Patrons and clients


Some of what is written about the Romans, especially on the internet, gives a poor impression of their social mores—emphasising abnormal behaviour, when it might be more useful to discover how well their society was organised, why it lasted so long and in what ways it shaped European culture.

Why do people do this? Do we live in ‘une époque vouée à la caricature’ ? (Jean-Michel Varenne, 1994, Guide de la retraite spirituelle) Perhaps we do. After all, drama—which used to be for special occasions—is daily accessible, and it is now becoming fashionable to dramatize oneself. Drama involves the need to caricature people, and events, and institutions, and not only that, but to seek out what is bad and ugly—the stuff of drama—and to neglect what is good, kind and beneficial.

Even classical scholars, when in populist mode, traduce the Roman customs of marriage and the family; but those customs produced a gentle equality between husband and wife that mystified contemporary Greeks. The patronage system comes in for worse treatment; yet the fatherly care by patrons for their clients (and the filial reciprocity) was the structure of a society that flourished for a thousand years.

Practically everyone in Rome was the client of someone else. Pliny was a client of the emperor, but then he had hundreds of clients of his own: his freedmen; the managers of his estates at Comum, Tifernum and Laurentum; the leading townsfolk of Comum (themselves patrons of others); and various people who had asked him to be their patronus.

The system permeated Roman society so completely that few writers even bother to mention it. In any case, it was slightly indelicate to speak of it directly. A client was tactfully called amicus – a friend – but it is usually clear what is meant. Pliny’s letter II.6 is about a dinner-party at which different food was served according to the status of the guests: Pliny says, ‘he has his friends in grades.’ For friends read clients. Let us remind ourselves that Pliny is writing about it as bad behaviour—a deviation from the proper way of behaving. It was not socially acceptable, as it is now with us, to degrade the minds of the underprivileged and keep them uncouth and ignorant.

The custom of patronage was not unique, or peculiar (words that have been used): there are countries in the world that still use it. Nor should it be caricatured as an abusive institution, when it actually performed a function indispensable for a stable society – that of looking after those citizens who were unable to look after themselves. (See the earlier post on Missing persons).

After all, it was a system that went back to prehistory: ancient writers attributed it to Romulus. The inquisitive student may be interested in a passage from the Fontes Juris Romani Antejustiniani in the Texts menu above; there is also a passage from Samuel Dill, urging a balanced view of Roman society.

Next post: Acquiring language: from a letter to a parent.

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