-- Titus Livius, "The Early History of Rome", ca. 24 B.C.
Roman society during the Republic was not truly democratic. The ideas of liberty and freedom did, however, apply to a large portion of its population, known as citizens. But most people were left out by exclusive and exploitative social institutions.
At many points in the history of Rome, Greece, and most other ancient societies, up to half of the population were slaves, human property whose labour and persons were owned by others. Slavery was common in the ancient world, where the right to use other people's labour was hotly contested by thugs, bandits, kings, nobility, oligarchic aristocracy and other forms of "government".
Labour was the prize that all people who sought power tried to wrest from people. At a fundamental level, the concepts of power remain the same today though names and ideas have changed. Slaves in the ancient world could be from any race or nation; slavery knew no racial or cultural bounds.
Though the condition of some slaves was better than people today might imagine, it was a desperate situation for most. The lot of slaves in the vast Roman fleets (military and commercial) was particularly awful. Roman-era ships were sometimes sailed, but the rowers on triremes (three rows of oars) and quinquiremes (five men per oar) led a pretty gruesome life.
People could become slaves for a number of reasons. Prisoners captured in wartime were often sold as slaves, as captured property, as a way to finance a war. This was a common practice in the ancient Mediterranean, and many other cultures engaged in this type of economic terrorism. Whole populations, even nations, were sold into slavery on a regular basis.
Raids and wars financed themselves on pillage and booty, including using people as saleable property or forced labour. The Imperial sports complexes required hundreds, sometimes thousands, of gladiators and trained fighters every year. These men would fight to the death for the entertainment of the blood-thirsty crowds, either against each other or exotic animals imported for the purpose. Special schools trained slaves in fighting techniques. Women were naturally used as concubines or were communally raped by soldiers, and had even fewer rights than might otherwise be expected for male slaves.
Many slaves were raised as apprentices, craftsmen, accountants, shop-keepers, writers, teachers, messengers, and general labourers (including in such terrible activities as mining). The children of slaves were also, of course, destined to be slaves. It was a hideous reversal of hereditary monarchy; people were born into a life of perpetual servitude, sold on the marketplace like cattle or jewelery. The tutors of future Emperors were often slaves. Some were immensely well-educated and went on to successful careers either as slaves for prominent people or when they were freed.
There were strict rules about slavery and how a person could be set free.
It was possible for states to ransom their citizens, captured as booty during war. It was also possible for enslaved people to be freed by proclamations by rulers, due to some historical or recent issue.
But for most slaves, there were great restrictions on how they could become free. For example, when a slave-owner was brought to trial for an offence, he or she couldn't set any slaves free. Free people couldn't be tortured under interrogation to reveal the truth. Slaves could be tortured and questioned under duress, though, so an accused person's slaves were often tortured in an effort to establish the truth about a situation.
Slaves had no basic rights. And if they attempted to run away, they could be tried and punished for stealing their owner's property-- themselves.
Of course, slave revolts were very common. One very famous revolt was led by a former gladiator named Spartacus, who wandered through Italy with an army of 90,000 freed slaves in the dying days of the Republic. His revolt was put down by Crassus, a member of the First Triumvirate that tried to take over the Republic. There was naturally only one way to deal with this kind of threat to the power of the land-owners and the rich. Revolts and social unrest were almost always put down with brutal force.
These violent uprisings were similar to the insurrections of the poor masses in many countries today. This violence afflicts all nations, from Africa to Asia to North America. Whole populations are economically or politically enslaved to a tiny aristocracy, in practical reality if not in name.
Slaves who had been freed were called Freedmen. Though free, the ignominy of having once been a slave (or being descended from slaves) placed them in a lower social class than citizens. Freedmen were, however, no longer subjected to the brutality of the slave-owning class.
Citizenship: Free Men
Foreigners and women were treated very, very poorly. Roman Citizens were technically the only people with real rights, and these superceded most of the rights enjoyed by others. For example, Roman citizens could not be sold into slavery; doing this was punishable by death. Citizens did have to protect their rights, after all. There was no other way to recognize slaves, as anyone could end up in slavery. As time went on, more and more of the population was included in citizenship, but in the beggining only a select portion of male adults were citizens. This was in keeping with the Greek classical tradition.
The rich and powerful in the Republic maintained their special rights (as citizens) by disenfranchising much of the population. But as time went on, their special status, guaranteed by exclusive citizenship, was eroded. Citizenship was first extended to free males in Rome's Italian allied states, then to Italy, and then to chosen nations and peoples in far-flung corners of the Roman Empire.
Eventually, long after the fall of the Republic, Roman citizenship was extended to all people in the Roman Empire. It was considered a controversial move even then, though the meaning of citizenship, under an Emperor, had been drastically degraded, and bore little remaining meaning.
By the end of the Empire the concept of citizenship had been so watered down that it meant much less to people who were made Roman citizens. Because they hated the Romans and their Empire, some people resented having anything to do with the Roman Empire and certainly didn't want to be considered citizens of what they perceived as a foreign, oppressive and abusive system.
The Romans were an incredibly superstitious people. Many people are surprised at this; like us, the Romans had a strong spirit of inquiry and logical reasoning, so we'd expect them to be less susceptible to irrationality. And yet the population was often gripped with fear and angst at the slightest sign of bad omens, portents or celestial events. Professionals interpreted dreams and observed the flight of birds to determine the best time to start a battle. Roman armies even had a special position, called "The Keeper of the Sacred Chickens". It was this man's job to sacrifice a chicken and examine its entrails. From these, he would determine the best course of action for the army, or at least advise the leaders on their odds.
Many other forms of superstition were common in the Classical world. The world of the Mediterranean was always abuzz with astrologers, sooth-sayers (people who claimed to be able to predict the future), long-established oracles, prophets, hero and ancestor worship, mystical literatures, mystery cults and arcane religious philosophies. There was no end of holy sites, temples, shrines and sacred groves.
We can't judge the ancient Mediterranean world overly harshly. These were simple people with a much less sophisticated intellectual culture than we maintain today. That said, we have to remember not to be arrogant. The parallels between ancient and modern Western society are striking. The Western world clings remorselessly to reason (even when it's not appropriate), and yet millions upon millions of people read astrology or join religious and philosophical cults in a search for meaning. Many millions more follow religious principles and ritualism which they barely understand and rarely question. Our societies seem all too predictable, following patterns very similar to those of ancient peoples, despite our attempts to abandon superstition.
Social Classes and Religion
In many societies all over the globe, rulers have often assumed a religious or divine authority to rule, and instill the population with a sense of awe or fear in order to maintain their control. This was true for ancient China, Egypt, the Mayan world, the iron-age kingdoms of Africa and the world of ancient Mesopotamia. It was even true of mediaevil Europe, where kings considered themselves divinely authorized to rule over people. They argued that they had this right principally because they were already kings and that must have meant God gave them the right to rule, because otherwise they wouldn't be kings. If you opposed this, you challenged the idea of an omnipotent God and could be attacked by the Church.
Arguments about this sort of thing are usually circular, and a poor peasant from any society trying to refute these ideas was faced with a daunting task, at the end of which there were still swords and spears to deal with. But there is much evidence showing that the common people regularly challenged the religious authority of the rich, from ancient Rome to the Mayan states of North America. Because of the abuse of peoples' natural tendencies for fear and superstition, some modern philosphers, such as Karl marx, have argued that religion and superstition are dangerous. Amibitious leaders and the wealthy can use them to manipulate the masses.
Rome had rigid social classes that were as ancient as Roman custom. Some families had special inherited religious or ceremonial rights and responsibilities. The Senate was able to maintain its monopoly on State prerogatives because it had certain religious rights and responsibilities, probably inherited from the early Kingship system, that only the nobility (especially the Senate itself) could observe. These included the religious rituals involved in appointing Consuls or other state functionaries, and even in declaring war or signing treaties. These arguments were usually effective in keeping the masses from assuming more power for themselves.
Social Divisions: Prestige and Wealth
Some people were highly honoured because of a clan's dedicated service to the state or the Roman people in the past. This was especially true for families who had a military hero as an ancestor. Heroes and hero-worship were given a lot of attention in Rome and the Mediterranean, and the personality cults of indivual leaders often threatened to overthrow democratic states.
There always existed the social division that mattered most: wealth. Rich landowners, like the rich today, were frequently little better than social parasites, doing little work but making themselves ever more rich by using money to force labour from others. They lived off their investments, mostly income from disempowered tenants and interest from extortionate loans. They also relied on income from economically devastating speculation, which is dangerous because it's inherently inflationary and damages the economy. Most of the wealthy classes likely never worked at all. In Rome, there was a small middle-class of merchants and professionals, but they struggled in the face of free labour which slaves were forced to perform.
Rome had an established hierarchy, with a long-established nobility, whose families usually participated in the Senate. Ancient families fought for pre-eminance and power. Wealth was a great determiner of status, but beyond that family connections and state honours were important. As time went on, the wealthy classes grew more and more powerful, and the final arbiter of influence was, of course, money and what it could buy.
Inequal distribution of wealth was a severe problem in Rome throughout its history. It grew worse as the wealthy were allowed to grow even richer at the expense of the masses and when foreign states were conquered.
Freedom and Tyrrany
Though the situation might have seemed grim, the ideals of freedom for citizens were often respected, even though it may have seemed hypocritical. Unfinished as the Republican constitution seemed, it was a vast improvement overthe monarchies of previous periods, and of other states such as Egypt, Macedonian-ruled Greece and the Middle East, with their absolute rulers and feudal social structures. It was surprising that a more participatory form of democracy didn't in fact evolve.