Dual Class Elites
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Dual Class Elites
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Severan Imperial Family

Severan Imperial FamilyThe aristocratic group in the Ancient Roman society of both military and religious elites consisted of no more than three percent of the population. From these families, both army and temple leaders were chosen. These dual-class elites were crowned by the imperial family in the Roman system and its apparatus which controlled vast amounts of property and power. These aristocratic elites were supported most directly by a small group of "retainers" who served the needs of the ruler and elite class. They were the governmental, religious functionaries and bureaucrats whose positions depended directly on the dual-class elites, but who profited socially and economically by their status. In the Roman Empire, many of these were surprisingly the slaves, freedmen, and women of the emperor and the aristocracy.✞

Patronage Network

Roman Merchant ShipCarolyn Osiek and David L. Balch in "Families in the New Testament World - Households and House Churches" assert that others, that is the class of urban non-elites, are in less direct contact with centers of power through the complex networks of patronage. Some of these constitute a merchant class that tends to benefit from the dependence on them of the city merchants, to whose tastes they primarily cater. In no way, however, are any of these groups a middle class, as that term is understood today. Probably no more than seven percent of the population live in cities, while the vast majority of the rural populations are peasants who work the land or provide support for them through small crafts or trades.

Economic Burden

This silent majority who work the land and support small peasant villages ultimately bear the crushing economic burden of taxation, which forces them to give up the fruits of their labors to support the luxuries, military campaigns, and religious pomp of the urban wealthy.

Honor and Shame

Eyes of ShameMediterranean kinship groups held the keys to the status, honor, and shame of their male and female members in the Roman culture. All Mediterranean kinship groups had a social system of honor and shame. Osiek and Balch assert that "a common cultural heritage in Mediterranean societies held that the fundamental values of these families revolved around honor and shame in social relationships through sex and gender roles. Accordingly, male and female systems are distinctly different yet involved in the kinship groups with each other."

Maintaining Power Status

Kinship in EuropeMale honor in kinship groups consists of maintaining the status, power, and reputation of the male members over against the threats that may be thrown against it by outsiders. Each exchange between males of different kinship groups is seen as a contest for the honor. Within the kinship group, the absolute loyalty and deference of each male member are expected, according to his proper role in the hierarchy of authority within the family. Aggressiveness, virility, sexual prowess, and the production of sons are important components in Mediterranean society. The crucial thing, both for individual males and families, is that one's claim to status and power is matched by other's perceptions. This is the coherence of ascribed and attributed honor. To claim greater honor than is recognized by others would incur the shame of one who does not know his place in society. The Old and New Testaments emphasize the importance of honor and shame in society. Isaiah 54.4 reads, "you will not be ashamed, you will not suffer disgrace." Psalm 62.7 adds, "My salvation and honor depend upon God." Finally, Saint Paul adds in Romans 10.11, "Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame."

Honor Roman Culture

Saint PaulHonor in Roman culture is extremely important in this traditional pre-industrial society in the ancient Mediterranean world. Wayne A. Meeks writes in "The First Urban Christians - The Social World of the Apostle Paul" "One cannot read far in the letters of Paul and his disciples without discovering that it was concern about the internal life, the honor, and shame in the Roman culture of the Christian groups in each city that prompted most of the correspondence." "The letters also reveal that these groups enjoyed an unusual degree of intimacy, a high level of interaction between members, a very strong sense of internal cohesion and distinction both from outsiders and from the world."

Pre-industrial society

Honor and ShameOsiek and Balch suggest, "The ancient Mediterranean world is classified as a traditional pre-industrial society. In such a system, politics, religion, and economics are included under military and kinship structures as belonging to it, which sustain and support the balance of power and the social honor and shame of its members." "There is a close economic relationship between the city as a market center and the agricultural territory that it controls and protects, and which in turn supports it with food production."

Ruling Elites

Roman SlavesMost of the land, the most precious commodity, is concentrated in the hands of "ruling elites." For these elites, the combination of supervising agricultural work on their rural estates from their country houses and participating in leadership in the urban political system is the idealized life.✞

Protect Sexual Purity

Friends around the TableHaving honor and being able to protect sexual purity in Roman Society is very important for men and women in order not to shame their families. An important element in the role of the male patron is the provision of hospitality to those under his protection. It is part of what the client can expect to receive. The stranger also comes under the hospitality of a patron, for otherwise, the stranger has no identity and no status. Receiving a stranger as a guest, especially the invitation to a meal, creates a bond within the patronage system whereby the stranger is welcomed as kin who is capable of being molded. The host violates the rules of hospitality by allowing the guest to be dishonored or harmed in any way. The guest violates the rules by dishonoring the host or anyone in his household.

Protecting Purity

New Born Baby and MotherOsiek and Balch assert "the honor of women in the public male world (in the ancient Roman world) consists of preserving the family's honor by protecting purity. Women are considered in men's eyes, "the mysterious gateway of birth and death." Because they ultimately have the power that provides legitimate offspring, they are to be protected from outsider males and therefore controlled. In this age, women are regarded as the weak members of the family for whom sexuality is irresistible and the sex drive indiscriminate." Contrary to modern Western thought, women are perceived in antiquity to have less ability to control their sex drive than men.✞

Shame their Family

Red and Pink Sunset"But it was women's very weakness that gives them the fearful power of being able to shame their family through its male members by sexual activity with any male other than a legal husband. Virginity before marriage is a girl's highest duty and greatest value. The surest way for a male to dishonor an individual male or family is to seduce or rape its women, for this demonstrates that the males lack the power to protect the sexual purity of their vulnerable members. In many traditional cultures, a raped woman is "damaged goods" that would not be able to command a good marriage, and a seduced woman is pollution that must be eliminated by a father or brother to restore the honor of the family."

Male Patron Pyramids

Medal of HonorThe male patron pyramids and the role of the patron shape the Roman Empire in the early centuries. One important element of male honor and shame in the Roman Empire is the function of the male patrons' pyramids. It is the duty and the expected role of the powerful male patrons to protect and support the less powerful. To fulfill this role is honorable, for the powerful to take advantage of the weak is despicable. Male patronage functions as a kind of surrogate fatherhood, and the patronage system is a way of replicating kinship systems. Male patrons provide some material benefits to clients, but most important, benefits for social advancement.

Little Pyramids

PyramidsOsiek and Balch write that the complementary role of the client is proper deference towards male patrons, the pouring on of attributed honor, and the performance of certain actions that contribute to the support of the patron, especially help in any way that the patron might need. Because male society holds all political power and because it is heavily structured along patronage lines, it "resembles a mass of little pyramids, each headed by a major family, not the three-deck sandwich of upper, middle and lower classes familiar to us from industrial society in Britain."

"Dual Class Elites"
by Ron Meacock © 2019

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