“Said of a person: belonging to the upper class” or “Individual who, due to birth, wealth, and virtues, stands out among his fellow citizens.” According to dictionary, these are the usual meanings today for the word “patrician” … unless we are talking about ancient Rome, in which case the term refers to a person “who descended from the first senators and was part of the privileged social class.” That’s what we’re going to explore next.

It has been a long time since the old theory of the three original patrician tribes, Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres, equivalent to Latins, Sabines, and Etruscans, was discarded, as the latter had nothing to do with it. Today, it is more common to consider these three tribes as the branches of a single primordial one. Each of the resulting tribes was divided into ten curiae, which in turn were divided into ten gentes (from gens, clan) formed by ten families, a system so geometric that perhaps it began for a military organization reason.

Plutarch’s quote is nothing better to understand the mythologized, though confusing, idea that the Romans had about the origin of the patricians. He expresses it in the chapter dedicated to the foundation of Rome by Romulus when the character chooses a hundred citizens of “greater merit” to be advisors (senators):

“This term undoubtedly means old age: but regarding the name of patricians, given to the advisors, some say that it originated from being fathers of free children, others rather that they themselves were known as children of known fathers, an advantage enjoyed by few of those who had come to the city; and others, finally, that it came from the right of patronage, because that is what the protection they dispense was called and is still called today; believing that one of those who came with Evander, named Patron, of a benevolent character, and helper to the miserable, originated this act and that denomination.”

Plutarch, Life of Romulus

Plutarch adds that, in his opinion, Romulus made that choice seeking that the most illustrious and powerful would carry out a role of “protection and paternal care with the humble, and on the other hand, teach them not to fear or hate the authority and honors of the leaders, but rather to look at them with benevolence, considering them as fathers and greeting them as such.” That is why, he insists, they were initially called fathers and later enrolled fathers, which coincides with the etymology of the Latin term pater.

As we saw, one of the conditions for being chosen was to be the children of known fathers, in the sense that they belonged to the original families of the city. In other words, Romulus selected a hundred people and elevated their socioeconomic status, thus originating the two classic strata of Roman society: the upper class constituted by the select patricians versus the lower class of the rest, formed by plebeians, related by a patronage bond between patrons and clients.

This is confirmed by Livy in his work Ab urbe condita (“History of Rome from its foundation”) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus in Roman Antiquities. However, they also report that the city grew, and it became necessary to expand the patriciate, doubling with the incorporation of a hundred Sabines at the time when Tito Tacio shared the throne with Romulus or, later, with the people from the neighboring Alba Longa, destroyed by the third monarch, Tullus Hostilius. In fact, the expansion would continue at least until 504 B.C., already in the Republican era, when the last case of admission of a foreign gens among the patricians occurred: the Claudia, which also came from Sabine.

This generated an internal distinction, with the original families being the major gentes and the rest being the minor gentes. It is assumed that among the former would be the Emilii, Claudii, Cornelii, Fabii, Manlii, and Valerii, while among the latter would be the Julii, Tulii, Servii, Quintii, Geganii, Curtii, and Cloelii. However, the matter is not clear, and it even appears contradictory, as we saw, the Claudii were Sabines. It is also not known if that duality had legal support or if it affected life in any way.

In any case, the patricians constituted the noblest social stratum: that of the optimates (the best or finest, in other words, the aristocrats), situated one step above the equites (knights, who could be as rich as them but lacked the privilege of birth) and even more so above the populares (the common people), especially since the latter experienced growth due to the influx into the city of peasant families from all over Latium.

To accentuate the differences, the patricians opposed from the beginning granting citizenship to newcomers, whom they called plebeians referring to their lack of lineage; as they were not assigned to any tribe or curia, members of the ordo plebeius lacked political rights and could not participate in assemblies, just as it happened in ancient Greece (although curiously, the patricians were resistant to accepting Hellenistic culture).

Consequently, access to magistracies was a prerogative of the patriciate; they even monopolized the priesthood because of the belief that they communicated better with the gods, at least until the approval of the Lex Ogulnia, which authorized the entry of plebeians into the college of Augurs, around 300 B.C., although the patricians continued to have the exclusive in politically important priesthoods such as the Salii, the Flamines, and the Rex Sacrorum. Since the nobles also owned the best lands, these yielded more returns and accentuated the division in the economic sphere, which was reflected in polarized politics.

“Why don’t you pass a law that prevents a plebeian from living next to a patrician, or walking on the same street, or going to the same party, or standing next to each other in the same forum?” ironically asked a reformist in the transcription of Livy.

The increasing number of plebeians made it inevitable that the reforms of Servius Tullius allowed them to enter the army and the centuriated assemblies (popular assembly), and that in 494 B.C., a magistracy defending their rights was created (the tribunate of the plebs) after a first revolt known as Secessio plebis, a kind of strike in which the people withdrew to the Sacred Mount leaving Rome without provisions.

Thus, in theory, rich plebeians gained the possibility of running for office, although the reality was that this progress was relative because none received support to access such a position. In fact, the lists of Roman magistrates are not abundant in plebeians, and it is necessary to wait until 367 B.C. and 342 B.C. to find a clear opening of the magistracies, with the Lex Licinia Sexta and the Lex Genucia, respectively: the first cleared the way for the plebs to the consulate, and the second established that at least one of the consuls should be plebeian (although this was often violated; Livy believed that plebeians were content with the right to be candidates).

In 320 B.C., all magistracies were opened to plebeians, with one of them – Tiberius Coruncanio – appointed pontifex maximus in 254 B.C., and conversely, in 59 B.C., a patrician named Publius Clodius Pulcher was adopted by a plebeian to be able to be a tribune of the plebs. That is, both groups tended to equalize: plebeian families grew as much as the number of patrician families began to decrease. The most important during the Republic were the Cornelii, Valerii, Julii, Claudii, Emilii, and Fabii, but an incipient and progressive hybridization imposed itself.

And there continued to be a conceptual abyss between the two parts. Thus, marriages between them were prohibited by the Law of the Twelve Tables, and the patricians distinguished themselves from others by their way of dressing. In his Roman History, Dio Cassius recounts that “the shoes worn by the patricians in the city were adorned with straps intertwined and the design of the letter, to indicate that they descended from the original hundred men who had been senators.” Paradoxically, over time, that class pride was going to be the cause of its decline.

Being an elite – and therefore a minority – the civil wars that shook Rome further reduced the number of members of the patriciate, and some original families, those of pure blood, declined to formal extinction (that is, they disappeared from the records, although they continued to exist), such as the Horatii, Lucretii, Verginii, and Mesenii, of which there is no news after the 2nd century B.C. Others, like the Julii, also went through the same but reappeared at the beginning of the final republican stage.

At the beginning of the Augustan Principate, the only families still contributing consuls were those of the Julii, Pinarii, Domitii, Valerii, Postumii, Sergii, Junii, Cornelii, and Servilii. In some cases, thanks to adoptions, of which Julius Caesar is the most evident case. In others, there was a double patrician and plebeian branch, the first being often overshadowed by the second, as happened with the Antonii, Cassii, Cominii, Curiatii, Hostilii, Junii, and Marcii. For example, the Claudii Crassi and the Claudii Sabini were patricians, and the Claudii Marceli were plebeians.

On the other hand, new renowned plebeian families were forming, threatening to reduce the patrician ones to nothing. That is why Julius Caesar and Augustus promulgated special laws to register new patricians: the Lex Cassia and the Lex Saenia, respectively. Claudius also legislated in that sense, but time was inexorable, and under the Dominate (the Late Empire), emerged after the crisis of the 3rd century, the patriciate continued its decline and ceased to make sense in daily life.

During the reign of Constantine I, only the Valeria gens remained – as far as we know – and being a patrician no longer necessarily implied a relationship with a high administrative position. It then became an honorary dignity; a title that, as the Greek historian Zosimus indicates in his work New History, ranked its holder above the prefect of the praetorians, especially from the 5th century A.D. because it was usually granted to the magister militum (it was received by Stilicho, Flavius Aetius, and Ricimer, among others).

In the 5th century, it even served to legitimize notable barbarians, with the most prominent case being Odoacer, the Herulian leader who first deposed the magister militum Orestes and then his son Romulus Augustulus, the last Western emperor, taking his place. It was granted to him by Zeno, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, where the honor of patrician was devalued due to the high number of concessions because Justinian I granted it to all those above the illustris rank (which senators had). From the 8th century, the term was reserved in Italy for municipal rulers.

In the eastern empire, being a patrikios would continue to be an important honor in the following centuries, granted to strategoi (governors and generals) and foreign allied leaders, although it gradually devalued and eventually disappeared in the time of the Comneni, in the early 12th century. It should be clarified that the term gave rise to other derivatives, such as protopatrikios (first patrician, probably the highest rank within the patriciate), patrikia (the wife of a patrician), and zoste patrikia (lady-in-waiting to the empress).

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 24, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Quiénes eran los Patricios, la clase aristocrática que Rómulo creó para dirigir la antigua Roma


Plutarco, Vidas paralelas | Tito Livio, Historia de Roma desde su fundación | Dionisio de Halicarnaso, Historia Antigua de Roma | Dion Casio, Historia romana | Zósimo, Nueva Historia | Mary Beard, SPQR. Una historia de la antigua Roma | Sergei Ivanovich Kovaliov, Historia de Roma | Wikipedia

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