Essential facts about Roman society


Some essential Facts to know about Roman society
  • It was incredibly competitive, hierarchical, and, by modern standards, extremely violent.
  • Rome was a slave-owning society and the enslaved had no legal status. Under law they were considered property; if you injured or killed a slave, you paid the owner a fine dependent on the value of the slave.
  • In the Late Republic in particular elite competition was fierce; families and individuals would bankrupt themselves to gain the consulship, the most significant magistracy; competition was also fierce for lower positions. Spectacle became a vital way for elites to compete with each other. In addition to running for aedile and then being responsible for presenting public ludi, elites vowed private munera, meant to fulfill a vow given in battle, to honour a fallen father, or to mark a victory, which were entirely presented using their private means. Spectacles might have started off small, but they rapidly escalated due to elite competition.
  • Rome was an empire, and in such a set up, the provinces’ function is to send money and goods to the centre of the empire. So wealth was sent from all over to the capital to fund it.
  • Romans were far more used to seeing death and the threat of death than most of us in Western society are: not only was physical abuse common from those of higher status towards those of inferior rank (even among free people), but disease was rife, injuries were easily fatal, and many, many children died young.
  • All people who sold their bodies for a living – a category that included prostitutes, actors, gladiators, and pimps – were infamis, a legal category that meant they lost their legal status as Roman citizens, though, not their civic status.
  • Rome, the city, was an extremely dangerous place to live; there was no police force and most people either did not venture out after dark or travelled in groups to protect themselves.The same was true of other urban centres.
  • Spectacles cost real money to put on; the money either came from the individual putting them on or the state (with people usually adding their own money into what the state provided as it was never enough). Almost all of the spectacles described here seem to have been non profit generating, and, in fact, represented one of the most serious non-military costs of the Roman state and Emperor.
  • Rome was not a capitalist society, not because they didn’t like money, but because capitalism is a modern creation. So trying to think of Roman spectacles in modern economic terms, is generally an unfruitful idea.


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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