Was the Roman patronage system a form of corruption?

Mar 2018
728
UK
#1
The widespread relation of patronage was one between a (or many) client and a patron, where the former would support the political career of the latter and augment his dignitas, in exchange for general help in life, such as financial assistance in times of need, legal representation in court, or letters of recommendation for jobs. Obviously, at the time of the Republic/Empire, such things where seen as perfectly normal and right. But, viewed from our present perspective (that is, western, developed and democratic), is it a form of corruption/its cousin nepotism?

I do feel that if a modern head of state gave a military commission to someone based on personal ties and a I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine expectation, that would definitely be seen as corruption. In undemocratic countries this is indeed the norm and is often seen as a level of corruption that would be completely unacceptable in developed western nations. Same thing as demanding that someone must vote for you because you defended them in court a few years ago, if a politician said such a thing here I'm pretty sure their career would be over quickly.

To preempt some likely responses, I'm not asking if it is right to judge the past by modern standards, or if the Romans were immoral for adopting patronage. Rather I'm asking if my understanding of Roman patronage is correct and, if so, how they judged the inevitable negative consequences of such a system? Did the Romans suffer from the same negative consequences (such as not having the most competent people in key positions)? Did they not notice these consequences (because they had nothing to compare against), or did they think they were an acceptable part of life?
 
Jan 2015
2,902
MD, USA
#2
Sorry, what? Patronage WAS their system, it worked for them and did what they expected. It was not "corruption", which is abusing the system or trying to go outside it for whatever reason. Obviously it's not how some modern systems are supposed to work, but so what? That's true of MOST cultural features and social systems! Heck, there are plenty of places in the world today where Roman patronage would be viewed as a perfectly good option. And others where things we see as required are forbidden, and vice versa. Since you already know that we can't judge the past by our standards, why even ask the question?

Rather I'm asking if my understanding of Roman patronage is correct and, if so, how they judged the inevitable negative consequences of such a system? Did the Romans suffer from the same negative consequences (such as not having the most competent people in key positions)? Did they not notice these consequences (because they had nothing to compare against), or did they think they were an acceptable part of life?
Well, I can't say if your understanding of patronage is correct, partly since I don't know what details you know, and partly because I'm hardly an expert on the subject, either! But what "negative aspects" do you mean? Roman elections had nothing to do with getting "competent" people into power, in fact I have never heard of a political system which attempts to do so! It's about people who want power getting into power, and staying there. Competence is irrelevant. Certainly if someone did you a favor, you would owe them a favor, too--perfectly reasonable, and VERY much a feature of Western politics whether it's supposed to be or not. So I don't know what "consequences" you might be referring to. Patronage was simply part of their Big Game, and it worked for them.

Matthew
 
#4
The widespread relation of patronage was one between a (or many) client and a patron, where the former would support the political career of the latter and augment his dignitas, in exchange for general help in life, such as financial assistance in times of need, legal representation in court, or letters of recommendation for jobs. Obviously, at the time of the Republic/Empire, such things where seen as perfectly normal and right. But, viewed from our present perspective (that is, western, developed and democratic), is it a form of corruption/its cousin nepotism?

I do feel that if a modern head of state gave a military commission to someone based on personal ties and a I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine expectation, that would definitely be seen as corruption. In undemocratic countries this is indeed the norm and is often seen as a level of corruption that would be completely unacceptable in developed western nations. Same thing as demanding that someone must vote for you because you defended them in court a few years ago, if a politician said such a thing here I'm pretty sure their career would be over quickly.

To preempt some likely responses, I'm not asking if it is right to judge the past by modern standards, or if the Romans were immoral for adopting patronage. Rather I'm asking if my understanding of Roman patronage is correct and, if so, how they judged the inevitable negative consequences of such a system? Did the Romans suffer from the same negative consequences (such as not having the most competent people in key positions)? Did they not notice these consequences (because they had nothing to compare against), or did they think they were an acceptable part of life?
From a modern perspective it is indeed a form of corruption. What's more, in the later Roman empire it was well understood that officials could and often did buy their political positions. If I remember correctly, the sixth-century bureaucrat and author John the Lydian expresses what he thinks are the reasonable prices for buying different positions. I read this in Christopher Kelly's Ruling the Later Roman Empire about five years ago, and so my memory is hazy. But in addition to patronage and bribery, merit still could count for something, as Kelly too acknowledges. This is suggested, for instance, by the content of letters that recommend the promotion of equestrian officers (Pliny, Ep. 10.87; Fronto, Ad Amicos 1.5; Birley 2003: The Commissioning of Equestrian Officers, in J. J. Wilkes (ed.), Documenting the Roman Army: Essays in Honour of Margaret Roxan, London, 1-19.) As the empire descended into military crises, one can expect merit to have mattered further still, which probably helps explain why career soldiers rose to such high positions during the mid- and late third century (although the fact that the emperors were more often near the borders also meant that patterns of imperial patronage would have favoured military officers and by extension their subordinates).
 
Last edited:
Oct 2015
805
Virginia
#5
Are the "most competent" people in key positions in governments today? Roman patronage at least assumed a sort of noblesse oblige, personal loyalty and a commitment to the res publica. Is modern "democratic" plutocracy anything but glorified influence peddling? Especially in a country where corporations are legally "people" and money is legally "speech", so that politicians have to spend most of their time raising money? (Of course, maybe that keeps them so busy they can't cause real problems.)
Anyway, the very idea that government should be honest, disinterested, efficient and not subject to patronage, privilege, nepotisn et al is a recent phenomenon of the European Enlightenment isn't it?
 
Last edited:
Likes: Matthew Amt
Jul 2016
9,323
USA
#6
What was patronage is now lobbying, what was clients are now corporations and interest groups.
Except the Roman patron client system wasn't just about political aspects of government, it governed all life. Any Roman of substance tried to become the client of someone powerful, and with power came the ability to become a patron to others.
 
Likes: Matthew Amt
Feb 2011
1,060
Scotland
#7
It helped to build a 'faction' of supporters in a sort of pyramid system not unlike recent 'sales plans'.
I believe in earlier days such blocks of clients might even form a private army for the 'top patron family', viz the Fabian private army campaigning 478-477BCE and defeated at Cremera 477BCE.

Such client/patron pyramids probably also played a part in preventing the 'plebeian walkouts' during the conflict of the orders from being decisive. I think that (of memory serves) Cornell suggests that one walkout would otherwise have finished the conflict immediately- it wouldn't have lasted two centuries.

Patronage is a 'two-edged sword' however. Abraham Lincoln apparently once commented that there were 'too many mouths for the teats' in trying to reward support once he became President.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,232
#8
Patronage was not inherently corrupt but could be used for a corrupt purpose quite easily, and it must be said, many elite Romans were - well, corrupt. The point of the patronage system was low level control of society and as such it worked as a form of feudal government. Nero hated it, seeing patronage - quite rightly - as a rival to his power. The Senate is often viewed as a government in its own right especially during the republican era. I tend to myself. But the Senate was traditionally an advisory body that had grown accustomed to its membership of the wealthiest and most influential Romans. Their control of society was not entirely through debates and law, but the personal manipulation of clients as it had always been.
 
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
#9
I suppose the entire question depends on how narrow a definition of corruption you have. Ideally the freedom of patrons to favour their clients etc. was counterbalanced by everybody's common interest, regardless of social status - to the res publica. We might think it's strange and corrupt and that there are no real control mechanisms involved to make sure the patrons actually appoint people based on competence or whatever, but in a way the Roman approach makes a lot of sense: is it really a free society unless people have entered into ties with each other willingly? What other form of selection mechanism should be used? Such a selection mechanism would require the existence of an independent third party, a third party which by its autonomy will automatically be above the citizens. I think you'd have a hard time convincing the Romans that any such independent selection mechanism could exist in a society consisting of free people (or free men, to use the more archaic term), unlike us. We are much more idealistic in these things.

In a way the patron/client system is less susceptible to corruption than many of the different kinds of systems we have in the modern world, because it doesn't pretend to be something it is not. When a modern day politician in parliament tries to balance "party interests" or "keep the party together" how is that not corruption? It's certainly putting special interests above national interests. Our entire political discourse more or less accepts all these things as given, and to be quite honest I find the whole "game-theory" discourse around politics that is very prominent in at least my country to positively reek of corruption. The Romans were at least straight to the point. There are disadvantages to that approach and advantages to that approach. I am not an expert on the Romans and neither on the patron-client system but I think that in their minds the dividing line was between actions that are in the public interests, and actions that are not in the public interest. Talk of abstract notions of "corruption" might have been difficult to understand for them, outside of that frame of reference.

Your question is interesting @Olleus . It puts its finger on a fascinating problem: what is society's smallest building bloc, and how do you make those blocs work together? I think if you live in a free society, i.e. a society that is not ruled in a "command" fashion and you have a large group of people who are more or less autonomous... you will almost automatically have more low level "corruption". People will choose who they know, who they can trust. Most of our modern day understanding of the what the word "corruption" means comes from the fact that we believe in this abstraction called "the state" which is separate from us. I think the ancients talked about res publica or the polis more in the terms of it consisting of every single citizen, more as a "we". We associate "the state" with countries, borders, bureaucracies, bills of rights, constitutions and other abstract things. This gives us a difference of perspective, and it is this understanding of politics which is a precondition for the modern understanding of things like "corruption" in the abstract sense you use it.

Somewhat speculative and arguably a bit rambling, but I think I might be on to something.
 
Last edited:

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,232
#10
Less susceptible? The whole system operated on a form of public largesse that invited corrupt behaviour. People went to their local patrican, senator or not, to ask for favours, money, or simply 'lick his rear'. The patron, for his part, didn't give money away for nothing, expecting compliance or favours. Since this form of feudal control was based on individual relationships and was conducted in the atriums of the patrons private homes (exactly what Nero didn't like for instance), the advantage to the patron was that private deals could be concluded and information traded. There was no regulation of this behaviour. And they understood corruption very well. They had laws against it, and those found to be corrupt were in danger of punishment.

Romans thought of 'the state' as the city of Rome, not its empire. They had in the way of constitution but instead relied on their system of law. something Romans were generally very proud of. I do agree that Romans had far less awareness of spacial division, but their awareness of social relationships was more finely honed than our own, and fundamental to their society.