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Roman social and political structures

Patricians and plebeians; Roman citizens, Senators and Consuls: learn about the political and social structures of ancient Rome.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Talk a little bit about the social and political structures of ancient Rome. It's important to keep in mind that ancient Rome wasn't just this static thing that never changed. It existed for over 1,000 years, from its period from its founding as a kingdom, if you believe the founding myth, founded by Romulus in 753 BCE. Most historians don't accept that founding myth. But then it became they overthrew their last king in 509 BCE, Tarquin the Proud, and then they established the Roman republic, which was eventually then turned into an empire by Julius Caesar and Augustus. And so, whenever you have something this long lasting, you could imagine the social and the political structures evolved over time. But let's begin with the period when it was a kingdom, because even then there were some things that were noteworthy and some social and political structures that continued into the republic period and even when it was an empire. So one interesting thing is that when we typically think of kings, we think of it as being dynastic, that if I am king, then my oldest son, or maybe in certain cultures, my oldest daughter might become king or queen. But turns out, that many of the, especially the early kings of the Roman kingdom, were actually elected. They had a lot of power, all the power resided in them, they were the executive, the legislative, they were the judicial, they even had religious power. But it's interesting to think of the idea of elected kings. Now all of them weren't elected. Several of them were dynastic but it is an interesting idea. Now another idea that emerged during the Roman kingdom is this idea of citizenship. Now it's important to realize today, in a lot of countries, we think of oh, everyone who's a formal resident of that country, you can view them as a citizen, or most of the people, you could think of citizens, especially maybe people born in a country. But that was not the case in Rome. And when we go into this Roman kingdom, I'll remind, and I do this in many videos, we're not thinking about this sprawling Roman empire that we'll see several hundred years later. At that time, Rome was really just in control of Rome and over time, especially during the republic period, it starts to expand and eventually have hegemony or dominant power over the Mediterranean or parts of the Middle East, I should say, and in southern Europe. But let's go back to this kingdom period. And what I'm about to draw actually stays true through most of Roman civilization. If this white circle are the people who lived under Roman rule, only a subset were citizens. So this were the citizens. These were male landowners, citizens right over here. And within the citizens, they were further divided between patricians, and you can think of them as the nobility, these were people and they became patrician based on what family they were born into. And it's based on this idea and the word literally comes from this idea that you are descended from the founding fathers of Rome. And then all the other citizens were the plebians. So all of the other ones were the plebians, right over here. And, as we'll see, over the patricians held most of the power and most of the wealth for a significant amount of time. But as we go through the republic period, the plebians start to gain more and more and more power and many plebians also start to accrue wealth and some patrician families do end up poor. But, for the most part, the patricians, they're the nobility, they're associated with the aristocracy, but the plebians, some of them become wealthy and powerful as well. Now you're probably saying what about all of these other people? Well, you could imagine non-landholding males, you could imagine women, you could imagine slaves. And even though we aggrandize Rome and there were many very interesting things about Rome, one of the legacies that Rome had, which maybe as the historians reflect a little bit more negatively on, is that Roman society was built on the idea of slaves. And most of the slaves were people that they subjugated people that they conquered in other lands. They might have been people who at least the authorities thought they committed a crime of some kind. But the society was built on slavery. So you had a large segment of the population that had no rights, that were considered slaves. Later on, they start to gain some very, very basic, rudimentary rights, but you can imagine, as a slave, close to no rights whatsoever. Now, other institutions that developed during the time of the Roman kingdom were an institution that developed at the time of the Roman kingdom was the Senate, was the Roman Senate. And under the king, the king had most of the power, but once the Roman republic gets established, it's actually the Senate where most of the power resides. Now, this right over here, is a depiction, that came much later, of the Roman Senate. And it's important to realize that the Senate was not the only institution or the only position within the Roman republic. The consuls were there and you could view the consuls as the executives, or if you think of a system like the United States, the executive power resides in the President, so it's analogous to the President. They are running the government. They are also commander in chief of the military. Now, consuls, even though it was considered a very high title, their power was very limited. There was two of them at any given time, so I just drew the two consuls. They could veto each other at any given time to keep any one consul from getting too powerful and they only had a one year term. And during that one year, they would alternate on a monthly basis on who was the more senior consul. So you could imagine the consuls were limited in many, many, many ways. And even though the Senate officially was supposed to advise the consuls, in practice, what the Senate told the consuls to do, the consuls actually did. So another question is, well, who gets to be a consul and who gets to be a Senate? Well, in the early days, the Senate was mainly or it was patrician, and over time, as plebians start to exert more and more power, especially as we go into the mid and later republic, Roman republic, you start to have more wealthy plebians in the Senate. But in general, the Senate is composed of the aristocracy. So wealthy and influential men of Rome are in the Senate. How are they selected for the Senate? Well, in the early days, it was actually the consuls who selected the Senators. Later on, or shortly thereafter, and for most of the republic period of Rome, it was a position called the censor that decided who got to actually serve in the Senate. Now another question you might say is well, who's deciding who gets to be a consul, who gets to be a censor, and there's many other of these executive positions that are generally called magistrates, and that came from one of the assemblies of the Roman republic, in particular, the Centuriate assembly. Centuriate assembly, which elected consuls, the senior executives, the senior magistrates, is one way that you could think about it, they elected them. And who was in the Centuriate assembly and why did they call it the Centuriate assembly? Well, it started off as citizen soldiers being grouped into groups of 100 and on a particular issue, including who should be elected consul, this group of 100 would vote, whatever the majority would be, then their representative to the assembly would vote that way. So they wouldn't just select a representative and that representative could do anything they want. They would tell that representative how to vote, but that's why it was called a Centuriate assembly, because you had these groups of 100. And a lot of their power was in electing these consuls and these other senior magistrates. But that wasn't the only assembly. You also had the tribunal assembly. This is breaking up the Roman population, the Roman citizenry, by tribe. And this had both plebians and patricians in it. So this is the tribunal assembly. You also have the Plebian Council, this was only plebians. You also have the Plebian Council. And even though, all of these, and they evolved over time. Over time, the plebians started to get more and more power, the general idea, especially during the Roman republic, is that the Senate is where the important debates on foreign policy happened, the important debates on what Rome should become as a society, as a republic, and eventually as an empire.