The Roman Variant of Indo-European Social Organization: Militarization, Aristocratic Government, and Openness to Conquered Peoples. Part 2

Part 1 here.

The Openness of Roman Society: Social Mobility and Incorporating Different Peoples

Indo-European social structure was based on talent and ability.[1] Upward mobility was possible, and I-E groups in Europe tended to have only weak, permeable barriers between conquerors and conquered peoples — barriers that could be breached by the talented. This was also true on Rome. Social mobility was possible for the talented, and downward social mobility always a possibility:

From early times until la serrata del patriziato [the forming of an exclusive patriciate in the late fifth century BC], the Roman aristocracy was socially fluid and receptive to outsiders, including Latins, Sabines, and Etruscans” (163).

Support for this comes from the example of Appius Claudius who came to Rome from Sabine territory in 509 BC and became a member of the patriciate. Another example is L. Fulvius Curvus, from Tusculum, who  became consul 60 years after Rome conquered Tusculum in 381 BC. Indeed, “The consular fasti of the early third century B.C. demonstrate the success of the Roman state in absorbing new elements from outside Rome into its aristocracy” (343). Consulships from 293–280 include 6 new clans, with 2 more by 264 BC; at least five of these were non-Roman in origin, the others Plebeian.

Another indication of openness is that the elites of conquered peoples were often allowed to retain their status:

Like other relatively flexible communities of central Tyrrhenian Italy, Roman society during the late seventh, sixth, and early fifth centuries B.C. is likely to have been open to horizontal social mobility [retaining a similar social status after being conquered by Rome (164)] and even to some degree of vertical social mobility. Consequently, the membership of the early senate is likely to have been characterized by a certain social fluidity. (109)

Thus rather than completely destroying the elites of conquered peoples, they were often absorbed within the Roman system, beginning with partial citizenship and ultimately with full citizenship rights. The result was to bind “the diverse Italian peoples into a single nation” (290). Whereas the Latin states were given complete citizenship, other areas were given citizenship sine suffragio, but they were forced to provide manpower for future wars, allowing Rome to continuously engage in warfare. If a person from these areas moved to Rome, he would receive full citizenship. New tribes were continually created from conquered groups, reaching 31 in 332 BC.

Even very early in the republic, Rome’s openness to foreigners can also be seen in that Latium, comprising the towns with similar language and culture, had rights of commercium (could own property in other towns), conubium, and migrandi (collectively the jus Latii). This set a precedent in later times where other peoples throughout Italy would be incorporated into Roman society without complete citizenship. Latin status was halfway between complete Roman citizenship and being a foreigner even in imperial times. This openness to other peoples was “a key element in Rome’s later imperial success” (185). Nevertheless, these peoples could be upgraded to full citizenship. For example, citizenship of the Sabines was upgraded from civitas sine suffragio  to full citizenship in 268 BC.

The population increased partly by incorporating foreigners who came under Roman control. These people were then assigned to a tribe and to a class in the comitia centuriata. In other words, the Romans assimilated many of those they conquered and assigned them a place in the system, thus expanding its population, and ultimately its power. For example, when the Romans conquered the Veii in 267 BC, they created four new tribes, with membership assigned by the Roman censor at the time. By the end of the sixth century BC, Rome was the most powerful state in Latium and typically led military campaigns, with the other Latin states contributing soldiers and supplies (124).

This process continued in the late republic and eventually encompassed peoples from beyond Italy. The Social War of 90–88 BC resulted in full citizenship for non-Romans in central and southern Italy. “By the time of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C. Italy had become Romanized, and the same process (albeit at a much slower pace) was already underway in the overseas provinces” (368).

Another indication of Roman openness was the possibility of upward social mobility. Wealthy plebeian families were gradually incorporated into the power structure, including the consulship. Between 509–445 B.C. there were 43 clans that achieved consular rank, including 16 from patrician families, 10 from plebeian families, the rest unknown; 55.1% of the consuls were from the patrician clans, 14.7% from plebeian clans. In the middle republic, there were 19 patrician clans and a heterogeneous group of plebeians (rural poor, urban poor, and wealthy, successful families that had achieved upward mobility).

Forsythe agrees with the view that patricians were forced to share power with these upwardly mobile plebeian families. Eventually, by 342 BC it was the practice that one consul would be from the patricians and one from the plebeians. By 172, due to the decline of many patrician families and the extinction of some, there were two plebeian consuls “and henceforth the earlier sharing of the consulship was abandoned” (159).

In the last three centuries of the Republic, some offices were divided between patricians and plebeians, with patricians holding the priesthoods of the rex sacrorum and the three major flamens (of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus) and interrex (who supervised the state during a short period [5 days] during which consular elections were held). Plebeians held the plebeian tribunate and plebeian aedileship (responsible for regulating festivals, regulating markets and maintaining public buildings). But there was equal power sharing for other offices: curule aedile(responsible different festivals) , consul, and censor, and some religious offices of lesser importance. In general, the patricians gradually declined as families died out, but they retained “great prestige and political prominence” (160). Plebeians and patricians would at times pool political assets and run for consulship together (271).

The increasing power of the plebeians continued into the late republic. When Sulla became dictator circa 82 BC, he lessened the power of the plebeian tribunes and restored the power of the comitia centuriata. This led to intense controversy and was abandoned in 70 BC.

By the middle of the fourth century BC the Roman aristocracy consisted of both plebeian and patrician families (276).

The Roman political system was conducive to the upward social mobility of individuals or families of means who had political and military aspirations. Although the Roman republic was always dominated by and controlled by an aristocratic oligarchy, that oligarchy was never a closed group. Entry into the ruling class may not have been easy, but the opportunity was always there for the taking. Elite families from outlying communities newly incorporated into the Roman state could and often did become active participants in the Roman political system, and many of them attained considerable success and made their own contribution to Rome’s greatness. Such inclusion served to win over the hearts and minds of erstwhile competitors or enemies and even to appropriate their energy and abilities to the Roman state. It was crucial to the ongoing vitality of the Roman ruling class. (276)

As a further sign of openness, Romans did not draw sharp distinctions between classes for marriage. A law against marriage between patricians and plebeians of 449 BC was overturned five years later and widely seen by later Romans as tyrannical. This is another indication that upward mobility was possible. The only exception was that marriage by confarreatio was confined to the patrician hereditary priests and was interpreted to mean that priests could not marry plebeians (229).

The openness of the Roman system can also be seen in treatment of freed slaves. Freed slaves became Roman citizens and became clients of their former masters (220). Early on, slaves were closely related Latins captured in war and easily integrated, but the law was never changed after the slaves became predominantly from other cultures and ethnicities.

Whatever the origins of this practice, Rome never altered it. From the fourth century B.C. onwards, as Rome’s conquest of Italy and the Mediterranean produced a massive influx of slaves, Roman society was constantly receiving into its midst new citizens of foreign origin, through manumission. Such openness contributed to Rome’s later success as an imperial power capable of uniting diverse peoples into a workable social system. (220)

Of course, in the long run, it also resulted in Rome losing its ethnic homogeneity that likely contributed to the increasing social and political conflicts of the later republic.

By 264 BC (the start of the First Punic War), there were three classes of Romans. (1) Citizens in an area stretching across central Italy. (2) The states allied with Rome (Etruscans, etc.), run by “landed elites who had the same basic social, economic, and political interests and outlook as the Roman aristocracy” (361). (3) Latin colonies established throughout Italy. All were part of the Roman military organization. Colonies and allies could run their own affairs but Rome ran their foreign policy. Thus entering into First Punic War, Rome was able to command 730,000 infantry and 72,700 cavalry — an impressive force indeed. Rome had become a world power and was on a collision course with Carthage.

Finally, it is important to realize that the openness of Roman society was not generally true of other Mediterranean city states, Greece in particular.

Even though Roman society was very hierarchical and not at all democratic, it was far more open than the city-states of Greece. As a result, Rome succeeded in uniting the very diverse peoples of Italy into a single confederation, whereas the states of mainland Greece, although bound together by a common language and culture, never overcame the exclusionary nature of their institutions to form a lasting union. Greek unity was achieved only when imposed by the superior force of a foreign power such as Macedon or Rome.

Athenian society was always “relatively closed,” whereas Roman society … although dominated by an oligarchic elite with political power distributed in a hierarchical fashion, was far more receptive of foreigners; and this social and political receptivity was chiefly responsible for Rome’s lasting success as an imperial power.

It’s interesting that the Emperor Claudius (r. 41–54 AD), as recorded by Tacitus, was well aware of the contrast been Greece and Rome, as seen in this exchange with those who would restrict the power of new peoples. Notice that the Gauls already had citizenship. The question was whether they would be eligible for one of the highest honors of Roman society—membership in the senate.

In the consulate of Aulus Vitellius and Lucius Vipsanius [48 AD], the question of completing the numbers of the senate was under consideration, and the leading citizens of Gallia Comata [outside of Italy, including present-day France], as it is termed, who had long before obtained federate rights and Roman citizenship, were claiming the privilege of holding magistracies in the capital. Comments on the subject were numerous and diverse; and in the imperial council the debate was conducted with animation on both sides:— “Italy,” it was asserted, “was not yet so moribund that she was unable to supply a deliberative body to her own capital. The time had been when a Roman-born senate was enough for nations whose blood was akin to their own; and they were not ashamed of the old republic. Why, even to‑day men quoted the patterns of virtue and of glory which, under the old system, the Roman character had given to the world! … What honours would be left to the relics of their nobility or the poor senator who came from Latium? All would be submerged by those opulent persons whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers, in command of hostile tribes, had smitten our armies by steel and the strong hand, and had besieged the deified Julius at Alesia. But those were recent events! What if there should arise the memory of the men who essayed to pluck down the spoils, sanctified to Heaven, from the Capitol and citadel of Rome? Leave them by all means to enjoy the title of citizens: but the insignia of the Fathers, the glories of the magistracies, — these they must not vulgarize!”

Claudius’s response emphasizes the long history of non-Romans assuming position and power at Rome (including his own ancestors), as well as their contributions to Rome and their sense of devotion to Rome. Claudius is stating that the new peoples will assimilate and contribute to Roman society.

24 1 Unconvinced by these and similar arguments, the emperor not only stated his objections there and then, but, after convening the senate, addressed it as follows: — “In my own ancestors, the eldest of whom, Clausus, a Sabine by extraction, was made simultaneously a citizen and the head of a patrician house, I find encouragement to employ the same policy in my administration, by transferring hither all true excellence, let it be found where it will. For I am not unaware that the Julii came to us from Alba, the Coruncanii from Camerium, the Porcii from Tusculum; that — not to scrutinize antiquity — members were drafted into the senate from Etruria, from Lucania, from the whole of Italy; and that finally Italy itself was extended to the Alps, in order that not individuals merely but countries and nationalities should form one body under the name of Romans. The day of stable peace at home and victory abroad came when the districts beyond the Po were admitted to citizenship, and, availing ourselves of the fact that our legions were settled throughout the globe, we added to them the stoutest of the provincials, and succoured a weary empire. Is it regretted that the Balbi crossed over from Spain and families equally distinguished from Narbonese Gaul? Their descendants remain; nor do they yield to ourselves in love for this native land of theirs. What else proved fatal to Lacedaemon and Athens, in spite of their power in arms, but their policy of holding the conquered aloof as alien-born? But the sagacity of our own founder Romulus was such that several times he fought and naturalized a people in the course of the same day! Strangers have been kings over us: the conferment of magistracies on the sons of freedmen is not the novelty which it is commonly and mistakenly thought, but a frequent practice of the old commonwealth. — ‘But we fought with the Senones.’ — Then, presumably, the Volscians and Aequians never drew up a line of battle against us. — ‘We were taken by the Gauls.’ — But we also gave hostages to the Tuscans and underwent the yoke of the Samnites. — And yet, if you survey the whole of our wars, not one was finished within a shorter period than that against the Gauls: thenceforward there has been a continuous and loyal peace. Now that customs, culture, and the ties of marriage have blended them with ourselves, let them bring among us their gold and their riches instead of retaining them beyond the pale! All, Conscript Fathers, that is now believed supremely old has been new: plebeian magistrates followed the patrician; Latin, the plebeian; magistrates from the other races of Italy, the Latin. Our innovation, too, will be parcel of the past, and what to‑day we defend by precedents will rank among precedents.”

25 1 The emperor’s speech was followed by a resolution of the Fathers, and the Aedui became the first to acquire senatorial rights in the capital: a concession to a long-standing treaty and to their position as the only Gallic community enjoying the title of brothers to the Roman people.[2] 


The Roman variant of the Indo-European cultural pattern may be viewed as a strategy incorporating three central facets:

  • the I-E military ethos — military prestige being the highest form of public aspiration, and aristocratic families competing intensely for military glory;
  • patron-client relationships binding together people from different social classes into relations of mutual obligation, a practice deriving from the mannerbunde groups characteristic of other I-E cultures;
  • non-despotic, aristocratic government, with separation of decision-making power and well-defined term limits;
  • permeability of the social classes so that social mobility was possible for talented plebeians;
  • openness to incorporating new peoples into the power structure, without which Rome would not have been able to mount its powerful military campaigns.

Rome was certainly a slave-holding society, with chattel slavery becoming common in the fourth century BC; slaves were a major component of war booty. However, the common practice of freeing slaves who then could aspire to citizenship was another marker of the openness and social fluidity of Roman society.

But the main point is that the military was never based on slavery but essentially on voluntary cooperation. Military success, in turn, was good for all social classes of citizens, not just the elites. For example, besides the booty deriving from successful campaigns, Roman citizens were often sent as colonists in conquered areas. In the period from 338–291 BC Rome established 16 colonies involving around 50,000 people (308), including both Romans and non-Romans “who obtained Latin status by being colonists” (308). Forsythe reasonably suggests that the practice of colonization may have been a safety valve for poor, indebted Romans.

The result was that Rome, unlike so many other ancient civilizations (one also thinks of the citizen armies of Greece against the slave armies of Persia at Thermopylae), was not based on despotism. Citizens of all social classes had a stake in the system, and slaves and others with partial citizenship could look forward to eventually becoming citizens and eventually even be allowed to ascend to the senate.

Is the Roman strategy correctly considered a group evolutionary strategy aimed ultimately at enhancing the genetic legacy of those who practice it? I would suggest that it can be so considered so long as the incorporated peoples were closely related to the original founding stock. The first peoples incorporated into Rome were closely related cities in Latium. Allowing for upward mobility of these peoples allowed for greater military manpower as well as Rome being able to benefit by allowing talented individuals from other groups to rise in Roman society. At the time of Claudius’s speech, the question was incorporating other European-based groups. It could be considered analogous in today’s world to advocating a pan-European union with freedom of movement within it, but restricting it to people who are part of the European gene pool. If such a strategy were pursued today, it would bind together White population of well over 1 billion into a cooperating group. This would be formidable and would indeed constitute a group evolutionary strategy to the extent it could keep other peoples out.

The problem, of course, comes from the fact that such a race-based policy is not the goal of current elites throughout the West, although we constantly hear arguments, similar to those used by Claudius, that such people contribute to the society. A race realist point of view would stress the genetic interests of Europeans first and foremost, but it would also emphasize population differences in traits like IQ and relative assimilability (e.g., Muslims) and the costs of multiculturalism as leading to group conflict, lack of social cohesion and unwillingness to contribute to public goods.

[1] MacDonald, “The Indo-European Genetic and Cultural Legacy in Europe.” 

[2] The Annals of Tacitus, Book XI (end). (Loeb Classic Library Edition of Tacitus; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937).*.html#ref25

14 replies

Comments are closed.