From commoners to emperors: how social elevators worked in ancient Rome

Imagine a young, ambitious Roman who was not born into a patrician or noble family, but wants to achieve high position and power. Does he have a chance of that? Yes, sure. Even the last plebeian, provincial and poor man could count on a brilliant career in the ancient Roman state. How? Depends on the specific era – in early Rome, military feat promised most of the glory and honors, and in imperial times there were many other options.

Guy Claudius Glabre and his wife Ilithia, daughter of Senator Albinia. Shot from the TV series “Spartacus”.
Guy Claudius Glabre and his wife Ilithia, daughter of Senator Albinia. Shot from the TV series “Spartacus”.
First, let’s look at the simplest and most obvious ways to climb up. Theoretically, you can marry a patrician daughter. But marriages in this environment were usually concluded by calculation, a poor and ignoble young man to the parents of an upper-class girl as a potential groom is completely uninteresting. You can become a client of a high-ranking patron, provide him with valuable services and expect that he will promote his faithful assistant. But to do this, you first need to break through the crowd of other parasites (translated from Latin – “freeloaders”) who constantly revolve around such people. They jealously follow newcomers and intrigue them, so it will take a fair amount of dexterity, cunning and complete lack of principle.

Are there other ways to make a career? Of course. In ancient Rome, they are all associated with war, money and politics. You can join the army, attract the attention of the commander or even the emperor himself, as happened in his youth with Maximinus the Thracian, and he will take the young daredevil into his personal guard, then make him a legate, and then you can try to take power yourself. In times of troubles and civil wars, even former shepherds, like Maximinus, became emperors in this way. But even if you fail to distinguish yourself with strength and prowess on the battlefield or in some kind of competition, this is not a reason to despair.

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If the emperor (reigning now or future) remembered someone, even a completely ignorant and poor, this is a sure chance for a completely dizzying career. For the military – to become a military leader, to win rich trophies, to buy influence on them in the capital or, for example, the post of governor of a province. For civilians – to become the closest assistant to the emperor, get a monetary position (for example, head of food supplies to the capital) and make a big profit. And once Julius Caesar introduced several hundred new members to the senators, including not rich ones, who somehow liked him during the war with the Gauls. Although usually senators in Rome were exclusively patricians, and they came from the most noble families.

Was it possible in ancient Rome to rise through a successful business? In principle, yes, and this path was open to anyone, including slaves. Slaves could also own property and engage in personal business – of course, unfastening a share to their master. The managers of large estates were also slaves, albeit formally, since the owners of the estates considered it extremely dangerous to trust confidential information to a free person. In such a position it was possible to amass capital, gain freedom and continue to live like a noble.

But this path was also dangerous. There is a known case when, during one of the proscriptions, a certain Roman rich man saw his name in the list of enemies of the Roman people and exclaimed: “Help, my estate is chasing me!” The dictators, and then the emperors, did not see anything wrong in accusing any rich person of some crime like an “insult to greatness”, after which this rich man was at best sent into exile (and at worst was executed), and his property confiscated.

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Only the intercession of influential persons – those close to the emperor himself, senators, high magistrates, etc. could help to avoid such a fate. And this required either family ties or mutually beneficial deeds. That is, it was necessary to share wealth, and it was usually about huge sums at that time. These expenses had to be somehow compensated, in which the same friends in high positions could help. For example, to outsource the collection of taxes in a wealthy area, which promised high profits.

There was another way – in the era of the Republic, a rich man himself could run for elective office, buying voters with generous gifts. And in the days of the Empire – to receive this position under patronage for a large bribe. One way or another, in addition to money, in Roman society (like any other), strong connections in the highest echelons of power were urgently required in order to preserve, and, on occasion, increase this money.

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