Roman Society

This Page
Recent History
Politics and Government
Rome: the Imperial City
Roman Attire
Religion and Philosophy
Roman Women
The Military Life
Feasting Customs
Roman Entertainment
Recommended Sources

Other Pages
Imperium Home Page
Making a Character
List of Characters
Game Conventions
Role-Playing Tips

There is, of course, a staggering amount of information out there about ancient Rome. Below is a quick summary of the most important information you might need to build a character. See also the page of Glossaries. For more complete information, see Recommended Sources.

Recent History
As Rome grew from a small city-state to a great empire, its institutions proved unable to handle the transition. Less than a century before the time of the game, the Roman Republic was fraught with almost constant civil war. This was finally put to an end when Gaius Octavius seized supreme military control, changed his name to Augustus, and was named Imperator or emperor. See the
Timeline for more detail.

Rome retains the outward forms of a republican government, and its citizens will proudly proclaim that they do not have a tyrant or king; the word imperator has not yet gained its monarchic connotations and means only "commander in chief". Despite this, for all intents and purposes the emperor is the sovereign ruler of the nation. While the emperor is not worshipped as a god in Italy (most emperors took great care to forbid this, lest they appear too much like eastern potentates and thus alienate the republicans), the emperor is routinely deified upon his death, and while alive the government encourages veneration of his "genius" or spirit. See Religion, below.

While the "Romanization" of the empire has begun, including the extension of citizenship to most Italians, outside of Italy the empire remains a patchwork of Roman colonies, military protectorates, client kingdoms, conquered nations, and semi-assimilated provinces. (See a map of the Roman empire.)Many of these "foreigners" have immigrated to Rome, usually involuntarily as slaves, including Celts, Iberians, Illyrians, Libyans, Egyptians, Thracians, Phrygians, Cilicians, Syrians, and Jews. Particularly prominent are the Greeks, who dominate the academic professions such as teachers and doctors but are rapidly being replaced by newly educated middle-class Romans. Though Greek is the language of the "classics", Latin now stands on an equal footing as a language of the learned and is the source of a flourishing literature.

Politics and Government
Though Roman society is legally divided into three classes, patricians (aristocracy), equites (landed gentry), and plebeians (common men), the classes are defined primarily on land ownership and there are actually few official barriers to power; wealthy plebeians sit beside the patricians in the Senate or the emperor's inner circle. Still the patricians tend to dominate, despite the fact that custom forbids them from engaging in most forms of commerce, a restriction many get around by using

Outside the citizenry is the undifferentiated mass of foreigners (inhabitants of provinces which have not yet gained citizenship) and freedmen (manumitted slaves). Finally, nearly a third of the population is slaves. Though property, many slaves, especially those in the cities, had valuable skills and the right to earn their own money. Some eventually bought their freedom or that of their children; it was also common to free loyal slaves in one's will.

Roman government boasts a bewildering host of offices and titles. Much of this is due to the fact that there are two parallel systems of government: the old republican system of magistrates and the new imperial civil service. At this point in time they are about equal in power, though there's some geographic inequality. The magistrates are still the primary officials in Rome and much of Italy, while out in the provinces the imperial bureaucrats hold more sway. Note that in both systems the offices often included combined civil and military roles.

The magistrates are elected by the Senate. The senators themselves are former holders of the various offices listed below, who automatically enter the Senate when their terms of office expire. The Senate is officially the supreme council of the republic, and the emperor technically wields executive power on their behalf. While they still hold significant governmental authority, in reality the Roman Senate is well on its way to becoming a debating club for retired patricians and a rubber stamp for the emperor's decisions.

The various magistrate offices are open only to citizens. In practice they go mainly to patricians, the class that dominates the Senate. It should be noted that these offices did not come with salaries, though they could be quite lucrative in terms of opportunity for patronage. Some of the more important offices include:

  • Elected by the Senate for one year terms, the two consuls were once the supreme rulers of the empire. Today they are mainly ceremonial offices, since the emperor (who holds permanent consular status) has the real power, but they still open sessions of the Senate and are considered the highest ranking Romans other than the emperor himself.
  • Proconsuls are provincial governors appointed by the Senate to rule the empire's outlying territories. The emperor directly rules the military provinces (those provinces in which one or more legions are stationed) and is proconsul for those territories; he appoints legates (see below) to exercise that authority in his name.
  • Praetors are high-level civil and/or military governors of smaller provinces or large cities.
  • Aediles are mid-level magistrates who do all the jobs we would associate with city government. Quaestors are financial officers who serves as tax collectors and quartermasters.

Unlike the senatorial magistracies, many offices in the imperial civil service were open to anybody, even slaves. In practice it was dominated by equestrians and freedmen, those factions of society which had little or no represenation in the Senate and thus no loyalty to the old republican order. The civil service was also intimately tied to the military command structure of the legions. Any office that actually included military command was, of course, restricted solely to citizens. Some of the higher offices in the imperial bureaucracy and the legions include:

  • Each legion is commanded by a legate appointed by the emperor. The term "general" is used for a legate who commands an army with multiple legions. In addition to their military responsibilities, senior legates also command the military provinces, wielding the equivalent authority of a proconsul (see above) in the emperor's name.
  • Procurators collect taxes in the provinces and, in a few cases, govern "trouble spots". (Pontius Pilate was the procurator of Judea.)
  • Prefects are high-level civil or military officers. This rank is held by the second-in-command of each legion and by the head of the Praetorian Guard, the emperor's elite bodyguard.
  • Tribunes are mid-level military officers. There are also civilian tribunes in charge of quasi-military functions like police and fire brigades. (In both meanings it's much like the modern title "captain".) Imperial tribunes should not be confused with the elected tribunes of the plebs who wielded veto power over the decisions of the consuls. They're still around, but their power was assumed by the emperor.

Much of Roman society centers on the concept of "patronage", the informal but binding set of duties and rights between a patron and his clients. In Rome everyone is a client to one or more patrons, who in turn are clients to higher ranking patrons, in a chain reaching up to the emperor, the ultimate patron.

The patronage system is a combination of an old boy's network, the Sicilian mafia, feudalism, and the "machine politics" of some 19th century American cities. Patrons grant favors to their clients such as loans, gifts, legal representation, and protection. In return the clients provide favors of their own, political support, and social deference. Some clients were entirely supported financially by their patrons, and were naturally more loyal to their patrons than to the government.

Patronage was absolutely necessary to make headway in Roman business. Merchants and traders received good deals from their patrons and/or clients, and were usually expected to buy or sell only "in the family". Lucrative contracts and state-supported monopolies were granted to those with patrons in the government. This was not considered favoritism or graft, just the way business was done.

Powerful Romans often had entire armies, cities, or nations as their clients. For example, after the conquest of Iberia the Scipio family served as patrons for several of the local cities and tribes, advising them on how to deal with their new government and "lobbying" for them in the Senate. In return, the clients provided money, gifts, recognition, prestige, and, when necessary, troops. More recently Julius Caesar employed a similar tactic when he used his position as consul to grant citizenship to the regions of Italy from which he had recruited several legions. When the civil wars broke out, those legions remained loyal to him even when he marched on Rome.

Rome: the Imperial City
Imperial Rome is the largest city seen on Earth, with a population probably exceeding half a million, a record that will remain unbeaten for more than another millennium. The city lies on the left bank of the Tiber River, surrounding seven hills: the Palatine, Capitoline, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal, and Quirinal. Unlike modern cities, Rome has no "good parts of town"; the massive public buildings and opulent patrician villas rub shoulders with the crowded tenement apartments which house most of the population. The one exception to this is the Palatine Hill, dominated by the imperial palace complex.

Note that while Rome has many stadiums and amphitheaters, the Colloseum has not yet been built, though the Circus Maximus, site of the famous chariot races, has been there for centuries. Other notable sites include the public baths and the forums, market squares surrounded by temples and and government buildings, the most famous being the venerable Forum Romanum.

The loud and teeming streets are amazingly clean (by contemporary standards) due to the abundance of state-supported aqueducts, sewers, and baths. Despite this sophisticated water system, fire is a very real danger. Wealthy families regularly train their slaves in fire drills to rescue their valuables on an instant's notice; poor families simply pray that they won't be trapped on a rickety upper floor and roasted alive.

Wealthy Romans maintain homes in both the city and the countryside, complete with sunlit atriums and elaborate gardens. The main item of furniture is the bed, which doubles as sofa, chair, and desk; sleeping, reading, and dining are all performed reclining. [Note: How we're going to handle furniture will be determined by a consensus of the players. We can bring in hordes of sofas (if people are willing to volunteer sufficient furniture, labor, and a truck or two), simulate them with cushions on the floor (a lot less labor involved), or just chuck verisimilitude and let people sit upright (which still requires bringing some extra chairs). We'll decide later.]

Roman Attire
The common garb for men is a wool or linen tunic worn over a shirt and loincloth. For public functions (such as this feast), Roman citizens are entitled to wear the famous toga, a voluminous semicircular garment, usually white, draped over the tunic. The borders of a formal toga are often ornately embroidered, though only high officials (the emperor, consuls, the chief priest of Jupiter) are allowed to wear the broad purple border of the toga praetexta. A dark-colored toga is worn to indicate mourning. Because of the large and cumbersome size of the formal toga, a variety of smaller, more practical versions are also in common use.

Women wear over the tunic a flowing, often sleeveless gown called the stola, belted at the waist. The stola is typically dyed in bright colors and worn with a richly decorated shawl or palla. Women's hair is piled in elaborate curls atop the head. Prostitutes are required by law to wear yellow wigs or dye their hair yellow, which has led to an interesting new fashion among decadent female aristocrats, who import large quantities of flaxen hair from Germany.

[I will try to plan a costume-making party before the game, though this will be dependent on player involvement to actually organize and run it. Please contact me if you'd like to help. For a minimal costume, a toga can be simulated by a white sheet, while a simple stola can be made with just a long piece of cloth with a hole cut in it for the head. Worn over a t-shirt, the loose folds of the toga or stola can cover a multitude of anachronistic sins! Sandals, of course, are the standard footwear.]

Religion and Philosophy
To modern eyes, Roman "religion" is best described as Roman "superstition". Even the more educated Romans tend to look on their own religion as little more than "the traditional way of doing things", though that in itself is usually considered sufficient reason for enforcing it. The more cynical openly admit that it's simply a useful tool for keeping the masses under control.

Roman religion is polytheistic in the extreme. In addition to the well-known "Olympian" gods, the Romans recognize hundreds of gods associated with specific cities, peoples, activities, professions, and abstractions. Every home has its penates, statues of the household gods. The Roman Senate is continually extending official recognition to new gods, both former emperors and gods introduced by foreigners, though all residents of the empire are expected to sacrifice to the major Roman cults. (Jews are sometimes granted dispensation from this duty, depending on the politics of the current emperor.)

Religious worship has very little to do with salvation or the soul and everything to do with propitiating and petitioning the gods through proper ceremonies and sacrifices. Rituals are the heart and soul of Romanreligion, from the recitation of simple prayers over every meal to the vast spectacles held on high holidays. Almost every activity, public or private, has a religious aspect and there are over 100 official holidays.

There is no separation of church and state. The emperor, the senators, and other government officials all use their authority to define and enforce "proper" worship, and all have their own roles to fill in the rituals. The state supports and regulates the larger temples, whose high priests (pontifices) usually sit in the Senate. The person of the emperor is increasingly the focus of the major public rituals, a practice which the imperial government encourages; the imperial cult rivals those of the Capitoline triad (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva) and Mars (the favored god of the legionaries).

Mystery cults from the east, offering a spiritual solace notably lacking in Roman state religion, are just beginning to become popular in Roman society. The most common are the cults of Isis, Mithras, and Cybele. They consist of close devotional circles which teach secret "mysteries" to their initiates and promise spiritual insight, miraculous blessings, and salvation. The newest mystery cult, Christianity, stands out among their number for its denial of other gods. Membership is a capital offense, though prosecution is sporadic.

Omens and divination are widely accepted by all levels of society. Two colleges of priests provide official predictions for the state, the augurs by interpreting the movements of animals and the haruspices by reading the entrails of sacrifices.

Morally, Roman society is a study in contrasts. Traditional Roman values emphasize family obligations, duty to the state, and a puritanical attitude toward anything pleasurable. The empire was built on a foundation of Roman self-sacrifice and civic participation. Sumptuary laws were common, and Augustus himself made adultery a state crime, instituting special courts and harsh penalties to deter its spread. Yet at the same time licentiousness and excess are rampant. Roman aristocrats ruthlessly use their positions to amass great wealth and then spend it prolifigately on lavish homes and banquets. Augustus's own daughter was often embroiled in embarrassing sexual scandals. Stoicism and Epicureanism are the dominant philosophical schools of the empire and paradoxically co-exist in the words and deeds of Rome's elite.

Roman Women
Compared to other females of their time, the women of imperial Rome have unprecedented power and independence. They are allowed to own property in their own name, control their dowries, receive some forms of formal education, and attend public functions. Still, Rome is at heart a very patriarchal society. Women cannot join the legions, vote, or hold office, are expected to concentrate their efforts on the family and home, and are legally subject in many ways to the commands of their father or husband (though this last factor is not simply sexism, since the pater familias wields similar authority over his sons, nephews, and grandsons). Despite these limitations, ambitious aristocratic women have achieved prominence in the arts and politics, and in the latter arena can serve as important advisors or rallying figures.

The Military Life
The Roman army is the most advanced and effective military force ever seen in the world. While famed for their architecture, roads, literature, and legal institutions, the Romans' true strength lies in their legions, which has allowed them to conquer lands from Britain to Persia and create one of the largest and enduring empires in human history. Unless there is some extremely unusual background reason, all male Roman characters should assume that they have spent at least some time commanding men in the field.

The standard legion is composed of about 6000 men, primarily volunteer citizen infantry. Foreign auxiliary regiments serve as cavalry, javelin throwers, archers, or slingers. Legionaries sign on for 20 year terms, leading to highly-trained, professional troops capable of triumphing against non-Roman armies many times their numbers. In addition to patrolling the frontiers, the legionaries also personally build the camps, forts, walls, bridges, and roads which provide the empire's critical military infrastructure. While there is a standardized system of ranks for the centurions (the equivalent of non-commissioned officers) and lower-level officers, the higher ranks of the army are more irregular and generally merge with political office.

Victory by the emperor or a member of his family is celebrated in Rome with great triumphs, public celebrations which welcome the successful commander and his troops with glittering processions of floats, musicians and songs, parades of captives, and the ritual execution of the enemy leaders. Failures are highly frowned upon and a major defeat usually spells the end of any political career. Any unit considered disobedient or cowardly in battle is subjected to decimation -- one man in every ten (chosen by lot) is clubbed to death by his comrades.

Feasting Customs
Note: Pat has scanned in some pages and images from an excellent source called "Daily Life in Ancient Rome". Take a look at the sections on
Roman dinners and Roman games.

From the moment they enter the door, guests at a Roman feast are waited upon by an army of slaves who bring perfumed water to wash hands and feet, brandish feather fans to cool the air and shoo away flies, and transport dishes to the central dining table. Food is artfully designed to be visually pleasant as well as tasty, and each dish is brought out with much pageantry. The most handsome slaves serve wine and cut up food, carrying plates to the diners reclining on their couches.

Strangely enough, guests are expected to bring their own napkins, though a good host always has a few extra; every host knows of the guest who "never yet brought a napkin of his own to dinner, but always manages to take one home with him." The banquet itself, consisting of three courses (hors d'oeuvres, main dishes, and desert), begins only after invocations to Jupiter and the household gods. Between courses, the slaves entertain the guests with music, poetry, dancing, and other divertisements.

Because the food is served in bite-sized chunks everything is eaten with fingers, though spoons are available for soup. Belching is considered polite. Drunkenness and over-eating are such common hazards that certain slaves are specifically allocated to cleaning up the couches, tables, and floors, though such behavior would not be acceptable at an imperial feast. (That's a reminder to respect the standard house rule -- leave the premises cleaner than they were when you arrived!)

Formal Roman dining normally groups three couches in a U-shape around a central table, thus clustering the diners in groups of nine. If you diagram the arrangement with the "open" end of the table at the bottom, the host always sits in the "upper" position on the left side. The guest of honor sits immediately to his left. Guests recline on their left elbows (supported by a bolster under their arm) and hold their plates in their left hands. Goblets and condiments rest on the central table, while slaves bring fresh wine or food upon request.

It is customary for a rose to be hung from the ceiling to commemorate Cupid's gift of a rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, to bribe him against disclosing the indiscretions of Venus. By tradition, anything said beneath the rose (sub rosa) is not be repeated.

Roman hosts provided a wide range of entertainment at their feasts, including acrobats, dancers, musicians, and clowns. Except for one or two quality acts, much of the entertainment is meant to be "incidental"; no one minds if the guests keep talking while the performance goes on. It should be noted that Roman humor could be quite vulgar by modern standards. While there were boundaries on good taste, Roman patricians would not be shocked to hear the equivalent of a modern R-rated stand-up comedy routine during a high-class state dinner.

In keeping with the rituals of the theater, audiences have three distinct methods of showing appreciation for a performance. Modest approval is expressed by snapping fingers, greater enthusiasm by clapping, and whole-hearted enjoyment by waving a toga flap or handkerchief in the air.

(Notes for prospective performers: While physical entertainment is universal and there is a wealth of Roman poetry and plays to draw upon, I have been unable to find any information on ancient Roman music. If anyone has any information about the instruments or musical forms of the time, please let me know!)

Recommended Sources
Though the sections above provide more than enough information to play a character in the game, I highly recommend further background research. Come on, it's both fun and educational! Some good sources include:

Page updated 7/21/99, Scott Martin