Fides = Faith and the Roman Patron-Client Relationship


Mark Bonocore

I’ve been reading a book by Karl Christ called The Romans, and thought I’d share something that you might find useful in your discussions about soteriology and the meaning of "faith". In a section about the early development of the Roman city-state, the author talks about the relationship between the "patronus" ("patron") and his "clientia" ("clients"). In ancient Roman society, it was an accepted convention that a rich aristocrat or patrician (a "patron") should have numerous common people dependent upon him for their legal, social, and even economic welfare. These people were called his "clients", and they relied on the patron as their patriarch and provider – a societal relationship that still exists in many Latin American countries today, as well as in the Mafia (i.e., the role of "the Godfather"). ;-) And, speaking about this relationship between patron and client, the author says…

The institution of clienthood, clientela, is still more important for an understanding of Roman social order. It assumes on the side of the weaker, the cliens, a fundamental acknowledgment of dependency; on that of the stronger, the patronus, a conscious acceptance of responsibility for the weaker. With this, the patronus had also a helping and protective function. He must never be ruthless in exploiting his own advantages over the weaker. The relation of trust which existed in such cases was called fides (i.e., faith). It imposed on the client the duty of acceptance, of forming part of the patrician’s retinue in his public appearances. In special cases, too, the client had to render physical services. Against that, the patron was obligated to stand up for his client in many different ways, not least in court. Thus the relation of trust was mutual.

Now, notice the Latin word that was used to describe this "relation of trust" between patron and client. The word is "fides" – that is, "faith". Now, why do I point this out and why is it important? It is important because it illustrates the cultural mentality of Roman people, and thus the cultural mentality of someone like St. Paul (and that of his Roman audience) when expressing himself in the Epistle to the Romans. Paul, let us not forget, was a Roman citizen; and, as such, he and his (Jewish) forefathers would have been bound by (read: implicitly adopted into) some aristocratic Roman clan as part of its "clientela". So, both Paul and his readers would have been intimately aware of this societal convention and of the meaning of "fides" ("faith") as it applied to patron and client. And, needless to say, in his Epistle to the Romans, Paul’s theological argument is essentially that one need not be a natural born Jew – that one need not be a Torah-observing child of Abraham, but one could be "grafted into" Israel "by faith", and thus "justified by faith apart from the works of the Law". Yet, what Paul means by "faith" ("fides" in Latin) is obviously influenced by (if not literally defined as) the very concept described above. In other words, by accepting Christ, a Gentile Christian enters into the type of patron-client covenant (with the God of Israel) that was known quite commonly in secular Roman society. In this, like the client of a Roman aristocrat, the Gentile need not be part of his Patron’s actual family (i.e., the Jewish people – the original Chosen People of God). Rather, because of his "fides" (covenantal relationship of trust) with his Patron (God), this Patron will care for the client (the Gentile Christian) and preserve his welfare (e.g. assure his salvation, etc.). Yet, …and this is my real point …in having such "fides", the "client" (the Gentile Christian) is not absolved of responsibility or obligation, as Protestant theology would have it. Rather, as described above, in order for such "fides" to exist, the "client" must manifest a "fundamental acknowledgment of dependency" and assume the "duty" of "rendering [certain] physical services" toward the Patron and his interests.

It therefore follows that such (we may call it) "dependent obligation" is intrinsic to the culturally Roman concept of "fides" – that is, "faith". And, this being the case, it is obviously impossible to read what St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans has to say about "faith" apart from this understanding of "fides" – that is, the implicit and contextual meaning of "faith" in the Roman cultural mentality. "Faith" clearly does not (and cannot) mean "belief divorced from action or obligation". Such a definition is alien to the culture in which (and to which) St. Paul addressed his Epistle.

I think the Roman societal convention of patron-and-client illustrates our Catholic understanding of "faith" quite well …especially when the covenantal relationship of patron-and-client in Roman society was described using this very term – fides.

I also think that it may be fruitful to explore Pauline theology with this Roman societal convention in mind. For, it may very well help illustrate how Paul saw the relationship of Gentiles toward the Church of His Messianic (Jewish) King. For, by the 1st Century, it had become quite common for Roman military commanders to adopt conquered Oriental subjects into their families’ retinue of "clients". This may have been the experience of Paul’s own family, and how it acquired Roman citizenship. It is commonly said that Paul’s grandfather provided tents for the armies of Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony), and this is how he became a Roman citizen – i.e., adopted into the clientia of either Antony’s, or one of Antony's sub-commander's, family orgens. As Karl Christ describes this process it in his book, …

While the relationship at first was entirely personal, later whole villages and cities and kings would join the clientela of individual Roman aristocrats. These were often the very Roman army commanders who had subdued them and then became the representatives of their interests in the Roman Senate.

Another historical example of this was the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who, during the First Jewish War, surrendered his military command to the future Emperor Vespasian, becoming one of Vespasian’s "clients" and taking the name "Flavius" (Vespasian’s family name) because he was now a dependent in, and thus essentially a member of, Vespasian’s clan. St. Paul’s Roman citizenship would have come about in a very similar (if not identical) way. And so, the possibility exists that Paul viewed the Gentile membership of the Church in similar terms – as if His (Jewish) King and Messiah adopted Gentiles into His Kingly "clientela" just as Roman emperors and other Roman aristocrats did with Jews like Josephus and Paul himself. And just as Josephus (a client of the Flavian emperors) took the Roman name "Flavius", and just as Saul of Tarsus took the Roman name "Paulus" (likely the name of the Roman commander who imparted Roman citizenship to St. Paul's family), so too (as we read in Scripture many times) the Gentiles took on the Name of "Christ" and suffered for "the Name". This aspect of the Roman patron-and-client relationship may very well be at least part of what is being referred to. See Acts 9:15, Acts 15:17, 15:26, Romans 10:13, 1 Corinthians 1:13, 1 Corinthians 5:3, 1 Corinthians 6:11, 2 Thessalonians 1:12, 2 Timothy 2:19, James 2:7, Revelation 2:13, Revelation 2:17, Revelation 3:5.

St. Paul’s meaning, therefore, would be that a Gentile in Christ is not obligated to keep the Torah, like a Jew, but is saved in and through a patron-and-client-type covenant with the Messianic King, whereby the Gentile is nevertheless obligated by the principal of "fides" ("faith") – that is, the "relation of trust" between client and patron. And through this "relation of trust", the "client" (the Gentile Christian) is essentially adopted into the gens (Family) of God, and even placed on a level of equal dignity with his Patron’s own sons (the Jewish people) because he too (the Gentile / client) bears the Patron’s own Name. This is almost certainly what St. Paul has in mind.

Just some things to think about.

Mark Bonocore
April 28, 2013