Roman society was rigidly structured by wealth and rank, through both of which equestrians could increase their status. Even the plebs became class-divided. Augustus enabled the municipalities of Italy to practice local government. Romans observed traditional values which in some cases had more validity than the law itself.

The Roman economy under the empire was made complicated by the insatiable appetite for luxury in Rome, the dole, the prevalence of slavery, the importance of the army and the exploitation of the provinces. Much depended on whether an emperor tended to be a spendthrift or a miser.


The Rich

Roman society under both the republic and the empire was rigidly and recognizably structured, while inherent social and economic factors ensured that inequality was maintained. The top ranks in society had the wealth and status to control and exploit property, and to manipulate the legal system. The lower ranks depended for their position on how far they were able to influence the means of production. Land meant wealth, and remained in the family as long as there were natural or adopted heirs. When a family ceased to exist, it was often favoured freedmen or even slaves who reaped the benefit.

The old patrician aristocracy died out when republicanism took hold, to be replaced by the nobility, comprising the families of patricians and wealthy plebeians who had successfully stood for office and then entered the senate. Through their strings of hereditary hangers-on, their clients (cliens, plural clientes, means listener, and thus ‘follower’), the nobility became the ruling class. With senators barred from participating in state contracts and restricted in trading overseas, a new equestrian class emerged, to whom Gaius Gracchus effectively granted the status of an order of society by giving non-senators who possessed 400,000 sesterces (the same qualification as senators) the right to bid for tax collection in the provinces, and to have control over the jury-courts.

Augustus raised the qualification portal for senators from 400,000 sesterces to one million sesterces. A decree in the time of Tiberius stipulated that a prospective equestrian and his two previous generations must be free born. Otherwise, it is not generally known whether membership was automatic or conferred by the emperor. Certainly the equestrian ranks provided the state with a host of army officers and provincial officials (including provincial governors), and latterly palace dignitaries.


Modern reconstruction of a scene from a provincial town, with centurion and soldiers. (VRoma: Aalen Museum: Barbara McManus)

The Poor

 As the rich grew richer and the poor poorer, the plebs urbana (city plebs), originally composed mainly of artisans and shopkeepers, became less of a respectable class of society and more of an uncontrolled and uncontrollable rabble, comprising also ruined peasants from the country vainly seeking work and those attracted by the grain dole. They had voting power, for they were always on the spot to exercise it. In AD 14, responsibility for the election of state officials was transferred to the senate. A new division of society emerged in Rome: plebs who were professional people (teachers, architects, physicians, tradesmen) and plebs quae frumentum accipiebat (plebs who received the grain dole). Especially because the latter could still cause trouble on the streets, Augustus had also interested himself in the supply of housing and water, had provided them with public games, and had distributed cash benefits.

dole ticket

Bronze ticket entitling a family to the grain dole. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

There was a distinction between society in the capital and society in the towns (municipia) of Italy. Each despised the other. When, in the time of Augustus, the powers of the city officials diminished, and the towns themselves received attention from the centre of government, politically-minded local citizens began to look for recognition in their own town, rather than in Rome, laying a basis for local government which has been one of Rome’s most significant legacies.

Traditional values and customs

The Romans were sticklers for tradition as well as for order. To support an obsession with the passing of laws, in which everyone was able to participate, and the creation, in the form of the Twelve Tables in 451/450 BC, of a digest of current legal practice, the Romans claimed a system of mos maiorum, the “way (or ‘custom’) of our ancestors”. The application of tradition and precedent often had more potency than the law itself, and in addition methods of resolving legal situations covered all aspects of public and daily life, including the conduct of the family and the inviolability of the home. It was not so much the law that the brothers Gracchus breached in their pursuit of common justice, as the mos maiorum, and this presaged the downfall of the republic.

family house

Marble relief depicting a family, with house exterior and doors. (VRoma: Leslie Flood)

The Latin term familia is usually translated as ‘family’ or ‘household’, while domus stands for ‘house’ or ‘home’. In Roman times, however, each had a variety of connotations, depending on the circumstances. Thus, familia often meant all those subject to the father’s authority (patria potestas), including his wife (if married under rites which gave him this authority, known as manus), children, adopted children, and sons’ children. In practice, domus also came to be used to refer to relatives outside the particular household.

Family sarcophagus

Sarcophagus depicting scenes from family life. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)

The term virtus describes a male quality of steadfastness. Women, as well as men, were expected to possess to a considerable degree that essentially Roman quality of pietas, which is untranslatable except as a combination of duty, devotion, and loyalty, especially to the gods, but also to one’s country, parents, and other relatives. The Romans also prized gravitas, which, too, implies a sense of duty, but in the context of dignified reserve and integrity. Its opposite, levitas, frequently had the meaning of inconstancy.

The economy & money

“Now that state officials are elected by the senate and the people have no votes to sell, they have lost interest. Those who once had a say in the election to power of everyone from consul to legionary commander have taken back seats, claiming as their rights just bread and circuses” (Juvenal Satires, X. 77 - 81).

Bread...Bread…...and Circuses…and Circuses

Above (top) , sestertius of c. AD 120, depicting Ceres with ears of corn, which in imperial times people demanded as their right, and many received tokens for free issues. Below, silver denarius of 113/112 BC: the moneyer, T. Didius, promises to mount a public gladiatorial games if he is elected curule aedile. (Photo © Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)


Coin symbolizing the grain dole (annona), with the goddess Annona holding a cornucopia, Ceres seated with stalks of grain, and between them a modius, the instrument for measuring amounts. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

The economy of ancient Rome was an issue of great complexity. Imports into Italy, especially of wheat, olive oil, and wine were astronomical, as were those of luxury goods from other parts of the Roman world. Consumer spending was restricted in that so many of the population were slaves, and others, especially in Rome itself, were on the dole; while the army, whose presence anywhere had the effect of boosting the local economy, was spread around the provinces. The provinces themselves were meant both to be self-supporting and to provide the fiscal treasury with taxes, as well as to supply Rome with staple goods, including pottery from Gaul and Germany.

Merchant ship

Medium sized Roman merchant ship of the end of the third century AD. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

transport amphora




Amphora, for transporting or keeping liquids such as wine and olive oil, with a capacity of 20-25 litres. If it had no other cargo, a merchant ship might well carry six thousand amphorae, each weighing 50 kilos, in layers. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)




Vast sums were expended on public works and entertainments, and on the armed forces. At the end of the day, the emperor was usually blamed for shortages, shortfalls, and anything else to do with the economy.


Abacus with beads. Roman numerals were not designed for easy computation. Calculation was done with the help of an abacus, or by a complex system involving the use of the fingers, finger-joints, and thumbs of both hands. (VRoma: Landesmuseum, Mainz: Barbara McManus)

The emperor always had, however, considerable resources of his own to draw on, particularly from estates which were bequeathed to him or acquired by other means. It is said that Nero confiscated the entire properties of six men who between them owned almost all the corn land in north Africa, and these were still being cultivated as imperial possessions under the rule of Hadrian, sixty years later.

grain ship

Coin of Alexandria, AD 180 - 192, depicting a ship carrying grain from Egypt to Rome. The whole of Egypt had from the time of Augustus constituted an imperial perquisite, in that he had (in his estimation) acquired it by right, and he passed on to his successors the tradition that the emperor owned the land and those who worked it were his tenants. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Nerva and his immediate successors, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius, inherited from Domitian and his father the habit of moderation in personal expenditure. During their rules, however, there was considerable improvement in the provision of roads and harbours, central government money was granted for new buildings in the provinces, and new public assistance programmes were introduced, particularly for the children of poor families in the municipalities, and increased allowances of wine and olive oil, as well as corn, were made to the public in Rome.

olive trees

Field with olive trees near Hadrian’s villa. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

The successful conclusion of Trajan’s invasion of Dacia, begun in AD 101, and especially the output of the Dacian gold and silver mines, boosted the imperial exchequer, but it needed a period of comparative peace, and the careful and dedicated attention of Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius to the levying and collecting of taxes, before comparative liquidity was finally, but only temporarily, achieved.


Welfare benefits

The mass of the population of Rome had welfare benefits of a kind and on a scale never matched before and hardly since. The hard and menial work was done by slaves. Leisure hours were comparatively long and leisure pursuits subsidized. Public holidays were plentiful and public entertainment was free. In the times of Julius Caesar and Augustus, 150,000 of the inhabitants of Rome received free grain.

Examples of the commoner coins in circulation.

The basic coinage instituted by Augustus comprised the copper quadrans, brass semis, copper as, brass dupondius and sestertius, silver denarius, and gold aureus. Other coins were introduced from time to time to meet inflation. Constantine replaced the aureus with the gold solidus.


A] quadrans of Nero (reverse), with laurel branch: it is frequently mentioned as the entrance fee to the public baths.


B] semis of Domitian (= 2 quadrantes)


C] as of Vespasian (= 2 semisses)


D] dupondius of Marcus Aurelius (= 2 asses)


E] sestertius of Hadrian (= 2 dupondii)


F] denarius of Julius Caesar (= 4 sestertii)


G] aureus of Augustus (= 25 denarii)


H] solidus of Zeno, emperor in the east during the later empire

(Photos © Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

Believe it or not:

Nero was in the habit of handing out gifts of astonishing value and variety during the course of the games which he inaugurated: “Every day all manner of free gifts were thrown to the people: on a single day one thousand birds of different kinds, various food parcels, and tokens for corn, clothing, gold, silver, jewellery, pearls, paintings, slaves, farm beasts, even wild animals, as well as ships, tenement blocks, and agricultural land” (Suetonius, Nero. XI).

Julius Caesar stressed in public that he was, through his mother, descended from the fourth historical king of Rome and through his father from the goddess Venus, and it was not unknown, under the empire, for successful entrants to the new nobility to invent for themselves fictional genealogies.