In ancient Rome, any member of a group of citizen families who, in contrast to the plebeians, formed a privileged nobility. They attempted to hold on to magistracies, priesthoods, and legal and religious knowledge, and the great civil struggle of the Roman republic was the effort of the plebeians to achieve equality and break the patrician monopoly. Gradually the patricians lost their monopoly—except in a few areas, such as selected priesthoods and the office of interrex—and in the late republic (1st century BC) the distinction lost political importance. After 27 BC, patrician rank was necessary for ascent to the imperial throne. After Constantine's reign (AD 337), the term became an honorary h1 with no particular power.
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In the beginning of the Republic all priesthoods were closed to non-patricians. There was a belief that patricians communicated better with the Roman gods, so they alone could perform the sacred rites and take the auspices. This view had political consequences, since in the beginning of the year or before a military campaign, Roman magistrates used to consult the gods. Livy reports that the first admission of plebeians into a priestly college happened in 300 B.C. (Liv. X.7.9) when the college of Augurs raised their number from four to nine. After that, plebeians were accepted into the other religious colleges, and by the end of the republic, only minor priesthoods with little political importance like the Salii, the Flamens and the Rex Sacrorum were exclusively filled by patricians.
In the list of the names of the Romans who held magistracies (the Fasti), very few plebeian names appear before the 2nd century B.C. The turning point were two laws, the Licinian - Sextian law of 367 B.C. that ascertained the right of plebeians to hold the consulship, and the Genucian law of 342 B.C. that made it compulsory that one at least of the consuls be a plebeian.
The ancient patrician gentes whose members appear in founding legends of Rome disappeared as Rome started becoming an empire and new plebeian families rose to prominence, such as the Decii and the Sempronii. Families such as the Horatii, Lucretii, Verginii and Menenii seem to vanish after the 2nd century B.C. Others, such as the Julii reappear only at the end of the Republic. There are some cases where the same gens name was shared by patrician and plebeian clans (for example the Appii Claudii were patricians and the Claudii Marcelli were plebeians).
Historian Adrian Richard states that patrician families were initially those who held positions within the priesthoods, and that the ancient Senate, composed of patricians, was a religious advisory body. The Senate, acting as a council of religious elders, had political power because it was necessary to have their assent on new laws. The priestly class would confirm that the new laws were in keeping with mos maiorum and would give their auctoritas to the measures that could then be enacted.
By the 5th century, the title generally denoted a man, commonly a general of the Roman army, who held the power behind the imperial throne. Patricians of this era included Stilicho, Constantius III, Aëtius, Boniface, and Ricimer; Constantius III would later become co-emperor. The patrician title was occasionally used in Western Europe after the end of the Roman Empire; for instance, Pope Stephen II granted the title "Patrician of the Romans" to the Frankish ruler Pippin III.
In the Eastern Empire, where the emperors maintained their hold on power, the title retained its meaning as an honorific. The term fell out of use as the Greek language replaced Latin as the language of the court. A member of the plebeian class could be elevated by showing great support towards the Senate, by living a life of pure dedication, and having no criminal history with members of the groups. Patricians could be demoted to plebeian status if they failed to fulfill their duties as a husband, or by murdering another member of the patrician society.
In the science fiction Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, Ducem Barr is referred to as a Patrician of the Empire in the Foundation and Empire volume. Within the story, it is an inherited noble title, clearly derived of the Roman Imperial definition, which was used as a model for Asimov's Galactic Empire.
In Ayn Rand's 1936 novel The Fountainhead, the narrator makes several comparisons between the newspaper tyrant Gail Wynand and a patrician.
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