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In Rome a client was a free man who entrusted himself to another and received protection in return. Clientship was a hereditary social status consecrated by usage and recognized, though not defined or enforced, by the law. The rules of the law were however binding in the special case of the freedman, who was ipso facto a client of his former owner (see freedmen). Ordinary clients supported their patron (patrōnus) in political and private life, and demonstrated their loyalty and respect by going to his house to greet him each morning (salūtātiō), and attending him when he went out. The size of a man's clientele, and the wealth and status of his individual clients, were a visible testimony to his prestige and social standing (and therefore to his political influence). In exchange clients received favours and benefits of various kinds, including daily subsistence in the form of food or money and assistance in the courts.

This reciprocal exchange of goods and services between persons of unequal social standing is only one facet of a much wider phenomenon in Roman society, in which power and status at all levels depended on personal connections and the trading of benefits and favours. At the level of the élite, Roman grandees dispensed huge sums of money to favoured protégés, and obtained administrative and military appointments for them through personal contacts with high‐ranking public officials, above all from the emperor himself. In Rome political power and social prestige certainly depended on the manipulation of personal connections and the exchange of favours and benefits between individuals of unequal standing. On the other hand, in literary sources the parties to exchanges of benefits tend to refer to each other as friends (see amicitia), rather than as clients, which implied social inferiority. To be labelled ‘cliens’ was hateful. In Martial ‘cliens’ effectively means parasite.

In the provinces Roman individuals and families built up large clientēlae: whole communities could become clients, and obtained access to the centre of power through the mediation of individual patrons.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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