Ever wondered how the Romans lived their lives back in the day? Well, for starters, society in the Roman Republic was highly hierarchical and class-conscious. The citizens of Rome were divided into two main classes, Patricians and Plebeians (also known as Plebs). This is important because this segregation still happens today - the rich and the poor. The conflict between these two classes highlights their struggles and is unique because the plebs emerged victorious after each fight for their rights (which is not always the case, the rich and powerful always seem to win in stories), and shows how discrimination in social classes can be removed or eased.
After the expulsion of the Etruscan kings around 509 BCE, the monarchy was abolished and a republic was created. Even though both patricians and plebs were citizens, the latter was often oppressed. The republic was governed by patricians, the upper class who abused their privileges (pp.317-318, The Rise of The Roman Republic). Sounds familiar? That's because it still happens in our current meritocratic societies.
Power in the early republic belonged exclusively to the wealthy patricians, they were the aristocrats of the Roman Republic and were mainly property-owners, judges, politicians, legislators, etc (pp.318-319, The Rise of The Roman Republic). Plebs who made the majority of the population had no power and no rights in the government, as they were the descendants of the conquered Albans ... who were poor, hence they were low in social status. Plebs could not hold public office and were mostly peasants, farmers, laborers, and soldiers (p.318, The Rise of The Roman Republic). They suffered more under this early republican structure than they had under the monarchy, being oppressed by famine, poverty, and powerlessness. Patricians had higher status jobs and were in possession of lands of great worth while plebs were compelled into the military force. Though patricians held much more power than plebs, they were cautious of not angering the plebs for they far outnumbered them. To avoid disagreements between the two groups, plebs were given some political rights, but still had to fight for them most of the time. They began to revolt against patricians to achieve equality through riots and strikes (p.319, The Rise of The Roman Republic), known as secessions (or secessio), a political violent uprising against an authority through withdrawal or separation.
Plebs used their strength in numbers to oppose the patricians through secessions to fight against the injustice that they were facing: debts and unfairly distributed land. They were simply conscripted to fight battles against the neighboring Latin tribes, which Rome was often preoccupied with in the 400s BCE (pg19, Warfare and the Army in Early Rome). Their crops were often destroyed after these battles because they were so ‘generously’ given land on the extreme outskirts of the city by patricians. To recoup the losses from the destruction of their crops, plebs would take on huge amounts of debts at unreasonably high interest rates which upon failure to repay, would lead to them being enslaved by patricians. Plebs thus decided to fight for their rights, mainly because of the ongoing debts that seemed to be inescapable. However, patricians refused to hear them out, which eventually led to the first secession to Mons Sacer (Sacred Mountain), “withdrawing from the city in what was in effect a military strike, in 494[BCE]” (pg 19, Warfare and the Army in Early Rome).
Patricians knew that they could not win the battles without plebs so they made concessions with plebs, hoping that they would end the strikes and resume their usual activities. The negotiation through the first secession concluded with a significant result: the creation of the Tribunes of the Plebs (pg 312, The End of the Conflict of Orders). This was the first ever government set up for the protection of the plebeian rights, and the first time plebs actually held positions in the office. The establishment of this office for plebs was monumental because it was the first milestone that allowed them to continue fighting for equal rights (pg 312-313, The End of the Conflict of Orders). However, this feat was not easy to achieve because many secessions were needed. The second secession happened in 449 BCE (pg 2, Timeline: Ancient Rome) when the Decemviri (ten men) abused their authority and disallowed the demands of the plebeian tribunes.
The final secession of the plebs occurred in 287 BCE about 160 years later. Unfortunately, the primary sources regarding this secession are either lost or lacking, so it’s a bit like fixing a jigsaw puzzle with several missing pieces. However, what we do know for sure, is that the outcome of this third secession was that for the first time (pg 2, Timeline: Ancient Rome), a pleb, Quintus Hortensius, was made a dictator. [Fun fact: In the Roman Republic, dictators = noble, temporary Senate-elected magistrates with great authority, not someone like Hitler.]
Anyway, in 287 BCE, he passed a law known as the Lex Hortensius which made all resolutions passed by the plebs mandatory, regardless of whether the Senate had approved it or not. This law was huge for plebs, who enacted it after the patricians refused to accept some of the plebeian decisions. Thus, the final secession concluded with a law that effectively allowed plebs to rise to the same level of power as patricians.
The Law of the Twelve Tables
The 12 tablets of law were a product of one of the secessions, and it was a stepping stone for plebs in their fight for equality. The 12 tablets of law seemed to have covered every facet of the everyday lives of the Romans, from land dispute settlements to robbery. Although these new laws did not place plebs and patricians on equal statuses, it served justice rightly in their eyes. To think that in today's world, we still fight for the smaller details.
It is essential to examine the twelve tables when discussing the relationship between patricians and plebs as it has become the model followed by many civilizations to this day. The twelve tables were the earliest attempt by the Romans to create laws amid the conflict of orders. The aim was to treat all citizens equally. Although it may not have been fully codified, it was slowly making way for the protection of the rights of all citizens. Some laws can appear quaint and some may seem harsh. The Decemviri from which the 12 tablets had arose, should also be credited with making laws which were practical and isolated from any religious biases. Thus, the Romans created a way to deal with lawful matters which has since been replicated by innumerable different social orders and governments from that point forward.
Issues of rational application were soon cleared when a couple of patricians declined to obey the laws of the 12 tables. The locals were shocked over the fact that some of the underlying unspoken laws were now being made official. These factors provoked the plebs who then fought for their rights which led to the end of the Decemviri. Rome's constitution was changed, the establishments of tribunes and ambassadors were re-established. The Twelve Tables transformed into the beginning of Roman law. Everyone was aware of the laws and children even studied them in schools.
These were the laws from the Twelve Tables:
Table I to VI
Table VII to XII
However, some specific laws in the main tables were not practiced for long. An example would be the prohibited intermarriage between patricians and plebs. One of the notable achievements from their fights for equal rights was the lift on the ban on intermarriage between plebs and patricians (pg 313, The End of the Conflict of Orders). Good riddance, for the eradication of the law that divided the Romans. Distinctive laws inside the Twelve Tables were changed after some time. They were reliably supplanted by laws more appropriate to the propelling Roman culture and the passionate augmentation of the Republic.
So, we might want to think twice the next time we tell someone to “do as the Romans do” since they seem to be a very classist bunch. We wouldn’t want to discriminate others on their social class like that, would we? The fact that the plebs had to carry out a total of five secessions really goes to show how unhappy they were with the system.
Thankfully, the ancient Romans eventually came to a decision on how they could sort things out through a semi-peaceful resolution of conflict (though it was a long period of tension). There were no bloody wars and fights between the two classes (mostly because the patricians would have been out of their minds to do that), which is quite a feat for the ancient world where almost everything seemed to be resolved through some form of bloodshed...
The biggest takeaway from the conflict between the patricians and the plebs would be to treat others (especially your fellow countrymen and neighbors) equally, respect them, and uphold one another.
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- Similar to the Aryan migration where class is partly a division between “conqueror” and “conquered”. The Plebeians mostly consisting of freed men and immigrants were the conquerors of the Albans who lived in a close neighbouring city called Alba Longa, which was southeast of Rome. ...