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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Secession of the Plebs

"It is said that the first idea was to put the consuls to death that the men might be discharged from their oath; then, on learning that no religious obligation could be dissolved by a crime, they decided, at the instigation of a certain Sicinius, to ignore the consuls and withdraw to the Sacred Mount, which lay on the other side of the Anio, three miles from the City."

Livy, The History of Rome, Book II, Chapter 32

At the time of the establishment of the Roman Republic in 509 BCE, Roman society was highly stratified along the lines of lineage, property ownership, gender, and citizenship. The greatest division was between the patricians and the plebeians among Roman citizens. Patricians earned their status by being able to trace their lineage back to the original ruling families in Rome. Per Livy's History of Rome, as the founder and first king of Rome, Romulus named a hundred men to serve as the first senators. These men were referred to as patres, "fathers," and their descendants formed the basis of the patrician class. The patricians were an aristocratic class in Roman society. Only they could participate fully in politics, hold office, command the military, and serve in the priesthood. Generally, they owned extensive property holdings and accumulated most of the wealth in early Rome. Being a patrician was hereditary, and only patricians could marry patricians. This blocked any type of social mobility within Roman society.

It is hard to deduce from the sources who constituted the plebeian class. Most modern scholars believe the plebs represented the broadest segment of the Roman population. It was a diverse group both economically and ethnically. It included not only the poorest of Rome's citizens but small farmers, merchants, and artisans. Everyone who was not a patrician was considered a plebeian. In the early years of the Republic, the plebs, as a group, did not share a coherent political identity. Complicating this were the divisions based on the property requirements for military service. Only those citizens who could afford their own arms and armor were allowed to serve in the army. They were part of the Equestrian class if one could afford a horse, a complete set of armor, and weapons. For the most part, only a patrician would have the means to be an Equestrian. Therefore this class formed a social and military elite. Below the Equestrian class were five other classes based on how much armor and weapons one owned. These classes were comprised of both patricians and plebeians. Though rare, it was possible for a plebeian to be wealthier than a patrician and yet not have any of the political or social advantages that would come with money.

From its founding, Rome was ruled by a series of semi-legendary kings who held absolute power in the city. Many of Rome's religious and governmental institutions were created during this time. In 509 BCE, Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, was expelled from the city. The Roman Republic then replaced the monarchy. Livy describes it as libertas - liberation- but the people of Rome traded an absolute monarchy for a hereditary oligarchy. Rome kept many of the same institutions that were established under the monarchy but added others. Initially, the Senate acted as an advisory body to the king, but with the advent of the Republic, the power of the Senate would grow over time. The Senate oversaw the military, the prosecution of wars, and the dispersal of public funds from the treasury. Senators were appointed from the patrician class, first by the king and then by the newly created office of consul.

The consulship was the most important of the new offices created at the start of the Republic. The consulship replaced the king's executive authority, and the Romans, fearing the tyranny of a one-person rule, divided the consulship between two men. Two consuls were elected each year, and a man could not be elected consul twice in a row. Each consul had veto power over the other, and each consul shared the command of the Roman legions during military campaigns. Early qualifications for the office are unclear, but it is apparent by the 5th century BCE that every consul was from the patrician class, suggesting that there may have been restrictions in place preventing plebeians from serving.

In the early years, the Republic's survival was uncertain. The last king, Tarquinius Superbus, was in exile, and Rome was never sure which of her enemies would support his bid to be restored to power. Rome fought one of the many rival city-states almost every year, like Etruscan Veii and Clusium. Even when not directly involved, other conflicts impacted Rome. The Greek war against Persia and the battle of the Greek and Etruscan city-states of Italy with the powerful trading empire of Carthage meant a disruption of trading networks. One day, Rome could bring in loot from a defeated enemy, and the next day could see an enemy army at the city gates. Despite these threats, Rome seemed to prosper, as shown by the number of temples built in the Republic's early years.

By 495 BCE, there were simmering social tensions within the city. That year saw the Romans defeat a Latin army headed by the exiled King Tarquinius. Rome also staved off an attack by the Volsci, a people occupying the hills south of Latium. As soon as the army returned to the city, grumblings of discontent over oppressive debt, the cruelty of debt collectors, and the need for debt reform circulated. Livy recounts the story of one military veteran whose property and possessions were pillaged by the Sabines while he was serving. Then he had to borrow money to pay the new taxes imposed on the people. Unable to afford the high-interest rates, the veteran sold off his father's farm and then his grandfather's. None of this was enough to cover what he owed, and he was brought to prison. The man's plight had stirred outrage throughout the city, and plebeians gathered in the Forum. One of the consuls for that year, Publius Servilius, was sent to negotiate with the crowd, but news of another invasion by the Volsci interrupted them. At first, the people refused to be enlisted, but Servilius appealed to the people to set aside their complaints so Rome could face a common enemy. He promised that the Senate would consider their complaints once the Volsci were defeated. He issued an edict protecting soldiers' possessions from being seized, their families could not be arrested, and debtors currently in prison should be released to serve. In this way, Servilius mollified the plebs, and they took the oath of military service.

Servilius secured victories over the Volsci, and two other Italian tribes, the Sabines and the Aurunci. Upon their return to Rome, the plebs within the army expected the Senate and the consuls would address the issue of debt relief. Instead, the other consul, Appius Claudius, added to tensions by increasing the number of arrests of debtors. Harsh sentences were handed down, forcing debtors into servitude, many of whom had just served in the military. A group of soldiers reminded Servilius of his promise. Still, the plebs had no political clout, and Servilius exerted little influence in the patrician Senate, where Appius had the support of a majority of Senators. Feeling betrayed by Servilius, the plebs decided to take matters into their own hands. Courts were packed with protesters, sentences were ignored, and creditors became targets of violence. In the meantime, hostilities arose again with the surrounding tribes, and the Senate called for the levying of an army. The plebs ignored the decree.

In 494 BCE, two new consuls were elected. They soon received reports that the plebs held nighttime meetings on the Aventine Hill. Concerned, the consuls appeared before the Senate. Three possible actions were proposed. One suggested full debt relief. Another offered that only the debts of recent war veterans be forgiven. The third, supported by Appius, was no debts be forgiven and appoint a dictator to handle the crisis. (Under the Roman Republic, a dictator was vested with the full authority of the government to address a specific emergency. They were still accountable to the Senate and could be prosecuted once out of office.) The Senate accepted this latter proposal, and Manius Valerius, who was held in esteem by the plebs, was named dictator. He managed to levy the plebs into service by promising them to follow through with Servilius's initial promise, and he successfully defeated threats by the Aequi and Volsci tribes. Valerius implored the Senate to address the debt issue upon his return to the city, but the Senate remained obstinate. The dictator scolded them and then resigned his position leaving the Senate to deal with the smoldering situation. Fearing a popular uprising, the Senate called for another mustering of the army on the pretext of some threat. Outraged by these actions, the plebs refused and sought a way to avoid their military oath.

One of the plebeians, Lucius Sicinius Vellutus, advised the people to leave the city en masse and gather at Mons Sacer, the Sacred Mountain. The site was three miles from the city on the far side of the river Anio. The people heeded this advice and closed up shops, stopped working on farms and other production centers, and left the city. All economic activity came to a halt. This action would become known as the secessio plebis - the secession of the plebs. The Senate, afraid of the consequences of a prolonged strike, decided they needed to begin negotiations. They sent a well-respected former consul, Agrippa Menenius, to talk with the plebeian leaders. Menenius, known for his eloquent oratory, told a fable about the necessity of all the parts of the body working together to ensure the body survives and grows. This plea impressed upon the plebeian leaders the need for reconciliation. Envoys from both camps met to hash out the terms of an agreement that would break the strike.

The major concession won by the plebs was the creation of a new office - the tribuni plebis - the tribune of the plebs. These presided over the concilium plebis - the council of plebs. Tribunes had the power to intervene in the best interests of the plebs. The tribunes gave plebs a political voice in the power structure of the Roman government. The tribune was able to block patrician actions that might harm the plebeian class as a whole or intervene for specific individuals. The tribunes were able to call a general meeting of the plebs in which they had the power to vote on and pass plebiscita - plebiscites. The plebiscites were binding on the plebs, but the patricians saw them as extra-legal actions and felt compelled to mostly ignore them.

This would not be the last time the plebs would march out of the city on a general strike. The success of the first secession prompted its use four more times. The third occurred in 445 BCE and ended with the creation of military tribunes who had the powers of the consulship. They could be elected from either the patrician or the plebeian class. This was a compromise over the issue of plebeians serving as consuls. The fifth and final secession of the plebs happened in 287 BCE. This resulted in the Lex Hortensia, named after Quintus Hortensius, the dictator tasked with resolving the secession. This law made the plebiscite binding to all Roman citizens, including patricians. The law closed out the two hundred years of social struggle known as the Conflict of the Orders. The political disparity between the patricians and plebeians narrowed, and the plebeians won significant positions of power within the Republic. It gave rise to a new type of nobility not tied to either class or heredity and moved the Republic closer to a more democratic form.


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