The Core Roman Institution

It would be most gratifying if novels and films set in Ancient Rome would condescend to deal with one of the bedrock social structures of that civilisation. Not even the 2006 BBC/HBO series quite managed to clarify it, excellent as it otherwise was at illuminating both the sordid aspects of Roman life glossed over by the overly uplifting sword-and-sandal genre and the obscure aspects ignored by practically everybody. One of the two great Roman institutions – slavery, of course – it covered with great competence, but what remained missing in action was the other, related institution, the patron-client relationship. This was far more important than the patrician-plebian distinction, which the TV series grossly exaggerated, alas, even to the point of quite falsely asserting that a plebeian could not be a senator. That latter distinction was more one of social snobbery than economic power; of greater importance for the ordinary Roman was his patron.

Rome did not consist of two categories, the slaves and the citizens, but three: practically everyone was either a magnate or else a slave or client of that magnate. If a citizen manumitted his slave, that slave did not suddenly become possessed of some mythical total and indivisible freedom; he remained under obligation to his former owner. The penalty for murdering your former master was, for example, much more severe than for killing someone unrelated to you. The freedman was expected to continue working for that former master, or at least to maintain a special relationship with him. And such relationships were hereditary; one family were the clients of some other family, and while slaves could be sold at the market for cash on the barrelhead, clientship was not so easy to transfer. The patron-client relationship turned on the exchange of services for protection. If the patron was a politician, for instance, the client would be expected to run errands, vote, and help beat up the opposition; in return, the patron might put business his way, give him seed capital, smooth his path, and neutralise his enemies.

It is not for nothing that we use the term “patronage” for the downward flow of pork, jobs and lucre in return for the upward flow of votes and street theatre; any Roman would have understood Tammany Hall perfectly well. If he could visit a modern workplace, he might assume that the cube-rats were slaves, like the Greek copyists in his own book-factories were; when informed that they were free citizens he would surely conclude that they had to be clients, not least when we told him about the company pensions, the company health plan and the company junketing. He might, however, have trouble with the notion of an abstract and constantly-changing patron, a corporate person “with no bottom to be kicked and no soul to be damned”. Yet another arena in which our Roman time-traveller would find wholly familiar would be the patron-client structures of organised crime, except that he might wonder why such powerful dons – which word he might even recognise as a descendant via Spanish from the Latin for “master” – did not attend the American Senate in their own persons, rather than by proxy.

If our Roman visited the Middle Ages instead, he might conclude that all this business of vassalage, homage and fealty was merely his own patronage in a new language. Most historians, however, have wanted to derive their construct of “feudalism” from the events and processes of the Dark Ages – or at the very earliest from the magnate entourages of the Late Empire – rather than from the same thing in the Republic. There seems little interest in seeing Roman patronage, medieval feudalism and modern corporations as three slightly different designs based on the same universal template of human nature and society.

Training in the bedrock human social structure of patronage and clienthood begins in infancy. No sooner do we get to kindergarten than we organise ourselves around dominants and sidekicks. There is a lot in it for the sidekicks, such as protection and reflected glory. A little later, they get hand-me-downs, such as jobs and sexual partners.

Posted on May 7, 2012 at 19:21 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE ENSLAVING MAMMAL, The Universal Template

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