Patricians and plebeians

What lessons does the class struggle in ancient Rome have for today? Chris Gray begins a series of articles with the plebeian fight for equality

"Absorbed in moneymaking and the peaceful warfare of competition, [bourgeois society] forgot that the shades of ancient Rome had sat beside its cradle"
- K Marx.1

When boyhood's fire was in my blood
I read of ancient freemen
Of Greece and Rome, who bravely stood,
Three hundred men and three men,
And then I prayed I yet might see
Our fetters rent in twain
And Ireland, long a province, be
A nation once again.

Thomas Davis's poem, 'A nation once again', is a notable illustration of the inspirational role of certain episodes in Greek and Roman history for the rise of the European bourgeoisie. Another example is Machiavelli's Discorsi - commentaries on the opening section of Livy's history of Rome, a work more important for the development of the Italian revolutionary's political thought than his more celebrated Prince (which is in fact a desperate attempt to move history forward in Italy in the direction of bourgeois power). Marx also observed that the French "Revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire".2

There is much in Roman history that is of great interest to socialists, notably the heroic struggles of the Roman plebs to free itself from the economic and political clutches of the patricians, the subsequent impasse that gave rise to the Roman empire and the long decline of that empire from the late 2nd century CE (christian era) to the capture of Constantinople by Turkish forces in 1453.

We still seem to be confronted with a view of the Roman republic as in some sense a beacon of freedom in the ancient world. In fact this is an example of the way in which Roman history has been hijacked by ruling class apologists down the centuries - a process begun by the Roman patricians themselves. This view is based on a dismissal of Rome's kings, especially the last one, as diehard opponents of freedom. However, it is important to ask: whose freedom?

King of Rome, friend of the people

Tim Cornell's book, The beginnings of Rome, points out that most of the early kings of Rome were favourably disposed to the poorer classes in the state. The ancient Roman nobility, the patricians - presumably in order to prevent dissension within their own ranks - chose outsiders as their kings. Accordingly, of the last five legendary monarchs, Tullus Hostilius was a Latin, Ancus Marcius a Sabine, while Lucius Tarquinius Priscus and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus were Etruscans; Servius Tullius, as his name implies, was of servile origin. What the nobles often failed to take into account, however, was the possibility that a king might develop a personal interest in ruling and seek support, accordingly, among other sections of the population.

Examples of precisely this come from Rome's early historians. Thus Tullus Hostilius divided part of the royal domain among the poor citizens, "freeing them from the necessity of labouring as serfs on the estates of others".3 His successor, Ancus Marcius, was criticised by the poet Virgil (a reliable voice of ruling class opinion) as enjoying too much "the breeze of popular favour".4 Tarquinius Priscus enrolled 100 non-patricians as members of the Senate (the king's advisory council), increasing its number from 200 to 300. His draftees formed a bloc of loyal supporters for him. Servius Tullius went further and created a new popular assembly, the comitia centuriata, based on his own reorganisation of the Roman army into units composed of income classes able to supply their own equipment.

Dionysius records that the patricians were not pleased, "being unwilling that Tullius should build up royal power for himself without either a decree of the Senate or the other formalities prescribed by law ... Tullius [however] ... applied himself to flattering and courting the poorer citizens, in hopes of retaining the sovereignty through them."5 He made sure that land obtained via military conquest was divided among all Rome's citizens; as a result the historian Titus Livius (known in the English-speaking world as Livy) denounced him as "fautorem infimi generis hominum" - an "abettor of the lowest class of society".6

By contrast the last king, L Tarquinius Superbus, operated as a classic tyrant on the Greek model (the Greek tyrants rose to power in the Greek cities in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE by leading the poorer citizens in a struggle against the rich, after which they proceeded to entrench themselves in power at the expense of both sections of society). It is recorded that he provided himself with a bodyguard and took measures against a number of powerful individuals in the state: both of these policies were characteristic of the Greek tyrants.

The republican coup d'etat

The difference in Tarquinius's case was that it was the patrician nobles who had originally placed him on the throne: "This man, despising not only the populace, but the patricians as well, by whom he had been brought to power, confounded and abolished the customs, the laws and the whole native form of government by which the former kings had ordered the commonwealth, and transformed his rule into an avowed tyranny."7

The patricians were thus faced with a problem: their nominee was just as uncontrollable as his predecessors had been. Fortunately he failed to cultivate the commons as assiduously as they did, so the patricians were able to get ride of him: "... when the patricians set themselves against him and the people were of the same mind, he was driven from power."8

The patricians then proceeded to reorganise the constitution for their own benefit. They needed popular support, so they left Servius Tullius's assembly alone, but they abolished the monarchy, replacing it with two equal magistrates - originally known as praetors, but later called consuls. The advantage from the nobles' point of view was that both the consuls had to be in agreement: if one was in favour of a policy that the other disapproved of, the latter could veto it. Some of the king's religious duties were transferred to an official known as the rex sacrorum (king of rites) under the control of the chief priest (pontifex maximus). By these means the patricians hoped to manage affairs to their advantage: unfortunately their troubles had only just begun.

The patricians

As is well known, the subsequent history of the Roman republic is dominated by a series of struggles between the ancient nobility, the patricians and their plebeian opponents. The plebeians, coming as they did to comprise the whole non-patrician free population, pose few problems as far as their characterisation is concerned, but who, exactly, were the patricians?

The answer seems to be that the patricians were an elite group within the Roman nobility. According to tradition they emerged under the kings. Cornell sees them as "essentially a class defined by religious prerogatives"9 and it appears that at one stage they enjoyed a monopoly of political and religious offices. This political pre-eminence resulted from their ownership of land, which gave them the opportunity to engage in various forms of exploitation, involving relationships with clients and/or serfs, including debt-bondage (see below). They were not in the initial stages owners of slaves on a large scale - that came later. However, these economic privileges had the effect of precipitating a political movement of the underprivileged against them.

The plebeians

In addition to rich farmers, the Roman population also included small farmers, whose position was one of chronic insecurity. We have already seen evidence of this in the reign of king Tullus Hostilius. It is fair to say that this problem of small farmer insecurity persisted from the earliest recorded times right through into the final stages of the Roman empire in the west, where it was never really solved.

Potential urban allies of these small farmers included artisans and traders in Rome, and also those large farmers lacking patrician status. These groups eventually coalesced into a political movement opposed to the patricians, which became known as the plebs - the word is cognate with the Greek plethos, meaning 'multitude'. The defining political event here was the so-called 'first secession'. Cornell describes the circumstances:

"Tradition places this event in 494BC, when a large number of the poor, oppressed by debt and arbitrary treatment, withdrew from the city en masse and occupied the Sacred Mount, a hill overlooking the Tiber a few miles upstream from Rome (an alternative version mentioned by Livy (2.32.3) specified the Aventine, a hill with strong plebeian associations, which was also outside the city boundary).

"Here they created their own organisation, which was like an alternative state. They formed their own assembly, known as the concilium plebis, and elected their own officials, the tribunes. At first the tribunes were probably two in number, which suggests that they were set up in opposition to the consuls, as Cicero confirms (De republica 2.58). At the same time a temple to Ceres, Liber and Libera was dedicated on the Aventine, and became a cult centre for the plebs."10

It is important to notice that this plebeian movement was not like what happened earlier in classical Greece, where the social force pushing for democracy was the armed infantry, the hoplites. The Romans also had their hoplites, but the plebeian movement did not originate with them. Cornell observes that, if it had, "the conflict of the orders [as it came to be known] would not have lasted two days, let alone two centuries".11

The plebs mostly served as light-armed troops.12 Under the circumstances the plebeians showed exemplary courage in confronting the entrenched Roman system at the outset: their action recalls the modern Brazilian movement of the landless, the movimento sem terra.

The plebeians took to holding their own assemblies, which decided issues initially by a majority of those present and voting, and later by tribes (as the Roman state expanded, tribes were added until the number was finally fixed at 35). The result was that "by the middle of the 5th century BC a fully developed plebeian organisation had come into being, with its own assembly and magistrates and with its own distinctive modes of political action".13 By 457BCE the number of tribunes had risen to 10.

The tribunes

The tribunes were a distinctive Roman democratic institution dating back, as we saw, to the first secession (the secession was essentially a refusal to bear arms in defence of the city - virtually the only political weapon the plebs could use against the patricians). Further secessions occurred in 471, 449 and 287. Refusal to bear arms was hardly an all-powerful political weapon, but it seems to have succeeded in persuading the patricians to accept the legitimacy of the plebs' political representatives. As an historian of ancient Rome has written,

"The tribunes, at first apparently four [disagreement on details among the experts is par for the course for ancient Roman history], were sacrosanct, which implies that the plebeians had formed a separate body in the state and had compelled the government to take an oath to respect the persons of their representatives under penalty of divine vengeance. This fact proves that tradition was correct in attributing the plebeian victory to a strike. Moreover, the fact that the tribune's power at first was not magisterial, but personal, applicable in the aid of individuals and that only within the city walls [tribunes were not allowed to be absent from Rome for more than 24 hours except by special dispensation], justifies the inference that his services were those of an advocate to be exercised in cases of alleged injustice of the court and its agents.

"It was the tribune's business therefore to protect the personal liberty of the poor man, who was in danger of falling under the debtor's sale [i.e. being obliged to work off a debt], and at least to see that he had his days of grace and an opportunity to summon his friends to his relief. The whole institution, in short, points to economic grievances as the starting point of the revolution."14

Pursuing the industrial analogy, we can say that this aspect of the tribune's role was like part of that of a shop steward.

However, the tribunes acquired further powers. Political meetings at Rome were not lawful unless summoned by a magistrate, but the tribunes acquired the right to call meetings of the plebeian assembly, the concilium plebis, and also other types of meeting, called contiones, in which proposers of legislation could explain the thinking behind their policies. Most important of all, the tribunes acquired a veto power - the so-called intercessio, a right "to veto ... or annul any official act".15 As Scullard notes, this gave the tribunes the power to check the whole state machinery and block any action which they believed detrimental to the state. This power was effective if exercised by only one tribune.

Plebeian struggle for equality

One of the early plebeian demands was for the codification and publication of the laws of the city. In 451 this led to the suspension of the constitution and the appointment of ten commissioners (decemviri), who were instructed to draft a code of laws. The commissioners drafted the so-called '12 tables' covering certain areas of law, but they took their time, and a second set, appointed in 450, refused to stand down at the end of their period of office of one year. Consequently it was generally agreed to restore the prior republican constitution, with certain important additions, known collectively as the Valerio-Horatian laws (after their proposers), which provided:

1. that all officials elected by the plebs (mainly tribunes) were sacrosanct;
2. that citizens had the right of appeal to the tribunes (provocatio) against any action taken against them by a magistrate or state official;
3. that decisions of the concilium plebes, the so-called plebiscita (whence our 'plebiscite') were legally valid if approved by the Senate or by the popular assembly (comitia).

Following the passage of the Valerio-Horatian laws in 449 down to the Lex Hortensia of 287 (which effectively ended the patrician-plebeian conflict), Tim Cornell notes some 35 plebiscitae on various topics.16

During the 5th century BCE the great majority of Roman magistrates (state officials) were patricians, but in 367 it was laid down that one of the consuls might be a plebeian - the first under the new dispensation was elected in 366 - and in 342 both consulships were opened to plebeians. In the years following 367 also two new magistracies, the offices of praetor and curule aedile, original patrician preserves, were opened to plebeians. Plebeians were also permitted to become censors. In the year 300 priestly offices were opened to plebeians for the first time: plebeians were admitted to the two major priestly colleges, the pontifices and the augurs, on a basis of rough equality - four pontifices for both patricians and plebeians, and five plebeian augurs alongside the existing four patricians. These proportions were afterwards maintained as quotas.

More important than the opening of offices, however, was the economic struggle over public land (the so-called ager publicus), as Cornell emphasises:

"It is important to stress that the power of the ruling class and the oppression of the plebs derived from the peculiar system of tenure that characterised the ager publicus. It is this that gives Roman agrarian history its distinctive character. Niebuhr's epoch-making work at the beginning of the 19th century established once and for all that movements for agrarian reform during the Roman republic were not aimed at redistribution of land in private ownership, but were concerned solely with the manner of disposal and use of the ager publicus. This fundamental thesis, which is now universally accepted, is as valid for the period of the early republic as it is for the age of the Gracchi [the latter being roughly 135-120BCE]. The discontent of the plebeians was caused by the fact that the public land, on which they depended for survival, was controlled and permanently occupied by the wealthiest families and their clients.

"In their struggle for reform the plebs adopted a two-pronged approach. First, they pressed for newly-conquered land to be distributed in allotments, which would become the private property of the individual recipients (assignatio viritana), rather than remaining the property of the state and thus a target for encroachment by wealthy possessors. Second, they demanded a statutory limit on the amount of ager publicus that any one paterfamilias could occupy, and on the number of animals he could graze on it. This was one of the principal ingredients of the Licinio-Sextian legislation, which, in spite of fierce opposition, became law in 367BC. The aim of the law was to allow poor plebeians some access to the ager publicus. There is no evidence that before 367 plebeians had been legally denied the right to occupy ager publicus, as is sometimes asserted, but it is likely enough that that is what happened in practice."17

The Lex Licinia imposed a fine on individuals found holding public land in excess of 500 iugera (approximately 312 acres or 125 hectares). The legislation of 367 also attempted to tackle the problem of hardship arising from debt bondage - it is interesting to note that this was a problem facing the Athenian reformer, Solon, some 230 years earlier at a comparable stage in the political evolution of Athens.

As Cornell notes, "Although chattel slavery existed in early Rome ... and probably some form of hired wage labour as well, these categories cannot have accounted for more than a small part of the total labour force. For the most part wealthy landowners must have relied upon the labour of their dependants."18

The prevalence of debt in this period is shown by the example of M Manlius Capitolinus, who "obtained the mass support of the plebs by taking up their cause (he was the first patrician to do so, according to Livy 6.11.7) and paying their debts out of his personal fortune".19

This individual was executed in 384 for allegedly aiming to become a tyrant. Under the Licinio-Sextian laws interest already paid was to be deducted from the capital sum and the remainder paid off in three annual instalments. Further measures were passed in 357 and 347 restricting interest rates and easing the terms of repayment. Severe penalties were inflicted on usurers in 344 (presumably designed to stop excess interest charges) and in 342 a Lex Genucia prohibited interest altogether. Unfortunately this law was only rarely enforced and could easily be circumvented. Finally in 326BCE the Lex Poetelia formally abolished debt bondage (nexum).

Cornell's comments on this last measure are particularly apposite:

"The Lex Poetelia marks the end of a long process of social change. By that time the land hunger of the plebs had been largely satisfied by the conquest and settlement of new territories. The improved economic conditions that resulted from successful warfare, land assignation and colonisation would have meant that the plebeians were gradually freed from the necessity of entering into bondage. It is probable that by the start of the second Samnite war (327-304BC) the institution of nexum had already become a relic of a bygone age. Its disappearance did not, however, put an end to indebtedness, which persisted as a major social evil to the end of the republic. The Lex Poetelia merely abolished the nexum as an institutionalised form of labour contract; from now on only defaulting debtors were placed in bondage, following a judgment in court.

"The decline and eventual abolition of debt-bondage at the end of the 4th century presupposes the development of an alternative supply of labour to work the large estates of the rich. This need was met by slaves. The growing importance of slavery in 4th-century Rome is indicated by a tax on manumissions, which was introduced in 357BC (Livy 7.16.7). The tax implies that manumissions were frequent, which in turn presupposes a large number of slaves. By the end of the century freedmen were so numerous and so influential that their status became a major political issue ... From the beginning of the Samnite wars our sources regularly record mass enslavements of prisoners of war, which must imply that the Roman economy was by that time heavily dependent on slave labour."20

The process led equally to the creation of a new joint patrician-plebeian nobility. The class structure was not abolished, merely reorganised. Cornell is eloquent on the political results of this:

"... it is certain that only a small group of rich and aspiring plebeians derived any advantage from the constitutional reforms of 367BC. In the struggle against the patrician exclusiveness this group had made common cause with the poor and had used the institution of the plebeian movement to gain entry into the ranks of the ruling class. Whether the mass of the plebs benefited from their success is more doubtful. The poor gained some temporary economic relief, but lost control of their own organisation. Once the plebeian leaders were admitted into the ruling class on an equal footing with the patricians, they immediately acquired all the characteristics of the incumbent groups and ceased to represent the interests of the plebs. The plebeian leaders were themselves wealthy landowners, and shared the same economic interests as the patricians.

"The point is well illustrated by the story that C Licinius Stolo, one of the legislators of 367, was later fined for occupying more ager publicus than had been permitted by his own law (Livy 7.16.9) There is no way of knowing whether this story is historical. But if it is not true, it is ben trovato [well invented].

"It seems clear that the plebeian leaders, having scaled the patrician citadel, pulled the ladder up after them. The process is a familiar one in all societies. The outcome of the Licinio-Sextian laws should have been the emergence of a joint patrician-plebeian aristocracy (the so-called nobilitas) is not in the least surprising, and could perhaps have been foreseen at the time. In Livy's account of the struggle over the rogations [proposals] the opposition is said to have come not only from the patricians, but also from within the plebeian movement itself. The two reformers were resisted both by their fellow tribunes and by a body of radical plebeians, who favoured the proposed laws on land and debt but opposed the admission of plebeians to the consulship. We are told that at one stage the plebeian assembly was on the point of enacting the first two proposals and rejecting the third, but that Licinius and Sextius were somehow able to insist that all three measures were voted on together (Livy 6.39.2)."21

In his Two pages from Roman history Daniel De Leon compared the plebeian leaders with the labour leaders of his own day, the beginning of the 20th century CE. The parallel, he found, was close: "Just as the plebs leader looked down upon the plebeian proletariat and middle class as a hopeless, helpless element, fit only to be used, and brought his religion to sanction the exploitation of these classes, so the labour leader places no faith whatever in the capacity of the working class to emancipate itself.

"Finally, and by reason of all this, just as the plebs leader sought to secure himself against plebs distress, and, in doing so, propped up both the economic power and the political privileges of patricianism at the expense of the plebs masses, so the labour leader of today limits his aspirations to the feathering of his own nest, and, in pursuit of this purpose, turns himself, at the expense of the working class, into a prop of capitalism."22

Rise of the Senate

The Lex Hortensia of 287BCE reaffirmed the earlier rulings of 449 and 329 and gave the decisions of the concilium plebis the force of law over the whole body politic. Howard Scullard writes that "The Lex Hortensia has been called the final triumph of democracy at Rome. The people were sovereign."23

But behind the scenes there was another body which was the real ruler - the Senate. The Senate began as an advisory council of the king, but was launched on its career of aggrandisement by the passing of the Lex Ovinia, whose date is not known but is estimated by Tim Cornell at somewhere between 339 and 318 BCE. Before the Lex Ovinia, membership of the Senate had been at the discretion of the consuls, who used it as an advisory body, as the kings had done, but following the reform the censors were entrusted with the work of drawing up the list of senators, and were obliged to include in it all ex-magistrates, even the most junior (quaestors), unless for some reason the candidate was politically 'unsound'. Senators were consequently freed from the necessity of courting the electorate in order to retain their official positions. As a result the Senate rose to a commanding position in Roman public affairs by the middle of the 3rd century BCE, and by the beginning of the 2nd century its grip was nearly total.

Cornell writes: "According to Polybius, it had complete control of state finances, military policy, foreign affairs, and law and order [VI, 13]. We may add that it also had full charge of all matters relating to the state religion. That, one is tempted to say, covers just about everything."24

The Senate's grip on Roman politics will be examined in detail in part two.


1. Quoted by Alasdair Macintyre in EP Thompson (ed) Out of apathy London 1960, p204.
2. K Marx, 'The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte' Selected works Vol 1, p247.
3. Dionysius of Halicarnassus III, 1, 5.
4. Virgil Aeneid VI, lines 815-16.
5. Dionysius of Halicarnassus IV, 8, 2,3.
6. Livy, I, 47, 11.
7. Dionysius of Halicarnassus IV, 41, 2-3.
8. Ibid IV, 63, 3.
9. TJ Cornell The beginnings of Rome London 1995, p252.
10. Ibid p256.
11. Ibid p257.
12. Ibid pp257-58.
13. Ibid pp258-59.
14. T Frank An economic history of Rome London 1927, p47.
15. HH Scullard A history of the Roman world London 1969, p57.
16. TJ Cornell The beginnings of Rome London 1995, pp276-77.
17. Ibid p328.
18. Ibid p330.
19. Ibid p331.
21. Ibid p333.
21. Ibid pp339-40.
22. D De Leon Two pages from Roman history New York 1962, p57. Originally published 1903.
23. HH Scullard A history of the Roman world London 1969, p100.
24. TJ Cornell The beginnings of Rome London 1995, p369.