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p923 Plebs

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp923‑927 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

PLEBES or PLEBS. PLEBEII. This word contains the same root as im-pleo, com-pleo, &c., and is therefore etymologically connected with πλῆθος, a term which was applied to the plebeians by the more correct Greek writers on Roman history, while others wrongly called them δῆμος or οἱ δημοτικοὶ.

The plebeians were the body of commons or the commonalty of Rome, and thus constituted one of the two great elements of which the Roman nation consisted, and which has given to the earlier periods of Roman history its peculiar character and interest. Before the time of Niebuhr the most inconsistent notions were entertained by scholars with regard to the plebeians and their relations to the patricians; and it is one of his peculiar merits to have pointed out the real position which they occupied in the history of Rome.

The ancients themselves do not agree respecting the time when the plebeians began to form a part of the Roman population. Dionysius and Livy represent them as having formed a part of the Romans as early as the time of Romulus, and seem to consider them as the clients of the patricians, or as the low multitude of outcasts who flocked to Rome at the time when Romulus opened the asylum (Dionys. I.8; Liv. I.8). If there is any truth at all in these accounts of the early existence of the plebeians, we can only conceive them to have been the original inhabitants of the districts occupied by the new settlers (Ramnes or Romans), who, after their territory was conquered, were kept in that state of submission in which conquered nations were so frequently held in earlier times. There are also some other statements referring to such an early existence of the plebeians; for the clients, in the time of Romulus, are said to have been formed out of the plebeians (Dionys. II.9; Plut. Romul. 13; Cic. de Re Publ. II.9; Festus, s.v. Patrocinia). In the early times of Rome the position of a client was in many respects undoubtedly far more favourable than that of a plebeian, and it is not improbable that some of the plebeians may for this reason have entered into the relation of clientela to some patricians, and have given up the rights which they had as free plebeians; and occurrences of this kind may have given rise to the p924story mentioned by the writers just referred to. A recent writer, Dr. W. Ihne (Forschungen auf dem Gebiete Röm. Verfassungsgeschichte, Frankf. 1847) has undertaken with very plausible arguments to prove that originally plebeians and clients were the same people, and that originally all the plebeians were clients of the patricians, from which dependent relation they gradually emancipated themselves.

Whatever may be thought of the existence of plebeians at Rome in the earliest times, their number at all events cannot have been very great. The time when they first appear as a distinct class of Roman citizens in contradistinction to the patricians, is in the reign of Tullus Hostilius. Alba, the head of the Latin confederacy, was in his reign taken by the Romans and razed to the ground. The most distinguished of its inhabitants were transplanted to Rome and received among the patricians; but the great bulk of Alban citizens, some of whom were likewise transferred to Rome, and received settlements on the Caelian hill, were kept in a state of submission to the populus Romanus or the patricians. This new population in and about Rome, combined, perhaps, with the subdued original inhabitants of the place, which in number is said to have been equal to the old inhabitants of the city or the patricians, were the plebeians. They were Latins, and consequently of the same blood as the Ramnes, the noblest of the three patrician tribes (Liv. I.30; Dionys. III.29, 31; Val. Max. III.4 §1). After the conquest of Alba, Rome, in the reign of Ancus Marcius, acquired possession of a considerable extent of country containing a number of dependent Latin towns, as Medullia, Fidenae, Politorium, Tellenae, and Ficana. Numbers of the inhabitants of these towns were again transplanted to Rome, and incorporated with the plebeians already settled there, and the Aventine was assigned to them as their habitation (Liv. I.33; Dionys. III.31, 37). Many, however, remained in their original homes, and their lands were given back to them by the Romans, so that they remained free land-owners as much as the conquerors themselves, and thus were distinct from the clients.

The order of plebeians or the commonalty, which had thus gradually been formed by the side of the patricians, and which far exceeded the populus in number, lived partly in Rome itself in the districts above mentioned, and partly on their former estates in the country subject to Rome, in towns, villages, or scattered farms. The plebeians were citizens, but not optimo jure; they were perfectly distinct from the patricians, and were neither contained in the three tribes, nor in the curiae nor in the patrician gentes. They were consequently excluded from the comitia, the senate, and all civil and priestly offices of the state. Dionysius is greatly mistaken in stating that all the new citizens were distributed among the patrician curies, and under this error he labours throughout his history, for he conceives the patricians and plebeians as having been united in the comitia curiata (IV.12, IX.41). That the plebeians were not contained in the curies, is evident from the following facts:— Dionysius himself (IV.76, 78) calls the curies a patrician assembly; Livy (V.46) speaks of a lex curiata, which was made without any co-operation on the part of the plebeians; and those, who confirm the election of kings or magistrates and confer the imperium, are in some passages called patricians, and in others curiae (Dionys. II.60, VI.90, X.4; Liv. VI.42; cf. Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, II. p120; Becker, Handbuch der Röm. Alterth. II. 1 p133, &c.), which shows that both were synonymous. That the plebeians did not belong to the patrician gentes, is expressly stated by Livy (X.8). The only point of contact between the two estates was the army, for after the conquest of Alba, Tullus Hostilius doubled the number of legions of the Roman army (Liv. I.30). Livy also states that Tullus Hostilius formed ten new turmae of equites, but whether these new turmae consisted of Albans, as Livy says, or whether they were taken from the three old tribes, as Göttling (Gesch. d. Röm. Staatsv. p225) thinks, is only matter of speculation. The plebeians were thus obliged to fight and shed their blood in the defence and support of their new fellow-citizens without being allowed to share any of their rights or privileges, and without even the right of intermarriage (connubium). In all judicial matters they were entirely at the mercy of the patricians, and had no right of appeal against any unjust sentence, though they were not, like the clients, bound to have a patronus. They continued to have their own sacra which they had had before the conquest, but they were regulated by the patrician pontiffs (Festus, s.v. municipalia sacra). Lastly, they were free land-owners, and had their own gentes. That a plebeian, when married to a plebeian woman, had the patria potestas over his children, and that if he belonged to a plebeian gens, he shared in the jura and sacra gentilicia of that gens, are points which appear to be self-evident.

The population of the Roman state thus consisted of two opposite elements; a ruling class or an aristocracy, and the commonalty, which, though of the same stock as the noblest among the rulers, and exceeding them in numbers, yet enjoyed none of the rights which might enable them to take a part in the management of public affairs, religious or civil. Their citizenship resembled the relation of aliens to a state, in which they are merely tolerated on condition of performing certain services, and they are, in fact, sometimes called peregrini. While the order of the patricians was perfectly organized by its division into gentes; its relations to the patricians also were in no way defined, and it consequently had no means of protecting itself against any arbitrary proceedings of the rulers. That such a state of things could not last, is a truth which must have been felt by every one who was not blinded by his own selfishness and love of dominion. Tarquinius Priscus was the first who conceived the idea of placing the plebeians on a footing of equality with the old burghers, by dividing them into three tribes, which he intended to call after his own name and those of his friends (Verrius Flaccus, ap. Fest. s.v. Navia; Liv. I.36, &c.; Dionys. III.71; Cic. de Re Publ. II.20). But this noble plan was frustrated by the opposition of the augur Attus Navius, who probably acted the part of a representative of the patricians. All that Tarquinius could do was to effect the admission of the noblest plebeian families into the three old tribes, who, however, were distinguished from the old patrician families by the names of Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres secundi, and their gentes are sometimes distinguished by the epithet minores, as they entered into the same relation in which the p925Luceres had been to the first two tribes, before the time of Tarquinius (Festus, s.v. Sex Vestae Sacerdotes; Cic. de Re Publ. II.20; Liv. I.35, 47). This measure, although an advantage to the most distinguished plebeian families, did not benefit the plebeians as an order, for the new patricians must have become alienated from the commonalty, while the patricians as a body were considerably strengthened by the accession of the new families.

It was reserved to his successor, Servius Tullius, to give to the commonalty a regular internal organization and to determine their relations to the patricians. The intention of this king was not to upset the old constitution, but only to enlarge it so as to render it capable of receiving within itself the new elements of the state. He first divided the city into four, and then the subject country around, which was inhabited by plebeians, into twenty-six regions or local tribes (Liv. I.43; Dionys. IV.14, &c.), and in these regions he assigned lots of land to those plebeians who were yet without landed property. Niebuhr (II. p162) thinks that these allotments consisted of seven jugera each, an opinion which is controverted by Göttling (p239, &c.). As regards the four city-tribes, it should be observed that the Aventine and the Capitol were not contained in them: the former forming a part of the country tribes, and the latter being, as it were, the city of the gods (Varro, de Ling. Lat. V.56, ed. Müller). The twenty-six country tribes are not mentioned by Livy in his account of the Servian constitution, and where he first speaks of the whole number of tribes (II.21; cf. Dionys. VII.64), he only mentions twenty-one instead of thirty. Niebuhr (I. p418) is undoubtedly right in reconciling this number with the thirty tribes of Servius by the supposition, that in the war with Porsenna Rome lost one third of her territory, i.e. ten tribes, so that there were only twenty left. As, therefore, after the immigration of the Claudii and their clients, a new tribe was formed (Liv. II.16), Livy is right in mentioning only twenty-one tribes. These thirty Servian tribes did not, at least originally, contain any patricians, and even after the Claudii had come to Rome, it is not necessary to suppose that the gens Claudia, which was raised to the rank of patrician, was contained in the new tribe, but the new tribe probably consisted of their clients to whom lands were assigned beyond the Anio (Liv. l.c.; cf. Tribus). Some of the clients of the patricians, however, were probably contained in the Servian tribes (Dionys. IV.22, &c.). Each tribe had its praefect called tribunus (Dionys. IV.14; Appian, B. C. III.23; Tribunus). The tribes had also their own sacra, festivals, and meetings (comitia tributa), which were convoked by their tribunes.

This division into tribes with tribunes at their heads was no more than an internal organization of the plebeians, analogous to the division of the patricians into thirty curiae, without conferring upon them the right to interfere in any way in the management of public affairs, or in the elections, which were left entirely to the senate and the curiae. These rights, however, they obtained by another regulation of Servius Tullius, which was made wholly independent of the thirty tribes. For this purpose he instituted a census, and divided the whole body of Roman citizens, plebeians as well as patricians, into five classes, according to the amount of their property. Taxation and the military duties were arranged according to these classes in such a manner, that the heavier burdens fell upon the wealthier classes. The whole body of citizens thus divided was formed into a great national assembly called comitiatus maximus or comitia centuriata [Comitia, p333, &c.] In this assembly the plebeians now met the patricians apparently on a footing of equality, but the votes were distributed in such a way that it was always in the power of the wealthiest classes, to which the patricians naturally belonged, to decide a question before it was put to the vote of the poorer classes. A great number of such noble plebeian families, as after the subjugation of the Latin towns had not been admitted into the curies by Tarquinius Priscus, were now constituted by Servius into a number of equites, with twelve suffragia in the comitia centuriata [Equites, p471.] Lastly, Servius Tullius is said to have regulated the commercium between the two orders by about fifty laws (Dionys. IV.13; Νόμους τοὺς μὲν συναλλακτικοὺς καὶ τοὺς περὶ τῶν ἀδικημάτων; cf. V.2, VI.22; Göttling, p240; Becker, l.c. p156).

In this constitution the plebeians, as such, did not obtain admission to the senate, nor to the highest magistracy, nor to any of the priestly offices. To all these offices the patricians alone thought themselves entitled by divine right. The plebeians also continued to be excluded from occupying any portion of the public land, which as yet was only possessed by the patricians, and were only allowed to keep their cattle upon the common pasture, for which they had to pay the state a certain sum. It is true that by the acquisition of wealth plebeians might become members of the first property class, and that thus their votes in the comitia might become of the same weight as those of the wealthy patricians, but the possibility of acquiring such wealth was diminished by their being excluded from the use of the ager publicus. Niebuhr (I. p430, &c.) infers from the nature of the Servian constitution that it must have granted to the plebeians greater advantages than those mentioned by our historians: he conceives that it gave to them the right of appeal to their own assembly, and to pass sentence upon such as grossly infringed their liberties, in short that the Servian constitution placed them on the same footing in regard to the patricians, as was afterwards permanently effected by the laws of C. Licinius and L. Sextius. There is no doubt that such might and should have been the case, but the arguments which he brings forward in support of his hypothesis do not appear to be convincing, as has been pointed out by Göttling (p265, &c.). All that we know for certain is, that Servius gave to the body of the plebeians an internal organization by the establishment of the thirty plebeian tribes, and that in the comitia centuriata he placed them, at least apparently, on a footing of equality with the populus. Whether he intended to do more, or would have done more if it had been in his power, is a different question. But facts, like those stated above, were sufficient at a later period, when the benefits actually conferred upon the plebeians were taken away from them, to make the grateful commonalty look upon that king as its great patron, and even regard him as having granted all those rights which subsequently they acquired after many years of hard struggle. Thus what he actually had done, was p926exaggerated to what he possibly might have done, or would have wished to do. In this light we have to regard the story that he intended to lay down his royal dignity and to establish the government of two consuls, one of whom was to have been a plebeian.

During the reign of the last king the plebeians not only lost all they had gained by the legislation of his predecessor (Dionys. IV.43, 44); but the tyrant also compelled them to work like slaves in his great architectural works, such as the cloacae and the circus.

On the establishment of the republic, the comitia centuriata, and perhaps the whole constitution, such as it had been before the reign of the last Tarquinius, were restored, so that the patricians alone continued to be eligible to all the public offices (Liv. IV.6, VI.40, &c., X.8). That the comitia centuriata were restored immediately after the banishment of the Tarquins, may be inferred from the words of Livy (I.60), who says, that the first consuls were elected ex commentariis Servii Tullii, for these words probably refer to the comitia centuriata, in which, according to the regulations of king Servius, the elections were to be held. There was still no connubium between the two orders, and the populus was still in every respect distinct from the plebs. Considering the fact that the patricians reserved for themselves all the powers which had formerly been concentrated in the king, and that these powers were now given to a number of patrician officers, we must admit that the plebeians at the commencement of the republic were worse off than if the kingly rule had continued under the institutions introduced by Servius. They, however, soon gained some advantages. The vacancies which had occurred in the senate during the reign of the last king were filled up with the most distinguished among the plebeian equites (patres conscripti, Liv. II.1; Dionys. V.13; Festus, s.v. Qui patres; Plut. Public. 11; Senatus), and Valerius Publicola carried a number of laws by which the relations between patricians and plebeians were more accurately defined than they had hitherto been, and which also afforded some protection to the plebeians. [Leges Valeriae.] Both orders acted in common only in the army and the comitia centuriata, in which, however, the patricians exercised an overwhelming influence through the number of their clients who voted in them; and in addition to this all decrees of the centuries still required the sanction of the curiae. Notwithstanding all these disadvantages, the plebeians occupied a position which might soon have enabled them to rise to a perfect equality with the patricians, had not a great calamity thrown them back, and put an end to their political progress. This was the unfortunate war with Porsenna, in which a great number (a third) of the plebeians lost their estates, became impoverished, and perhaps for a time subject to the Etruscans.

In the meanwhile, the patricians, not satisfied with the exercise of all the authority in the state, appear not seldom to have encroached upon the rights granted to the plebeians by the Valerian laws (Liv. II.27). Such proceedings, and the merciless harshness and oppression on the part of the rulers, could not fail to rouse the indignation and call forth the resistance of the plebeians, who gradually became convinced that it was impossible to retain what they possessed without acquiring more. The struggle which thus originated between the two parties, is, as far as the commonalty is concerned, one of the noblest that has ever been carried on between oppressors and oppressed. On the one hand we see a haughty and faithless oligarchy applying all means that the love of dominion and selfishness can devise; on the other hand, a commonalty forbearing to the last in its opposition and resistance, ever keeping within the bounds of the existing laws, and striving after power, not for the mere gratification of ambition, but in order to obtain the mans of protecting itself against fraud and tyranny. The details of this struggle belong to the history of Rome and cannot be given here; we can only point out in what manner the plebeians gradually gained access to all the civil and religious offices, until at last the two hostile elements became united into one great body of Roman citizens with equal rights, and a state of things arose totally different from what had existed before.

After the first secession, in B.C. 494, the plebeians gained several great advantages. First, a law was passed to prevent the patricians from taking usurious interest of money which they frequently lent to impoverished plebeians (Dionys. VI.83); secondly, tribunes were appointed for the protection of the plebeians [Tribuni]; and, lastly, plebeian aediles were appointed. [Aediles.] Shortly after, they gained the right to summon before their own comitia tributa any one who had violated the rights of their order (Festus, s.v. Sacer mons; Göttling, p300, &c.), and to make decrees (plebiscita), which, however, did not become binding upon the whole nation until the year B.C. 449 [Plebiscitum.] A few years after this (445, B.C.), the tribune Canuleius established, by his rogations, the connubium between patricians and plebeians (Liv. IV.44, V.11, 12; Dionys. X.60, XI.28; Cic. de Re Publ. II.37). He also attempted to divide the consulship between the two orders, but the patricians frustrated the realisation of this plan by the appointment of six military tribunes, who were to be elected from both orders. [Tribuni.] But that the plebeians might have no share in the censorial power, with which the consuls had been invested, the military tribunes did not obtain that power, and a new curule dignity, the censorship, was established, with which patricians alone were to be invested. [Censor.] Shortly after the taking of Rome by the Gauls, we find the plebeians again in a state little better than that in which they had been before their first secession to the mons sacer. In B.C. 421, however, they were admitted to the quaestorship, which opened to them the way into the senate, where henceforth their number continued to increase. [Quaestor; Senatus.] In B.C. 367, the tribunes L. Licinius Stolo and L. Sextius placed themselves at the head of the commonalty, and resumed the contest against the patricians. After a fierce struggle, which lasted for several years, they at length carried a rogation, according to which decemvirs were to be appointed for keeping the Sibylline books instead of duumvirs, of whom half were to be plebeians (Liv. VI. 37, 42). The next great step was the restoration of the consulship, on condition that one consul should always be a plebeian. A third rogation of Licinius, which was only intended to afford momentary relief to the poor plebeians, regulated the rate of interest. From this time forward the plebeians also p927appear in the possession of the right to occupy parts of the ager publicus (Liv. VII.16; Niebuhr, III. p1, &c.). In B.C. 366, L. Sextius Lateranus was the first plebeian consul. The patricians, however, who always contrived to yield no more than what it was absolutely impossible for them to retain, stripped the consulship of a considerable part of its power and transferred it to two new curule offices, viz., that of praetor and of curule aedile. [Aediles; Praetor.] But after such great advantages had been once gained by the plebeians, it was impossible to stop them in their progress towards a perfect equality of political rights with the patricians. In B.C. 356 C. Marcius Rutilus was the first plebeian dictator; in B.C. 351, the censorship was thrown open to the plebeians, and in B.C. 336 the praetorship. The Ogulnian law, in B.C. 300, also opened to them the offices of pontifex and augur. These advantages were, as might be supposed, not gained without the fiercest opposition of the patricians and even after they were gained and sanctioned by law, the patricians exerted every means to obstruct the operation of the law. Such fraudulent attempts led, in B.C. 286, to the last secession of the plebeians, after which, however, the dictator Q. Hortensius successfully and permanently reconciled the two orders, secured to the plebeians all the rights they had acquired until then, and procured for their plebiscita the full power of leges binding upon the whole nation.

In a political point of view the distinction between patricians and plebeians now ceased, and Rome, internally strengthened and united, entered upon the happiest period of her history. How completely the old distinction was now forgotten, is evident from the fact that henceforth both consuls were frequently plebeians. The government of Rome had thus gradually changed from an oppressive oligarchy into a moderate democracy, in which each party had its proper influence and the power of checking the other, if it should venture to assume more than it could legally claim. It was this constitution, the work of many generations, that excited the admiration of the great statesman Polybius.

We stated above that the plebeians during their struggle with the patricians did not seek power for the mere gratification of their ambition, but as a necessary means to protect themselves from oppression. The abuse which they, or rather their tribunes, made of their power, belongs to a much later time, and no traces of it appear until more than half a century after the Hortensian law; and even then, this power was only abused by individuals, and not on behalf of the real plebeians, but of a degenerating democratical party, which is unfortunately designated by later writers by the name of plebeians, and thus has become identified with them. Those who know the immense influence which religion and its public ministers had upon the whole management of the state, will not wonder that the plebeians in their contest with the aristocracy exerted themselves as much to gain access to the priestly offices as to those of a purely political character; as the latter in reality would have been of little avail without the former. The office of curio maximus, which the plebeians sought and obtained nearly a century after the Ogulnian law (Liv. XXVII.6, 8), seems indeed to afford ground for supposing that in this instance the plebeians sought a distinction merely for the purpose of extending their privileges; but Ambrosch (Studien u. Andeutungen, p95) has rendered it more than probable that the office of curio maximus was at that time of greater political importance than is generally believed. It is also well known that such priestly offices as had little or no connection with the management of public affairs, such as that of the rex sacrorum, the flamines, salii, and others, were never coveted by the plebeians, and continued to be held by the patricians down to the latest times (Dionys. V.1; Cic. pro Dom. 14; Festus, s.v. Major. flam.).

After the passing of the Hortensian law, the political distinction between patricians and plebeians ceased, and with a few unimportant exceptions, both orders were placed on a footing of perfect equality. Henceforth the name populus is sometimes applied to the plebeians alone, and sometimes to the whole body of Roman citizens, as assembled in the comitia centuriata or tributa (Liv. XXVII.5; Cic. ad Att. IV.2; Gell. X.20). The term plebs or plebecula, on the other hand, was applied in a loose manner of speaking to the multitude or populace in opposition to the nobiles or the senatorial party (Sallust, Jug. 63; Cic. ad Att. I.16; Hor. Epist. II.1.186;º Hirt., Bell. Alex. 5, &c.).

A person who was born a plebeian, could only be raised to the rank of a patrician by a lex curiata, as was sometimes done during the kingly period, and in the early times of the republic. Caesar was the first who ventured in his own name to raise plebeians to the rank of patricians, and his example was followed by the emperors. [Patricii.]

It frequently occurs in the history of Rome that one and the same gens contain plebeian as well as patrician families. In the gens Cornelia, for instance, we find the plebeian families of the Balbi, Mammulae, Merulae, &c., along with the patrician Scipiones, Sullae, Lentuli, &c. The occurrence of this phenomenon may be accounted for in different ways. It may have been, that one branch of a plebeian family was made patrician, while the others remained plebeians (Cic. Brut. 16, de Leg. II.3; Sueton. Ner. 1). It may also have happened that two families had the same nomen gentilicium without being actual members of the same gens (Cic. Brut. 16; Tacit. Ann. III.48). Again, a patrician family might go over to the plebeians, and as such a family continued to bear the name of its patrician gens, this gens apparently continued a plebeian family (Liv. IV.16; Plin. H. N. XVIII.4). At the time when no connubium existed between the two orders, a marriage between a patrician and a plebeian had the consequence, that the same nomen gentilicium belonged to persons of the two orders (Niebuhr, II. p337, n756; Suet. Aug.2). When a peregrinus obtained the civitas through the influence of a patrician, or when a slave was emancipated by his patrician master, they generally adopted the nomen gentilicium of their benefactor (Cic. ad Fam. XIII. 35, 36, c. Verr. IV.17; Appian, Civil. I.100º), and thus appear to belong to the same gens with him (cf. Becker, l.c. p133, &c.; Ihne, l.c.).

For a much simpler summary of the plebs, see this good page at Livius.Org.

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Page updated: 10 Feb 13