Formed a privileged class of Roman citizens. The word is probably connected with patrēs (‘Fathers’), a formal collective term for patrician senators (see senate). In the republican period patrician status could be obtained only by birth.
One striking patrician prerogative was their control of affairs during an interregnum. Only a patrician could hold the office of interrex (‘between‐king’), evidently a relic of the regal period (see rex). The patricians may have chosen the king, whereas the king could not himself be a patrician. This would explain both the origin of patrician power and the fact that most of the kings were in some sense outsiders (many of them, indeed, foreigners).
The patricians monopolized all the important priesthoods, and they were probably a group defined by religious prerogatives. The nature of their political power is, by contrast, much less certain. Membership of the senate was not confined to patricians, since the senators were formally known as ‘Fathers and Conscripts’ of whom only the former were patricians (the patrum auctoritas was confined to them). The Fasti suggest that in the earliest decades of the republic not all consuls were patricians. The patrician monopoly of political office developed gradually during the 5th cent., and was successfully challenged in the 4th by the increasingly powerful plebs.
Although by 300 bc the patricians had lost their monopoly of office and of the major priestly colleges, they continued to exercise power out of all proportion to their numbers. Until 172 one of the two consuls was always a patrician, and they continued to hold half the places in the major priestly colleges as of right. Other priesthoods, such as the flamines maiores and the Salii, remained exclusively patrician.
As an aristocracy of birth, the patriciate was unable to reproduce itself, and patrician numbers gradually declined. Of around 50 patrician clans that are known in the 5th cent., only fourteen survived at the end of the republic. Caesar and Octavian were given the right to create new patricians. Later emperors used their censorial powers to confer patrician status on favoured individuals, who then passed it on to their descendants.
Subjects: Classical studies