In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Roman Patronage

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and the Discussion of Change
  • Overviews of Research
  • Terminology
  • Gift Giving and Reciprocity

Classics Roman Patronage
Angela Ganter
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0309


What provides coherence in societies of enormous social disparity? Dionysos of Halicarnassos answered this question by referring to patronage. According to him, patron-client relationships tied together different strata of the population and different peoples of the empire, so that patronage guaranteed social stability and peace (Dion. Hal. ant. 2.9–11). Modern theories are not that different from his description, as you might expect. Since the 1980s, historians have mainly used the anthropological definition of patronage as a voluntary, personal relationship of some duration, which is asymmetrical and involves the reciprocal interchange of material or immaterial goods. Patronage clearly is a widespread phenomenon permeating many societies. In Rome, it was of extraordinary importance. For many decades already, scholars have tried to understand the historical specifics of Roman patronage, and to describe its changes over the centuries of Roman history. Whether you speak of clientelae or of patron-client relationships, terminology indicates that this is no easy task. Whereas general histories on Roman patronage are rare due to the wide-ranging topic, studies normally focus on certain fields like judicial patronage, civic patronage, or literary patronage. What is more, the scholarly image of Roman patronage depended on the approaches researchers were addicted to. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the origins of patronage and state formation were of primary concern. Afterward, the working of patronage within the sociopolitical framework became the focus of interest. Recently, communication and interaction between patrons and clients have been the most discussed phenomena.

General Overviews and the Discussion of Change

General overviews of Roman patronage bridging the epochs from the earliest times of Roman history to Late Antiquity are rare. Though Fustel de Coulanges 1890 discusses Roman patronage primarily as the background for feudalism in the Merovingian age, the author’s work was groundbreaking. From his interpretation originated the idea that clientelae were most important in the archaic period of Roman history, that they lost importance during the Republic, and that they were hardly visible during Imperial times while they regained importance from the 4th century AD onward. These social bonds were considered to have been of primary importance when the state was weak. Influenced by Fustel de Coulanges, Gelzer 1912 initiated a paradigmatic change to studying the subject as a social phenomenon. Significantly, the author concentrated on the Roman Republic. On the one hand, patronage was soon regarded to be so multifaceted that contributions tended to focus on a certain period of time and on certain aspects of patronage. On the other hand, until the 1980s the debates mainly referred to the Roman Republic because patronage was framed within power politics, until this conviction was prominently questioned in Brunt 1988. Although already von Premerstein 1937 and Syme 1939 expanded the so-far-established concepts to the Imperial era, only from the 1980s onward, when patronage was seen as a widespread social structure pervading almost every kind of society, its existence beyond the princeps and his direct sphere of influence was not denied any longer but became an equally worthwhile subject of interest (cf. Saller 1982, Wallace-Hadrill 1989). Instead of debating change with a view to early Roman history and the development from a society formed by gentes to a sophisticated state (cf. the section Origins of Patronage and State Formation, Meier 1966), it was now discussed with a view to the transition from the Republican to the Imperial system (cf. also Benner 1987). Within the frame of social history, that naturally privileges the notion of persisting social structures, the so-far-unchallenged thesis of a hard rupture between these epochs was questioned. Transformations in Late Antiquity have usually not been integrated into a discourse stemming from the earlier epochs of Roman history. Rouland 1979 and Ganter 2015, however, are certain exceptions.

  • Benner, Herbert. 1987. Die Politik des P. Clodius Pulcher: Untersuchungen zur Denaturierung des Clientelwesens in der ausgehenden römischen Republik. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

    This monograph focuses on the demoralization of patron-client relationships in the Late Republic by referring to P. Clodius Pulcher. According to Benner, power depended on military groups consistent of clients whose fides had been bought materially. Benner modified the common thesis that in the long run, the princeps became the one and only patron relying on gifts to the plebs urbana after the former patron-client relationships had died.

  • Brunt, Peter A. 1988. Clientela. In The fall of the Roman Republic and related essays. Oxford: Clarendon.

    See pp. 382–442. His evolutionary scheme of Roman patronage resembled that of Fustel de Coulanges 1890, which considered patronage to have been an important factor in Roman history during the earliest time, to have eroded during the Republic, and to have regained force in a different mode during Late Antiquity when the feudal structures of medieval Europe came into being.

  • Fustel de Coulanges, Numa Denis. 1890. Histoire des institutions politiques de l’ancienne France. Vol. 5, Les origines du système féodal: Le bénéfice et le patronat pendant l’époque mérovingienne. Paris: Hachette.

    See pp. 205–247. By delineating Roman patronage in order to explain the feudal system of the Merovingian age, Fustel de Coulanges deduces the patrocinium prevalent in Late Antiquity from the earliest times of Roman history. In contrast to his German contemporaries, who concentrated on judicial debates, he discovered patronage as a social phenomenon.

  • Ganter, Angela. 2015. Was die römische Welt zusammenhält: Patron-Klient-Verhältnisse zwischen Cicero und Cyprian. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110431230

    The monograph analyzes the habits of patrons and clients between the Roman Republic and the 3rd century CE. Two main eras of transformation stand out: the transition between the Republic and Imperial times, and the transition between traditional patronage and the rising Christian value system. Patronage is shown to be of eminent importance for social coherence throughout. Not patronage, but the way of performing it was questioned by the contemporaries.

  • Gelzer, Matthias. 1912. Die Nobilität der römischen Republik. Leipzig and Berlin: Teubner.

    See pp. 62–135. In continuation to Fustel de Coulanges 1890, Gelzer initiated a paradigmatic change in studying the subject as a social phenomenon. He concentrated on the Roman Republic. Not the growing Roman state, but the Roman aristocracy was regarded to be the force to spur historical change. Published anew in Vol. 1 of Kleine Schriften (Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1962), 17–135.

  • Meier, Christian. 1966. Res publica amissa: Eine Studie zu Verfassung und Geschichte der späten römischen Republik. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag.

    In his seminal work on the Late Roman Republic (edited anew in 1980), Meier promotes an evolutionary scheme of Roman clientelae subdivided into three phases (pp. 23–63). During the first and the second, patron-client relationships were hereditary. During the third, from the 4th century BCE onward, they lost their exclusive and long-lasting quality in favor of plural obligations that often contradicted each other.

  • Rouland, Norbert. 1979. Pouvoir politique et dépendance personnelle dans l’Antiquité romaine: Genèse et rôle des rapports de clientèle. Brussels: Latomus.

    A monograph that intends to provide a history of Roman patronage from the earliest times to the 3rd century CE dedicating only six pages out of 658 to the second and third centuries CE. Already when being printed, it was outdated because it mirrors the sources without questioning their worldview, because it sticks to discussions on the origins of Roman clientelae, and because it frames patronage within law history.

  • Saller, Richard P. 1982. Personal patronage under the early empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511583612

    The monograph discusses personal patronage in Rome and the provinces from the reign of Augustus to the Severan period. In contrast to von Premerstein 1937, Saller is convinced that the social structures and values hardly changed between the Republic and Imperial times. Though the emperor monopolized important patron-client relationships, the aristocrats were still important as patronal brokers who mediated imperial favors.

  • Syme, Ronald. 1939. The Roman revolution. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A seminal monograph shaping the discussion of the Roman oligarchy from the late 1930s onward. By departing from the Republican aristocracy, Syme discusses patronage on a well-grounded prosopographical fundament to demonstrate that Roman power politics was based on clientelae. In the chapter “The Working of Patronage” (pp. 369–386), Octavianus is characterized as the person who finally monopolized the control of patronage and thus “the access to all positions of honour and emolument in the senatorial career” (p. 369).

  • von Premerstein, Anton. 1937. Vom Werden und Wesen des augusteischen Prinzipats. Munich: Verlag der Bayrischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

    Applies the approach of Gelzer 1912 to Roman Imperial Times by discussing the evolution and definition of imperial power with a reference to the mobilization of clientelae. The princeps is meant to have monopolized patronage. Therefore, the old patron-client relationships of the Roman aristocracy were considered to have become irrelevant.

  • Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew, ed. 1989. Patronage in ancient society. London: Routledge.

    A volume with a wide-ranging scope of articles from the earliest times to Late Antiquity discussing the main paradigms of research on the topic.

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