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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Friends and Patrons

It is remarkable that a society so egregiously unequal could have remained as stable as it did for so long. Open revolts are almost unknown in the period of our concern. In the case of the most obvious exception, the revolt in Judea and Galilee of 66–72 C.E., economic and social inequalities did play an important role, but they would hardly have led to war without the specific combination of resentment against Roman rule, exploitative taxation, and affronts to local religious sensibilities. By and large the masses of the population accepted their position at the bottom of the steep social pyramid.

The relative stability of the system is to be explained by its intricate network of reciprocity, which held its tensions in check. Between social equals, the exchange of favors and courtesies was carefully balanced by the conventions of friendship, which the Romans called amicitia. Amicitia set certain limits to the exuberant competitiveness that characterized society in the early empire. The ruling groups of a city consisted in a rather small circle of “friends,” who jealously eyed one another's advantages but shared a common sense of dependence on their remote patrons in Rome and of superiority to those beneath them in their town.

Reciprocity between unequals was even more important for the stability of the social order. The powerful were linked with the weak through ties of patronage or clientela. Roman law had defined the relationship in the particular case of a freed slave, who remained under the protection of the former master, now patron, for life—in exchange for specific obligations ranging from daily appearances to salute the patron at an appointed time to political support, service in business enterprises, and other kinds of assistance. In the imperial age, analogous relations of protection and dependence extended to every corner of the society. At the top, the emperor and members of the Roman senate became patrons, and thus commanded the loyalty, of the local aristocracies of each of the thousand cities that made up the Roman Empire. Further down the scale, every person of some wealth and power used those advantages to put people of lesser status under obligation. At the bottom—indeed at every level except the very top—a person's welfare and any possible chance of improving one's position depended on the favor of someone higher up. The position and prestige of the person higher up, in turn, were enhanced by enlarging the number of dependents. Hence benefactions brought obligation, obligation yielded service and submission, service and submission earned protection.

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