How to climb the social ladder in ancient Rome
It is easy to imagine ancient Rome as a society where the emperors, senators and other nobles sat on top of an undifferentiated, static mass of ordinary Romans (who in turn sat above the mass of slaves). But Roman society was, in fact, highly stratified throughout and people of all social levels went to great lengths to better their lot in life and climb the social ladder. Some even succeeded in joining the empire’s richest ranks.
|Being adopted by Julius Caesar didn’t do Augustus any harm |
Manual work was never going to pay well and probably provided little more than a subsistence income. The main way for people to improve their quality of life was to acquire a skill. If a worker could learn a craft then his income as an artisan could comfortably rise to double or treble that of an unskilled worker.
Get a trade
The variety of skilled jobs we find in the sources is extraordinary. More than 225 trades are listed on tombstones and other inscriptions. A letter attributed to the emperor Hadrian, for example, gives us an idea of the competitive industry that the urban population of Alexandria showed in their pursuit of making a living:
|Average wages, in denarii, in AD301.|
Women also played an important economic role. That women are listed in only 35 different occupations, however, shows that their opportunities were far more limited. They worked mainly in the service sector, spinning wool, making jewellery, serving in taverns, hairdressing and making and mending clothes.
Banking and commerce
If a Roman had some capital, lending money could be very profitable. One source describes commercial moneylenders “rejoicing in the accrual of money which increases day by day”. Their joy was understandable as 12% interest was typically charged for unsecured loans. Interest on short-term loans in crisis periods could reach 50%. And if the borrower failed to make payments on time, creditors held considerable legal powers and could sell all the debtor’s possessions – including his children – into slavery.
|Roman gold coins found in India: trade was a very lucrative profession in ancient Rome |
[Credit: British Museum]
These freedmen frequently proudly asserted their prosperous – free – status on inscriptions on their tombs. Some former slaves of emperors became extremely influential and rich, such as Narcissus – a former slave of Emperor Claudius in the first century AD who went on to amass considerable wealth and influence as a freedman. The status of freedman as former slaves, however, meant they were never fully accepted among the social elite.
If a Roman wanted to make it really big then he needed to become a celebrity. Successful gladiators were adored by the crowds. Mosaics featuring them were widespread. They were a common topic of conversation and even a clay baby’s bottle at Pompeii was stamped with a figure of a gladiator – presumably so that the infant could drink in strength and courage along with its milk. The fighters were handsomely paid for their work but, of course, few survived to enjoy a prosperous old age.
|Gladiators from the second century AD depicted in a mosaic in Zliten, modern-day Libya |
So it took hard work, patience – and sometimes a great deal of risk – but if it all came good, any Roman could hope to rise up to a position where they owned a villa and amassed a fortune. Those who achieved it, though, were the lucky few.
Author: Jerry Toner | Source: The Conversation [November 21, 2016]