- This article is about the social and political class in ancient Rome. For other uses of the term, see patrician (disambiguation).
The term "patrician" originally referred to a group of elite families in ancient Rome, including both their natural and adopted members. In the late Roman empire, the class was broadened to include high court officials. It remained in use for the formally defined elite burgher classes of many medieval Italian republics, such as Venice and Genoa, and subsequently became a vaguer term used for aristocrats and elite bourgeoisie in many countries.
EtymologyThe word "patrician" is derived from the Latin word patricius (plural patricii), which comes from patrēs, the plural of pater ("father"). Pater was one of the terms applied to the original members of the Roman Senate. The word comes down in English as "patrician" from the Middle English patricion, from the Old French patrician. In modern English, the word patrician is generally used to denote a member of the upper class, often with connotations of inherited wealth, elitism, and a sense of noblesse oblige.
StatusPatricians were bestowed special status as Roman citizens. They were better represented in the Roman assemblies. The Comitia Centuriata, the main legislative body, was divided into 193 voting centuriae (centuries). The first two classes (which consisted largely of patricians) together had 98 centuriae, a number which was enough to obtain a majority, despite the fact that they were fewer in number. That meant that if the patricians acted in concord, they could always determine the result of the voting of the peoples assembly. So, although it was not forbidden for plebeians to hold magistracies, the patricians dominated the political scene for centuries. Strangely, the founding father of the Roman Republic, Lucius Junius Brutus (ancestor of Julius Caesar's assassin, Marcus Junius Brutus) was a plebeian, and the four kings who had Roman gentilic names also came from plebeian families: (Numa Pompilius; Tullus Hostilius; Ancus Marcius; and Servius Tullius - i.e., all the kings except Romulus and the foreign Tarquinius).
In the beginning of the Republic all priesthoods were closed to non-patricians. There was a belief that patricians communicated better with the Roman gods, so they alone could perform the sacred rites and take the auspices. This view had political consequences, since in the beginning of the year or before a military campaign, Roman magistrates used to consult the gods. Livy reports that the first admission of plebeians into a priestly college happened in 300 B.C. (Liv. X.7.9) when the college of Augurs raised their number from four to nine. After that, plebeians were accepted into the other religious colleges, and by the end of the republic, only minor priesthoods with little political importance like the Salii, the Flamens and the Rex Sacrorum were exclusively filled by patricians.
In the list of the names of the Romans who held magistracies (the Fasti), very few plebeian names appear before the 2nd century B.C. The turning point were two laws, the Licinian - Sextian law of 367 B.C. that ascertained the right of plebeians to hold the consulship, and the Genucian law of 342 B.C. that made it compulsory that one at least of the consuls be a plebeian.
The ancient patrician gentes whose members appear in founding legends of Rome disappeared as Rome started becoming an empire and new plebeian families rose to prominence, such as the Decii and the Sempronii. Families such as the Horatii, Lucretii, Verginii and Menenii seem to vanish after the 2nd century B.C. Others, such as the Julii reappear only at the end of the Republic. There are some cases where the same gens name was shared by patrician and plebeian clans (for example the Appii Claudii were patricians and the Claudii Marcelli were plebeians).
Patricians vs. PlebeiansThe distinction between patricians and plebeians in Ancient Rome was not defined by a simple rule in the ancient historical sources. Modern writers often portray patricians as rich and powerful families who managed to secure power over the less-fortunate plebeian families, though most historians argue that this is an over-simplification. As civil rights for plebleians increased during the middle and late Roman Republic, many plebeian families had attained wealth and power while some traditionally patrician families had fallen into poverty and obscurity.
Historian Adrian Richard states that patrician families were initially those who held positions within the priesthoods, and that the ancient Senate, composed of patricians, was a religious advisory body. The Senate, acting as a council of religious elders, had political power because it was necessary to have their assent on new laws. The priestly class would confirm that the new laws were in keeping with mos maiorum and would give their auctoritas to the measures that could then be enacted.
Patrician positionPatrician status still carried a degree of prestige at the time of the early Roman Empire, and Roman emperors routinely elevated their supporters to the patrician caste en masse. The prestige and meaning of the status gradually degraded, and by the end of the 3rd-century crisis, patrician status, as it had been known in the Republic, ceased to have meaning in everyday life. The Emperor Constantine reintroduced the term, and Patrician became an honorific title bestowed to those who demonstrated faithful service to the Empire. There were often only a few patricians in the Empire at any given time, and sometimes only one.
By the 5th century, the title generally denoted a man, commonly a general of the Roman army, who held the power behind the imperial throne. Patricians of this era included Stilicho, Constantius III, Aëtius, Boniface, and Ricimer; Constantius III would later become co-emperor. The patrician title was occasionally used in Western Europe after the end of the Roman Empire; for instance, Pope Stephen II granted the title "Patrician of the Romans" to the Frankish ruler Pippin III. In the Eastern Empire, where the emperors maintained their hold on power, the title retained its meaning as an honorific. The term fell out of use as the Greek language replaced Latin as the language of the court. A member of the plebeian class could be elevated by showing great support towards the Senate, by living a life of pure dedication, and having no criminal history with members of the groups. Patricians could be demoted to plebeian status if they failed to fulfill their duties as a husband, or by murdering another member of the patrician society.
Use in fictionIn the satirical fantasy series Discworld by English author Terry Pratchett, the city of Ankh-Morpork is run by a Presidential figure who is akin to the old Roman nobility. The ruler takes the title of Patrician, but is in all respects a tyrant. In most of the novels, the Patrician in office is named Havelock Vetinari and though he often puts up a democratic facade, he is a de facto dictator, albeit a relatively benign one.
In the science fiction Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, Ducem Barr is referred to as a Patrician of the Empire in the Foundation and Empire volume. Within the story, it is an inherited noble title, clearly derived of the Roman Imperial definition, which was used as a model for Asimov's Galactic Empire.
In Ayn Rand's 1936 novel The Fountainhead, the narrator makes several comparisons between the newspaper tyrant Gail Wynand and a patrician.
List of some patrician families
List of Patricii
- Flavius Julius Constantius: 335-337
- Flavius Stilicho: 394-408 (also magister militum)
- Flavius Constantius: 417-421 (later emperor February-September 421)
- Flavius Castinus: 420s
- Bonifacius: 432
- Flavius Aëtius: 433-454 (also magister militum)
- Petronius Maximus: 445-455 (later emperor March-April 455)
- Ricimer: 456-472 (also magister militum)
- Gundobad: 472-473 (also magister militum, and later King of the Burgundians 473-516)
- Odoacer: 476-493 (also King of Italy)
- al-Harith ibn Jabalah: 529-569 (also King of the Ghassanids)
- Kubrat d. mid 7th C.
- Kurt Raaflaub, ed. Social Struggles in Archaic Rome: New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders (Blackwell Publishing, 2005)
- Gary Forsythe, 2005, A Critical History of Early Rome. University of California Press.
- Kenny Zeng, 2007, A History Of Ancient and Early Rome
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