Class and Rank in the Roman Empire
600 Senators Wealthy Knights Honorable Men Common Workers (citizens)
Common Workers (non-citizens)
The Roman Empire had a class structure based on wealth, birth, and citizenship. At the very top of Roman society was the emperor, who was considered the empire’s “first citizen.” Some emperors even declared themselves to be equal with the gods. Below the emperor were six hundred senators, who were the empire’s wealthiest citizens. Next came a group known as “knights,” who had reached a certain level of wealth. They were well-educated and often were recruited to serve in the government of the empire. Beneath them were wealthy local citizens, known as “honorable men,” who formed city councils. The upper classes in Roman society wore special clothes and got the best seats at special events.
Below these top groups came the large group of ordinary working people. They were divided into levels. First came those who were not wealthy but still had the privileges of Roman citizenship. Rome recognized only a small group of its subjects as full citizens. Citizens had the freedom and protection of their personal rights. For example, the apostle Paul was able to have his trial in Rome because he was a Roman citizen (Acts 16.37; 22.27). Jesus was not a Roman citizen, so he could be condemned to death without a formal trial by the personal decision of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
Below citizens in the class structure was a large group of non-citizens who were free but did not have the special privileges allowed to Roman citizens. And beneath these non-citizens, at the very bottom of the class structure, were slaves, who could legally be bought or sold, beaten or tortured, as their owners saw fit. Slaves worked mostly as household servants for the rich. At the time of Jesus, almost one-third of the population of Italy were slaves. Slavery was very common and accepted throughout the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day.
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