The word patrician is an adjective derived from the Latin word for “father,” which was also a term for a senator. In the later republic of the second and first centuries bce, certain families were recognized as patrician by their distinctive clothing and the reservation of certain priesthood positions for them. The Roman historical tradition (formed in the third and second centuries bce) held that patricians consisted of families granted this title at various times during the Roman kingdom and that these families had a monopoly on political office at the start of the republic. There ensued a long political conflict known as the Struggle of the Orders, in which non-patricians, known individually as the plebeians and collectively as the plebs, sought to attain the redress of economic grievances and the right to hold office. The upshot was that in the period from c. 367–c. 287 bce the patrician monopoly of office holding was broken. The wealthy plebeian families then fused with the patricians to form a ruling class known as the nobility.
Examination of the list of the earliest chief magistrates of the republic (the consuls) shows that the traditional story of the origin of the patricians cannot be true. For the first half century of the republic (starting c. 509 bce), a number of families that were later of plebeian status appear among the consuls. It is only from around 450 bce onward that patricians tend to monopolize the office, and this monopoly seems established by the end of the 400s. It is a phenomenon attestable elsewhere (e.g., the city-states of Archaic Greece and the free cities of late medieval Germany) for the office-holding families of a given period to establish for themselves a legal monopoly on office, a situation that eventually breaks down as some of the monopolizing families fall into economic decline while new families attain wealth and wish to end the monopoly.
While some Roman patricians eventually sank into obscurity, a number of the most prominent senatorial families of the mid- and late republic were of patrician status, and this status conferred great prestige. The patricians suffered many deaths during the civil wars that saw the decline of the republic (88–31 bce) and ushered in the autocratic form of government known as the Roman Empire. There were not enough patricians to fill the priesthood positions reserved for them. Both Julius Caesar (c. 100–44 bce) and his adopted son Augustus, the first emperor (ruled 27 bce–14 CE), were authorized to create new patrician families (from prominent senatorial families of plebeian status). As part of his effort to conceal his power by restoring some of the forms (but not the substance) of the old republican government, Augustus promoted the careers of the remaining patricians. The old patrician families continued their decline as they died out naturally and fell victim to prosecution under the Julio-Claudian emperors, and the emperors continued to create new patricians. Men with this status enjoyed swifter advancement in their careers, but the status died out in the third century.
SEE ALSO Class; Heredity; Hierarchy; Stratification
Mitchell, Richard E. 1990. Patricians and Plebeians: The Origin of the Roman State. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Raaflaub, Kurt A., ed. 2005. Social Struggles in Archaic Rome: New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell.