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«Самарский национальный исследовательский университет имени академика С.П. Королева»
Historians for the First Time Explore Informal Ties between the Elite, the Military and the Common People in Imperial Ancient Rome

Historians for the First Time Explore Informal Ties between the Elite, the Military and the Common People in Imperial Ancient Rome

Самарский университет

Ancient coins and inscriptions on walls and stones will help them in this

25.04.2024 2024-05-21
Scientists of Samara University and Moscow City Pedagogical University, with the support of the Russian Science Foundation (RSF), will research the history of Ancient Rome of the imperial era, analyzing it for the first time in terms of significance of personal ties and informal contacts of three social groups of that time – the political elite (senators), the common people (plebs) and the military of the capital garrison (Praetorians). The study will cover almost three centuries of the Ancient Roman history – from the last quarter of the 1st century BC till the first half of the 3rd century AD.

Previously, this era, called the principate by historians, had not been studied in such a context. This scientific project has won the RSF Competition “Conducting basic scientific research and exploratory scientific research by small individual scientific groups”.

“Currently, in classical historiography, relationships of three significant social groups of Ancient Rome of the imperial period – senators, praetorians (soldiers of the capital’s garrison) and the plebs (the bulk of the population) remain almost unexplored. We hope to fill this gap in historical science by applying the microanalytical approach, the main feature of which is considering the concrete historical interaction of small groups, especially in an informal way. As a result of the study, we will get the more detailed representation of the ways and nature of interaction between these groups of Ancient Roman society, as well as their mutual perception and influence of their ties and contacts in terms of prerequisites for occurrence of certain historical events”, said one of the project authors Andrey Markelov, Associate Professor at Samara University’s Department of General History, International Relations and Documentary Studies.

By studying the informal ties of different strata of society, the scientists will try to find answers to a variety of questions. For example, did the senators use the plebs for achieving their political goals, and if so, how exactly? Were there cases of coincidence of the social and political interests of the elite and the common people? Did the emperor completely usurp control over the metropolitan plebs, or did the noble senatorial families secretly compete with the emperor, fighting for patronage over the common people? Were there any ties between the Praetorians and the senators, and if so, what was their nature? How were these ties expressed not only in times of crisis, but also during everyday peaceful life?

“The answers to these and other questions will allow us to better understand influence of the social groups under consideration on the political life of Ancient Rome of the imperial era. In turn, this will give a more detailed and real picture of the Roman society’s life, the opportunity for better comprehending certain turning points in this state’s history, strategies of behavior of the most important strata of Roman society in periods of peace and during military and political crises. The chronological framework of our research covers the time from the last quarter of the 1st century BC till the first half of the 3rd century AD. This is certainly an enormous period, if we approach the study of the event side of that time. However, we are more interested in social history than political one. Moreover, unlike historians of the Modern History and the Late Modern History, we do not have so many preserved sources at our disposal”, noted Andrey Markelov.

The “heroes” to be studied may become about several hundred inhabitants of Ancient Rome, and the number includes only those to be called by name. In fact, larger masses of the population will be into view of the scientists. The fact is that in many sources the plebs, for example, are often mentioned only in a generalized form. By the way, about one million people lived in Rome at that time.

The data for the study will be searched by the scientists in various historical sources, including ancient authors’ works, for example, in the famous “Annals” by P. Cornelius Tacitus, the historian and senator who lived at the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Special attention will be paid to analyzing epigraphic monuments, that is, inscriptions on walls, burial slabs, and stones.

“Historical works give us a coherent picture of socio-political history, and the necessary context. Due to the fact that most of their authors were primarily interested in the figure of the emperor and only significant historical events, there often does not contain much information on the issue we are interest in. The most considerable, numerous and time-consuming category of sources are various types of Latin inscriptions of the official and private nature, left by the Senate as an institution of power, senators, Praetorians and ordinary residents of Rome. It is them that allow us to reconstruct ties between representatives of these social groups. For example, honorary inscriptions left by clients to their patron make it possible to find out their patron’s identity and social origin, to determine whether he was a senator or not. Analyzing the data obtained from the tombstone inscriptions at the freed men’s columbariums facilitates determining the patron of the deceased, establishing the approximate number of his clients”, said Andrey Markelov.

In the world, there are special scientific editions of the inscriptions. The most famous and largest is “Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum”. It consists of 17 volumes of actual inscriptions and 13 supportive volumes with indexes and illustrations. The new updated edition will be published soon. The most recent finds are published in the specialized journal “L’Année épigraphique”. Availability of electronic databases on Latin epigraphy created by a number of universities and scientific organizations facilitates searching and selecting inscriptions required. All these databases are freely available online.

Another important source will be numismatic data, that is, data obtained from coins – images and inscriptions. Coins are a good source for dating events, assisting to determine the emperor’s official perception and attitude towards representatives of senators, Praetorians and plebs. There are special catalogues of Roman coins in both printed and electronic format.

The research project is designed until the end of 2025. Following the results, the scientists plan to publish articles in leading scientific journals on antiquity, create a historical map reflecting regional ties of senators and Praetorians, as well as hold the event (and possibly more than one) aimed at popularizing public interest in studying antiquity.

For reference:

* Ancient Roman society was permeated by so-called patronage-client relations. Clients were those who sought patronage and favor of more influential and noble citizens – patrons. The patron helped his clients, and the clients in return provided various services to their patron or periodically paid him a certain amount of money. Patrons even had special servants to be responsible for customer relations, these servants were called nomenclators.

Senators actively used the patronage resource in the political struggle, and were direct political competitors for the emperors. Earlier in historiography, it was believed that, with imperial power to have been established, it was the emperors who became supreme patrons of ordinary Roman citizens. For example, the poor strata of the plebs in Rome were given on behalf of the emperor free products – bread, butter, meat. However, at present, historians increasingly reject this view, as it contradicts the available data on the ties of senators with the plebs.

Senators also had informal contacts with Praetorians. Herewith, senators were forbidden to hold any posts in the praetorian guard, which protected the emperor himself. Similar prohibitions for senators extended to another corps, which was part of the capital’s garrison, fire brigades. However, according to ancient traditions, guards and firefighters could visit their patron senators’ homes.

Initially, such contacts were not regulated by the imperial government in any way, which was used in 41 AD by a number of senators to eliminate Emperor Caligula. Among the assassins of the emperor were both senators and Praetorians. This is what forced the new emperor, Claudius, to completely ban his guards from visiting houses of senators.