Empire automatically became citizens.

Honestiores and Humiliores. All Roman citizens were not equal, however. An informal distinction existed between honestiores, which included prestigious individuals such as senators, equestrians, political officials, and military officers, and humiliores, individuals of lower rank. While no formal legal definition of these two groups is known, by the time that all freeborn inhabitants of the Roman Empire were granted citizenship status, the distinction had serious legal consequences. Roman law called for differing levels of punishment according to these categories for those found guilty of the same crime, and the punishments for humiliores were always more severe.

Slaves. Slaves constituted a huge portion of the population and their numbers increased as Rome conquered more and more territories and people. Romans consistently enslaved foreigners but not native Italians. Prisoners of war, children of slave mothers, and victims of piracy replenished the slave population throughout the history of ancient Rome. While all slaves lacked the protection and basic rights granted to Roman citizens and suffered the oppression characteristic of slavery, in terms of quality of life and economic means, slaves could live in a wide range of circumstances.

Freedmen and Freedwomen. Slaves could never acquire formal Roman citizenship, nor could they ever enter the senatorial, equestrian, or even plebeian classes. Some slaves could, however, acquire their freedom, at which point they became free (libertini). Whether a slave became free was entirely up to the slave’s owner. Masters freed slaves for a variety of reasons, some altruistic, and some selfish, and often a mixture of both. A few individuals achieved their freedom for their considerable skills in management and business and became extremely wealthy in their own right, although a freedman always owed his allegiance to his former master. Freedman or freedwomen retained their status for the rest of their lives, but their children would be born free.

Types of Economic Activity. What jobs did ancient Romans perform? How did the Romans make money? It may seem obvious that when the Roman military conquered an area, they profited by acquiring the wealth of the people who live there, but the Romans could conquer a town or country and make it even wealthier. How did a farmer in Italy make money from a military conquest hundreds of miles away? Why did millions of people pay money to the Roman emperor even though he was just one man? Moreover, while the Romans aggressively pursued wealth and power, they also expected that everyone always worked. Indeed, they always retained some suspicion of anyone at any time who was not working. Even “retirement” was a suspicious thing! So it is worth keeping in mind the general areas in which Romans worked and what classes of people in general did this type of work.

Agriculture. Although the Romans have earned great fame for their military, engineering, and cultural achievements, basic agriculture remained the foundation of the Roman economy. Ownership of farmland was the prerequisite for becoming a senator, for example, and hence for wielding large-scale economic and political power. The sizes of farms could vary widely. Some Roman citizens owned small plots of land and barely survived on what they could grow and sell. Some senators ran gigantic farming businesses on huge tracts of land and turned enormous profits. These senators would hire (or purchase, in the case of slaves) people to do the labor, as well as overseers, accountants, and others as necessary to maintain the business.

Infrastructure. The Romans consistently displayed their famous practicality by devoting many of their resources to establishing a basic infrastructure to meet fundamental human needs. When they conquered or annexed a city, they would build roads, buildings, and do more to establish or strengthen the infrastructure of the city and incorporate it into the network of the Roman Empire. Many people had to work together to set up the structures to acquire and distribute the basic needs of food, water, shelter, health, and safety. The agricultural base of the economy tried to keep foodstuffs in adequate supply. The Romans built miles and miles of aqueducts, many of which survive to this day, to supply water to individuals and also to irrigate farmland. They constructed temples, buildings, theaters, arenas, and other public works. All such works required architects, suppliers, and laborers in huge numbers. Brickmaking, for example, became an enormous industry. In the process of establishing networks to supply these basic needs and for transporting building materials, the Romans also made the transport and procurement of luxury items easier.

Public Administration. As the empire expanded, there was more need for people to devote their time just to making sure all the projects, whether military, public, or other, ran efficiently. Likewise, networks for moving materials, goods, and specific items became larger and more complex. Wealthier Romans, although the foundation of their wealth lay in their farmland, dominated these positions and used them to increase their wealth even more.

Trades and Crafts. Romans all over the empire and of every class needed, wanted, and used a wide variety of items that an individual could manufacture and supply. These products could range from small items such as spoons and clothes to household furniture and decorations. Romans also went to restaurants, hired skilled labor, and sought out a variety of services. As with many jobs, many people struggled to manage a subsistence living while some managed decent livings. Slaves and free citizens could work the same job, even side by side. Nevertheless, class distinctions mattered. Aristocratic Romans, even though they respected the industriousness of farming, despised the menial physical labor that went into many of those jobs, and despised those who performed them as well.

The Military. Whereas in the earliest days of Rome, wealthy Romans enlisted in the army and provided their own equipment, as Rome expanded through conquest, the army needed systematic funding. The army needed equipment and the soldiers had to be paid. Moreover, veterans, after they had completed their service, needed homes to return to or other benefits. On one hand, through conquest and other works, the army brought wealth and economic opportunities to Rome. On the other hand, because of the sheer power of the army, no one, not even the emperor, could risk ignoring the economic demands of the military.

Models of the Roman Economy. So far as it is known, no one among the Romans formally analyzed the economic system of Rome, so it can be difficult to describe more than a thousand years later how the vast network operated as a unit and how it changed over time. Moreover, while the Romans kept financial records and recorded elaborate contracts for work, only a handful of such documents have survived. Therefore, it is impossible for modern scholars to measure the activity of the Roman economy as they can modern ones. Still, it is useful to employ models in order to understand the system and talk about how the Roman economy all worked together. Finally, while the Romans employed mechanisms and techniques that today would be associated with a specific type of economy (for example, “capitalism”), most scholars would agree that the Roman economy was a unique type.

The Consumer City. While Rome and other cities within the empire were centers of power and wealth, they played a different role in the economy from modern cities. Many modern cities acquire economic power because they have factories or companies that generate wealth in and for the city. Because the economic power of the Roman economy derived ultimately from agriculture, urban areas were locations more for consumption than for production. For this reason, a city such as Rome in an ancient economy is called a “consumer city.” A consumer city is a hub for products, consumers, and exchange.

Investment and Banking. Wealthy Romans certainly invested. They would buy land or put money into trading ventures, for example. Nevertheless, some scholars argue that the Roman economy lacked a true investment and banking system with which to keep the economy expanding and improving. The economy remained static and was subject to crises. Other scholars argue that the investments the Romans made accomplished the same goals as a formal banking and investment system.

Subsistence. The Roman Empire clearly expanded in terms of people, territory, and resources, but this expansion does not necessarily mean the economic system grew. While the Romans devoted many resources to the establishment of a basic infrastructure to provide food, water, shelter, and other basic needs, some scholars believe that the Roman economy never grew enough to allow the bulk of its inhabitants to live much beyond what they needed to survive, that is, beyond the subsistence level.

Growth and Invention. The Romans accomplished many great feats of engineering. They built and created many structures and devices that still amaze people today. Still, the Romans did not invent or use inventions in many ways that seem commonplace today. Some historians believe that the Roman economy was geared toward stability rather than expansion. Consequently, the Romans did not foster invention nearly as much as they could have and even failed to capitalize on inventions that they did have.

Economic Policy. With any model of the Roman economy, one has to wonder whether the Romans ever looked at their economic network and tried to make decisions about it as an economy. They definitely made many financial decisions and established, for example, a far-reaching monetary system. Still, any attempt to model the Roman economy must wrestle with the question of whether the Romans simply did not think about their economic system, or whether they accomplished economic goals without overtly making economic policy, or whether they conceived of their system in some way quite different from modern economists. Unless someone can somehow discover the records and ideas of many of the key figures who made large-scale decisions for Rome, people may always have to speculate about this question.

A Multicultural and International Economy. The Romans commanded an empire and economy involving more people, more territory, more resources, and more different types of nations than perhaps any empire in ancient history, and they managed it for centuries. Whether through conquest or alliance, they constantly worked on ways to make new territories and peoples part of the empire, and yet they were quick to recognize the differences and value of the people and communities they encountered. They faced differences in language, religion, culture, tradition, as well as economic system. Today the world is increasingly developing a global economy, involving different peoples and nations literally all around the globe. The successes and failures of the Romans as they endeavored to create the largest and most complex economy the world had ever known still have much to teach about uniting a world in peacetime growth.

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Social Class System and the Economy: Overview

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Social Class System and the Economy: Overview