1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Patricians

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PATRICIANS (Lat. patricius, an adjectival form from pater, father; not, as some say, from pater and ciere, to call), a term originally applied to the members of the old citizen families of ancient Rome (see I. below). Under the later Roman Empire the name was revived by the Byzantine emperors as the title of a new order of nobility. Subsequently it was used as a personal title of honour for distinguished servants of Constantine I. and his successors, and was conferred on barbarian chiefs (II. below). It was afterwards conferred by the popes on the Frankish kings. In the medieval Italian republics, e.g. Genoa and Venice, the term was applied to the hereditary aristocracy (patrizio), and in the free cities of the German Empire it was borne by distinguished citizens (patrizier). In Italy it is still used for the hereditary nobility. From these specific uses the word has come into general use as a synonym of “aristocrat” or “noble,” and implies the possession of such qualities as are generally associated with long descent, hereditary good breeding and the like. In Church history a sect founded by Patricius (c. 387), teacher of Symmachus the Marcionite, are known as the Patricians; they believed that all flesh was made by the devil. The name is also, though rarely, applied to the Roman Catholic body in Ireland regarded as the followers of St Patrick.

I. From the earliest period known to us the free population of Rome contains two elements, patricians and plebeians, the former class enjoying all political privileges, the latter unprivileged. The derivation and significance of the two names have been established with certainty. The patricians (patricii) are those who can point to fathers, i.e. those who are members of the clans (gentes) whose members originally comprised the whole citizen body. The plebeians (plebs, plebes) are the complement (from root pleo, fill, see Plebs) of the noble families possessing a genealogy, and include all the free population other than the patricians. It has been held by T. Mommsen that the plebeian order had its sole origin in the clients who attached themselves in a position of semi-freedom to the heads of patrician houses, and gradually evolved a freedom and citizenship of their own (see Patron and Client). The logical consequence of this view is that the plebs as an order in the state is of considerably later growth than the beginning of the city, the patricians being originally the only freemen and the only citizens. But this view is untenable on two grounds. First, in the struggle between the two orders for political privilege we find the clients struggling on the side of the patricians against the main body of the plebeians (Livy ii. 56). Again, a method of taking up Roman citizenship which is well attested for a very early period reveals the possibility of a plebeian who does not stand in any relation to a patron. When an immigrant moved to Rome from one of the cities of the Latin league, or any city which enjoyed the jus commercii with Rome, and by the exercise of the right of voluntary exile from his own state (jus exulandi), claimed Roman citizenship, it is impossible to suppose that it was necessary for him to make application to a Roman patron to represent him in his legal transactions; for the jus commercii gave its holder the right of suing and being sued in his own person before Roman courts. Such an immigrant, therefore, must have become at once a free plebeian citizen of Rome. It may therefore be assumed that long before the clients obtained the right to hold land in their own names and appear in the courts in their own persons there was a free plebs existing alongside of the patricians enjoying limited rights of citizenship. But it is equally certain that before the time of Servius Tullius the rights and duties of citizenship were practically exercised only by the members of the patrician clans. This is perhaps the explanation of the strange fact that the clients, who through their patrons were attached to these clans, obtained political recognition as early as the plebeians who had no such semi-servile taint. At the time of the Servian reforms both branches of the plebs had a plausible claim to recognition as members of the state, the clients as already partial members of the curia and the gens, the unattached plebeians as equally free with the patricians and possessing clans of their own as solid and united as the recognized gentes.

But not only can it be shown that patricians and plebeians coexisted as distinct orders in the Roman state at an earlier date than the evolution of citizenship by the clients. It has further been established on strong archaeological and linguistic evidence that the long struggle between patricians and plebeians in early Rome was the result of a racial difference between them. There is reason to believe that the patricians were a Sabine race which conquered a Ligurian people of whom the plebeians were the survivors (see Rome: History). Apart from the definite evidence, the theory of a racial distinction gains probability from the fact that it explains the survival of the distinction between the patricii, men with a family and genealogy, and the rest of the citizens, for some time after the latter had acquired the legal status of patres and were organized in gentes of their own; for on this theory privilege would belong not to all who could trace free descent but only to those who could trace descent to an ancestor of the conquering race. The family organization of the conquering race was probably higher than that of the conquered, and was only gradually attained by the latter. Thus descent from a father would be distinctive enough of the dominant race to form the title of that race (patricii), and when that term had been definitely adopted as the title of a class its persistence in the same sense after the organization of the family and the clan by the unprivileged class would be perfectly natural.

The absurdity of excluding the plebeians from all but a merely theoretical citizenship, based on the negative fact of freedom, seems to have become apparent before the close of the monarchical period. The aim of the reforms associated with the name of Servius Tullius appears to have been the imposition of the duties of citizenship upon the plebeians. Incidentally this involved an extension of plebeian privilege in two directions. First, it was necessary to unify the plebeian order by putting the legal status of the clients on a level with that of the unattached plebeians; and again enrolment in the army involved registration in the tribes and centuries; and as the army soon developed into a legislative assembly meeting in centuries (comitia centuriata), the whole citizen body, including plebeians, now acquired a share of political power, which had hitherto belonged solely to the patricians. At the close of the monarchy, the plebeian possessed the private rights of citizenship in entirety, except for his inability to contract a legal marriage with a patrician, and one of the public rights, that of giving his vote in the assembly.[1] But in the matter of liability to the duties of citizenship, military service and taxation, he was entirely on a level with the patrician. This position was probably tolerable during the monarchy, when the king served to hold the power of the patrician families in check. But when these families had expelled the Tarquins, and formed themselves into an exclusive aristocracy of privilege, the inconsistency between partial privilege and full burdens came to be strongly felt by the plebeians.

The result was the long struggle for entire political equality of the two orders which occupies the first few centuries of the republic (see Rome: History, § II. “The Republic”). The struggle was inaugurated by the plebeians, who in 494 B.C. formed themselves into an exclusive order with annually elected officers (tribuni plebis) and an assembly of their own, and by means of this machinery forced themselves by degrees into all the magistracies, and obtained the coveted right of intermarriage with the patricians. Admission to the higher magistracies carried with it admission to the senate, and by the close of the struggle (about 300 B.C.) the political privilege of the two orders was equalized, with the exception of certain disabilities which, originally devised to break the political monopoly of the order, continued to be attached to the patricians after the victory of the plebs. They were excluded from the tribunate and the council of the plebs, which had become important instruments of government, and were only eligible for one place in the consulship and censorship, while both were open to plebeians. It is possible, though far from certain (see Senate), that the powers of the interregnum and the senatorial confirmation (patrum auctoritas) necessary to give validity to decisions of the people, remained the exclusive privileges of the patrician members of the senate. But while the patrician disabilities were of a kind that had gained in importance with the lapse of centuries, these privileges, even if still retained, had become merely formal in the second half of the republican period. Since the plebeian element in the state had an immense numerical preponderance over the patrician these disabilities were not widely spread, and seem generally to have been cheerfully borne as the price of belonging to the families still recognized as the oldest and noblest in Rome. But the adoption of P. Clodius Pulcher into a plebeian family in 59 B.C. with a view to election to the tribunate shows that a rejection of patrician rights (transitio ad plebem) was not difficult to effect by any patrician who preferred actual power to the dignity of ancient descent. It was not so easy to recruit the ranks of the patricians. The traditions of early Rome indeed represent the patricians as receiving the Claudii by a collective act into their body; but the first authenticated instance of the admission of new members to the patriciate is that of the lex Cassia, which authorized Caesar as dictator to create fresh patricians. The same procedure was followed by Augustus. Later on, the right of creating patricians came to be regarded as inherent in the principate, and was exercised by Claudius and Vespasian without any legal enactment, apparently in their capacity as censor (Tac. Ann. xi. 25; Vita M. Antonini, i.). Patrician rank seems to have been regarded as a necessary attribute of the princeps; and in two cases we are told that it was conferred upon a plebeian princeps by the senate (Vita Juliani, 3; Macrini, 7). A comparison of this procedure with the original conception of the patriciate as revealed by the derivation of the word, is significant of the history of the conception of nobility at Rome, and illustrative of the tenacity with which the Romans clung to the name and form of an institution which had long lost its significance. After the political equalization of the two orders, noble birth was no longer recognized as constituting a claim to political privilege. Instead of the old hereditary nobility, consisting of the members of the patrician clans, there arose a nobility of office, consisting of all those families, whether patrician or plebeian, which had held curule office. It was now the tenure of office that conferred distinction. In the early days of Rome, office was only open to the member of a patrician gens. In the principate, patrician rank, a sort of abstract conception based upon the earlier state of affairs, was held to be a dignity suitable to be conferred on an individual holder of office. But the conferment of the rank upon an individual as distinct from a whole family (gens) is enough to show how widely the modern conception of patrician rank differed from the ancient. The explanation of this is that the plebeians had long been organized, like the patricians, in gentes, and nothing remained distinctive of the old nobility except a vague sense of dignity and worth. (A. M. Cl.)

II. Under Constantine an entirely new meaning was given to the word Patrician. It was used as a personal title of honour conferred for distinguished services. It was a title merely of rank, not of office; its holder ranked next after the emperor and the consul. It naturally happened, however, that the title was generally bestowed upon officials, especially on the chief provincial governors, and even among barbarian chieftains whose friendship was valuable enough to call forth the imperial benediction. Among the former it appears to have become a sort of ex officio title of the Byzantine vicegerents of Italy, the exarchs of Ravenna; among the barbarian chiefs who were thus dignified were Odoacer, Theodoric, Sigismund of Burgundy, Clovis, and even in later days princes of Bulgaria, the Saracens, and the West Saxons. The word thus acquired an official connotation. The dignity was not hereditary and belonged only to individuals; thus a patrician family was merely one whose head enjoyed the rank of patricius. Gradually the root sense of “father” came to the front again, and the patricius was regarded as the “father of the emperor” (Ammian Marc. xxix. 2). With the word were associated such further titles as eminentia, magnitudo, magnificentia. Those patricians who were purely honorary were called honorarii or codicillarii; those who were still in harness were praesentales. They were all distinguished by a special dress or uniform and in public always drove in a carriage. The emperor Zeno enacted that no one could become patricius who had not been praefectus militum, consul or magister militum, but less careful emperors gave the title to their favourites, however young and undistinguished. The writ in which the title was conferred was called a diploma.

A further change in the meaning of the name is marked by its conferment on Pippin the Frank[2] by Pope Stephen. The idea of this extension originated no doubt in the fact that the Italian patricius of the 6th and 7th centuries had come to be regarded as the defensor, protector, patronus of the Church. At all events, the conferring of the title by a pope was entirely unprecedented; previously its validity had depended on the emperor solely. As a matter of fact it is clear that the patriciate of Pippin was a new office, especially as the title is henceforward generally patricius Romanorum, not patricius alone. It was subsequently conferred on Charlemagne at his coronation, and borne, as we gather from medieval documents, indiscriminately, not only by subsequent emperors, but also by a long line of Burgundian rulers and minor princes of the middle ages generally.[3] On the fall of the Carolingian house the title passed to Alberic II. Subsequently it was held by John Crescentius, and many leading men who received it from Otto III. (e.g. Boleslaw Chabri of Poland). In 1046 it returned to the German Henry III. The emperor Frederick Barbarossa was the last to wear the insignia (in 1167).

Bibliography. — (1) The Ancient Patricians: Th. Mommsen, Staatsrecht III. passim (3rd ed., Leipzig, 1887); Römische Forschungen I. (Berlin, 1864); P. Willems, Le Droit public romain, pt. i (Louvain, 1888). (2) The Medieval Patricians: J. B. Bury's Later Roman Empire (1889); Bryce, Holy Roman Empire (1904), pp. 40 seq.; Du Cange, Glossarium med. et infim. latinitatis, s.v. “Patricius”; and histories of Charlemagne (q.v.) and his successors. For the German Patriziertum see Roth von Schreckenstein, Das Patriziat in den deutschen Städten, besonders Reichstädten (2nd ed. Freiburg, 1886); Foltz, Beiträge zur Gesch. des Patriziats in den deutschen Städten (Marburg, 1899). (J. M. M.)


  1. Cf. the privileges of the Athenians under the Solonian system see Solon; Ecclesia; Archon).
  2. The name is used of Charles Martel, but it was not apparently formally conferred upon him.
  3. We even find a feminine form, patricissa, for the wife of a patricius. The golden circlet worn on the head by the patricius as a symbol of his dignity was called a patricialis circulus.