Roman Society

The Client System

A client was a loyal supporter to a high-standing Roman family. The head of the higher family would be the patronus, the patron.

Clients acted as a kind of ‘clan’ to the patron. They supported him loyally in any venture, be it military or political. Meanwhile the patron would aid his clients, representing their political interests through the office he held, or even defending them in the courts as their lawyer, should it be necessary.

This bond between patron and client was one of the very foundations of Roman society. Fides, loyalty, was a prized virtue, which held together families, as well as the social order through the client system.

Such Roman loyalty was felt not merely to particular men, but to their families. And so, should a patron die, his client would hence support his heir. Should the client die, his son would support the same patron. Some noble families could indeed count on the support of very many people, in the city of Rome, as well as in the countryside towns.

More so, even entire kingdoms could become clients to the very Roman commander who had conquered them.

And it is worth pointing out just how deep the Roman idea of fides ran. Titus Labienus had been a general of Julius Caesar’s throughout his conquest of Gaul. But, whatever friendship might have formed between Caesar and his loyal commander, once the civil war began between Caesar and Pompey, Labienus had to change sides. For he was from Picenum, a town which was a client of Pompey’s.

This goes to show that the client system could also be very much military in nature – at least during the days of the Roman republic.

A patron could raise an army, recruited from among his clients, if he had the means to maintain it. Or he could, should he desire, also create his own small force as a personal armed guard.

For this one needs to consider that, prior to the reign of Augustus, there was no such thing as a police force. A patron’s armed guard might therefore be used to protect the patron as well as his clients.

The client system truly formed the foundations of the Roman state. It created stability, as of course the unwavering loyalty of clients could keep families in power for centuries.

But so too did it create a kind of welfare network in a state which largely hadn’t the means to support the poor and deprived.

The client system surrounding a patron would look out for its individuals. They would act as a kind of police, making sure no harm came to their own, that nothing was stolen from them. should one be struck down by poverty, the other clients, – and so too most likely the patron, – would see to it that one would get a loan, a daughter might be provided with a dowry, or at least the group would see to it that the deceased would get a decent funeral.

If the patron might not always provide help personally, it would most often be he who orchestrated it, perhaps asking other clients to help out one of his supporters who had fallen upon hard times. But the wealth of most patrons of course allowed him to hand out money to those they deemed deserving of such aid.

And so, maintaining guards, organizing any help, defending people in the courts, even openly handing out money, it is no wonder that the patrons were seen as protectors of their group.
It was for the purpose of representing their clients in court that most sons of high-ranking families were trained in law. And should matters fail and one struggle to get a retrial, then a patron might always call on some of his clients to stage demonstrations outside the courthouse, making their ‘public’ outrage heard over such ‘miscarriages of justice’.

It remains to be said that the word patronus later became the Italian word padrino, the expression used to describe the godfather in the Mafia. And, on closer inspection, the Roman client system with its loyalty and solidarity does show many similarities to the Mafia. It is also telling that the Mafiosi refer to a common cause as ‘la cosa nostra‘ (our cause) and regard themselves as family, ‘la familia‘.

The two traditional Parties – populares and optimates

The client system meant that Rome was never really a democracy. People voted at elections in accordance to their family loyalties. Political ideology didn’t play a major role.

Though in the later stages of the republic – roughly from the days of the brothers Gracchus onwards – there were two political parties, the populares (‘people’s party’) and the optimates (‘senatorial party’).

The populares were for the extension of citizenship to provincials, for the cancellation of debt, and for the distribution of land. The optimates were the opposing conservative force, defending the traditions of Rome and the existing order.

But this contest was far from being one between the poor and the rich. For people voted for their patrons, as they had always done. So a man might be poor but still vote as a client for the patron who was a staunch member of the optimates.

If the struggle between the optimates was not pitching rich against poor in Rome, then one can perhaps portray it as a contest between the new powers and the old. The old privileged families held sway in Rome and hence sought to prevent any change from reducing their powers.

Meanwhile the new powerful families, saw opportunities in winning more clients and supporters by championing the cause of the less privileged or excluded. For example, to speak on behalf of the Cisalpine Gauls or Samnites who did not enjoy citizenship meant, that, if they would ever be granted it, their loyalty – and hence their votes – would be with you. And so the aim of the powerful families in the populares party was clearly one of extending their own power. Any advantage to the poor was therefore merely a welcome side effect.

The great political clashes were hence only on the surface about ideology. In reality they were more about power than the public good. There were, to put it bluntly, no ‘socialists’ in Rome.
No one acted on behalf of the poor, but rather sought to gain poor votes.

If therefore the likes of the brothers Gracchus (populares) held grand passionate speeches which enthralled their audiences, these must be seen as well crafted speeches of great orators who could make their point brilliantly and persuasively. But one shouldn’t therefore necessarily think that they were any less class conscious and aristocratic than any member of the optimates.

Some might argue that granting social rights to increasing numbers was a gradual, natural process, as new blood pushed into the positions of power, building and enlarging its own client system. The great politicians might far more have been playing a part in a great theatre play, fighting out their personal struggles for power, but playing their role as champions of a greater cause.