The Roman Empire was at its height during the time of the New Testament. The influence of Rome on its territories was vast and all-encompassing. From architecture and art to language and education, Rome had a tremendous impact on all of life. In order to better understand how the nation functioned and had such a powerful grip on their citizenry, it is helpful to do a short study of the hierarchy of the different social classes of people that made up the Roman Empire.
There were three broad categories of people in the Roman Empire that everyone fell into: 1.) Citizens, 2.) Provincials (people they defeated), and 3.) Slaves.
It is estimated that one-third of the population of this time period were slaves. Slaves were vital to the Roman class system and most citizens owned slaves. Provincials were also a large portion of the population because of Rome’s constant military campaigns to conquer the world. Provincials were often granted citizenship in exchange for their loyalty to Rome. The actual citizens of the Roman Empire were the fortunate ones. To be a citizen of Rome carried many rights and privileges. There were three ways to obtain Roman citizenship:
- Receive it as a reward for some outstanding service to Rome
- Buy it at a considerable price
- Be born into a family of Roman citizens.
According to Roman law, all Roman Citizens were assured exclusion from all degrading forms of punishment. This law plays out often in the Paul stories in Acts.
Next, let’s take a look at the classes of people that made up the citizenry of the Roman Empire. At the top of the hierarchy was of course, the emperor. However, there was only one of those, so actually the highest class was the rank of Senator. The word, “Senatus”, means old man or elder, so the Roman Senate was literally a council of elders. The Senate was made up of wealthy aristocrats that were either appointed by the emperor or they inherited their position. Although the Senate did not have lawmaking powers, they wielded considerable authority. They received and sent ambassadors and appointed provincial governors and Proconsuls to their posts. Pilate was appointed governor of Judea by the Roman Senate in 26 A.D. Other biblical examples of governors include Quirinius in Luke 2:2, Sergius Paulus in Acts 13:7, and Gallio in Acts 18:17. The Senate also sent recommendations to other branches of government and these recommendations were seldom ignored. To be a Senator you had to prove that you had property and money worth at least one million sesterces (a typical yearly income for the family was approximately 1,000 sestertii). There was no salary for the senatorial position and while a senator you could not engage personally in any trade, business or anything else that was non-agricultural.
The next class below Senator was equestrian, originally a horse soldier. The basis for this class was strictly economic. You could be an equestrian if you could show that you had property worth at least 400,000 sesterces. By extension, your family members could also be equestrian if sufficient wealth could be shown. It has been recorded that families would choose to kill one of their newborns if they were afraid that by dividing the family inheritance, everyone might slip below the equestrian or senatorial rank. Equestrian could be involved in business, even the types that were off limits to the senators.
Public display of status was very important in Roman Society. The clothing of the upper class had distinctive features which made them visible to all. You could tell what class you were in by the clothing that you wore. Only men of the upper senatorial rank could wear purple, usually robes with purple stripes. Some scholars suggest that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, would have been the only person at the Pratoreum in Jerusalem who would have had a robe with purple coloring that the Bible says was put on Jesus before his crucifixion.
This finishes our brief look at the upper classes of the Roman hierarchy. In our next post, we will look at the lower classes and also look at the Roman soldier.