The aim of this study is to look at the social structures of Roman society in the first century, especially Roman social classes and the system of patronage. It will also consider how the system of patronage was contributing to some of the difficulties in the church in Corinth, and the way in which the Gospel began to challenge and transform this unjust and unequal social system.
Roman social classes
Roman society was extremely hierarchical, with great awareness of class distinctions. The different social classes were clearly distinguished by their dress. There was a great gap between the wealthy upper classes and the poorer lower classes, which was almost impossible to cross. It was easier to move between the different classes within the upper or lower classes. There was no equivalent of the modern middle class. A high social class brought great social privilege and determined a person’s economic and political opportunities, as well as their legal rights. Women normally belonged to the social class of their fathers, then of their husbands after they were married. Marriage across the social classes was not encouraged, or even forbidden by law.
The highest social class at the top of Roman society was the emperor and his family, known as the Imperial Household. Women in the royal family would also have imperial status and titles, but were excluded from political office. Freedmen of the emperor had important bureaucratic posts, which give them great wealth and influence. Even imperial slaves had a higher status than ordinary slaves.
The highest social class in the empire below the emperor was the Senatorial Class. This was a political class, consisting of those who served in the Roman Senate and their families. This was the nobility, including the descendants of former consuls. To be elected to the senatorial class, men had to be wealthy and own extensive property. Senators were not paid, and were forbidden to engage in trade or public contracts, apart from agriculture. They were easily identified by wearing a tunic with broad stripes.
The next social class was the Equestrian Class. This was a class more based on economics, determined by ownership of property. Equestrians were involved in business and trade. They wore a tunic with narrow stripes. It was possible, but extremely difficult, for an equestrian be elected to the Senate and to rise to the senatorial class.
The lower classes included the vast majority of the population. The highest of the lower classes were the Commons or Plebs. These were freeborn Roman citizens, who wore a toga. Most were farmers, craftsmen or shopkeepers. They had certain rights to vote, trade and own property, and could serve in the Assembly. However, they could not hold public office and could never enter the Senate. They could marry another citizen, and their children would automatically be Roman citizens. Foreign freeborn residents were given Roman citizenship in the early third century.
Most men in the lower classes would wear a tunic, which was a simple item of clothing covering the body above the knee. This made it suitable for manual or practical work.
Freedmen were those who had previously been slaves, but had been freed, either through buying their freedom, or being manumitted (given their freedom by their master). They still had certain restrictions on their rights and had obligations to their former masters, who became their patron. It was not possible to rise above this class. A freed slave remained a freedman for the rest of his life, though their children could become Roman citizens. Most freemen had a low social status, and the majority were poor. They did not have a distinctive dress, but their identity as freedmen was often obvious by their names.
The lowest social class were the slaves. Most were born as slaves, or otherwise were sold into slavery as prisoners of war. Slaves were property of their masters, and could be bought and sold. Some were allowed to have their own money, which they could save up to buy their freedom. Slaves could be highly educated, and some were able to read and write. Slaves were not distinguished by their dress, normally wearing a tunic like others in the lower classes. For more about slavery in NT times, see the slavery page.
One of the most important features of Roman upper-class society was the public display of status. It was not enough merely to belong to a particular higher social class. A person’s rank and status had to be seen and publically recognised. This was partly shown by their distinctive clothing, but this public display of status was particularly demonstrated through the system of patronage. The publically acknowledged inequality between the patron and his clients was a significant feature of Roman society. It maintained the gulf between the upper and lower classes, and sustained Roman society, economics and politics. Through this system, upper-class Roman society became a network of personal relationships in which people were obligated to each other in a legal fashion, a system which was believed to bring social stability. Patronage was an informal but binding set of duties and rights between the patron and his clients.
The patron was a person with superior talent, or higher social status, who could provide benefits to his clients, who were of a lower social status. They would pay their patron special attention and perform special duties in return. Clients would normally be Roman citizens, and would be exclusively loyal to their patron.
A patron was often the client of a more superior patron, making a network of social relationships. This network reached right up to the emperor, who was the ultimate patron. For a client, having the right relationship with a particular patron would open up political, legal or financial opportunities to them, as well as being a source of loans in times of financial need. Neither patrons or their clients would work for their living. Manual work was performed by the labourers and craftsmen who would come from the lower classes.
A Public Patron would become the protector or benefactor of a group such as a craftsmen’s guild, religious association, or of an entire city. He would donate large gifts for public buildings or for public entertainment. In reward, they would receive public acknowledgement from their clients in the form of statues or inscriptions. One example of a public patron in the New Testament would be Erastus, the city treasurer of Corinth (Rom 16:23). This was probably the same Erastus who is remembered in the
inscription found on a pavement in Corinth, "Erastus, for the office of Aedile, laid this pavement at his own expense". Powerful public patrons could have entire armies, cities or even nations as their clients.
A Personal Patron would help people of a lower status through gifts of money, invitations to dinners, help in lawsuits or other protection. This patronage could continue over several generations of a family. Clients would show public deference to their patron, especially through the formal morning greeting or salutario. Clients would gather at the home of their wealthy patron in the early morning. Each would be summoned in turn to greet the patron, then accompany him to the Forum or law-courts in procession, as a public entourage. Later in the day, after business was over, they would visit the baths, before returning to the patron’s house for a lengthy evening dinner. A person of higher status or prestige would have a larger entourage, demonstrating their greater power. All would wear their togas, which would clearly display the differences in their status to the general public.
Wealthy patrons would often give financial support to authors and poets, who would in turn acknowledge and commend their patron in their literature. Although patrons were normally men, wealthy upper-class women could become both public, and occasionally personal patrons, who would even have male clients.
Patronage was an essential ingredient in Roman business. Merchants and traders received favourable deals from their patrons and their other clients, and in turn were expected to buy and sell only to those 'in the family'. If a craftsman or trader had a patron in the government he would be able to make lucrative state contracts, or be given a monopoly in trade with the government.
Private patronage operated from the patron’s household, with the purpose of promoting his political ambitions, and expanding his social influence in the city. The clients had the purpose of serving their patron and were basically being used by him to further his own ambitions. Private patrons would also have the role of a private judge who would hear minor legal cases as an alternative to civil litigation. This may be the setting for the lawsuits that Paul condemns in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 6:1-8). There was great competition between the clients of different patrons, especially during elections to civic offices. Clients would vigorously lobby for their patron, and severely criticise others. Many clients were financially supported by their patrons, which caused them to become more loyal to their patron than they would be to the government.
The differences in social status was also shown in the design of houses. The house of a patron would be larger and more elaborate, with entrance-halls, passages lined with trees, and courtyards, where the clients would greet their patron in the morning salutario. The houses of clients would not need these, as they went out to pay respect to others, rather than having clients come to their own house.
Private patronage in Corinth
One of the problems in the church in Corinth was that there were a number of wealthy people in the church who had previously been private patrons. They had continued in this same role after they joined the church, and were operating in the same way as they had before their conversion. They had not yet allowed the truth of the Gospel to transform their manner of social interaction, and this was the root of some of the conflicts in the Corinthian church.
The Greek word used for church was 'ekklesia' which was used for Jewish synagogue meetings, as well as for meetings of political associations in Roman society. Because of this, it would be natural for people who had the habit of using their association to gain political and social power, to continue to act in the same way once they became believers and joined the church. The power games which were characteristic of secular associations would continue between the leaders of different households within the church community. These leaders would continue to be concerned with preserving their social status and their dignity, and avoid being publically shamed. Conflicts between them would naturally be taken to civil courts and assemblies (1 Cor 6:1-8). They would manipulate and dominate their group within the Christian community using the same social techniques as they had previously used in secular society.
Paul criticised those in the church who boasted in being followers of particular apostles (1 Cor 1:10-12). This was because they were treating Christian leaders in the same way as they looked to secular teachers of wisdom. The leaders of these different factions in the church would most probably be the patrons of different households in the city. Each patron would lead different household-based factions in the name of the different apostles. These divisions would come to the surface in the church gatherings, as factions during the celebration of the Lord’s supper (11:18-19), when the patrons would provide lower-quality food for their clients to enforce social control, then eat in front of others in a public display to shame the poorer people (11:18-21). The upper class men were also praying and prophesying with a covering on their head to draw attention to their higher social status (11:4). In his response, Paul is trying to show them that all in the body of Christ are needed and are valuable (12:14-26). They need to care for all in the church, not just a select few. He wants to stop the patrons from dominating the church and controlling other believers.
Paul’s objection to the system of patronage may also help to explain why he refused to accept money from the church in Corinth (1 Cor 9). It would have been the normal social expectation that a person like Paul would have been supported by a wealthy patron, who would then be able to control him. Paul did not want to accept patronage by becoming the client of any of the patrons in the church.
However, there were some patrons who had transformed their traditional role. One would be Stephanas, whose household had been the first converts in Achaia (1 Cor 16:15) and who had been baptised by Paul (1:16). Paul commends them for their devoted service of the saints. Instead of expecting clients to serve them, they now used their position and wealth to serve the rest of the church. As the leader of his household, Stephanus had decided to place all his wealth and all the members of his household at the service of the saints. His household would no longer act in political competition and conflict with other households, but would be transformed into a place of work and labour for the kingdom (16:16). Stephanas had become a truly 'Christian' patron, and an example to the rest of the church in Corinth. Paul urges the Corinthian patrons to follow his example, and allow the gospel to transform the social values of the church.
Another example was Chloe, a deaconess from the nearby port city of Cenchreae, who Paul urges the believers in Rome to welcome (Rom 16:1-2). Paul also commends her as a benefactor, or patroness, of himself, and of many others. Chloe would have previously been a wealthy social hostess, but now she had put her household into the service of the saints, and she herself had become a deaconess, which was a serving role in the church. She had given hospitality to many in her household in Cenchreae, now Paul is urging the church in Rome to give her hospitality in return (Rom 16:2). Now she was a believer, she also had placed herself and her resources in the service of the believers, instead of expecting the saints to serve her as a patroness. Both Stephanas and Chloe were now there to serve others, instead of expecting others to serve them. Their service was now without any discrimination based on rank or status, as it would have been in their previous lives as patrons.
Paul brought a Gospel to Corinth which directly challenged the system of patronage as a means of gaining social power over others. The church brought a revolution of social values in which all people were equal before God, and there to serve one another out of love. Ultimately, the only possible outcome was that patronage in the church had to be abolished. When writing to the Thessalonians, Paul challenged clients, who were previously supported by their patrons, to work for their own living, so that they could themselves become benefactors (2 Thess 3:6-9). He used himself as an example of someone who worked with his own hands, so he would not be a burden on them. He gave a strong command to people to work, and not to live in idleness (1 Thess 1:4:11b-12, 2 Thess 3:10). By this he was effectively destroying the system of patronage and removing the role of clients. Clients were to attend to their own affairs, and do their own work without the need of a patron to gain personal prestige (1 Thess 4:12). Paul saw that the Gospel directly challenged the whole notion of social status, and the inequalities it encouraged.
Patronage replaced by family community
Paul had effectively turned the whole system of patronage upside-down. The competitive social climbing was replaced by a principle of serving others in the church with no regard for their social status or their usefulness in gaining social standing. The Christian community is now a family, which is emphasised by Paul addressing the believers with repeated and consistent use of relationship words such as 'brothers' (eg. 1:10, 2:1,26, 3:1). He also refers to other Christian ministers such as Apollos as 'brother' (16:12), as well as the believers in other locations (16:20). In Roman society this sort of language was only used within a physical family, for siblings born in the same family, or those who had been adopted. The church was now the family of God, where all members were brothers, regardless of their social standing. This was a revolutionary idea, particularly when seen in contrast to the divided social strata of Roman society and against the system of patronage.
Paul ends his first letter to the Corinthians by referring to Stephanus, and sets him up as an example for the Corinthians to follow. He urges the Corinthian church to subject themselves to people such as him, and those who work with him (16:16). They are also told to give recognition to people such as Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:18). These statements certainly do not imply that the believers are to treat Stephanus and his friends as secular patrons, but they are to follow their example in applying themselves to the service of all the saints. Paul widens the example to include all those who meets the needs of the saints (16:16b). He is calling the believers to turn away from supporting, or acting as clients to, those who are behaving as secular patrons, and to submit themselves in service to those who have dedicated themselves and their resources to the service of the saints. Immediately before mentioning Stephanus, he calls the believers to, “Let all that you do be done in love.” (16:14). Love for the brothers in the church is Paul’s replacement for the self-seeking and unjust system of patronage.
Winter, B.W. After Paul Left Corinth. The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change. Eerdmans, Cambridge 2001.
Kreis, S. Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History. Lecture 13: A Brief Social History of the Roman Empire. The History Guide.2001. www.historyguide.org/ancient/lecture13b.html
McManus, B.F. Roman Social Class and Public Display. The College of New Rochelle, 2003. www.vroma.org/~bcmcmanus/socialclass.html
The History of Rome. Early Roman Society. www.bible-history.com 1999 - 2002