The Patricians and the Plebeians: A Very Roman Social Struggle
During the time of the Roman Kingdom and the Roman Republic, Roman society was divided between two important classes – the patricians and the plebeians. Originally, the patricians were part of the ruling class and enjoyed greater privileges and rights than the plebeians. Following the Conflict of the Orders, however, the distinction between patrician and plebeian lost importance, as the plebeians (at least the wealthiest among them) could now aspire to political power.
What Was the Difference Between Patricians and Plebeians?
According to Livy, after Rome was founded, Romulus selected 100 men to form the Roman Senate, which would govern the newly-formed city. By virtue of their rank, these men were called ‘patres’ (meaning ‘fathers’), and their descendants formed the patrician class. As the ruling class of Rome, the patricians enjoyed a variety of privileges. For example, it was only members of the patricians who were allowed to hold political and religious offices.
Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate. (Palazzo Madama / Public Domain )
Unlike the patricians, the origin of the plebeian class was not recorded by the ancient authors. This is unsurprising, since the plebeians were not part of Rome’s ruling elite but were members of the general citizenry. The plebeians enjoyed far less privileges than the patricians and eventually sought to change the status quo. This resulted in the Conflict of the Orders, a struggle between the patrician and the plebeian classes that lasted from 500 to 287 BC.
Conflict of the Orders: Patricians and Plebeians History
The Conflict of the Orders began as a result of the dissatisfaction felt by the plebeians regarding the status quo in Rome. Till then, political power was monopolized by the patrician class. The situation deteriorated further around the end of the 6 th century BC. In 509 BC, Tarquinius Superbus, the last Roman king was deposed, and the Roman Republic was founded. One of the consequences of this change from monarchy to republic was the increase in the power held by the patricians. An example of this is the loss of access by the plebeians to public land (which had been regal domain during the Roman Kingdom). In order to increase their wealth, the patricians seized these lands and either rented them out, or had slaves work on them.
Tarquinius Superbus makes himself King; from The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott à Beckett (Posner / Public Domain )
Facts Regarding the First Important Incident
The plebeians grew increasingly displeased with this inequity and began making demands to right these wrongs. The first important incident in the Conflict of the Orders occurred in 494 BC. In that year, Rome was at war with the Italic tribes . Instead of fighting the enemy, however, the plebeians seceded from Rome to the Sacred Mountain outside the city. The patricians were aware that the secession of the plebs would have dire consequences for Rome’s military might, as there would not be enough fighting men to defend Rome. Therefore, they decided to negotiate with the plebeians, which resulted in the plebeians being granted the right to elect their own officials, who were known as the Plebeian Tribunes.
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The Secession of the Plebeians to the Sacred Mountain. (B. Barloccini / Public Domain )
Secession: The Patrician and Plebeian Conflict Continues
As the plebeians formed the majority of Rome’s citizenry, secession was a powerful weapon at their disposal and was used several times more after 494 BC. Each time the plebeians seceded, the patricians were forced to negotiate, and to concede to their demands. In 451 BC, for example, the secession by the plebeians resulted in the appointment of the decemvirate, a commission of ten men. Another secession occurred in 445 BC, which resulted in the passing of the Canuleian Law. This law allowed the patricians and plebeians to inter-marry.
Roman Consul in Negotiations. ( New York Public Library / Public Domain )
Threats, Demands, and Negotiations on the Road to Equality
Nevertheless, secession was not always necessary for the plebeians to obtain what they wanted. Without the use of secession, the plebeians were still able to make demands on the patricians and negotiate with them. In 367 BC, for instance, the plebeians won the right to be elected consul, and the first consul from the plebeian class was chosen in the following year. From 300 BC onwards, the plebeians were also allowed to serve in the priesthoods. As the Conflict of the Orders dragged on, the gap between the patricians and plebeians, in terms of privileges and rights, decreased.
The Hortensian Law Ends the Conflict of the Orders
As the Conflict of the Orders began with a plebeian secession, so was it ended by another. In 287 BC, the plebeians seceded for the last time. The result of the secession was the passing of the Hortensian Law, which made all resolutions passed by the Plebeian Council binding on all Roman citizens, thus placing the plebeians, politically speaking, on equal footing with the patricians.
The Hortensian Law made Plebeians on equal footing with the Patricians. (ancientgreekbattles / Public Domain )
Top image: Patrician Ladies with Plebeian Slave in background. Source: (Archivist / Adobe)
By Wu Mingren
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