Plebeians in Europe


PLEBEIANS, plẹ-bē’ạnz (Plebs), an order of the Roman people, corresponding to the English Commons. The time at which the Plebeians were recognized as a distinct order in the state is not known; they were at first excluded from almost every right of citizenship. They differed from the Clientes in not being obliged to choose a patron, were allowed to hold land, but had no share in the ager publicus; they were obliged to serve in the army, but were excluded from all political privileges. The government of the state belonged exclusively to the Patricians, with whom the Plebeians could not intermarry. This was their condition under the kings. The subsequent domestic history of Rome is merely a record of struggles of the Plebeians to assert their claim to the place in the commonwealth. When Tullus Hostilius conquered Alba, he admitted the chief of its citizens to the Patrician class, while the rest were enrolled as Plebeians. The same course was followed in other conquests, so that the number of the Plebeians was constantly swelling, while they were of the same blood and possessed of the same courage, determination and other moral qualities as the dominant class.

In other words, plebeians were the “multitude,” or unprivileged class in the early Roman state. For the origin and history of this order see Patricians and Nobility. Its disqualifications were originally based on descent; but after the political equalization of the two orders the name was applied to the lower classes of the population without reference to their descent. Under the empire the word is regularly used of the city proletariate, or of the commons as distinct from knights and senators.

The Plebeians, like the Patricians, were divided into gentes, but they were excluded from the three Patrician tribes and from the curiæ, which formed the governing class. Tarquinius Priscus seems to have made an attempt to introduce the Plebeians to the privileges of citizenship, but was not successful. Servius Tullius organized the Plebeians in tribes, of which he constituted four for the city and 26 for the surrounding subject territories. Each tribe had a tribune. They had their own social and religious privileges and were allowed to meet in comitia tributa convoked by the tribunes. A semblance of political power was at the same time conferred on them by Servius Tullius. He divided the whole body of citizens into five dasses according to the amount of their property, upon which division was founded the comitia centuriata or great national assembly, to which the greater part of the legislative and judicial power of the comitia curata was transferred. The citizens, in this assembly, voted by centuries, but as the equestrian order and the first class of citizens had the majority of the whole number of centuries, and voted first, it was only in the case of differences among them that it was necessary to consult the lower classes. Some of the noble Plebeian families were also admitted into the equestrian order. To follow the entire course of concessions which followed this beginning would demand an examination of the most complicated details of Roman history. The establishment of tribunes (494 B.C.), the law of the 12 tables (451-450 B.C.), the Lex Canuleia (445 B.C.), which permitted intermarriage; the admission to the consulate (366 B.C.), with the successive admission in 351 B.C. to the censorship, 336 B.C. to the prætorship and 300 B.C. to the offices of pontifex and augur, were the leading steps in a succession of victories which culminated (286 B.C.) in the Lex Hortensia, which gave the plebiscita of the people the force of law. From this time the privileges of the two classes may be said to have been equal the word populus now began to be used to designate the whole people and plebs were employed sometimes to designate the assembly of the comitia centuriata, or popularly to distinguish the general mass of the common people.

Further Reading

Jackson J. Spielvogel (2008). World History: Journey Across Time. New York: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.
Scott Wertsching (2008). What is a Pleb?. Rome: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.