Dual Class Elites
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41. Dual Class Elites

Severan Imperial Family

Severan Imperial FamilyThe aristocratic group in the Ancient Roman society of both military and religious elites consists of no more than three percent of the population. These imperial families choose both army and temple leaders. These families crown these dual-class elites in the Roman system, and its apparatus controls vast properties and power. These aristocratic elites are supported most directly by a small group of "retainers" who serve the ruler's needs and the elite class. They are the governmental, religious functionaries, and bureaucrats whose positions depend directly on the elites, but who profit socially and economically by their status. In the Roman Empire, many of these include the emperor's slaves, freedmen, women, 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. Not more than seven percent of the population live in cities, while the vast majority of the rural communities are peasants who work the land or provide support for them through small crafts or trades. This silent majority who work the land and support small peasant villages bear the crushing economic burden of taxation, which forces them to give up the fruits of their labors to promote the luxuries, military campaigns, and religious pomp of the urban wealthy.

Honor and Shame

Eyes of ShameMediterranean kinship groups hold the keys to the status, honor, and shame of their male and female members in the Roman culture. All Mediterranean kinship groups have a social system of honor and shame. Osiek and Balch assert that "a common cultural heritage in Mediterranean societies held that these families the fundamental values 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."

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 a contest for honor. Within the kinship group, each male member's absolute loyalty and deference are expected, according to his proper role in the family hierarchy of authority. Aggressiveness, virility, sexual prowess, and the production of sons are essential components in Mediterranean society. The crucial thing, both for individual males and families, is that one's claim to status and power matches other's perceptions. This principle 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 significant 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 powerful 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 a traditional pre-industrial society. In such a system, politics, religion, and economics fall 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.✞

A Stranger as a Guest

Friends around the TableHaving honor and being able to protect sexual purity in Roman Society is very important for men and women not to shame their families. An essential 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 patron's generosity, 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 which welcomes the stranger as kin capable of being molded. The host violates the rules of hospitality by allowing the guest to be dishonored or harmed. The guest breaches 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 male public 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, the family regard women as the weak members 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 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. This act demonstrates that 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 command a good marriage. 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. A critical element of manly 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 dominant 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 tangible benefits to clients, but most important, benefits for social advancement.

Little Pyramids

PyramidsOsiek and Balch write that the complementary role is proper deference towards male patrons, the pouring on of attributed honor, and the performance of specific actions that contribute to the patron's support, especially help in any way that the patron might need. Because male society holds all political power 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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