The patrician class was considered the backbone of Roman society. Contemporary politicians and writers in the Kingdom and early Republic thought of plebeians as rabble barely capable of sentient thought. Consequently, all important political and military positions were held by patricians. From the beginning, however, senators and knights were relegated to different spheres ofaction. Members of the senatorial class were the only Romans eligible to hold most public offices for the bulk of the early Republic, and therefore had to be able to afford the costs of electioneering and entertaining which were necessary to be elected. Members of the equestrian class were so named because originally they could afford a war horse and armor. In the later Republic the qualificationswere changed so that senators were required to own property or hold capital valued at 1,000,000 sesterces or greater, while knights had to own property or hold cash totaling at least 400,000 sesterces in value.
The patrician class was originally closed to new members. Only descendants of patricians could claim patrician status, and intermarriage with other orders was strictly forbidden. In 297BC, a major revolt by the plebeians forced the Senate to legalize intermarriage between classes of citizens and to extend the powers of the tribunes.
The status of patricians, although never immaterial, became less important during the Later Republic and into the Principate and Empire. Some patricians petitioned to be assigned plebeian status, partly in order to run for the position of tribunebut also partly to lessen the patrician tax burden. Rome's growing economic power as a trading nation left many patrician families behind; those that could not adjust to the new commercial realities of Roman society often found themselves in the embarrassing position of having to marry their daughters to wealthier plebeians or even freedmen.
The plebeians made up the bulk of theRoman citizenry. They were divided into four sub-classes based on property. The poorest class, the proletarii, were forbidden military service until the reforms of Marius in 108 BC, but otherwise members of the various sub-classes enjoyed the same rights and responsibilities.
The official attitude towards the plebeian class varied significantly between generations. Originally, the plebeians hadlittle say in Roman government; the Roman system of voting by regional "tribes" and property-based "centuries" meant that the vote of a plebeian counted for much less than the vote of a patrician. Historical evidence exists of three major plebeian revolts, mainly triggered by overtaxation, debt, hunger, war weariness, and social instability.
The main legal bulwark against the powers of the patricianclass was the council of tribunes. Founded in 494 BC as a concession to the plebeians (who had seceded from the city in protest), the tribunes originally had the power to protect any plebeian from a patrician magistrate. Later revolts forced the Senate to grant the tribunes additional powers, such as the right to veto legislation.
The plebeian class was the first to benefit from increasing...