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This is a question that has puzzled me in my research of the history of the Roman Empire.

During the Roman Republic the Patrician class was obviously of paramount importance, & history of the Republic is often taught in terms of the Plebeian class wresting political power from the Patricians. However, following the establishment of the Empire, being a member of the Patrician class was less important than being somehow aligned with the imperial family -- be it the Julio-Claudians, the Flavians, or Antonines.

Augustus had reordered the Roman establishment so that he had some form of control over every possible threat to his rule: over the Senate, the priestly colleges, & especially the military. Moreover, the Patrician class had dwindled in numbers by that point to being as few as 16 in the first century BC (if I remember correctly), & most of them had become relatively impoverished & no longer had members in the Senate. For example, Augustus subsidized the Quinctilii, a Patrician family that had lost its relative wealth over the generations; this was the family the general Varus, who lost the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, belonged to. Almost all of the major priesthoods were staffed mostly, if not entirely, of Plebeian families; not much later, these priesthoods drew from non-Italians to fill out their ranks. Being a Patrician had come to be of marginal importance.

Yet not only Augustus, but later emperors such as Claudius, Vespasian & others, made an effort to replenish the numbers of the Patrician class. For example, the Acilii Glabriones who were Plebeian in the 2nd century BC, had been adlected/elevated into the Patrician class by Marcus Aurelius' time.

So, what practical purpose did the patrician class have in the Empire? Or were the Emperors simply trying to preserve some relic of the Republic for antiquarian reasons?

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    I get the feeling that merely answering the question is going to result in uncovering more conflicting /unshared assumption. I think what you really want to know will be gained by a review of the Secession War. It isn't so much that the Patrician class had a function as it is that prior to the secession war, the Patricians weren't. There continued to be a cultural distinction between Patricians and Plebs. Distinctions like that aren't "functional", they're cultural. Hope that helps a little bit. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 7 at 18:14
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    I neglected to say that I think this is a good question. the kind of question where H:SE can shine; the kind of question that is nearly impossible to solve by brute force research. Upvote and thank you. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 7 at 18:16
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    You're wrong about the Senate: it was full of non-Patrician members. But you may be right that there were positions reserved for Patricians -- I believe the 4 major priesthoods may have required at least one to be a Patrician -- but the importance of the traditional religion under the Empire seems to be ignored by historians. My impression is that any account of religion in those centuries focus more on the Christian & Jewish religions (& Mithraism) & mention Roman religion as an afterthought -- if at all. – llywrch Jul 8 at 21:07
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    As I understand it, by the end of the Republic the distinction between patrician and plebeian was largely irrelevant: there were poor patrician and rich plebeians, and we should not forget the equites. I believe some priesthoods were reserved to patricians, just as some, tribunes had to be plebeian. Certainly plebians sat in the Senate, and I think the minimum age for certain offices was lower for patricians. – TheHonRose Jul 8 at 22:09
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    @llywrch: You ask why people were still being made Patricians if the rank no longer had any function. Ask why many Brits would be honored by a knighthood -- it no longer has any practical or political function. It's because it's an honor, and by the time of the Empire, the patriciate was also basically just an honor. The religious aspects likewise were honorary -- Julius Caesar and Augustus took firm control of the Roman state religion and the emperors retained that control. But it was still a great honor and worth competing for and people so honored were likely to merit other high positions. – Mark Olson Jul 13 at 12:08
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Good question. I don't claim to know the full answer, but this quote from Mary Beard's SPQR might shed some light.

IN 212 CE the emperor Caracalla decreed that all the free inhabitants of the Roman Empire, wherever they lived, from Scotland to Syria, were Roman citizens. It was a revolutionary decision, which removed at a stroke the legal difference between the rulers and the ruled, and the culmination of a process that had been going on for almost a millennium. More than 30 million provincials became legally Roman overnight.

...

Citizenship, once granted to all, became irrelevant. Over the third century CE, it was the distinction between the honestiores (literally ‘the more honourable’, the rich elite, including veteran soldiers) and the humiliores (literally ‘the lower sort’) that came to matter and to divide Romans again into two groups, with unequal rights formally written into Roman law. It was, for example, only honestiores who were exempted, as all citizens once had been, from particularly cruel or degrading punishments, such as crucifixion or flogging. The ‘lower sort’ of citizens found themselves liable to the kind of penalties that had previously been reserved for slaves and non-citizens. The new boundary between insiders and outsiders followed the line of wealth, class and status.

It sounds like the patrician class persisted by another name. This is about 200 years after Augustus though, so there's a big gap to filled in by another repondent.

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    This is a completely different class distinction than patrician v plebeian. Even in the late Republic there were other distinctions. For example, a family waa considered noble if it had produced a consul, regardless of whether it was patrician or plebeian. – C Monsour Jul 12 at 23:14
  • It sounds like you might know the answer to the question. If you do then post an answer and if OP likes it I don't mind deleting mine – Ne Mo Jul 13 at 12:43
  • I don't know enough of the detail to give a full answer. – C Monsour Jul 13 at 13:41

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