Ancient Roman Patricians: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

This essay will be about the Roman patricians during the Roman Kingdom, Republic, and Empire. The patricians were the upper class of Roman society from the earliest days to the end of the empire.

What is a Patrician?

When you think of a patrician in Ancient Rome, try to visualize a man walking around in a suit with a top hat. O.K. now imagine that kind of a person in a toga. In Rome, the patricians were the wealthy, with all the privileges and most of the power. Learning to share that power with the lower class in what was called the Conflict of the Orders was one of the reasons the Republic survived and thrived for so long.

Marcus Furius Camillus in discussion with Brennius the Gaul. The Furia clan was one of the oldest and most respected in Rome
Patrician clan Furia

According to legend the founder of Rome, Romulus, selected the 100 most noble men in Rome to be its senators. They became the fathers of all the patrician clans. In Latin, father is patres, which is where the word patrician comes from. It is just legend, though. Although there was probably an upper class from the first day of Rome, we know that most of the patrician clans arrived long after Romulus was dead. The Claudii came to Rome after the kings had been expelled in 509 B.C.E. a hundred or two years later.

The Early Republic

Because patricians were wealthy they were given more rights and privileges than the lower class, or plebeians. For instance, the Romans had three legislative houses, the Comitia Centuriata, each of which had a vote. The plebeians were represented in all three houses, and were equally represented, but two of them were dominated by the patricians. That meant that the patricians could control what laws were passed.

The Comitia Centuriata didn't just make laws, though. It was also responsible for electing people to the highest Roman offices like censors, praetors, and consuls. So, the patricians controlled who held those offices too.

Religion was also in patrician hands. At the beginning of the Republic, only patricians could be priests by law. It was believed that somehow the rich were better communicators with the gods than the poor.

Later Republic

The patricians gave up power as the Republic developed and the lower class citizens fought for more power (in The Conflict of the Orders). The Conflict really began in 494 B.C.E. when the patricians created the position of Tribunus Plebis, or People's Tribune. The office had the right to propose laws, call the Senate, even veto laws made by the consuls in order to protect the plebeians. A tribunus plebis was also protected by law; any person who harmed him could be killed on the spot, by anyone.

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