Keywords: society, Rome, status, class, honour, performance, ideology, elite, power, Max Weber


Roman social historians have tended to focus on the choice between the modern terms ‘status’ and ‘class’ to characterise the nature of the groups that made up Roman society. Both these concepts seek to describe antiquity in modern sociological terms rather than relying on the limited perspective of the original actors; each can be seen as problematic, so that in recent years historians have often assumed instead a simpler division between ‘elite’ and ‘non-elite’, and/or avoided the issue by focusing on the dynamics of social relations rather than the nature of social groups. This paper argues for the continuing usefulness of the Weberian idea of status, as a complement to the Marxian idea of class, but with a greater focus on the idea of performance, drawing on the sociology of Erving Goffman and Judith Butler. This emphasises the complexity of status; the way that its performance changes in different contexts, and depends both on the choices of the actor and the expectations of the audience, with judgements about the success of the performance always provisional and changing over time. It concludes with reflections on the ways in which status, understood as ideological power, could have functioned effectively within Roman society as a source of genuine authority.


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