I wrote about patronage in the previous post. Today I want to look briefly at status and class. Status is a fluid ranking concept that allows for movement from one stratum to another. Social class is a more fixed concept and it tends to be ascribed to us at birth. In the Roman world of the biblical era, there were essentially two classes of people: the tiny honestiores (upper class) and the humiliores (lower class) made up of everybody else.
The Romans further subdivided the honestiores into three strata. At the top was the senatorial class consisting of a few hundred families. A senator had to control an estate of at least 250,000 denarii. (According to David Verner, the average laborer earned about 1,000 denarii a year. (47) James Jeffers notes that in the first century C.E., there were at least two senators that controlled estates of more than 100 million denarii, which was more than the entire income of the Empire in one year. (183)) A potential senator would be appointed to a variety of posts, including military duty as young man, before emerging into the role of senator. A family that went more than three generations without producing a senator was endanger of falling out of the senatorial class.
The equestrian class was the next lower class. It emerged in the era of the Republic. Horse mounted soldiers with the means to own and provide for their horses and armaments were welcomed into this order. Proof of free birth for 2 prior generations and 100,000 denarii, along with high moral standing, could qualify one as an equestrian. Senators’ sons were automatically enrolled in this class. Jeffers points out that it was not uncommon for equestrians to hold positions that held more political power than senators did.
The third layer was the Decurion class. These folks tended to be the local and regional rulers. A freeborn citizen meeting local property requirements, and not involved in a disreputable trade, could become a decurion. The size of estate one needed varied across the Empire but an amount of about 25,000 denarii was typical. All told, these three groups made up somewhere between 1-5% of the Empire depending upon which source you read.
The humiliores was also stratified. At the top were the respectable poor who were artisans and engaged in trade. (Many scholars believe that Jesus and most of his followers were of this status.) Beneath them were tenant farmers and urban day laborers. Still lower were the widows, the orphans, and the ill. At the bottom of the ladder were slaves. On top of all this, your status as a citizen had to be factored into the stratification as well. When you put it all together, you get a class stratification rank that looked something like this:
Wealthy freeborn citizen
Imperial freed (citizen) slave
Wealthy freed citizen slave
Poor freeborn citizen
Poor freed citizen
Wealthy freeborn noncitizen
Poor freeborn noncitizen
Freed noncitizen slave
Urban domestic slave
Mining slave (Jeffers, 190)
In addition to this stratification, age and sex figured into the calculation as well. The stratification went like this:
Adult male with no living father
Adult male with living father
Widowed adult female with independent resources
Widowed adult female
Married adult female
Female child (Jeffers, 190)
If we take all these factors together, we begin to see that the “status game” in the Greco-Roman world was very complex. When we talk of class and status today, we tend to focus largely on economic criteria. The Romans integrated at least the following elements:
- Social class and familial line
- Status within a patronage pyramid
- Wealth controlled
- Age and gender
- Moral character and achievement
It was entirely possible for a slave, who was at the bottom of the social order, to have high social status because of the stature of his or her master. It was possible for someone to be of a higher social class but have modest means.
Status was everything in the Greco-Roman world. The possibility of improved status for you or for your descendants was a powerful motivator to play the game. It could give positive rewards of improved status and it could give negative rewards by losing status. Those with high status were inclined to restrict advancement from below and those with less status were inclined to press for the opportunity to rise. Because status was so important, receiving the appropriate appellations and honor in accordance with your class and status were paramount. More about that next time.