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- This is an article about the privileged class in ancient Rome. For other uses of the term, see Patrician (disambiguation).
Patricians (patricii) were originally the elite caste in ancient Rome. In the time of the late Roman Empire, the term patrican (patricius) was a specific title given to a high court official. The word patricius is partly based on the Latin pater, which means father.
In the early days of the Roman Republic, patricians formed a hereditary ruling group within the state. All magistracies were off-limits to non-patricians, who were known as plebeians. Patrician status was inherited, and intermarriage between patricians and plebians was forbidden. Trade between patricians and plebians was also forbidden.
Over time, conflict raged between the two classes, and patricians were slowly forced to relinquish their power. In 494 BC, the office of tribune was created to safeguard the interest of plebians; no patrician could hold this office. By the 320s BC, all magistracies were open to plebian candidates, and the importance of the distinction between patricians and plebians began to fade. In addition, because patrician status was strictly inherited and no new patrician families were created, the number of patrician families decreased.
By the last days of the Roman Republic in the first century BC, wealthy plebian families had long become an integral part of the Roman elite, and patrician status offered little more than prestige. This reality was made clear in 59 BC, when the patrician Publius Clodius Pulcher arranged to be adopted by a plebian (who was a year younger than he!) so that he could run for tribune. One of the few positions that remained reserved to patricians at this time was the office of high priest, or pontifex maximus. Julius Caesar, one of the most prominent patrician politicians of his day, held this office until his death.
Under the Roman Empire, patrician status as it had been understood in the Republic ceased to have meaning in everyday life. The emperor Constantine reintroduced the term; Patrician (Patricius) became an honorific title for those who demonstrated faithful service to the Empire. There were generally only a few patricians in the Empire at any given time, and sometimes only one. By the fifth century, the title generally denoted a man who held the power behind the imperial throne, usually a general of the Roman army. Patricians of this era included Stilicho, Constantius III (before he became co-emperor), Aetius, Boniface, and Ricimer.
In modern English, the word patrician is generally used to denote a member of the upper class, often with connotations of inherited wealth, elitism, and a sense of noblesse oblige. This definition derives from the first meaning of the word above.
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