The big gens

August 14, 2009 at 5:34 am 1 comment

| Gabriel |

I heard that a handful of clans (or “gens” in Latin) dominated the higher offices of the Roman republic and I figured that this would be a good data question. To start, I copied the Fasti Consulares from Wikipedia and limited it to the Republican period, defined as the Rape of Lucretia through the Battle of Actium.

Roman names followed the convention of “personal gens family [honorifics].” So, for instance “Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus” means “the man Publius from the Scipio branch of the Cornelius clan, the conqueror of Africa.” From the perspective of seeing which clans dominated the Republic, the key bit is the second name so I used the Stata string function “word” to pull the second word out of each of these names.

As can be seen, the distribution of consulships/gens follows a power-law. Since power-laws indicate a cumulative advantage mechanism we can interpret this as meaning that in Rome a family’s power and prestige was endogenous.


The most dominant clans  in the republic were the Furii (41 consulships), the Claudii (45 consulships), the Aemilii (53 consulships), the Fabii (62 consulships), the Valerii (71 consulships), and the Cornelii (106 consulships). This means that a Cornelius was consul about once every six years.

In contrast the Iulii (as in Gaius Iulius Caesar) held the consulship a relatively paltry 29 times, so small wonder that in order to establish the monarchy they had to form a marriage alliance with the Claudii. Likewise, the Pompeii were a politically obscure family but Pompey Magnus became powerful through his patron-client relationships with the Cornelii.

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Did I stutter? Applied diffusion modeling

1 Comment

  • 1. Doing well by doing good « Code and Culture  |  May 20, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    […] are entirely true in the Roman Republic. The simplest way to demonstrate this is that there is a power-law distribution for how often families held the consulship. This implies cumulative advantage and thus holding high political office must have been, on net, […]

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