The Patron-Client Relationship, It’s Cooler Than You Think.

“Patronage might be located conceptually between inequality and equality. Although the language of friendship was frequently used by both patrons and clients, it is not the friendship of equals; it is asymmetrical” (Andrew).

This post is a second installment to follow “V for Vendetta, R for Rebellion” which can be found further down in this same blog.


The painting shown above is called “Maecenas Presenting the Liberal Arts to Emperor Augustus” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. I think the title of the painting speaks for its relevance and shows how integral to daily life these relationships were.

So, the patron-client relationship was quite a bit more integral to Roman society than I originally thought. When we translate Catullus or Propertius, we talk about them in the context of their lives, and especially their social lives. So when we talk about Catullus’ res novae little circle and his lepidum novum libellum, we discuss them in the context of his circle of contacts and social life, but the ripple effect goes farther than that. I guess I just had this preconceived notion that to being in a patron-client relationship was kind of like an ancient Roman hipster thing, I never realized that the patron-client relationship was more than a small part of the society reserved for a select few artists and some influential men who liked to dabble in the arts. However, although I found information on the importance of the patron-client relationship in ancient Roman society, I also found many commentaries on different attitudes behind these relationships and aspects that can upset this relationship. It was these that I was most interested in with this post.

I learned that the patron-client relationship was very familial, genetic even. Patron-client relationships ran so deep in history and tradition that they were generational and thus genetic because they were passed on through generations in families. It supports a stratified patriarchial system that is consistent with the idea of paterfamilias which stated that the man was the head of the house and the women and children were beneath. In fact, lecture notes from a professor’s teaching that I found said that the “father in [the] family can be seen as a model for patron-client relationships”. In the same way, although both were benefiting from this symbiotic relationship, the patron had a higher standing in society and a greater level of control in the relationship. The idea that these paradigms were supported in areas throughout the culture is not surprising because this was an idea considered the norm and not only supported but enforced by the government. Catullus, Propertius and Ovid all subverted these social norms through their elegiac poetry in their own ways. For one specific example Propertius, among other elegiac poets, flips the roles of the man and the woman in the relationships so that the woman is dominant and the man is in the weakened and vulnerable state. This is the opposite of what the upstanding Roman man is supposed to be, and can provide a hidden metaphor for the influence of elegiac poetry on government and policy. The flipping of roles in elegiac poetry so the man was being ruled by the woman and by love, when in traditional society it was expected to be the other way around, could suggest that government could be ruled by the elegiac poet. I found an article that not only addressed this idea, but also included that this role reversal also “underscores Maecenas’ superior status” as patron. The author of this article also addresses the idea that Propertius makes the statement that elegiac and epic poetry are comparable and even the same in some situations. Ovid could be considered to do this, too when he writes in the meter to mimic “The Aenead” and compares love to war (Ovid 1.9).

the patron-client relationship was something that was used to rule the lower class, so when the lower class grew too numerous for the upper class to control through this relationship, especially in times of unhappiness or unrest and events like famines, there was the potential for an uprising from the larger lower class. In this way, the breakdown of the patron client relationship could definitely contribute to rebellion and may have been a spot of contention that caused a greater division between the plebeians and the patricians. For further information, see this article on the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica, my best friend.

The patron had a great deal of control over the client not only pertaining to their time and how they were to serve their patron, they also had great amounts of political influence. Because of this, patrons could use this to either influence the political environment for or against the person or belief system in power at the time. I found an article that talked about how this was cause for concern in the context of the philosopher Seneca. This article addressed the interesting idea that patronage was considered a sell-out by some because these artists or writers were taking money for their works and thus some people saw it as not truly art, but instead a form of propaganda. This caused “tension between the republican freedom of speech and the desirability of royal patronage”. This article also showed the role reversal of the patron and the client in the situation where many patrons were competing to support one specific artist and this moved the balance of power and the ability of choice to the client, which I thought was a very interesting idea.

I’m honestly not sure how all of these ideas fit together into the definition of the patron-client relationship as of yet. Right now they seem related by definition, but not exactly as if they relate to each other. I am interested to see where some or all of these paths lead.

I used Google’s advanced search to see what I could find. Interesting little tidbit, when I used Google advanced search, my first blog post was the second hit that came up! I don’t know if that says something about the small amount of research in this area or if I was using keywords that were too specific… hmm. I found the Hope library’s list of databases really helpful and I used the L’Année Philologique and the Project MUSE databases. I also wandered around in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review and the Encyclopedia Britannica Website, just for some funzies. I did find that I used a lot of the same keywords to search, and I wondered if this was limiting me, but I didn’t know what other keywords to use that would get me the desired results, so I guess I felt a little stuck there. 

Something interesting I did this time just to look at the nature of research technology was that when I found a page of results to a search, I not only looked at the results to look for articles related to my topic, but I looked at all the results and thought about how they were seemingly related. I also read through a majority of the list, instead of just staying within the first couple of pages. It was interesting to see the delineation from similar to not so similar.

By: Emilie O’Connor


One thought on “The Patron-Client Relationship, It’s Cooler Than You Think.

  1. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Emilie! I learned so much! This was a really interesting post. It made me think more than usual about the contexts in which we read ancient literature and what it means to be an “artist.” Depending on the dynamic of the relationship between patron and client, the work produced must have varied a whole lot, and was understandably devalued and dismissed as propaganda. Just like you sometimes have to seriously question secondary sources that you come across, I suppose we sometimes have to question the Primary Source!
    I also like how you talk about social mobility and compare it to America. I’ve noticed a lot of parallels between America and Rome, and this is a good one that seems to hold up well. I especially like what you say about the control of the growing lower class, and how afraid the upper class was of this change in the dynamic and its potential for their being usurped.
    Thanks for challenging me to think so much about the context of what we read! I really appreciate the thought you put into this and your fascinating choice of topic. -Isabel


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