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Life as a Patrician (Noble) in Ancient Rome: iCONN OneSearch for Public Libraries

as a Patrician (Noble) in Ancient Rome



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Ancient Roman Patricians (Nobles) at a Glance

Relationships &
Family Life
Living Quarters
Typical Appearance
Typical Meals
Typical Day
Societal Standing
Personal Time
Religious Life

Time Period Dates: 508 BCE (founding of the Republic) to 476 CE (abdication of the last
Roman emperor)
Time Period Name: Ancient Rome (Republic and Imperial periods)
Geographic Location: At its height at the death of Emperor Trajan in 117 CE, the Roman
Empire encompassed forty provinces that included parts of forty modern-day
countries. Rome had, under its control, the Mediterranean Sea and all lands bordering it,
including the provinces of Tarraconensis, Baetica, and Lusitania on the Iberian Peninsula
(modern-day Spain); the whole Mediterranean coast of North Africa, divided into the provinces
of Africa, Mauretania, Numidia, Cyrenaica, and Aegyptus; the entire lands of Asia Minor
(modern-day Turkey) in the east; portions of the modern-day Middle East, including Israel,
Syria, and parts of Armenia and Iraq; and, in the north, Britannia (modern-day England), Gaul,
which now comprises much of west-central Europe, and the province of Germania, ending at
the Rhine River. The Roman Empire also encompassed modern-day Italy and Greece, and
the Roman provinces of Moesia, Thrace, and Dacia today make up the Balkan countries.

Political Life

Class Rank: Patrician


Typical Life Span: 20-40 years

Children born to a patrician family were generally privileged. Since they carried on the proud
family names of the patrician class, they were highly valued. As they reached adulthood, they also became valued for the
alliances and honor they could potentially bring upon their families. High birth rates were also important, since most children
(particularly those in lower classes) did not live past the age of five.
Children in the patrician class lived a privileged childhood. Common toys included rattles and dolls, and archaeologists
have unearthed a variety of other toys and games. Sport and the art of fighting were also important to male youth; from the
earliest days of the Roman Republic to the later decades of the empire, young men were expected to compete for glory on
the battlefield.
Boys were known as "puer" until the age of fourteen, when they put aside the good luck charm they had been given at birth
to become adults. Girls gave up their dolls in a similar initiation. Young women were expected to marry as early as fourteen
to sixteen years of age, and to give birth to as many children as possible to support the needs of the city and its empire.
The Roman attitude toward education changed dramatically over the course of Rome's long history. During the Republican
period, the male children of Patricians were taught by their parents, as they were thought to have no need for formal
schooling. They learned only basic reading, writing and history, alongside horseback riding, fighting in armor, spear
throwing and other arts of war. As the city's territories grew in size and wealth, patrician families began to emulate their
Greek subjects. The Greeks had fostered a culture of art and scholarship that became the cultural standard for the most
stylish and wealthy members of the Roman elite. Patrician families were soon buying educated Greek slaves or hiring
school masters to educate their children.
During the Imperial era, a young Roman male would be expected to know the art of rhetoric and be fluent in formal Latin
and Greek. Some patrician children learned at small private schools run by respected instructors, but many were probably



Life as a Patrician (Noble) in Ancient Rome: iCONN OneSearch for Public Libraries

educated in their homes. Ancient Rome never provided a state-run educational system.
Personal Relationships & Family Life
Family life was central for all Romans. As children matured, they were encouraged to marry young and bear children who
could serve the needs of the growing Roman Empire. Family alliances through marriage were useful for solidifying political
power or wealth. For the Roman elite, the family included immediate and more distant relations, but also slaves and those
who had been accepted into the household as part of a political alliance or for services. This latter group might include the
son of an ally or a foreign scholar brought in to educate the family's children.
Within patrician households, the father acted as an absolute ruler. In earlier periods, his authority extended over his wife
and her belongings, though this would change somewhat in later periods. Throughout much of Rome's rule,
a patrician couple held complete authority over a bewildering array of slaves and the children of those slaves. (Though the
right was rarely used, a Roman couple also had the right to kill or to sell their own children into slavery.) Much of what has
survived ofRome's recorded history indicates that many patrician parents had affectionate relationships with their children.
They even earned the loyalty and affection of slaves in the household.
Living Quarters
As the center of a wealthy empire, the city of Rome was densely populated and a very expensive place in which to live. The
vast majority of people dwelled in cramped multi-story apartment buildings, but the wealth of the patrician elite was
reflected in their palatial villas and town homes. Apatrician home was a statement of its owner's power and fashionable
Like traditional farm villas, town dwellings would be built around one or more courtyards to allow light and air to circulate.
Guests would be greeted by a slave at the front entrance and ushered into the public areas at the front of the house. A
reception hall at the front provided a formal space for visitors. Beyond this, the doors could be opened for important guests
or family friends to enter into the home's central courtyard. The courtyard area was elaborately decorated with mosaics,
fountains and sculpture and, in keeping with the Greek style, had doors that opened into the surrounding rooms.
Beyond the entertaining spaces and bedrooms in the front part of the home lay the family baths and temple or shrine. The
servants quarters were located towards the back of the house.
Typical Appearance
Patrician families took great pride in their appearances. The traditional toga that we associate withRome today actually
was a formal garb used only on particular occasions. The female equivalent was a floor length skirt (stola) and a large
shawl (palla).
More common than these was the tunic, which was sometimes sleeveless. A male tunic reached to his knees, while female
garments went all of the way down to the feet. Tunics were worn both day and night, and could be covered with some form
of cape or mantle for warmth. A variety of shoes and sandals served very particular functions. Women covered their heads
with their shawls when in public.
Patrician families had the means to purchase a variety of materials, including woolens, silks, flaxen cloth and fine Egyptian
cottons. Fine white cotton was the norm, but natural dyes adorned female garments. Patrician senators and consuls wore
a purple band, and boys wore a thinner purple band on their clothes. Garish colors and revealing fabrics (like silk) were
considered in bad taste, but Roman writers make clear that many of Rome's wealthiest citizens were prepared to flaunt
their wealth in their appearances. Most famous are descriptions of patrician women's elaborate and fashionable hairstyles.
A wealthy male might also invest in a wig if necessary.
Typical Meals
A patrician family in Rome would eat three meals each day, all prepared by slaves. The smaller breakfast and lunchtime
meals generally included bread, olives, fruits, cheeses and meat or fish. Dinner meals were larger and more elaborate.
Wealthy Romans were particularly proud of their dinner parties, and we have accounts of extravagant dishes served up on
enormous platters. While wealthy families sampled exotic animals, grains, and spices from throughout the empire, one of
the more curious delicacies enjoyed by patrician families were dormice (rodents), which were bred in small, wooden cages
until they were large enough to be cooked and eaten.
Typical Day
Patricians owned farm land and engaged in trade (as long as it was through an agent), but most professional life was



Life as a Patrician (Noble) in Ancient Rome: iCONN OneSearch for Public Libraries

beneath them. Only law was regarded as suitable for a patrician son, as it demonstrated his oratorical or speaking skills
and brought him into Rome's political world. The typical day of a patrician revolved around leisure activities. If the family
was not visiting the seaside or a country estate, its members might be visiting with wealthy friends, examining the latest
goods imported by a shop owner, or strolling in luxurious gardens.
Most Romans made frequent trips to the baths, but patrician families could afford to have their own baths in the villa.
Roman baths were large and were more than a simple bathing facility, featuring heated pools in beautifully decorated
rooms surrounded by gardens. The traditional Roman appreciation for physical exercise meant that boys and men would
often build training or exercise into their daily routines before withdrawing to the baths.
The highlight of the patrician day was usually the exquisite private dinner parties given by other elite families. These were
small affairs, usually involving no more than nine guests. At all times, apatrician was waited on by a small army of slaves,
each assigned specialized tasks to make the lifeof his or her master one of total comfort.
Societal Standing
A Roman patrician was second only to the emperor in social standing. In the early days of Rome'sfounding,
the patrician class consisted of the landowning families who inherited the right to rule the city. As the Roman Empire grew
and Rome's political structures changed, the patrician class expanded to include families that were not even native to the
region. Wealth could help a new family to aspire to patrician class, but money alone did not guarantee the political and
social standing that brought a family close to the emperor until the later centuries of the empire.
Personal Time
In some sense, a Roman patrician had only personal time. Free from the demands of either physical or professional labor,
a patrician spent the majority of his or her time in leisure activities. There were exceptions to this leisure, however. The
empire was constantly engaged in battles in with neighboring peoples as it sought to expand its borders. Patrician sons
were expected to prove themselves by leading in battle, and military life could take them away from Rome for long periods
of time.
In addition, Rome suffered from its share of unrest at home. Problems with overcrowding, famine and drought, and the
question of how to delegate the empire's wealth, brought frequent conflict and rebellion. Over the centuries, the
plebes, Rome's class of free commoners, demanded and received more power and rights. The patrician families, caught
between the emperor and his restless subjects, needed to be diplomatic, clever and careful in their arrangements. It is quite
likely that in difficult times, much of a patrician's social activities were actually an opportunity to negotiate the delicate
alliances that held the city's political system together.
Religious Life
Religious life was a part of personal and public life in ancient Rome. In the early days of the republic, it was thought that
only members of the patrician caste were close enough to the gods to serve as priests. Over time this changed,
but patrician leaders never gave up their reliance on the gods or their role in public religion
Every Roman home had a small temple with a statuette of the Lar Familiaris, or the household's guardian spirit or deity.
Tending to this spirit with offerings and prayers was part of any Roman's dailylife. The patrician class distinguished itself
with the size and cost of its household shrines, but more so with its participation in public religion.
Rome was famous for adopting the local gods and goddesses of the peoples that it conquered, but it had a set of primary
gods and goddesses. Priests and other religious figures maintained large temples for these deities throughout the
city. Ancient Roman writings indicate that many patricianleaders might have lost their belief in these gods after the early
centuries of the republic. Nevertheless, participation in the annual festivities devoted to the gods remained an important part
of political life for Rome's elite.
Political Life
The patrician class formed the traditional center of political life in Rome for almost a thousand years. Rome's government
was designed to ensure that patrician senators could overrule the decisions of the plebeian representatives. Over time,
however, the patricians lost political power to both the plebeian assembly and the emperor.
By the first century CE, the patrician class contained only a portion of the original families. In their place were families from
regions all around the empire who owed their status to the favor of the emperors. Those who sought political power needed
more than a family namesuccessful battles, local spectacles and an impressive law career could win the approval of the



Life as a Patrician (Noble) in Ancient Rome: iCONN OneSearch for Public Libraries

masses. A much more careful diplomacy (or outright deceit) was necessary to gain the approval of emperors.
Boardman, John, Jasper Griffin and Oswyn Murray, eds. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Roman World. Reissue.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
The Oxford History presents a collection of essays and full-page illustrations that cover Roman arts, culture and politicalsocial history.
Cowell, F.R. Everyday Life in Ancient Rome. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1961.
Cowell's classic book on Roman life offers a detailed survey of everything from the cost of slaves and mystery cults to
shops and markets. Drawn illustrations are included.
Freeman, Charles. The World of the Romans. Adv. eds. J.F. Drinkwater and Andrew Drummond. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1993.
The World of the Romans provides a wealth of color, photographic illustrations of Roman artifacts supplemented by
Freeman's short passages about life in the Roman Republic and Empire.
Google. [] "Ancient Rome 3D." Accessed 9 September 2009.
Google offers a free download of this program that allows the viewer to wander the streets of a 3D replica of
the ancient city as it might have appeared during the height of Rome's power.
Len, Vicki. Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns, and Other Prized Professions of theAncient World. New
York: Walker and Co., 2007.
Len's quirky book takes a humorous but informative look at the best, worst and strangest jobs available
in Ancient Rome.
Morley, Jacqueline and John James. A Roman Villa. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1992.
Designed primarily for a younger reading audience, this book nevertheless provides some of the most detailed illustrations
and information available on the homes of wealthy Romans.
By Amy Witherbee, Educational Writer

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