Aristocracies

M.I. Finley

  • Death and Renewal. Sociological Studies in Roman History: Vol. II by Keith Hopkins
    Cambridge, 276 pp, £19.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 521 24991 0

The durability of the Roman ruling class, despite the continuing loss of individual families, was perhaps unique in history. From the establishment of a republic at the end of the sixth century BC to, anyway, the death of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius seven hundred years later, the Roman state, which had grown by conquest from a small autonomous city on the Tiber to a great empire reaching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates River, was dominated and ruled by a relatively small aristocracy which had survived not only various threats from below but also the replacement of the republic by the monarchy of Augustus. There were all kinds of changes, of course, especially those made necessary by the vastly increased scale of activity, the vastly increased wealth and luxury, the vastly increased armies and military operations, and so on. Yet ‘durability’ is the correct term. Occasionally there were nicely illustrative personal examples: both Julius Caesar and his assassin Brutus could claim membership of lineages that traced their high status back half a millennium.

We call this ruling class an aristocracy, and the Romans themselves spoke of a nobilitas, though the word turns out to be much harder to define than one might expect. It was an odd kind of aristocracy by traditional European canons, if for no other reason because in a certain sense it rested on a ‘democratic’ base. Membership in this aristocracy was de facto, not de jure: there were no hereditary titles, no peerage in the formal sense. The main offices of state, in which there was no distinction between civilian and military posts, were monopolised by the aristocracy, except when they themselves sponsored ‘new men’ for admission, the most famous, or at least the most self-advertised, of whom was Cicero. But the offices of state were few in number, and as they became, with Roman expansion, increasingly lucrative for the incumbents, they were the object of a fierce and costly competition, the oddity of which was that they were elective posts, open only to the aristocracy and their occasional client – outsiders but chosen by popular vote. No other nobility was subject to a comparable need to obtain, and pay for, popular backing in an annually-repeated contest. The rules of the game were formulated in such a way as to guarantee absolutely that no one could enter the contest who was not either a member of the nobilitas or someone who had made his mark in the municipal aristocracies of Italy and had acquired proper Roman aristocratic patronage. But the final contest was genuinely open. Cato, the famous censor of 184-180 BC, had been defeated when he stood for the office in 189.

The main offices were normally held for a tenure of a single year, though occasionally someone managed a further term or terms and the highest offices, the consulship and praetorship, were with growing frequency prorogued for a period as the expanding empire required more and more provincial governors (hence the word ‘proconsul’) and commanders of armies. The normal age for the consulship was 40, after which a man had completed his office-holding career unless he were subsequently elected to the censorship – an abnormal post for which two men were chosen every five years.

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