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Power to the Plebs!

Scholarship on the early Roman Republic isn't hugely accessible or abundant when it comes to what a secondary-school teacher needs to make complex history accessible to teenagers, and as such there is a temptation to think that this part of the Ancient History GCSE (“Foundations of Rome” unit, specifically) is a bit dry and boring.

But once you pull out the important narrative strand that focuses on the power of people to make change happen, I think it's a game-changer for pupils and teachers alike.

So, it was in that weird time between Christmas and New Year in December 2021, amid rising Omicron cases and shrinking testing capacity in the UK, that I read about Wales's decision to align themselves with England's decision to reduce isolation from ten days to seven after a positive test. This was on the back of reading just a couple of days before about the American decision to reduce self isolation from seven days to five after a positive test because of the pressure that the absence of self-isolating workers was putting on the economy.

A worker shortage can have a huge impact, but is mostly addressed when it starts to impact businesses' bottom lines. This idea is not new or profound, but workers can forget that they have collective power. Okay, so here the worker shortage isn't intentional, but it does highlight the potential power of a worker shortage, whether caused by a strike or otherwise.

This in turn got me thinking about how showing pupils the power that ordinary people can have when they stand collectively is one of the best things about teaching History (and always has been - just in case any old-school Historians think the idea that teaching about people power is some kind of new woke practice).

Just look at our passionate delivery to students when we teach about enslaved people resisting on plantations in the 19th century; the movement for universal suffrage; the civil rights movement in the USA of the 1960s and 70s; the fight for plebeian rights in Rome's early Republic.

Okay, so the last one isn't quite as famous, is it? But it is just as fascinating.

In 510 BCE, the Roman elites expelled their king, Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud). The plebeians, the ordinary Romans who grew the crops, made the goods and fought the wars, had reasons (according to Livy writing in the first century BCE) to despise the king, but it was the patrician class, who were the main instigators of Superbus's expulsion.

The plebeians too though had reason to rejoice, surely? The king who had forced them to partake in public works for little to no remuneration was no more. Unfortunately, they found they had arguably just swapped one form of tyranny for a more subtle kind.

It wasn't in the patricians' interest to give the plebeians a voice in the new Republican democracy, and so the plebs had to demand one.

There are numerous instances during this period of the patricians demanding that the workers fight to protect Rome, without giving them anything in return. All the while, the workers' land had either been confiscated, ravaged by war or neglected with no-one to cultivate it. The resulting plebeian anger from falling into debt and poverty because of this led to mass collective action from Rome's poorer citizens in the form of a number of secessions.

The plebs essentially left the city and went to sit on a big hill.

Five times.

The Roman economy ground to a halt and the city was left defenceless. This brought the senate to the negotiating table and resulted in the plebs gaining the right to elect their own magistrate (the Tribune) who eventually had the right to veto the senate and the consuls.

It wasn't all plain sailing though, and there was too much back and forth for me to go into here, but in reality the elites weren't about to give up their power in a hurry. When Gaius Genucius, Tribune of the Plebs, actually pushed for the agrarian reform that the workers desperately needed - and tried to put former consuls on trial for obstructing this - he mysteriously ended up murdered. How odd.

There is a narrative strand throughout Livy's history of this period that exposes how the ruling class would beg the workers to fight and defend Rome from invading enemies with hollow promises of reform that never came to fruition. Nevertheless, it was through collective action, and being prepared to hit the Roman elites where it hurt (their pockets), that the plebeians were able to claw some powers away from the ruling class in early ancient Rome.

There is some debate as to the veracity of Livy 's story, but even if he did make it all up, it demonstrates that people power was just as fascinating to the ancient Romans as it is to us today.

It has been said a lot that early in the pandemic front-line workers bore the brunt of the work for the least reward, and to those familiar with class struggle this is not new, nor is it surprising. But as we can see from Ancient Rome, it's also not something that is unique to now.

So much of ancient Roman society can seem alien to us, but not when it comes to this. When learning and teaching about this period of Roman history, it starts to make the ancient world really tangible.

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