One of the fiercest debates in the social sciences is about the choice of concepts to describe premodern societies; above all, in the choice between what are termed “actors’ categories” and “observers’ categories.” On the one hand, it is argued, to understand properly how a society worked, we need to try to see it through the eyes of those who experienced it directly, rather than imposing our own foreign and anachronistic terms on it; this is the approach known as Verstehen (the German word “to understand,” here implying “to understand from within”) developed by the philosopher and historian Wilhelm Dilthey and widely followed within anthropology (P. Burke 2005). On the other hand, sociologists of a different theoretical orientation argue, actors’ categories can only ever be limited and subjective, and frequently incoherent; to gain a proper understanding, we need to analyze society in terms of more general social categories which will enable us to compare different societies and see how they actually work, rather than just how their inhabitants believe they are supposed to work.
These issues can be illustrated by considering the social structure of Rome in the late republic, as presented by Cicero in his fourth speech against Catiline in 63 bc. “All men are here, of every order, of all origins and indeed of all ages,” he declared to the Senate, and listed the different groups: the equites (the wealthy Romans from whom the Senate drew its members); the tribunes of the treasury and the clerks; the mass of the ingenui (free-born citizens), “even the poorest”; the liberti, former slaves “who, having gained the benefit of citizenship by their own virtue, truly judge this to be their native land”; and even the slaves (Cat. 4.14-16). Cicero recognized that Roman society consisted of different groups whose interests did not necessarily coincide; the force of his argument is that Catiline is so dangerous that he has united everyone against him.
This sort of account - which is echoed in other sources - is frequently taken as the basis for descriptions of “Roman society.” We can safely assume that it reflects the way that Cicero and his fellow senators viewed the world - though in other writings Cicero offered slightly different versions, for example emphasizing distinctions between richer and poorer citizens, assidui and proletarii - and this “actors’ perspective” is an important part of understanding Roman social history. The question is whether it is sufficient. Cicero’s list comprises different kinds of groups, some defined by wealth, some by legal status, some by political rights, some by birth; elsewhere he includes occupation, place of origin and moral virtue as further means of dividing Romans into groups. There is, on the other hand, no mention of gender or race as principles of social organization, although modern scholars would emphasize at least the first of these. Cicero does not indicate which of these distinctions is most significant in ordering society, or, given that many individuals would have fallen into several categories, which ones were most important for a Roman’s sense of his own social identity. Finally, the account is self-serving, intended to rally the support of “all Romans” for Cicero’s policy and to present Catiline’s followers as outcasts from society. The “actors’ perspective,” subjective, partial and sometimes contradictory, tells us what society looks like from the vantage point of those at its pinnacle, seen through the lens of their prejudices and assumptions; it does not offer an objective picture of social structure.
For that, historians have often turned to modern sociological concepts. One important issue here is that there is no universal system for interpreting social structure, but a number of competing theories, each of which represents society differently and raises different questions. One approach is that of the “status group,” developed by Max Weber. Society is made up of a number of such groups, which are defined by indicators such as birth, occupation, way of life, and shared cultural practices; these groups are arranged in a hierarchy, and membership of a group determines one’s level of access to political power and other resources as well as shaping social behavior. This can clearly be seen in republican Rome, where “new men” like Cicero who aspired to join the established elite had to adopt wholesale the attitudes and customs of that elite, and where political rivals constantly sought to show how their opponents’ behavior was unworthy of their status; to be “slavish” in any respect was a devastating indictment. Considering such a status society, the crucial issue for historians is to explore how far the groups were closed and how far social mobility was possible; this involves consideration both of the actors’ perspective (Rome had a long-established hereditary elite which only rarely accepted new blood) and of the likely reality (the elite did not breed fast enough to replace itself, and so always depended on absorbing new members: Hopkins 1983).
In the absence of direct evidence, it is impossible to say whether the elite obsession with status was echoed in other groups. According to Cicero, manual labor, crafts and petty trade were “slavish” and so degrading (Off. 1.151); the fact that potters signed their work and merchants recorded their trading activities on their tombstones suggest that elite attitudes were not universally accepted. However, the main objection to the idea of status groups is not that they did not exist or did not affect individuals’ behavior, but that they were less important than other sorts of social groups. In particular, status divisions are seen to be secondary to class divisions. Following the ideas sketched out by Marx, society is understood in terms of different classes, defined by their position within the organization of production. Wealthy owners of land and other capital, free peasants with small plots of their own land, free laborers who needed to rent land or to hire themselves out to make a living, and different sorts of slaves, all had different roles and different levels of access to resources and power - slaves, tenants and smallholders were all exploited, but in quite different ways. Whereas status groups might coexist quite peacefully, classes exist in an antagonistic relationship, as the interests of one can be served only at the expense of another: what’s good for landlords is rarely good for their tenants. The historian’s prime task, then, is to study the forms of exploitation, the social conflict that this produced, and the way that this shaped the course of events. Classical Athens was the great exception to the ancient norm, as the masses seized power and put limits on the power of the rich (Wood 1988); in Rome, however, the changing balance of power in the struggle between the classes of landowners, peasants and slaves has been seen as the primary cause of upheaval in the late republic (de Ste. Croix 1981).
Two obvious objections to the use of “class” as a means of analyzing ancient society are first that it is overtly political - something which Marxist historians never deny - and second that it is anachronistic to apply it to a premodern society. Describing Athens or Rome in terms of “observers’ categories,” it is argued, presents ancient society as more modern than it really was, creating a false and misleading impression; it is no different, even if it is rather more systematic, from Rostovtzeff’s habit of describing certain groups in the cities of the Hellenistic East as “bourgeoisie.” The problem is that there is no truly neutral, non-anachronistic terminology which we could use instead; even if we use the ancients’ own terms, we have to translate them and understand them in terms of our own experiences and knowledge. The decision as to whether the Roman word ordo should be translated as rank, order, class or station - or, if it is simply italicized and left untranslated, how it is explained to the reader - depends on assumptions both about the workings of society in general and about the nature of Roman society. Modern concepts are more precise: they make it easier to compare ancient society with other premodern societies, and they highlight the difficult issues involved in choosing the right words to describe antiquity, where more “everyday” language might conceal the fact that there is a problem.