The Romans did not share our attitude to work. Work, (paid work that is, which you did to make enough money to keep you fed, clothed, healthy and with a roof over your head), was an abomination to be avoided if at all possible. The ideal was a life of leisure in which you were free to pursue your interests. The writer Pliny who was wealthy enough to own two huge mansions in the country and who could have lived comfortably without doing a stroke, used to occupy every waking hour with legal advice, politics, reading and writing. For the poor, paid work was inevitable, but for anyone with an education it was unendurable, and there had to be an alternative. The alternative that the Romans developed was the ‘patron-client’ system.
Essentially all the rich men adopted an ‘entourage’ of poorer or lower status people as their clients: the idea was that each morning the clients would go and greet their patron and receive either some temporary employment or a dole or gift of food or money. They might be invited to dinner, but if they were they might be there only to make up an impressive number, and would most likely be served inferior food. At least the relationship provided a way of getting a living. In earlier days there had been a point to the institution: in the aloof nature of Roman society a large group of supporters loyal to you, was a very useful assistant for anyone in politics. Your clients were a part of the wider family.
However, by the first century AD the nature of politics had changed and the relationship was an institution without an obvious purpose. It is likely that the rich and powerful enjoyed the status it gave them, but they felt no obligation to their clients and merely went through the motions of patronage. Juvenal suggests that clients, for their part, regarded it with total cynicism as a means of getting free food and other hand-outs. An increasing population of urban poor, and an influx of foreigners such as Greeks meant that there were many more clients dependent on the generosity of the wealthy patrons. Some plebeians became very wealthy through trade and became patrons in their own right, corrupting the original tradition of a benevolent aristocracy, and a dependent lower class.
Juvenal describes this relationship in several satires, and he also describes the way in which it was abused. He sees it as a severely flawed institution partly because greed turns everyone from top government officials to the poorest clerk into shameless grabbers of the free handout, and partly because the relationship itself he finds corrupted and degrading. His depictions of the morning race to salute the patron are graphic and verge on appalling.
The ‘selfish’ rich are attacked in Satires I and III and the emperor Domitian is portrayed as a sexual hypocrite and dictator in II and IV. Juvenal does not limit his jibes for only the rich but also attacks those who are willingly dependent on these rich and powerful men. For example, Juvenal targets the courtiers who were shamed by Domitian by being asked to advise on what to do with an enormous fish in Satire IV. He also has a stab at the client who was humiliated by his wealthy patron in V. He blames him for allowing himself to be subjected to such ill-treatment by declaring that a dinner invitation is not worth the degradation experienced:
“Are you that famished? Wouldn’t your self-respect do better out there, shivering cold, and chewing on mouldy dog bread? Get one thing clear from the start: a dinner-invitation settles the score in full for your earlier services.” (Juvenal, Satire V, 10-13) Satire V, in its entirety, is devoted to the shabby treatment (according to Juvenal) that all clients could expect from his patron. From its respected position as part of the social foundation of Rome, this relationship evidently became a burden to all parties as the time wore on. This is a far cry from the peaceful days, when patrons gained prestige through their clientele, not amusement.
In the Republic period, both the clients and the patrons were happy with their social ties. This relationship was essential in early Rome, as it bound the two social classes together, fostering a sense of community. Indeed, in the early days of Rome, it was illegal for clients and patrons to sue one another, or even to vote in support of someone else 2(Shelton).
Juvenal first used the imagery of the ‘new’ client-patron relationship in his Satire I to illustrate Rome’s fall from tradition, and in his mind, greatness. In Juvenal’s satire this once mutual relationship is reduced to pure economics:
“In the old days who’d have built all those country houses, or dined off seven courses, alone? Now citizens must scramble for a little basket of scraps on their patron’s doorstep.” (Juvenal, Satire I, 94-96) Considering that the daily sportula given to each client was a measly sum of 6.25 sesterces, it is hard to feel sorry for the patrons who were already incredibly wealthy and could easily support themselves after this payment to their client. For example, Pliny the Younger left 1120 sesterces to each of 100 freedmen – annually 4(Friedlander, RLM I, 79). However, even though it was a mere ‘sneeze’ to the patron, this was essential to the client because it represented the greater part of their income:
“When the Consul himself tots up, at the end of his year, what the dole is worth, just what it adds to his income, how are we poor folk to manage? Clothes and shoes must be bought from this pittance, and food, and fuel.” (Juvenal, Satire I, 117-120) In order to receive this money, however, they needed to be dressed nice and tidily in a toga. Therefore this sum also had to cover the expense of their toga, (much like a standard black pant, back blouse/shirt uniform of today’s common workers.) 6(Carcopino 172). Still, Juvenal also tells us of wealthy clients, including consuls and praetors who continue to collect the sportula every morning, making a mockery of this ancient and important Roman tradition:
“He peers into each face first, scared stiff that some imposter may give a false name and cheat him: you must be identified before you get your ration. The crier has his orders: even the Upper-Ten must answer his summons, they’re scrounging along with the rest.” (Juvenal, Satire I, 97-101). The patron-client tradition changed in other ways during Juvenal’s time. In Satire I he briefly describes a man, an informer, who obtained his incredible wealth, when:
“He turned in his noble patron, and soon he’ll have gnawed away what little remains on the bone of nobility.” (Juvenal, Satire I, 33-35) The patron-client relationship was previously a mutual friendship where each supported each other’s ventures even if they did not agree entirely with their views. However, it seems that now this ancient law about patrons and clients not suing one another had fallen into disuse in Juvenal’s time. In Satire III, during his anti-Greek speech he implies that Greeks now have patrons in Rome, indicating that the client post was now open to non-Greeks, much to the dismay of not only Juvenal, but the majority of the roman population, I would imagine:
“No room for honest Romans when Rome’s ruled by a junta of Greek-born secret agents, men who – like all their race – never share friends or patrons, but keep them to themselves. One small dose of venom (half Greek, half personal) dropped in that receptive ear, and I’m out, shown the back-door, my years of obsequious service all gone for nothing.” (Juvenal, Satire III, 119-124).
Some traditional aspects of the patron-client relationship did remain in the Imperial Rome that Juvenal lived in. Unfortunately though, in Juvenal’s mind, they are all the bad aspects of this relationship. In Juvenal’s writings, all of the honour and nobility of this class-bridging relationship is gone, as evidenced in a passage from his tenth Satire, in which he describes a Consul’s parade of white robed clients marching so dutifully with their meal tickets in hand. Instead of retaining or acquiring any prestige or dignity, they have been forced to become ‘lap dogs’ or hired attendants for the rich patrons, sacrificing dignity for 6.25 sesterces a day.
So Juvenal writes, but how reliable a source is he? It must be remembered that Juvenal is a satirist, and therefore well versed in the use of exaggeration and fabrication in order to make his point. One must remember this before using him for an historically accurate source. For a modern parallel, one could hardly use Oliver Stone’s Hollywood blockbuster “JFK” as a ‘be-all-end-all’ when examining United States late President, John F Kennedy’s assassination.
However, despite this precaution, for the most part, there are other sources that support many of Juvenal’s complaints. Martial, for instance, a somewhat less scathing satirist contemporary of Juvenal’s, confirms the hassles clients went through to satisfy their ‘arrogant’ patrons. He wrote one letter to his patron where he regrets that he. How much did this liberty cost me? You knocked a dollar off my allowance.”
Epictetus, a Greek philosophy teacher, adds additional support to Juvenal’s barbs. In his writings, he describes how clients must be humble, and not be angry if they are snubbed or not offered a dinner invitation. Friedlander explains part of the text, “The few honoured few paid dear in morning visits, bearing the patron company, and flattery.”
This, again, shows how unequal the relationship had become. The client is expected to humiliate himself for the patron, and in return, he could only hope to receive a dinner invitation. Juvenal’s description of Virro’s abuse of Trebius in Satire V, is likewise supported. Martial describes a dinner where the disparity of meals is equally evident. He criticises Lupus because, “Wines of Setia are strained to inflame your lady’s snow; we drink the black poison of a Corsican jar. Pliny the Younger similarly attended a dinner where, “There were three kinds of wine; the best he reserved for himself and Pliny, the next best for his inferior friends, while the worst was given to his freedmen”.
Shelton, J.-A. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. Second edition. New York, 1998, 16 11Friedlander, L. Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire. New York, 1965., 200 12Carcopino, J. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. New Haven, 1962., 270 Moreover, although Juvenal is extremely bitter towards patrons, he is what is today known as ‘an equal opportunity satirist.’ That is, he criticizes the clients as well as the patrons. For example, in his first Satire, he tells of an informer who made his fortune by accusing his patron. Later in the satire, he describes several other dishonourable practices of greedy clients. He writes of a consul, a praetor, and a tribune, all present at the morning salutatio to collect the sportula. He also mentions husbands who bring their sick wives
“But a throng of litters gets in line for the hand-out; a husband even, sometimes, will go the rounds with his sickly wife in tow, or better (a well-known dodge) pretend she’s in there when she isn’t and claim for both, displaying curtained, empty sedan. ‘My Galla’s in there’, he says. ‘Let us through! You doubt me? Galla!,’ 13(Juvenal, Satire I, 120-125)
This shows that the patrons weren’t the only ones abusing this ancient relationship. Clients could be just as manipulative. Most of these instances are well supported by other sources as well. Horace has similar things to say about clients. On the Saturnalia, they would bring cheap gifts to the patron, while expecting a huge gift in return. In addition, “they gossiped anywhere and everywhere about his family secrets.” (Friedlander, 202). Some clients even spent their mornings traveling around to several patrons, maximising their income through multiple sportulae 15(Carcopino, 172).
On the subject of mealtimes, the evidence makes one almost sympathise with Virro. Horace again complains, “They brawled at his table, and fought with his freedmen.” 16(Friedlander, RLM I, 202). Lucian too complains about the behaviour of clients, saying that if they’re mistreated at the table, they get what they deserve.
All of this evidence is very persuasive but it must be remembered that Juvenal was a satirist, pointing out the absolutely worst aspects of the patron-client relationship in his day, similar to today’s protestors and even directors who claim that their film is ‘based on a true story.’ It also must be understood that the satiric genre is naturally biased because it’s writers select examples in order to prove a point, rather than take an objective approach. Juvenal had additional bias of rhetoric, which unashamedly used exaggeration and extreme examples to convince his listeners.
- Juvenal, Juvenal: The Sixteen Satires (3rd edition, 1998) 5, 10-13
- Shelton, J.A. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. Second edition. New York, 1998
- Juvenal, Juvenal: The Sixteen Satires (3rd edition, 1998) 1, 94-96
- Friedlander, L. Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire. New York, 1965. 79