Class wars — patricians v. plebs


The fledgling Republic was quick to pursue power in the Italian peninsula. In the wars with bordering states that followed, the settlement imposed on the vanquished set a the precedent for the future development of the Roman state. Defeated Latin cities (municipia) were incorporated in the state with full citizenship (civitas optimo iure), retaining their own identities and governing themselves. The non-Latins were granted the civitas sine suffragio, or ‘half citizenship’, which meant fulfilling all the military and tax obligations of full citizenship, but without the right to vote or hold office at Rome.

Ten city-states enlisted as allies of Rome, rather than risk war, in return for promises of extra security and the carrot of citizenship. It was the start of a dependency that served Rome’s imperial ambitions well even though many previously independent communities would find Rome’s friendship subject to alteration without warning. If negotiation failed, retribution was swift. Fighting wars became a way of life for the Romans and every elligible male who had achieved his majority was expected to bear arms as a citizen-soldier. The extension of its boundaries became the focus of Rome’s existence. By the end of the third century BC, Rome was ready to take on the other great Mediterranean powers – Carthage, Macedonia, Ptolemaic Egypt, Seleucid Syria and Macedon.

Those who found themselves under the Roman heel had lived under some form of monarchy and they found dealing with the Romans a confusing business — it was, after all, a democratic state and subject to the fluctuations in power and opinion associated with shared control rather than absolute rule. No one knows exactly when Roman society was divided between the patricians and the plebeians; this class system emerged before the written word. Yet together these groups became the dynamism behind the Republic, one acting as a balance to the other.

In the earliest days of the Republic it’s a fair assumption that the distinction between the elite families – the patricians – and the commoners with full citizenship – the plebeians (plebs) – was patently clear. The evidence for how the polity developed is fragmentary and there’s little sound material to go on, forcing historians to general themes. Inevitably, as time went by, the lines of class definition began to blur, defying cut-and-dried description. Broadly speaking, the patriciate was comprised of a select group of families who were blessed with political and economical advantages, and who initially held a monopoly of power. Their political party became known as the optimates (the ‘best’, later slanged ironically by the popular party as the boni, or the ‘good’).

The plebs were underprivileged and sought emancipation, but they were not always without power, nor was the situation feudal. As early as 494 BC, the plebs took part in the concilium plebis tributa, an assembly formed to look after their interests. Soon the plebs began to flex their political muscle to assure themselves of a role in government. This became especially noticeable with the growth of a middle class with a vested interest in the state’s politics. They were soon identified as the populares, the popular party.

If there were other political groups in early Rome, their identities have been lost, leaving us a somewhat simplistic choice between patrician and plebeian. The tug of law between the two groups, which continued for two centuries, became known as the Conflict of the Orders. During this time the plebs did not pursue mob violence but a union-style bargaining process, probably led by merchants (of Greek descent) but fully backed by agricultural workers.

The plebs may have been disenfranchised at first, but they held a strong card – army recruitment. As Roman citizens, they were sorely needed as legionaries and without them the state remained vulnerable. In spite of their constitutional obligation they could, and did, go on strike to win greater powers. Although the number of strikes in the fifth and fourth centuries BC amounted to only a handful, in about 445, after a plebeian refusal to fight invading Aequians, the patriciate granted consular powers to military tribunes. This provisional grant came with strings, however. Plebeian military tribunes were not allowed to stage a triumph for a victorious campaign and there was no automatic elevation to the Senate and so no chance of the consulship. This changed in 376 under the statutes of the Licinio-Sextian laws, which made provision for plebs to be admitted to the consulship; and L. Sextius became the first plebeian consul in 366.


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