Plebeians VS Patricians

A stable government equals better policies equals happy people equal a stable government. The Roman Republic was more stable than the kingdom that it had replaced in 509 BC but it wasn’t really stable because to put it simply, there was no balance of power. There were the patricians or the great (ultra rich) families (Fun fact patrician comes from the word patres or fathers) and basically everyone else (who had next to no power) called the plebeians. And to sum it up nicely for you, this is what Ambrose Bierce had to say about plebeians,

Plebeian, n. An ancient Roman who in the blood of his country stained nothing but his hands. Distinguished from the Patrician, who was a saturated solution.

The Conflict of the Orders, also referred to as the Struggle of the Orders, was a political struggle between the Plebeians (commoners) and Patricians (aristocrats) of the ancient Roman Republic is thought to have begun during the first years of the republic and lasted for more than 200 years. This sometimes passive confrontation lasted from 500 BC to 287 BC the Plebeians sought political equality (each plebeian family relied on a patrician family) with the powerful Patricians.

Plebeians did not have the right to hold high religious or civil offices and were often unaware of the laws that governed the Roman society. In such desperate times, the withdrawal of labour and services, or “secessio plebis” was the only way to make dissent know. The poorest would leave the city in a mass boycott of sorts, forcing their social superiors to look after all ‘menial’ tasks.

First Secession (Secessio plebis)– 494 BC

The first such secession occurred in 494. The debt-ridden plebeians remonstrated with the wealthy when famine struck. They seceded to Mons Sacer that resulted in the conception of the office of the Plebeian Tribunes who were sacrosanct and had veto power over the passage of legislation. Plebeians were given direct access to the written civil and religious laws, and to the electoral and political procedure. This was the first time plebeians acquired real power, de facto and de jure.

Second Secession – 449 BC

The Second Secessio Plebis of 449 BC was initiated because of the exploitation and manipulation of a commission of the decemviri (Latin for “ten men”). The decemviri was assigned in 450 BC to formulate and compose a law code (which became the Law of the Twelve Tables). They were given one year, during which the offices of state were adjourned. Like all men with absolute power (just a little Lord Acton reference for my Acton-ites), these men were corrupted absolutely. After releasing a set of laws, they held onto their power and chose not to resign. They killed a soldier who spoke against them (this soldier happened to be a former plebeian tribune so the plebs were NOT happy). Then one of the decemviri (and the bad man parents warned their kids of) Appius Claudius Crassus decided to impose marriage on a woman Verginia whose father stabbed her to save her. The people who saw that happening seceded to the Aventine Hill (apparently stabbing a damsel in distress does the magic for the Romans).

Despite all attempts of the Senate, the decemviri refused to resign. So the people withdrew to Mons Sacer (from the first secession). The Senate was desperate by this time and somehow (by a miracle of God) got them to resign. They then sent two senators, Lucius Valerus Potitus and Marcus Horatius Barbatus, to cajole the people out of secession. Those assembled at Mons Sacer demanded the restoration of the plebeian tribunes and the right to appeal, which had been suspended during the year of the decemviri. They got what they wanted (thankfully). Lucius Valerius Potitus and Marcus Horatius Barbatus went on to become the consuls for 449 BC and introduced laws that gave concessions to plebeians. (Happy ending! Naah…)

The lex Valeria Horatia de plebiscìtis was passed that stipulated that the laws passed by the Plebeian Council were germane to both patricians and plebeians. However, once passed, these laws needed to be ratified by the senate (auctoritas patrum).

Third Secession – 445 BC

While the Law of Twelve Tables was taking shape, a second decemvirate severely restricted plebeian freedoms including forbidding on the intermarriage of patricians and plebeians. Gaius Canuleius, one of the tribunes of the plebs in 445 BC, proposed a legislative bill (or a rogatio) repealing this law. He was strongly opposed by the consuls(of course, he didn’t win the most popular pleb award).

When a consul commented, that the children of mixed marriages might incur the wrath of the gods, the plebeians went on a military strike, refusing to defend the city against attacking neighbors. This caused the consuls to yield to their demands, allowing a vote on Canuleius’ original rogatio. In the end a compromise was reached and military tribunes with consular power could be elected from either order and the law banning intermarriage was repealed.

Fourth Secession – 342 BC

This fourth secession is noted by Livy though not much is known about it. It isn’t considered particularly significant.

Fifth Secession – 287 BC

In 287 BC, the plebeians withdrew for the fifth and final time. After a war with the Sabines, the lands acquired had been distributed among the Patricians (the plebeians had been conveniently left out). The plebeians engaged in the war, returned to their farms with debt to the patricians piling. So, plebeians seceded to Aventine Hill in protest. Quintus Hortensius was made dictator, who convinced the crowd to stop the secession. Hortensius declared a law, the Lex Hortensia, which stated that the laws made by plebeian assemblies (or plebiscite) applied to all denizens, including patricians. Proposed laws no longer had to be ratified by patrician senators before the Plebeian Council could consider them.

Hence the Conflict of Orders was closed and the last barrier in eliminating the political disparities that existed between the two classes eradicated.

The oppressed often attract the sympathy and support of one odd member of the oppressors’ order. Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, a former consul and war hero, was one of those people. In 385 BC he is said to have sided with the plebeians and later on became the first patrician to have gone over to the plebeians. According to Livy, he sold his estate to repay the debts of many plebeians becoming impoverished himself in the process. He was accused of seeking kingly power because of the unrest he caused, he was sentenced to death and thrown from the Tarpeian Rock.

The patricians stood out as the antagonist in this righteous struggle of the plebeians to attain legal and political equality. Had the patricians not craved power, would they not have shared it with the plebeians? Power is coveted by all. In another scenario with plebeians being the dominant class in the society by some ironical twist of fate would have oppressed the patricians. Because it is intrinsic, because the greed to have the upper hand runs in our veins almost as surely as veins, we cannot cast patricians off as only villains even though many times they probably were close to becoming ones.

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