Republican Rome enjoyed a hierarchical society, with patricians exercising power over plebeians at the establishment of the city and later experiencing a breakdown and reorganization of the social structure in the latter half of the Republican period.
Patricians were “the descendants of the founding families of Rome,” (2) while the plebians were “of more humble birth, often the descendants of non-Romans.” (2)
Life was quite dissimilar between the classes merely because of a simple difference in birth and ancestry.
However, eventually a new class structure was defined by property qualifications-
Among the citizens, the senatorial class was at the top of this new vertical order and consisted of those who held the most property; equestrians were those who were “prosperous enough to own and equip a horse for military service;” followed by small property holders. Finally, there were the proletarii, who owned no property and had to sell their labor.
Even further down the “chain” were the non-citizens, divided into three categories. Peregrini were foreigners, liberti were freed slaves, and slaves were “animate objects that could perform useful tasks.”
Though there are quite a few similarities between today’s social relations and Republican Rome’s, there are also a few main differences.
The foundation of these modern-day differences is the reduction of the gap between the “highest” and “lowest” levels-equality.
Today’s world still struggles with this concept, as I’m sure it unfortunately always will, but great strides have been taken, primarily in regards to slavery.
Servitude was an enormous part of Roman society, with 30 to 40 percent of the total population being in bondage. Moreover, slaves were treated inhumanely, no better than animals.
Thankfully, the modern Western world has generally done away with this gross practice. Further, as the latter period of the Republican began to experience, one can succeed based on their individual work, instead of their luck of birth and women can openly participate in and influence politics and society’s workings.
The Roman idea of liberty was “a civic right acquired under positive law; namely, it was a constituent of the membership of the civic body (citizenship).” (1)
So, if one were a law-abiding citizen, they’d enjoy freedom, or equality, within the law.
Unfortunately, non-citizens were ruled by the law of nations and slaves weren’t even thought of as people but things, consequently having been afforded absolutely no rights.
Luckily, as it should, the Western world today considers liberty a basic human right, regardless of race, sex, or nationality.
(1) Liberty-Ancient Conceptions. 2016. Web.
(2) Seekins, Donald. “Roman Society during the Republican Era.” Web.