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p875 Patricii

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp875‑877 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.


This word is a derivative from pater, which in the early times invariably denoted a patrician, and in the later times of the republic frequently occurs in the Roman writers as equivalent to senator. Patricii therefore signifies those who belonged to the patres "rex patres eos (senatores) voluit nominari, patriciosque eorum liberos" (Cic. de Re Publ. II.12; Liv. I.8; Dionys. II.8). It is a mistake in these writers to suppose that the patricii were only the offspring of the patres in the sense of senators, and necessarily connected with them by blood. Patres and patricii were originally controvertible terms (Plut. Romul. 13; Lydus, de Mens. I.20, de Mag. I.16; Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, I. p336). The words patres and patricii have radically and essentially the same meaning, and some of the ancients believed that the name patres was given to that particular class of the Roman population from the fact that they were fathers of families (Plut. Dionys. l.c.); others, that they were called so from their age (Sallust, Catil. 6); or because they distributed land among the poorer citizens, as fathers did among their children (Festus, s.v. Patres Senatores; Lyd. de Mens. IV.50). But most writers justly refer the name to the patrocinium which the patricians exercised over the whole state, and over all classes of persons of whom it was composed (Plut. and Sallust, l.c.; Zonaras, VII.8; Suidas, s.v. Πατρίκιοι).

In considering who the patricians were, we have to distinguish three periods in the history of Rome. The first extends from the foundation of the city down to the establishment of the plebeians as a second order; the second, from this event down to the time of Constantine, during which time the patricians were a real aristocracy of birth, and as such formed a distinct class of Roman citizens opposed to the plebeians, and afterwards to the new plebeian aristocracy of the nobiles: the third period extends from Constantine down to the middle ages, during which the patricians were no longer an aristocracy of birth, but were persons who merely enjoyed a title, first granted by the emperors and afterwards by the popes also.

First Period: from the foundation of the city, to the establishment of the plebeian order. Niebuhr's researches into the early history of Rome have established it as a fact beyond all doubt, that during this period the patricians comprised the whole body of Romans who enjoyed the full franchise, that they were the populus Romanus, and that there were no other real citizens besides them (Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, II. pp224, 225, note 507; Cic. pro Caecin. 35). The patricians must be regarded as conquerors who reduced the earlier inhabitants of the places they occupied to a state of servitude, which in our authorities is designated by the terms cliens and plebs. The other parts of the Roman population, namely clients and slaves, did not belong to the populus Romanus, or sovereign people, and were not burghers or patricians. The senators were a select body of the populus or patricians, which acted as their representative. The burghers or patricians consisted originally of three distinct tribes, which gradually became united into the sovereign populus. These tribes had founded settlements upon several of the hills which were subsequently included within the precincts of the city of Rome. Their names were Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres, or Ramnenses, Titienses, and Lucerenses. Each of these tribes consisted of ten curiae, and each curia of ten decuries, which were established for representative and military purposes [Senatus.] The first tribe, or the Ramnes, were a Latin colony on the Palatine hill, said to have been founded by Romulus. As long as it stood alone, it contained only one hundred gentes, and had a senate of one hundred members. When the Tities, or Sabine settlers on the Quirinal and Viminal hills, under king Tatius, became united with the Romans, the number of gentes as well as that of senators was increased to 200. These two tribes after their union continued probably for a considerable time to be the patricians of Rome, until the third tribe, the Luceres, which chiefly consisted of Etruscans, who had settled on the Caelian Hill, also became united with the other two as a third tribe. When this settlement was made is not certain: some say that it was in the time of Romulus (Festus, s.v. Caelius Mons and Luceres; Varro, de Ling. Lat. V.55); others that it took place at a later time (Tacit. Ann. IV.65; Festus, s.v. Tuscum vicum). But the Etruscan settlement was in all probability older than that of the Sabines (see Göttling, Gesch. der Röm. Staatsverf. p54, &c.), though it seems occasionally to have received new bands of Etruscan settlers even as late as the time of the republic.

The amalgamation of these three tribes did not take place at once: the union between Latins and Sabines is ascribed to the reign of Romulus, though it does not appear to have been quite perfect, since the Latins on some occasions claimed a superiority over the Sabines (Dionys. II.62). The Luceres existed for a long time as a separate tribe without enjoying the same rights as the two others until Tarquinius Priscus, himself an Etruscan, caused them to be placed on a footing of equality with the others. For this reason he is said to have increased the number of senators to 300 (Dionys. III.67; Liv. I.35; Cic. de Re Publ. II.20; cf. Senatus), and to have added two Vestal virgins to the existing number of four (Dionys. l.c.; Festus, s.v. Sex Vestae sacerdotes; Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, I. p302, &c.). The Luceres, however, are, notwithstanding this equalisation, sometimes distinguished from the other tribes by the name patres minorum gentium; though this name is also applied to other members of the patricians, e.g. to those plebeian families who were admitted by Tarquinius Priscus into the three tribes, and in comparison with these, the Luceres are again called patres majorum gentium (cf. Niebuhr, I. p304, and Göttling, p226, &c.). That this distinction between patres majorum and minorum gentium was kept up in private life, at a time when it had no value whatever in a political point of view, is clear from Cicero (ad Fam. IX.21). Tullus Hostilius admitted several of the noble gentes of Alba among the patricians (in p876patres legit, Liv. I.30), viz., the Tullii (Sulii?), Servilii, Quinctii, Geganii, Curiatii, and Cloelii, to which Dionysius (III.29) adds the gens Metilia. Ancus Marcius admitted the Tarquinii (Dionys. III.48), Servius Tullius the Octavii (Sueton. Aug. 1, &c.), and even Tarquinius Superbus seems to have had similar intentions (Dionys. IV.57; Sueton. Vitell. 1). We do not hear that the number of gentes was increased by these admissions, and must therefore suppose that some of them had already become extinct, and that the vacancies which thus arose were filled up with these new burghers (Göttling, p222). During the time of the republic, distinguished strangers and wealthy plebeians were occasionally made Roman patricians, e.g. Appius Claudius and his gens (Liv. X.8; compare II.16; Dionys. V.40; Sueton. Tib. 1), and Domitius Ahenobarbus (Suet. Nero, 1). As regards the kingly period the Roman historians speak as if the kings had had the power of raising a gens or an individual to the rank of a patrician; but it is evident that the king could not do this without the consent of the patres in their curies; and hence Livy (IV.4) makes Canuleius say, "per cooptationem in patres, aut ab regibus lecti," which lectio, of course, required the sanction of the body of patricians. In the time of republic such an elevation to the rank of patrician could only be granted by the senate and the populus (Liv. IV.4, X.8, compare especially Becker, Handb. der Röm. Alterth. II.1 p26, &c.).

Since there were no other Roman citizens but the patricians during this period, we cannot speak of any rights or privileges belonging to them exclusively; they are all comprehended under Civitas (Roman) and Gens. Respecting their relations to the kings see Comitia Curiata and Senatus. During this early period we can scarcely speak of the patricians as an aristocracy, unless we regard their relation to the clients in this light [Cliens.]

Second Period: from the establishment of the plebeian order to the time of Constantine. When the plebeians became a distinct class of citizens, who shared certain rights with the patricians, the latter lost in so far as these rights no longer belonged to them exclusively. But by far the greater number of rights, and those the most important ones, still remained in the exclusive possession of the patricians, who alone were cives optimo jure, and were the patres of the nation in the same sense as before. All civil and religious offices were in their possession, and they continued as before to be the populus, the nation now consisting of the populus and the plebes. This distinction, which Livy found in ancient documents (XXV.12), seems however in the course of time to have fallen into oblivion, so that the historian seems to be hardly aware of it, and uses populus for the whole body of citizens including the plebeians. Under the Antonines the term populus signified all the citizens, with the exception of the patricii (Gaius, I.3). In their relation to the plebeians or the commonality, the patricians now were a real aristocracy of birth. A person born of a patrician family was and remained a patrician, whether he was rich or poor, whether he was a member of the senate, or an eques, or held any of the great offices of the state, or not: there was no power that could make a patrician a plebeian, except his own free will, for every patrician might by adoption into a plebeian family, or by a solemn transition from his own order to the plebs, become a plebeian, leaving his gens and curia and renouncing the sacra. As regards the census, he might indeed not belong to the wealthy classes, but his rank remained the same. Instances of reduced patricians in the latter period of the republic are, the father of M. Aemilius Scaurus and the family of the Sullas previous to the time of the dictator of that name (Suet. Aug. 2; Liv. IV.16; Plin. H. N. XVIII.4; Zonar. VII.15; Ascon. Ped. in Scaur. p25, ed. Orelli). A plebeian, on the other hand, or even a stranger, might, as we stated above, be made a patrician by a lex curiata. But this appears to have been done very seldom; and the consequence was, that in the course of a few centuries the number of patrician families became so rapidly diminished, that towards the close of the republic there were not more than fifty such families (Dionys. I.85). Julius Caesar by the lex Cassia raised several plebeian families to the rank of patricians, in order that they might be able to continue to hold the ancient priestly offices which still belonged to their order (Suet. Caes. 41; Tac. Ann. XI.25; Dion Cass. XLIII.47, XLV.2). Augustus soon after found it necessary to do the same by a lex Scaenia (Tacit. l.c.; Dion Cass. XLIX.43, LII.42). Other emperors followed these examples: Claudius raised a number of senators and such persons as were born of illustrious parents to the rank of patricians (Tacit. l.c.; Suet. Oth. 1); Vespasian, Titus, and other emperors did the same (Tacit. Agric. 9; Capitol. M. Antonin. 1; Lamprid. Commod. 6). The expression for this act of raising persons to the rank of patricians was in patricios or in familiam patriciam adligere.

Although the patricians throughout this whole period had the character of an aristocracy of birth, yet their political rights were not the same at all times. The first centuries of this period are an almost uninterrupted struggle between patricians and plebeians, in which the former exerted every means to retain their exclusive rights, but which ended in the establishment of the political equality of the two orders. [Plebs.] Only a few insignificant priestly offices, and the performance of certain ancient religious rites and ceremonies, remained the exclusive privilege of the patricians; of which they were the prouder, as in former days their religious power and significance were the basis of their political superiority (see Ambrosch, Studen und Andeutungen, &c. p58, &c.). At the time when the struggle between patricians and plebeians ceased, a new kind of aristocracy began to arise at Rome, which was partly based upon wealth and partly upon the great offices of the republic, and the term Nobiles was given to all persons whose ancestors had held any of the curule offices (Cf. Nobiles.) This aristocracy of nobiles threw the old patricians as a body still more into the shade, though both classes of aristocrats united as far as was possible to monopolise all the great offices of the state (Liv. XXII.34, XXXIX.41); but although the old patricians we obliged in many cases to make common cause with the nobiles, yet they could never suppress the feeling of their own superiority; and the veneration which historical antiquity alone can bestow, always distinguished them as individuals from the nobiles. How much wealth gradually gained the upper hand, is seen from the measure adopted about the time of the p877first Punic war, by which the expenses for the public games were no longer given from the aerarium, but were defrayed by the aediles; and as their office was the first step to the great offices of the republic, that measure was a tacit exclusion of the poorer citizens from those offices. Under the emperors the position of the patricians as a body was not improved; the filling up of the vacancies in their order by the emperors began more and more to assume the character of an especial honour, conferred upon a person for his good services or merely as a personal favour, so that the transition from this period to the third had been gradually preparing.

Respecting the great political and religious privileges which the patricians at first possessed alone, but afterwards were compelled to share with the plebeians, see Plebs and the articles treating of the several Roman magistracies and priestly offices. Cf. also Gens; Curia; Senatus.

In their dress and appearance the patricians were scarcely distinguished from the rest of the citizens, unless they were senators, curule magistrates, or equites, in which case they wore like others the ensigns peculiar to these dignities. The only thing by which they appear to have been distinguished in their appearance from other citizens, was a peculiar kind of shoes, which covered the whole foot and part of the leg, though they were not as high as the shoes of senators and curule magistrates. These shoes were fastened with four strings (corrigae or lora patricia) and adorned with a lunula on the top (Senec. De Tranquil. Anim. 11; Plut. Quaest. Rom. 76;º Stat. Silv. V.2.27; Martial, I.50, II.29). Festus (s.v. Mulleos) states that mulleus was the name of the shoes worn by the patricians; but the passage of Varro which he adduces only shows that the mullei (shoes of a purple colour) were worn by the curule magistrates (cf. Dion Cass. XLIII.43).

Third Period: from the time of Constantine to the middle ages. From the time of Constantine the dignity of patricius was a personal title, which conferred on the person, to whom it was granted, a very high rank and certain privileges. Hitherto patricians had been only genuine Roman citizens, and the dignity had descended from the father to his children; but the new dignity was created at Constantinople, and was not bestowed on old Roman families; it was given, without any regard to persons, to such men as had for a long time distinguish themselves by good and faithful services to the empire or the emperor. This new dignity was not hereditary, but became extinct with the death of the person on whom it was conferred; and when during this period we read of patrician families, the meaning is only that the head of such a family was a patricius (Zosim. II.40; Cassiodor. Variar. VI.2). The name patricius during this period assumed the conventional meaning of father of the emperor (Ammian. Marcellin. XXIX.2; Cod. 12 tit. 3 §5), and those who were thus distinguished occupied the highest rank among the illustres; the consuls alone ranked higher than a patricius ( Isidor. IX.4.1.3; Cod. 3 tit. 24 s3; 12 tit. 3 s3). The titles by which a patricius was distinguished were magnificentia, celsitudo, eminentia, and magnitudo. They were either engaged in actual service (for they generally held the highest offices in the state, at the court and in the provinces), and were then called patricii praesentales, or they had only the title and were called patricii codicillares or honorarii (Cassiod. VIII.9; Savaron ad Sidon. Apoll. I.3). All of them, however, were distinguished in their appearance and dress from ordinary persons, and seldom appeared before the public otherwise than in a carriage. The emperors were generally very cautious in bestowing this great distinction, though some of the most arbitrary despots conferred the honour upon young men and even on eunuchs. Zeno decreed that no one should be made patricius who had not been consul, praefect, or magister militum (Cod. 3 tit. 24 s3). Justinian, however, did away with some of these restrictions. The elevation to the rank of patricius was testified to the person by a writ called diploma (Sidon. Apollin. V.16; Suidas, s.v. Γραμματείδιον; cf. Cassiodor. VI.2, VIII.21, &c.).

This new dignity was not confined to Romans or subjects of the empire, but was sometimes granted to foreign princes, such as Odoacer, the chief of the Heruli, and others. When the popes of Rome had established their authority, they also assumed the right of bestowing the title of patricius on eminent persons and princes, and many of the German emperors were thus distinguished by the popes. In several of the Germanic kingdoms the sovereigns imitated the Roman emperors and popes by giving to their most distinguished subjects the title of patricius, but these patricii were at all times much lower in rank than the Roman patricii, a title of which kings and emperors themselves were proud.

(Rein, in Ersch und Gruber's Encyclopädie, s.v. Patricier, and for the early period of Roman History, Göttling's Gesch. der Röm. Staatsverf. p51, &c., Becker's Handbuch l.c., and p133, &c.).

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