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How the Plebs Punched Upwards


Black and white engraving of an armed Roman force walking away from  its senators.
The Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer, engraving by Bartolomeo Barloccini, 1849.

Ancient Roman society was incredibly class conscious, necessarily in fact, for the state to govern.


The Censor, a political officer of the Republic, assigned Roman citizens to the Senatorial Class – the governing class of Rome – if they met the necessary wealth and familial qualifications. This is known as the lectio senatus, and consisted of Patricians, descendants of the men who stood beside Romulus the first king of Rome, who were to be distinguished from Plebeians - everybody else effectively, although this is a simplification.


One needed to be aware of one's position within society for the society to function. However, Polybius’ History of the 3rd Century BCE describes Rome as “no easy thing to determine with assurance, whether the entire state was to be estimated an aristocracy, a democracy, or a monarchy.” The attestation of Rome as a democracy, in the sense used in Antiquity, comes from the results of the a long process of Class Struggle in which peaceful disobedience by the lower classes allowed for the expansion of political representation to beyond the upper echelons of Roman society. The nature of this struggle, beginning in 494BCE (only 15 years after the foundation of the Republic) and its achievements are outlined below.


The Roman Republic was born from a monarchical form of government (the Roman Kingdom) established on the consent of the Senate (this name being derived from the Latin senex – old man) which was made up of the heads of tribal families, the gens.


After the overthrow of the monarchy in 509BCE, the Republic, so the traditional histories go, replaced the power of the king with that of two Consuls, so that unchecked individual power may never reign again in Rome. The Senate inherited the power of political appointments, and these were restricted solely to members of the Patricians.


Plebeians were ineligible to have any role in statecraft although they would invariably bear the consequences of the Senate’s decisions.


Furthermore, as a warlike people, Rome was constantly at war with her neighbours, conscripting Plebeians to fight for the protection of their country and their own meagre property. Soldiers were to equip themselves for war according to their rank in society and, as many of the Plebeians were poor peasant farmers, coming up with the disposable income for weapons and armour of war was a challenge, so wealthy Patricians would loan their clients money to buy this equipment.


Through the accruing of debt, the spoils of war ended up in the hands of Patricians, causing resentment between the two classes to grow. In addition to this, if one had accrued enough debt to another, the debtor was empowered to enslave the indebted person to pay off their debt under law. However, as this law was not formalised there was grave suspicion of this power being misused. This fear of abject slavery to the upper class is palpable from an account given by Livy.


Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus are the main extant sources on this topic, writing at least five centuries after it took place. The context is that in the early Republic, Rome was still one small state among many on the Italian Peninsula. A warning came of an attack by the Volscians, a people to the southeast of Latium, which split opinion among the classes. The Patricians erupted in furore and fear, while the Plebeians rejoiced for they believed the attack to be the gods avenging them against the senators.


There were great protests and demonstrations in the Forum - and in other parts of the city - and at one, Livy, with typically dramatic style, places an old soldier who bears both the worn scars of the battlefield and the fresh scars of the lash. Incensed by this sight the Plebians refuse to enlist. The Consul quelled this rebellion by providing the Plebeians with a promise of protection, but when the short campaign against the Volscians was completed this promise was undone.


This led to more demonstrations, broken only by the outbreak of another war. Another promise of protection was given, and it was broken as quickly as the first.


The Plebeians, tired of the manipulation of the Patricians, when called to enlist upon the next outbreak of hostilities, instead refused and went on strike, walking out to the Sacred Mount outside of the city.


Here they compiled their demands.


The most significant was the creation of a particular political office for the protection of the Plebians: the Tribunate. The Tribune had the power to veto any legislation and could only be elected from among the Plebeians. Furthermore, these new magistrates were sacrosanct: anyone who caused an injury to them would be executed.


The Patricians acquiesced and, briefly, there was harmony among the classes. Over the following two centuries, there were several strikes, which eventually allowed for the distinction between Patricians and Plebians to become irrelevant. Plebians could hold any political office of the Republic and become Senators. In 326 BCE enslavement as a result of debt was abolished, establishing the protection of Roman Citizens from slavery.


The last of these changes, as recorded by Mary Beard in her 2015 history SPQR, was in 287 BCE, when the principle that Patricians had the right to review laws put before the created Plebeian Council was abolished.


Ironically, however, it was to be the powers of the Tribune (Tribunician Authority) alongside that of the Censor and the threat of incredible military might, that was used by the Julio-Claudians to aggregate the power of the Emperor, allowing for the eventual disestablishment of the Republic.




Sources:


A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. William Smith, LLD. William Wayte. G. E. Marindin. Albemarle Street, London. John Murray. 1890.


Beard, M. (2015). SPQR : a history of ancient Rome. New York: Liverlight Publishing Corporation.


Livy (2006). The history of Rome, books 1-5. Indianapolis, In: Hackett Pub.


Polybius, Waterfield, R. and Mcging, B.C. (2010). The histories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Micheal O'Crualaoich is a Wannabe Latinist and Classicist from Galway, Ireland. His interests include Roman Social History, Women's Ancient History, Latin Literature, and Socialism.


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