Plebeians were all Roman citizens who were not patricians*. Plebeian referred to the mass of the Roman population—all those belonging to the lower classes of Roman society. At the beginning of the Roman Republic*, plebeians were excluded from all important positions in the government. After a centuries-long struggle, which was known as the Conflict of the Orders, plebeians largely attained political equality with patricians.
In 510 B.C., after overthrowing the last of their kings, the Roman patricians were firmly in control of the government. Only patricians could be members of the Roman Senate, and only patricians could become magistrates*. Patricians held all the priesthoods as well. Many plebeians, on the other hand, were poor and in debt to their patrician patrons*. During the early republic, Roman citizens could be enslaved or executed if they were unable to repay their debts.
In 494 B.C. scores of plebeians withdrew from Rome and assembled outside the boundaries of the city. This was the first of five secessions by the plebeians that occurred during the early years of the republic. They formed their own popular assembly and elected their own officials, called tribunes, to protect their interests against the actions of the patricians. Because the withdrawal of large numbers of citizens weakened the army, the patricians relented. Eventually, they accepted the plebeian assembly as able to make laws binding on the plebeians and their tribunes as legitimate officials, thus creating a plebeian state within Rome.
* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* magistrate government official in ancient Greece and Rome
* patron special guardian, protector, or supporter
The plebeians developed their own institutions that were completely separate from those of the patricians. They formed an assembly called the concilium plebis, which excluded all patricians. Decisions (called plebiscita) made by the concilium plebis were binding only on plebeians, although they could be applied to all Romans if they were also approved by the patricians. When this condition was removed at the end of the Conflict of the Orders, plébiscita became law for all the Roman people.
During the late Roman Republic, the concilium plebis became the main legislative body of the Roman government. However, Augustus, the first Roman emperor, removed all the legislative power of the concilium plebis and gave it to the Roman Senate.
The concilium plebis also elected the tribunes and the two plebeian aediles*. Each year, the assembly elected ten tribunes to represent the interests of the plebeians. Although they were not magistrates of the Roman government, tribunes had considerable power. They helped any plebeian who was mistreated by the patricians, and they could block all legislation of the magistrates and decrees of the Roman Senate that they believed were not in the best interest of the plebeians.
Around 450 B.C., the plebeians demanded that the Roman rulers codify* Roman laws so that they would apply to all citizens equally. Although the result, known as the Twelve Tables, was harsh and restrictive, it made the laws known to all and not subject to the arbitrary decisions of magistrates.
The plebeians’ greatest success was the passage of the Licinian-Sextian laws of 367-366 B.C. For the first time, plebeians were allowed to hold the office of consul*. In addition, laws were passed that limited the amount of public land that one person could hold, thereby reducing the amount of public land that wealthier citizens could legally own. By the end of the 300s B.C., plebeians could hold important governmental offices and state priesthoods, and imprisonment for debt had been abolished.
After the plebeians’ final secession in 287 B.C., the Romans passed the Hortensian law, which validated legislation passed by the plebeian assembly and applied it to all Roman citizens, not just plebeians. After this time, plebeians and patricians had equal political and legal rights. Although this marked the end of the Conflict of the Orders, most political power remained in the hands of the wealthier noble families.
During the late Roman Republic, ambitious plebeian politicians became plebeian aediles and tribunes as a step on the path to higher office. Because tribunes could veto the acts of consuls and praetors*, they were sometimes used by the Roman Senate to control other Roman magistrates. Some tribunes continued to act in the best interest of the plebeians. For example, the tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus attempted to use the office to distribute public lands to the poor and to provide free grain for the citizens of Rome. Because of reformers such as these, the dictator Sullalimited the powers of the tribunes in the 80s B.C., but this change lasted only about ten years. (See also Aedile; Class Structure, Roman; Consul; Government, Roman; Law, Roman; Magistrates; Patricians, Roman; Patronage; Praetor; Rome, History of.)
* aedile Roman official in charge of maintaining public property inside the city, such as roads, temples, and markets
* codify to arrange according to a system; to set down in writing
* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year
* praetor Roman official, just below the consul in rank, in charge of judicial proceedings and of governing overseas provinces