Greek and Roman society were both heavily stratified, and many forms of dependence tied people to their superiors in wealth, power and status. (Classical Athens was perhaps untypical, though see patronage, literary, Greek for the choregia.)
The letters of Cicero and Pliny the Younger combine with the legal evidence and epigraphy to give a more complete picture of patronage in the Roman world. In addition, the relationship between patronus and cliens among Roman citizens was recognized as being distinctive.
Two further forms of patronage complicate the picture. The first is the relationship of the master to a slave or former slave, which had precise definition in Roman law, and which entailed duties for freedmen. The second is the relationship of Roman leaders to whole communities either in Italy or the provinces, and their protection of influential foreigners, for whom they might even obtain the Roman citizenship. This relationship derived from the circumstances of Rome's growth as an imperial power, and drew on the behaviour of Hellenistic kings and their families. Augustus and his successors combined enormous households and very numerous dependants with an unsurpassed range of opportunities for bestowing favours of this second sort on communities and individuals all over the inhabited world.
Cicero's patronage is our most systematic guide to the late republican practice. He acquired relations with communities in southern Italy on his way to Sicily as quaestor; in the troubles of 63, retainers from three Italian towns gave him their physical support; around his villa at Pompeii most of the towns were in his clientela; and his governorship in Cilicia gave him a special relationship with the whole of Cyprus. All these places could count on Cicero for ‘recommendation’: a way into the personal politics of Rome, and in particular legal guidance and support. Civitates (see civitas) were a natural object of this kind of patronage, but collēgia acquired patrons in this way too (see clubs, roman).
Cicero provides us with an insight into the importance of patronage. Chains of this sort of relationship offered a way of dealing with the scale of ancient society: with the mechanics of representing, and making decisions concerning the rival interests of, either very numerous individuals in a large community, or thousands of communities in a world‐empire. It thus offered a sort of brokerage, and promoted both active communication and reciprocal exchanges of information and esteem, and served to retain a real political role for patrons under a system in which their constitutional political position had been greatly weakened by the advent of the imperial system. Recommendation, moreover, could work only if there were agreed principles of comparison and standards of assessment, the maintenance of which fostered cultural cohesion. Finally, the system reflected and maintained change in hierarchic order, since the effectiveness of chains of influence varied, and the fortunes of the client with them. All of these effects ultimately worked in favour of social stability.
Subjects: Classical Studies.