by William Cecil Headrick, 1941
"The legal and political rise of plebeian elements: The extension of political rights to commoners has tended to monopolize the attention of social theorists; they have frequently lost sight of the social classes because of the dramatic aspects of the political struggle.
From the social class point of view the significant fact during this period was the division of the plebs, clearly and markedly, in high class plebs and the masses. The introduction of money, which could be passed from hand to hand without religious ceremony, enabled some plebs to remain or become wealthy. 23 They displayed their riches, arranged themselves into social ranks in true social class fashion. 'Some [plebeian] families were prominent, some names increased in importance. A sort of aristocracy was formed among the people . . . . ' 24 The plebs 'followed the lead of this new aristocracy, which they were proud of possessing.' 25 Not all plebs could aspire to high position; not all did. 'If the plebs were somewhat indifferent, there was a plebeian aristocracy that was ambitious.' 26 There are the upper class commoners who conspired and struggled to abolish political and connubial disabilities, as a matter of pride. Tenney Frank designates those plebeians who gradually won approximate equality with the patricians as 'property-holding plebeians.' 27
Out of these ambitious and prominent groups, in addition to the overwhelming majority of persons related to the ancient nobility, the new nobility of office was formed. Many of the newly ordained official nobility were patricians, many were the younger branches of old patrician gentes, some were descendants of aristocratic plebeians. The artisan class of plebeians and the amorphous mass of Roman proletarians did not present candidates for judgeships or the senate in numbers great enough to arouse comment even in socially class conscious Rome.
Sorokin, although documented history does not corroborate his statement, says:
The period after 449 BC . . . . . to the middle of the fourth century BC . . . . could be regarded as the period of an intensive circulation because during this period the plebeians obtained almost a complete equality with the patricians, and in this way passed from a lower to a higher stratum.
Whatever circulation was approved in that century had already taken place; law ratified a de facto situation. Furthermore, the plebeians, at least the great mass of them, obtained no semblance of equality with the ancient patrician families. The mass of plebs lived very lowly existences indeed. Finally, it is absurd to state that a whole mass, such as the majority of plebs were, could "pass from a lower to a higher stratum." This is somewhat equivalent to saying that the workers in the Soviet Union rose and inherited the places of the ousted nobility, or that the blacks after 1865 took their places as the equals of their former masters. (The situation of the ordinary plebs was less disturbed, changed, or improved than that of these remotely analogous illustrations.) Sorokin's confusion of social equality with limited political rights illustrates the kind of error into which even prominent sociologists can fall.
The Republic reaches middle age. Tenney Frank 29 reports that the Punic wars enhanced the prestige of the senatorial nobility. Furthermore, this "new aristocracy" performed so well that it entrenched itself in power. He also notes the depletion of the ranks of free farmers and the growth of large estates. These data indicate that the middle age of the Republic was not one of social class mobility upward, except, to a limited extent among the equites, that is, the capitalists, merchants, and contractors.
Of upstarts nothing is heard during this era. The new aristocracy, made up almost altogether of two old aristocracies, froze as fast as it formed, entrenched its clique in office, and provided places for its sons. They, with their love of the land, took an active part in grabbing up the land of fallen soldiers and in obtaining parts of the leased ager publicus. 30
Mommsen is quoted as saying that "the overthrow of Junkertum did not take from the common life of Rome its aristocratic character in any way." 31
The significant social class fact concerning the middle period of the Republic is that aristocratic sentiments were exceptionally strong. At the time of the Gracchi, for instance, 32
The aristocracy, drawing its livelihood from slave labor on large estates, not infrequently from a general's share in booty, and occasionally from a shrewd marriage, and basing its claims for social distinction upon ancestry and political office, remained a closed corporation of less than a hundred outstanding families living in one city.
In agriculture, and perhaps in the trades, the introduction of slaves and the conditions of war had begun to depress parts of the lower classes.
The only important movement on the social scale in an upward direction was to be found among the equites. They did not accomplish what bourgeois elements in parts of Western Europe were destined to do centuries later, however; they did not rise to the top.
The rôle of wealth -- the equites. In the third and second centuries BC. wealth per se did not divide man from man, class from class. The older orders of Rome, the aristocrats, did not lose their hold on social prestige. In fact, when the capitalists and other business and governmental elements threatened them, they struck back. On this point the record is clear: 33
Before the Gracchi the knights had not yet formed a separate social caste of peculiar distinction. That some were wealthy and kept elaborate households in imitation of the senators is probable. They provided well-dowered daughters now and then to save noble families from financial ruin, and after a few such connections had been formed with the influential, a member of an equestrian family occasionally succeeded in gaining enough support to dare to be a candidate for aristocratic office. But during the Republic the road to social distinction was always difficult for the financial group. The Gracchi gave them some political recognition and prestige, but also a hostility toward them that cost them dearly whenever -- as under Sulla -- the nobility was secure in the saddle. Rarely has a capitalist class as such suffered the disasters that it did at Rome.
Sulla "organized a terrible butchery among the financiers, from which as a class they never recovered. After Caesar they completely disappeared as a political element." 34
The equites, instead of rising to the highest positions, intrenched themselves in the middle groove. The age of the Republic at its height was not an age of any significant social mobility. This, too, is in the record: 35
For reasons not wholly clear the ranks of the nobility seem not to have been threatened to any extent by parvenus. Between 200 and 146 BC. there were one hundred and eight consuls elected. Only about eight of these belonged to families that had not been represented in consular office before . . . the people were satisfied to continue the old families in positions of dignity.
Cato, one of the commoners to play a stellar role, was not a democrat, certainly. "Though a novus homo himself he seems not to have aided other 'new men' to office." 36
The middle age of the Republic was one of less mobility than the era preceding it; in the earlier period the rich plebeians were able to merge themselves with the older aristocrats. In the middle period the equites were stopped short of that goal; they had to be content with an entrenched middle position. Yet this is the period of "open" classes, as opposed to other eras of "closed" classes, a distinction intimating freedom of movement on the social scale and repeatedly emphasized by Sorokin and Fahlbeck. "