Ancient History

What did it mean to be patrician or plebeian in ancient Rome?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. The patricians and the plebeians were two classes in the social structure of ancient Rome. The patricians were the hereditary aristocracy, and the plebeians were the far larger class, consisting of peasants, common laborers, merchants and residents of other Italian states. At first, only the patricians had the right to vote or to hold public office, and intermarriage between the two classes was forbidden. Gradually these distinctions dissolved after the plebeian assembly was granted the right to legislate, in 287 B.C., and nobility was bestowed on senators and their descendants.

    The poorer plebeians had, of course, a rougher lot. Their houses were in stark contrast to the splendorous homes the wealthy Romans. Plebeian homes were ramshackle affairs that weren't exactly built to last. And for them raising a family was an expensive proposition -- so much so that newborn babies would sometimes be left in the streets for someone else to feed and raise (such was the abandoning parents' hope, anyway) [source: PBS].

    As different as they were from each other, rich and poor Romans did have a few things in common. For one thing, men ruled the home -- from property ownership to choosing whom a household's children would marry, the man called all the shots. For another, whether poor or wealthy, all Romans visited the baths at the end of the day. There they would socialize as well as clean up from the day's labors, enjoying the benefits of Roman citizenship [source: PBS].

    What fueled the Roman way of life was its economy, which depended largely on its agricultural industry. Thanks to the rich soil and temperate climate, crops of grains, vegetables, fruit and nuts were highly successful. Rome mass-produced bread, wine and olive oil and exported the latter two products. Most working-class Romans toiled as farmers, miners, fishermen, artisans and manufacturers. Many participated in guilds specific to their industry. Slave labor was relatively cheap, easy to come by and often skilled. Trade was well developed and aided by excellent highways and roads built by the Roman government's engineers.

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