Roman Patronage System

Much of the social and political infrastructure of ancient Rome was based on a system of client-patron relationships. This system existed throughout both Republican and Imperial periods, and can be seen to have changed slightly with the implementation of a new poltical hierarchy under the Principate. The relationship between client, or cliens and patron, or patronus was a reciprocal one; however, it could take on various forms: cultural, social or communal. Political overtones lay at the heart of each of these aspects, but patronage was so deeply woven into the fabric of Roman society that it should always be regarded in its entirety, rather than as a fragmented set of ideals or functions.

Cultural Patronage

It could be said that authors in Ancient Rome had a bit of a tough time. Not only did they have to pay for the publication of their work, but they did not receive any form of royalty from sales. Indeed, the majority of manuscripts were circulated through personal dispatch. Thus, trying to be a writer was an expensive business; it helped to have wealthy, well-connected friends, or a patron. A well-connected patron would be able to open the doors of like-minded, culturally aware types who would appreciate a reading of a new work by an interesting, talented author. The host of a reading would welcome the prestige, the author would benefit from the publicity.

The reciprocal nature of cultural patronage manifested itself in recognition and opportunity for the author, and the chance of immortality for the patron. Many authors would dedicate their writings to their patrons; it gave the patron publicity in the present, and in the future they had the possibility of being remembered. For a Roman, the immortality of remembrance was an essential part of life; the prospect of being forgotten in death was horrendous. Furthermore, authors could immortalise their patron in their work by making them the subject. Consequently, it cannot always be assumed that it was always authors who were searching for suitably connected superiors to bring them public notice. Patrons might well have sought the service of an author to bring them publicity and literary immortality.

More than promotion in artistic terms, there could also be social amelioration that arose through patronage. Terence (Publius Terentius Afer) had been a playwright-slave of African origin, whose freedom came about through his patronage by the senator Terentius Lucanus. He was later patronised by the notable Aemilii clan.

Perhaps the most famous artisitc patron in the Roman world was Gaius Maecenas, a close associate of Augustus. It was Maecenas who supported and promoted Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), the romantic poet Propertius (Sextus Propertius), and Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro). His patronage has not only brought them enduring recognition, but it was also used as a contemporary form of propaganda (if propaganda can be applied as a term to Augustus' policies of self-promotion) for Augustus and the Principate. Horace's Odes commemorated the victory at Actium, when Cleopatra and the bewitched and beguiled Marcus Antonius were defeated by the traditional and upstanding Roman Augustus (who had been known as Octavian at that point). Vergil, master of the epic poem, used his Aeneid to propound Augustus' cosmic position, and to promote him as destined to rule Rome. Cultural patronage was not only beneficial for those who were socially aware, but was also a political tool.

Social Patronage

Although the dynamics of social patronage might have changed from Republic to Principate, in essence, its functions remained the same. During the Republic, it worked on the premise that the majority of people had a social better on whom they were dependent. For the client, the relationship offered an informal welfare system with financial support, the possibility of employment and the opportunities afforded by introductions. For the patron, clients were available to run errands and complete tasks as well as lend support at times of election. Appearances were important: the bigger the following the better it looked for an electoral candidate. Under the Principate, the social dynamic transformed into a pyramid; at the bottom were slaves, at the top was the Emperor. Maecenas might have been the patron for Vergil, but Maecenas was in turn dependent on Augustus.

Freedmen and their former masters had an unusual relationship that fell under the banner of patronage. Apart from freedmen demonstrating their loyalty to their ex-masters by assuming their name, they were expected to fulfil certain duties towards them, too. The link between manumitted and manumittor was that strong that should a freedman die intestate or without children then his property would automatically be transferred to his former master.

Finally came community patronage, which was the relationship between a prominent Roman figure (usually a Senator) and a community outside of Rome. This community could expect their patron to advance their cause and represent them either politically or legally. For example, should a tax demand have proved overly burdensome, the patron would have been expected to plead the community's case before the Senate or the Emperor. Should members of this community have travelled to Rome, they could have expected a certain degree of protection and assistance and a few introductions or recommendations from their patron. Of course, the patron would have expected something in return from his client community, which would have most likely taken the form of political support when it was required. Cicero was patron to various client communities, most notably Cyprus, where he had been governor of Cilesia, in addition to various towns in southern Italy.


Thank you Oxford Classical Dictionary

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