Unfortunately, information on the earliest periods of Rome’s history are scant and heavily obscured under thick layers of folklore and myth. The city by the Tiber did not produce its first native historical work until about 200 BCE, when Senator Quintus Fabius Pictor published the first local history of Rome. With a vast span of centuries between the foundation of the Republic around 509 BCE, and the start of Rome’s history-keeping tradition in the 2nd century BCE, it is no wonder that the tales of Rome’s early history became an odd patchwork of truths, half-truths, folklore and myth. One such half-truth—or perhaps a truth misplaced on the traditional timeline—was the social class reform in Rome that was attributed to the 6th-century BCE king, Servius Tullius.
The historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who both lived during the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire, both described in their respective works a detailed 5-class societal system that they attributed to King Servius Tullius. As their accounts were almost virtually identical, historians have long believed that the ancient authors were both sharing a single authentic source. Yet, while the 5-class system was likely a real way Roman society was once organized, it almost certainly came long after the time that Servius Tullius reportedly reigned. The 6th-century BCE Servius Tullius, if he was indeed a social reformer, would be more likely to divide Rome into only two classes: the wealthy people who could afford full hoplite heavy infantry armor and those who could not. The 5-class system, although attributed to Servius Tullius by the ancients, is now believed by modern historians to actually be an Early Republic social system that supplanted the societal structures of the late kings, such as Servius Tullius. The transition from 2 social classes to five classes has been dated to around 406 BCE, when Rome was undergoing a political and military revolution.
Although the detailed class system preserved by Livy and Dionysius is not likely an authentic portrayal of King Servius Tullius’ social policies, historians do think it could be a fairly accurate model of the 5-class system implemented around 406 BCE. Like the two-class scheme, it was the wealthy who were deemed the upper or first class, but instead of social rank being determined by who could and could not purchase armor, the requirements for each class in the 5-class system was based upon property value. To do this, Rome needed to evaluate each citizen’s land by a standard measurement—the unit that the Romans chose was apparently a pre-currency bronze as, reportedly equivalent to one Roman pound of bronze. This bronze measurement was later revised in 211 BCE into the sextantal as (1/6 of a Roman pound). Although the original 5-class social system was more likely based on the earlier bronze measurement, the historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus probably used sources that adjusted the original values to that of the 211 BCE sextantal as. Awkwardly for English speakers, the plural of the as is asses, and, therefore, the highest class of Romans were the people worth the most bronze asses.
Livy recorded the values in asses, while Dionysius instead used Greek minae and drachmae, which can be translated into asses through the Roman denarius (equal to 1 drachmae or 10 sextantal asses). Here are the property requirements for each social class, according to Livy (History of Rome, 1.43) and Dionysius (Roman Antiquities, IV, 16-18):
Rank V (the lowest rank): Livy claimed a property value of 11,000 asses was required to reach this rank, while Dionysius claimed the bar was 12,500 asses.
Rank IV: Livy and Dionysius agreed this rank required a value of 25,000 asses.
Rank III: Both agreed this rank required a property value of 50,000 asses.
Rank II: Both agree this rank required a value of 75,000 asses.
Rank I (the highest rank): Both Livy and Dionysius agreed that a property of 100,000 asses was the requirement for this class.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Gilded bronze mirror with the Three Graces, by an unknown Roman artist (c. 2nd century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.