Historical Background for More Than Honor: The Patron-Client Relationship

More Than Honor Carol Ashby cover
Duty and honor had anchored his life, but only truth could set him free.

The Patron-Client Relationship in Imperial Rome

The patron-client relationship underpinned much of Roman society. Clients were free men who were under legal obligation to a patron who had bestowed some benefit upon them. While not all clients were former slaves who had been freed by the patron or his father, when a slave was freed, he automatically became his former master’s client. When his former master died, his obligations transferred to the master’s son.

Being a slave in the Roman Empire meant having the legal classification of “mortal thing” (res mortales), and a slave’s murder was legally nothing more than property damage. But when a Roman citizen over twenty freed a slave over thirty, the newly created freedman (libertus as an individual, libertinus when considering him part of the freedman social class) became a Roman citizen as well. Younger slaves could also become citizens under special circumstances.

In the Republic and Early Empire (until AD 212), being a Roman citizen gave a person many rights and privileges not accorded to noncitizens, no matter how rich they might be. The right to appeal a judicial action, the milder forms of punishment for crimes (exile instead of the arena, beheading instead of crucifixion), and the opportunity to enlist in the legions or serve in many government positions were restricted to Roman citizens. To go from “living thing” to the highly prized status of “citizen of Rome” in a single day lacks parallels in other slavery-based societies.

The only major drawback was the 5% inheritance tax charged only to Roman citizens. The historian Cassius Dio claimed Emperor Caracalla’s real motivation in AD 212 in awarding citizenship to all free men within the empire was merely to increase the tax base.

A freedman’s citizenship rights were somewhat restricted. He couldn’t hold political office, but his children had all the rights and opportunities of freeborn citizens. Pertinax was the son of a freedman who started as a military tribune under the sponsorship of an equestrian (possibly his father’s former owner and now patron). He rose on his own military and political merits to become senator, provincial governor, urban prefect, and finally emperor of Rome.

In legal texts, a freedman’s obligations were often equated with the obligations of a son. A freedman couldn’t bring a lawsuit or be a witness against his patron, just as a son couldn’t against his father. Both were supposed to honor and obey their patron or father at all times. It was common to bury a freedman with the members of his patron’s family.

But there were freedman obligations that went beyond that of a son to a father. Some were unwritten requirements of loyal behavior (obsequia) and others were legal requirements continuing the relationship of obedience and duty like a slave (officia). Some were written obligations to perform certain tasks and services (operae).

The nature of the operae depended on what the freedman did for his master while still a slave. It might be a specific number of hours spent on tasks for the patron. Slaves who were freed were often highly skilled men who had operated businesses for their master. They might continue in that capacity. Their patron might provide money for them to start new businesses for a share of the profits. The details depended on each patron and freedman, but in all cases the freedman was expected to deal honestly with his patron and always show his patron respect and loyalty.

Many patrons held a salutation in the early morning, where clients and others came to pay respects and ask favors. Some had so many come that they had extra seating outside their homes where those seeking an audience could wait.

In More than Honor, Rufinus had set his freedman Lupus up in a business that senators weren’t supposed to be in. Lupus violated the requirements of loyal behavior by embezzling profits and cheating customers. Arcanus was another of Rufinus’s freedmen who monitored his patron’s businesses, both legal and illegal, and it was Arcanus’s attempt to get Lupus to fulfill his freedman obligations that started all the problems.

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby