Though the patron-client system functioned at multiple levels, in which the client of one patron could also have clients of his own, it would be obvious that the most noble of families could have large numbers of clients supporting them in their endeavors. Along the same lines, entire kingdoms or nations, once conquered and made subservient, could become clients to the Roman commander that had conquered them. Such was the way of the world.
Of course, if clients had clients, and if this reached all the way down to the basest level of society, it would also hold true for the other side of the ladder. Even a noble family would be the clients of a more honorable family, with this being the case all the way up to, in the days of Jesus and subsequently of the Apostle Paul, the Caesar himself. Ultimately, all were looked upon as clients of Caesar, who was faithful and loyal to his subjects. Those subjects, in turn, were to be faithful and loyal to Caesar. This ideal was embodied in the common phrase “ek pistis eis pistin,” which is often translated as “from faith to faith”. The Apostle Paul borrowed this common and well-known phraseology and subversively put it to use in his letter to the Romans (1:17).
It is this system of patronage that truly formed the foundation of the Roman state. Not only did it serve to create stability, but the unwavering loyalty of clients could aid certain families in retaining power for extended periods of time. At the same time, it created something of a welfare network, which was especially useful within an empire that lacked the means (or, at least, did not direct those means) to support those most in need and incapable of providing for themselves.
The client system that surrounded a patron would look out for its members, ensuring that no harm would come to its own. If one member of the client group would be struck down by poverty, the other clients, and most likely the patron as well, would see to it that the one in need could get a loan. In the worst case, they would see to it that their fellow client would receive a decent funeral. If the patron was unable to provide assistance personally, he would orchestrate the assistance (gaining honor), perhaps asking other clients to come to the aid of another that had fallen on hard time.
In continuing to explore the patron-client dynamic of Paul’s day, one can look to Seneca---a Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and humorist that was a contemporary of the Apostle Paul. Seneca wrote: “Let us, therefore, show how acceptable a gift is by loudly expressing our gratitude for it; and let us do so, not only in the hearing of the giver, but everywhere. He who receives a benefit with gratitude, repays the first installment of it.” This statement would reflect the general attitude of a client towards his patron, who would be looked upon as the source of gifts. For what it’s worth, Seneca himself was a tutor of the Emperor Nero, later becoming an advisor. Most assuredly, he would have considered Nero to be his patron, so though these words would be generally reflective of the patron-client relationship, they would most likely be penned with the Caesar in mind.