Patrician and Plebeianthe two orders, or classes, of free residents in ancient Rome. The patricians were a hereditary aristocracy. Among the most eminent patrician gentes (clans) were the Fabii, Cornelii, Julii, and Claudii. The plebeians were a varied group—including native peasants, laborers, and merchants, and residents of Italian states absorbed by Rome. They greatly outnumbered the patricians.
Originally only the patricians could vote or hold public office. Intermarriage between the orders were forbidden. In 494 B.C. the plebeians won the right to choose their own officers, the tribunes. Gradually all restrictions were removed, and in 287 B.C. the plebeian assembly (comitia populi tributa) was given the right to pass laws.
After this date the distinction between patrician and plebeian became of little importance. Persons of senatorial rank—descendants of senators—were recognized as the nobility. Many plebeian families were of senatorial rank. Next in importance were the equites (knights), who were businessmen. Julius Caesar was given the right to create new patricians during his rule (49–44 B.C.), and the Roman emperors followed this custom. Constantine the Great (emperor, 312–37 A.D.) made patrician a personal title of honor given for distinguished service. The early medieval popes also gave the title of patrician to eminent persons.