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From Town Life in Ancient Italy, A Translation of Professor Ludwig Friedländer’s “Städtewesen in Italien im ersten jahrhundert,” by William E. Waters, The Students’ Series, Boston: Benj. H. Sanborn & Co., 1906; pp. 21-30.

Town Life in Ancient Italy



Social Classes of the Rural Cities

In the rural aristocracy which the decuriones formed, the foremost place was taken by those families which belonged to the second rank in the empire, — that of the knights. As early as the reign of Caligula, through various favors and grants, the number of these families had begun to increase throughout Italy, as well as in the entire empire.1 Men who had served with honor in the army were selected upon retirement for promotion into this class, particularly such legionaries as had worked their way up through all the sixty grades of the regiment to the primipilatus. These so-called primipilarii made a very exceptional and important class, especially since they came into the possession of considerable wealth given them at the time of their discharge.2 We very often find them, and other ex-officers of 22 equestrian rank, particularly tribunes of the legions and cohorts, holding the highest civic and priestly offices in the cities of Italy; they were even elected as patroni, or attorneys, for their cities. The poet Juvenal, who had commanded an auxiliary cohort as tribune, was made duumvir, quinquennalis, and priest of the deified Emperor Vespasian in his native city, Aquinum.3 Ex-centurions also came to belong to this rural aristocracy; even Augustus had granted them upon their retirement the purple-bordered toga and the rank of decurio.4 We find them as leaders of rural fashion enjoying considerable notice through their self-important and presuming manners. They scorned scholarly, especially philosophical, training, and were sure of the approving laughter of their hearers while proving the uselessness of such study, and ridiculing it with their stale jokes.5

That harmony did not always exist between the rural aristocracy and their fellow-citizens is clear enough even without positive evidence.6 Officials, and even the senate, were often charged with embezzlement and bribery;7 and charges of this sort, 23 with counter charges and denials, were carried to Rome. Sometimes friction of this sort led to actual riot, as at Puteoli in 58 A.D., when rocks were thrown and incendiary threats were made. In this instance citizens and curia sent ambassadors to Rome; officials and aristocracy were accused of embezzlement; the populace, of violence and lawlessness. The first commissioner sent thither from Rome failed to suppress the tumult, and it was only when the city was occupied by a pretorian cohort of one thousand men, and certain ringleaders were put to death, that harmony was reëstablished.8

Next to the decuriones in rank and importance, though inferior to them, were the augustales. We find among the augustales, not only men who were not free-born, but men of only moderate means, or in the pursuit of some profession which disqualified them for the decurionate, — men who could, however, claim a position above the level of the common people.9 The augustales were members of religious bodies devoted to the cult of the emperor, and in the flourishing period of the rural cities, to be an augustalis was a much-coveted honor. The competition was great; for membership in any association meant not only many other 24 advantages, but especially some social distinction. It meant preference in all distributions of largesses, in the assignment of places in the theatres, and so forth. But the chief distinction of the augustales lay in the fact that they belonged to moneyed organizations; that their membership was made up of prominent, if not aristocratic, men; that they did much in behalf of the people, and were devoted to the cult of the emperor. As a rule they are mentioned as a kind of class, like the decuriones. They stand between the upper and lower orders of masters and servants, and feel honored when one of the former answers their greeting in a friendly way, or accosts them by name, “as though one of us.”10

In Rome, as early as Augustus, the genius of the reigning emperor became the object of a cult, officially recognized by the great city, and privately by numerous clubs formed for this purpose. Similarly, throughout Italy, religious organizations frequently substituted the imperial cult in place of that of the gods. In Pompeii the devotees of Mercury and Maia first added to the names of these two deities that of Augustus, and from the year 2 A.D., employed his name alone.11 Elsewhere in southern Italy clubs for this purpose were formed, and were called augustales.

Their officers, called seviri (six men), were nominated by the decuriones and were elected for only 25 one year. It was otherwise in northern Italy, whose population was still too much mixed with Celtic elements, not yet sufficiently Romanized for the introduction of such bodies. Here, especially in Lombardy, there grew up clubs of seviri (the number six is the favorite one with Roman colonial priests) devoted to the cult of the emperor;12 and from these were gradually developed distinct and legal corporations.

Considerable burdens were also connected with the sevirate. On the numerous days devoted to the imperial cult, the seviri had to perform sacrifices and various festivities. They also paid a fee into the city treasury upon taking office, and made it a point of pride to contribute more than the amount usually required. In consequence they were allowed, in their official functions, to wear gold rings and to put on the purple-bordered toga; this they might also do at festivals in the emperor’s honor, even after their term of office; and they might be buried13 wearing these same insignia. They were allowed lictors;14 they had a place of honor at the games, 26 and a greater share in largesses of money. The augustales might, upon decree of the senate, participate in the honors and privileges of the decuriones; and this seems to have been their highest ideal and ambition. The numerous records of their honors, especially those made upon their tombstones, tell us in pompous phraseology that this one, through a decree of the decuriones and with the good-will of the citizens, had received the bisellium for his services; that to another was given the distinction of decurio, or ædile or duumvir; that, for a third, the honorarium required on his entrance upon the sevirate was remitted;15 that a fourth had received the title of “first of the augustales,” and so on. Moreover, the privileges of the augustalitate might be granted to those who were not augustales; and such persons were sometimes buried with the honors of the office upon decree of the municipal council.16 Scarcely any one was, therefore, debarred from the possibility of taking a prominent place among his fellow citizens, and from thus constantly rising to a higher position. Considering the sacrifices which all this cleverly developed system demanded with its numerous minutely graded and clearly defined titles, dignities, ranks, and decorations, we see how deeply 27 this desire to cut some figure among one’s fellows had penetrated into all classes of society.

The societies of the augustales, probably more numerous in membership than those of the decuriones, were organized in the usual way. They elected their patrons and officers, had meeting-places in the larger cities, dining rooms for their society dinners, wine cellars, and sometimes real estate from the returns on which the expenses of their feasts were defrayed. They even possessed plots of ground where deceased members might find a final resting-place. They received benefactions and bequests from members and issued honorary addresses or decrees, sometimes in company with other societies, in behalf of persons who had placed them under obligation; frequently, too, they raised statues in honor of their benefactors.

The augustales, almost always freedmen, were usually traders and handicraftsmen of different sorts; as a rule they were very wealthy, and were filled with a consuming desire to place the decuriones in the shade by their own public generosity. It was among such men that that provincial feeling for the per-cent earned and the cent saved had its representatives. Petronius gives us a picture of one of those in his Trimalchio. This man, a libertinus who had become very wealthy through trade, was a former sevir among the augustales in Cumæ. He gives an order for his own monument to his friend, Habinnas, 28 who is a manufacturer of marbles, and a brother sevir. On this stone is to be commemorated the most glorious deed of his life, the gift of a banquet to the entire city. He is to be shown in relief, sitting on an elevated platform, clothed with a purple-bordered toga, and with five gold rings on his fingers, while from a bag he scatters gold among the people, and round about are tables at which the entire populace are seen enjoying themselves. In his epitaph it shall be declared that he was made sevir in his absence, had been reduced, then won a great name, leaving his millions behind, and yet had never heard of a philosopher.17 This picture, drawn by Petronius, is true to life, particularly in the contempt of the parvenu for higher education, and his eagerness to give information upon his tombstone concerning the exact amount of property he leaves behind, a statement which, as a rule, was obligatory upon the heirs. We still have the tombstone of a freedman of Assisi, who succeeded in becoming a physician and a sevir, with such information upon it.18 In Brescia there had been found the tombstone of a sevir of the augustales with scenes and illustrations upon it much like those ordered by Trimalchio for his tombstone. One can see this sevir, a short, thick-set man, with his five 29 colleagues, passing to the Forum, with two lictors preceding, and then taking his seat upon a raised bisellium, mid pompous self-complacency, and apparently with a bag of money in his hand. A sacrifice and some games provided by him also seem to be represented.19

Among the citizens of any of these Italian towns there were to be found aliens also. These were strangers who had taken up their permanent residence there, without losing their rights of citizenship among their own people. They had to bear the burdens of their adopted city, and, though in earlier times only citizens might hold office, yet, during the decline of the cities, these aliens were obliged to hold office and bear the sacrifices it entailed. Their number was considerable in the larger cities. We hear of Jewish quarters in several of them quite early.20 Among these alien Jews, as well as among the poorer classes of the native people, Christian missionaries found ready converts even in the first century. In Pompeii an inscription was found containing the names of certain Christians. Unfortunately, only the names could be read with any certainty, and the inscription has since disappeared.21

That the people in these cities were sometimes disorderly 30 even to the point of perpetrating outrages is shown by several incidents recorded at the time of their occurrence.22 In Sienna, in 11 A.D., a Roman senator was treated with gross indignity and discourtesy, and apparently at the instigation of the magistrates. The people buried him in effigy with great ceremony; insolent and outrageous language was also used against the Roman senate. The latter summoned the guilty parties before their bar, punished them, and thus gave the city of Sienna a severe warning.23


1  Friedl., I. 278.

2  Friedl., I. 376.

3  Friedl., III. 404.

4  Appian, Bell. Civ., V. 128; Friedl., I. 377, 2.

5  Persius, 3, 77; 5, 180; Friedl., III. 678 ff.

6  Tacitus, Orat., 41: municipium . . . quod . . . domestica discordia agitat.

7  Petronius, 44: ædiles . . . qui cum pistoribus colludunt . . . ædilem qui . . . plus in die nummorum accipit, quam alter patrimonium habet.

8  Tacitus, Annales, XIII. 48.

9  Schmidt, De Seviris Aug.; Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, I. 197-208.

10  Petronius, chap. 44.

11  Nissen, pp. 183 and 272.

12  Hirschfeld, Zeitschrift für Österreich. Gymnasien, 1878, pp. 291 ff.; Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, I. 202.

13  Petronius, chap. 71: facias . . . me in tribunali sedentem prætextatum cum anulis aureis quinque; and chap. 77: profer vitalia in quibus volo efferri; and chap. 78: stragulam albam et prætextam attulit.

14  Petronius, chap. 65: inter hæc triclinii valvas lictor percussit.

15  Petronius, chap. 57: sevir gratis factus sum.

16  CIL, IX. 58 (Brundisium): huic ordo decurionum f(unus) l(ocum) p(ublice) ornamentaque augustalitatis decrevit.

17  Petronius, chap. 71.

18  Orelli, 2983; cf. also Petronius, chap. 71: sestertium reliquit trecenties.

19  CIL, V. 4482; Schmidt, De Seviris Aug., pp. 81 ff. and the plate; cf. Hübner, Hermes, XII. 414 ff.

20  Friedl., III. 620 ff.

21  CIL, IV. 679.

22  Tacitus, Hist., III. 32: (Cremonenses) tertiadecumanos . . . ut sunt procacia urbanæ plebis ingenia, petulantibus iurgiis inluserant; also Annales, XIV. 17: (Nucerini Pompeianique) oppidana lascivia in vicem incessentes.

23  Tacitus, Hist., IV. 45.


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