Ancient Rome, the homeland of Roman civilization, which, from its beginnings as a settlement of Latin peasants on the banks of the River Tiber around 1000 bc, grew to be the centre of the greatest empire of the ancient world. From about 500 to 300 bc, Roman ways quickly began to dominate the whole of Italy and the Mediterranean fringe and, from about 200 bc to the late 5th century ad, Rome controlled vast territories in Europe, Africa, and Asia. They shared a way of life that, while allowing a great many regional differences, gave to many peoples a common culture that was distinctively Roman.
The early origins of this way of life lay in the developing cultures of the Italian tribes: Etruscans, Campanians, and others developed alongside the early Romans, although their cultures came to be completely dominated by that of Rome. Many other factors, however, contributed to the Roman way of life. The influence of Greece was enormous, and many Greek styles, customs, and aspects of religion were adopted more or less consciously by the Romans; in time the Near East, as well as outlying parts of Europe, came to add its contributions to Roman life. The economic prosperity of Rome, coupled with military successes that led to the formation of the Roman Empire, created a fertile seedbed for the development of Roman culture and allowed the development of specialist artists, craftsmen, lawyers, and administrators as well as providing the financial resources to support what was, for many, a rich and diverse way of life.
Despite occasional major constitutional changes (see Kings of Rome; Roman Republic), Roman history shows a basic stability and continuity from its early days to the fall of the empire, and this slow pace of change was also important in establishing the character of the Roman way of life. Very strong regional differences persisted, in wealth, customs, and taste: the people of the empire in Greece, for example, appear at all times more sophisticated, and probably better off, than their more barbarous cousins in provinces of Gaul or Britain. All, however, lived in a world that was distinctly Roman.
II ROMAN SOCIETY
From earliest times, Roman society was divided into two main groups: the upper-class patricians, and the plebeians, who made up the rest of the population. Patrician families were grouped into clans, probably reflecting the tribal structure of their early Latin ancestors; the best-known such clan, that of the Julians, was to produce the first Imperial dynasty. Access to the more important posts in the army, the judiciary, and the administration was usually confined to the patricians or to the equestrian class who constituted the lower ranks of the aristocracy; over time, these restrictions and distinctions were gradually eroded so that public affairs, which under the early Republic tended to be the preserve of the upper classes, became by the time of the empire increasingly influenced by talented and vigorous members of lower orders, as more and more opportunities were opened up to the plebeians. Patrician birth remained an important matter of family pride, but made increasingly little difference to a career. Another important distinction was abolished in ad 212, when the emperor Caracalla extended to all inhabitants of the empire Roman citizenship, previously a cherished privilege of the people of Rome: provincials now enjoyed equal rights with the inhabitants of Rome itself.
Around the patrician and equestrian households collected a class of people referred to as clientes; clients would seek an upper-class patron, in a position of wealth or power, whom they could solicit for favours in order to secure advancement. Typically, a client would approach the patron with a request for help in securing a public appointment, or a trading concession; the patron would exert influence to help with this, but would expect the favour to be repaid at some time. The practice of the system of clientage was an important aspect of Roman private and public life. Important men collected flocks of clients, even setting aside particular hours for their reception, and a great part of Roman public and commercial affairs was transacted within the framework of this system.
Upper-class Romans cherished a strong sense of public duty: whatever his private fortune (and they could be huge), a patrician was expected to serve the res publica (literally, “the public thing”) in a civil or military capacity (and frequently in both). The young son of the governing classes embarked on the cursus honorum, a career involving progressive responsibility in a number of administrative and judicial posts. For some, the ultimate goal was the governorship of a province though, in practice, promotion could depend as much on influence as on talent. Service in the law courts and Senate was always an honourable duty, and played an important part in the public lives of a class that usually managed at the same time to see to its investments and conduct commercial enterprises.
The freeborn plebeians enjoyed legal rights and privileges, initially safeguarded on their behalf (at least in principle) by the patricians and later by their own magistrate, the tribunus plebeiorum, elected by the plebeians. A large proportion of the people of the empire, however, had few legal rights at all, for the Roman economy and way of life was founded upon slavery. Slaves of every nationality could be found in every part of the empire: they provided the workforce in mines and quarries, on large farming estates, and in industrial factories and workshops. Many, also, were household or domestic slaves; depending upon the virtues of their owners, they could be treated with brutality or as trusted servants. The more fortunate slaves were able to buy, or be given, their freedom; they joined a class of liberti, or freedmen, who shared most of the rights of the freeborn citizen (though there was often considerable prejudice against them). The children of a freedman were equal with all freeborn citizens, whereas the offspring of a slave inherited his servitude. With the shift towards political absolutism under the empire, considerable restrictions over the rights of the free poor, and even of the artisan class, developed and particularly under the later Empire when, in order to maintain essential but unattractive trades, many occupations were by law made hereditary.