Plebs: Roman expression to describe a group of usually poor citizens.

The word plebs is said to be derived from plere, 'to fill up'. Plebeians were, therefore, people who were considered to be an addition to the 'real' Roman population. It is likely that this unkind expression was first coined by the Roman aristocracy of the early republic, the patricians, who monopolized the magistracies and wanted to keep all others out of office. This caused tensions with two other groups:

  1. the poor, who had to appeal to a patrician judge against arbitrary decisions by patrician magistrates (e.g., consuls),
  2. nouveaux riches, who could afford armor, were supposed to fight in battle and to pay taxes, but were not allowed a vote in the decision about war and peace or to oversee the spending of their money.

In c.490 BCE (or, to use the Varronian chronology, which is too often confused with our era, 494), these two groups united, organized themselves in a people's assembly (consilium plebis), and demanded political rights. The unified opposition was known as plebs and seems to have used the nickname as honorific title.

Among the first representatives of the plebs were the officials known as aediles, who were responsible for the temple of the goddess Ceres, the cult of Liber and Libera, and the Plebeian games (ludi plebeii). The plebeians also created the office of tribune (tribunus plebis), an official who had to defend the rights of the non-patricians. He had the right to veto (forbid) measures by consuls and financial decisions by quaestors. Although there was some opposition (by e.g. Coriolanus), the patricians recognized the two (later ten) tribunes. This development is unique in the ancient world, although there are parallels in the towns of Medieval Italy and Germany.

When the Romans decided to write down their laws, a board of ten men was installed (the Decemviri). In the Laws of the twelve tables (mid-fifth century), we find a prohibition of intermarriage between patricians and plebeians. Almost immediately, a tribune named Gaius Canuleius demanded the repeal of this article; in 445 VC, he was successful. This was the first step towards the emancipation of the plebs.

The next step was that the supreme office, the consulship, had to be opened to plebeians - or at least the nouveaux riches. However, there were religious obstacles, because certain rituals required that the magistrates belonged to certain patrician families. A compromise was found: military tribunes with consular powers. As long as one of these three to six men was a patrician, the gods would not object. These magistrates were to rule Rome in the late fifth and early fourth century, which can be seen as a period of détente in the social struggle.

The sack of Rome in 387 by Celtic warriors and the construction of the republican city wall (the Servian Wall), provoked a serious social crisis, which led to the end of the détente. Many people had to make debts. The impoverished plebeians accepted Gaius Licinius Stolo and Lucius Sextius Lateranus, both nouveaux riches, as their leaders. When they became tribunes for the first time in 376 VC, they demanded:

  1. an adjustment of the debts; this was to please the poor plebeians.
  2. an end to the rule by military tribunes. Instead, there would be consuls again, and one of them could be a plebeian - of course, one of the nouveaux riches.
  3. a limit to land ownership. No Roman was to possess more than a certain quantity of land.

According the historian Livy, Sextius and Licinius remained in office for ten years, and they even forbade the election of magistrates for five years. In the end, Marcus Furius Camillus, dictator in 367 VC, persuaded the patricians to give in to the plebeian demands. In return, a new magistracy was created, the praetorship, which was to be occupied by patricians only. This compromise was accepted by all Romans, and a temple was dedicated to the goddess Concordia.

Now that the consulship had become accessible to the nouveaux riches, their coalition with the poor Romans came to an end. The rich and poor plebeians had got what they wanted and their roads started to diverge. During the second half of the fourth century, other offices were opened to the nouveaux riches, who could now embark upon regular senatorial careers (cursus honorum). The old distinction between patricians and plebeians became irrelevant, and in 287 BCE the decisions of the People's assembly were accepted as if they had been made by official assemblies (comitia tributa).

From now on, a new elite started to develop, the nobility (nobiles), which consisted of families that had once seen a son reaching the highest office. Other rich people, who did not make it to the Senate, became known as knights and belonged to the equestrian order. The word 'plebs' now got an other meaning: it indicated the poor.

Several politicians, like Gaius Flaminius (active between 230 and 217), used the urban plebs to control the assemblies. Their 'popular' politics were detested by more conservative senators, but there was not much they could do against it. A century later, the tribuneship had become a revolutionary office again. The plebeians demanded reforms, and politicians who were willing to support these claims (the populares), could count on their support in the assemblies. We may call this the 'new plebs': in fact, the urban proletariat as a political pressure group.

During the age of the civil wars (ca.133-27), several politicians consistently played the 'popular' card: Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, Publius Clodius Pulcher, and Marcus Caelius Rufus. As tribunes, they tried to become the first man in Rome by offering the urban plebs what it demanded (cheap food, land, debt cancellation, etc.). Others, like Gaius Marius, Pompey the Great, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Gaius Julius Caesar, switched between the popular tactic and a more senatorial approach.

This gave the plebeians considerable influence, and when Augustus founded the monarchy, their living circumstances had improved considerably. Many of them had been able to leave the city and receive a farm somewhere in Italy or the Mediterranean world; those who remained in Rome benefited from the state's food supply (annona). On the other hand, Augustus' successor Tiberius, who was emperor between 14 and 37, put an end to the people's assembly. This marked the end of the plebs as a political power. From now on, the word plebs signified the urban proletariat - connected to its ruler by two ties, bread and circuses.

This page was created in 2003; last modified on 23 April 2020.