One of the more peculiar aspects of the Roman society was the relationship between a client (clientela) and his patron (patronus). This was a complex system of interdependency by which . . .
a wealthy patron gave to his less fortunate clients one or more of the following:
- legal counsel, legal aid
- their sportula (a regular monetary handout, "the dole")
- free meals in their homes
- other gifts and/or resources (land, livestock, right to grow crops on their land)
and the client reciprocated by providing to the patron:
- political support
- an escort if their patrons wished to walk around the city or go on a journey.
- financial support
- other services
There were many kinds of client-patron relationships. Some were between:
- former slaves and their previous owners. The freedman's relationship with his patron would depend much on his continuing usefulness to the patron as well as his deference (obsequium).
- landowners and their tenant farmers
- members of the aristocracy
- aristocracy and artists, aristocracy and writers
In general, a client–as long as he was in debt to his patron–was offered protective services by his patron. Some clients had several patrons, which required them to visit each in turn, even if they lived in different parts of the city.
Each morning, at daybreak, the patron's house would be opened for salutatio, when the patron would hold court in the atrium of his house. During this time unofficial business would be conducted, favors requested, political support lined up for votes on important issues, and each client would receive his sportula (a regular monetary handout).
The patron typically situated himself in the rear of his atrium, just behind the impluvium.. As each client approached his patron, he would greet the patron with "Ave, patrone, ave!" ("hail, patron, hail!). The patron might reply "Ave, [the client’s name]!" or just acknowledge him by name. If the patron was in an expansive mood he might also offer the client his hand, and if the client was especially favored he might even be permitted to kiss the patron's cheek. At the patron's side was his nomenclator who was charged with whispering the names of any clients whose names he might have forgotten and with giving the patron any information about his clients that might facilitate their interaction. Each client would pay his respects and chat awhile. Then another senior-ranking slave would check off the client's name on a list and give him his sportula.
- Once the client-patron relationship was established, it continued from one generation to the next.
- A patron's clients, along with his slaves, marched in front of and behind the patron, helping to elbow aside the crowd as he made his rounds. If he didn't release them before noon, he usually felt obligated to provide some kind of lunch for them.
- On holidays and at the new year, the sportula was larger than normal.
- By the end of the Republic the client-patron relationship had lost most of its more tangible, practical features. It had devolved into a status arrangement whereby the ambitious politician acquired as many clients he could, who would, in turn, swarm around him as he traveled each morning from his house to the Forum, making him appear influential and popular.