Rich vs poor. Wealthy elites vs the proletariat. The upper classes vs the lower classes. Class warfare, income inequality, socioeconomic disparity. It’s a major issue in our world right now. Some are arguing against big banks and corporate welfare, others are arguing against business taxes and regulations. On some level, though, the argument is the same; income inequality has risen to unacceptable measures, and we need to fix it so the gap between the rich and the poor, the elite and the common man, is not so great.
Income inequality has always existed. Every society and every country has had to deal with the issues separating the aristocracy from the peasantry. We’re just a naturally shitty species that way. Sometimes the issue of power and wealth will come to a violent conclusion, as when nobles and monarchs are overthrown in revolution. Other times political and economic forces mollify people and prevent violent outcomes.
Rome was no different. Just like we have socio-economic classes (upper, middle, lower, working), Rome had divisions – senatorial, knight, patrician, plebeian. Throughout her early history, the divide between the senatorial class and the commoners was as an issue for politicians and people alike. From the earliest of the early Roman state (the Roman Kingdom) up to the late Republic, the distinctions between patrician and plebeian were important and influential in running the state. Although our information about the Roman Kingdom is scant, we have some idea of how early Rome divided powers and privileges between the two groups. Livy (1.8) tells us that Romulus made 100 people the first senators, and hence they became the first “patricians”. Whether that story is true, or is the ancient equivalent of George Washington’s cherry tree, this essentially shows the start of the Roman aristocracy. From the early days, patricians were the people who owned most of the land and controlled most of the wealth. It’s good to be the king pater.
Under the Early Republic, patricians sought to consolidate their control. Obviously, the plebeians sought to gain some power of their own. Both groups argued and moved against each other for control of the state over a roughly 200 year period historians call the “Struggle of the Orders”. The patricians had political power, money, and land. The plebeians had numbers. Sometimes money wins, but when things get bad enough, or the people get fed up enough, the numbers always win. This is a lesson Jeb Bush probably should have learned before getting his ass kicked by Donald Trump.
According to tradition, only patricians could stand for the highest magistracies like the consulship. Likewise, membership in various priesthoods was closed to the plebeian class. The upper echelon of political and social power was pretty much off limits to the lower classes. With the dissolution of the monarchy and the formation of the Republic, however, the plebs saw an opportunity to gain more powers, specifically a voice and representation in government (the original “no taxation without representation” group). The fledgling years of the new government seemed the best time to give it a shot.
Rome, at the formation of the Republic in 505 BC, was not the Mediterranean superpower we all know and love. Rome was more or less just “Rome”, the singular city on seven hills. And they were to a large extent surrounded by enemies. In their immediate vicinity were the Latins, an early Italic tribe. There were also the Volscians, another nearby tribe. Larger groups included the Etruscans, the Sabines, and other peoples.
People like Pyrrhus or Hannibal, or groups like the Carthaginians and Gauls won’t be on the radar for a while. So in short, Rome is kind of weak sauce. With the last Roman King being expelled and the new Republic in its formative years, Rome is still facing problems internally and externally. In 495 BC, Rome had just won a decisive victory against the Latins at Lake Regillus. It was an important victory for the Romans, both in solidifying the Republic against future attempts to restore the monarchy, and in demonstrating to its neighbors that under a Republic, Rome could still raise an army and kick major ass. Shortly after, Rome sent an army into the Volscian territory, just to reinforce the message.
No sooner than the army returned home did many of its legionaries, and other members of the plebeian order, start to raise complaints about taxes and debt. Wars cost money, and with a civilian army, those who fought in it tended to run the risk of winding up without a farm or home on their return, and subsequently no way to pay for taxes or personal debt. Rome was basically another state that did a terrible job taking care of its veterans. Livy describes the event that really kicked things off:
But a war with the Volscians was imminent, and the State was torn with internal dissensions; the patricians and the plebeians were bitterly hostile to one another, owing mainly to the desperate condition of the debtors. They loudly complained that whilst fighting in the field for liberty and empire they were oppressed and enslaved by their fellow-citizens at home; their freedom was more secure in war than in peace, safer amongst the enemy than amongst their own people. The discontent, which was becoming of itself continually more embittered, was still further inflamed by the signal misfortunes of one individual. An old man, bearing visible proofs of all the evils he had suffered, suddenly appeared in the Forum. His clothing was covered with filth, his personal appearance was made still more loathsome by a corpse-like pallor and emaciation, his unkempt beard and hair made him look like a savage. In spite of this disfigurement he was recognised by the pitying bystanders; they said that he had been a centurion, and mentioned other military distinctions he possessed. He bared his breast and showed the scars which witnessed to many fights in which he had borne an honourable part. The crowd had now almost grown to the dimensions of an Assembly of the people. He was asked, “Whence came that garb, whence that disfigurement?” He stated that whilst serving in the Sabine war he had not only lost the produce of his land through the depredations of the enemy, but his farm had been burnt, all his property plundered, his cattle driven away, the war-tax demanded when he was least able to pay it, and he had got into debt. This debt had been vastly increased through usury and had stripped him first of his father’s and grandfather’s farm, then of his other property, and at last like a pestilence had reached his person. He had been carried off by his creditor, not into slavery only, but into an underground workshop, a living death. Then he showed his back scored with recent marks of the lash. Livy 2.23
Well, as one would expect, the plebs lost their minds, and demanded the Senate (made up of patricians) be convened to address the debt and tax issue. The Senate, as one would expect, paid lip service to the commoners and went back to swimming in pools of their own money, Scrooge McDuck style.
Fortunately for the patricians, there were bigger fish to fry. The Senate decided this fight with the plebs should probably be put on the backburner until the Volscians were pacified. As such, they sent out a levy to raise the appropriate ass-kicking force. The plebs then promptly decided not to enroll in the army. The plebs had the patricians by the balls here—little hard to kick ass when your ass-kicking force decides not to show up for work. One of the consuls, Publius Servilius Priscus Structus, urged the people to take up arms for the common defense, and sweetened the deal by passing an edict that nobody should be prevented from enrolling due to debt, and more importantly, that no active duty legionary should have his property seized or his family imprisoned while on tour. The plan and concession worked, the plebs enrolled, and Servilius led the army on a series of victories against the Volscians, Sabines, and Aurunci. Did I mention the early Romans had a lot of enemies?
Unfortunately, almost immediately on taking out the external problems, the senators/patricians went back on their words, imposing severe penalties for debt. The plebs took some revenge when another threat from the Sabines a year later popped up, prompted a new army levy, and again nobody enrolled. This time though, there was no Servilius to save the day.
With no moderate voices, on either side, shit pretty much hit the fan. The Senate cracked down hard with arrests, and the people formed mobs and got violent. Rome was essentially tearing itself apart, and the Sabines weren’t even doing the damage—but seeing the Romans destroy the city must have been quite funny, because they invited the Aequi and Volsci to join the party. Things were so bad Rome elected a dictator to deal with everything. Manius Valerius Marius was given unlimited power and a six month term to save the Republic, both from the combined Sabines/Aequi/Volsci threat (seriously, the Romans were not well liked), and from itself. He issued a similar decree as Servilius, providing debt relief and protections from creditors. The people accepted, an army was raised, and Rome kicked ass.
In a move anybody with some sense prompts them to ask what the hell is wrong with these people, upon return, the Senate started acting like dicks again. The Senate were such dicks, Valerius the dictator, a person with absolute power, by law, resigned in protest. I can’t even think of a joke to make that funny. Nobody with absolute power just. . .quits, do they? Well, in 493 BC, the Aequi decided to stir up some trouble. Again. Can you guess what happened next? Yup, let’s run history by the book. Once more from the top everybody!
In what is called the “First Secession of the Plebs”, rather than go through the same process that had occurred in the last two years, the plebs decided they were just going to leave the city, literally. A decent sized body of the plebs said, “fuck this noise” and went up to Mons Sacer, about 3 miles outside Rome, and set up camp.
In what had to feel like a Twilight Zone episode, the patricians woke up to find half the city deserted, and the few remaining plebs none too keen on obeying the patricians, let alone joining the army to fight the Aequi. The patricians collectively crapped their togas.
The Senate negotiated (which is to say totally caved in to plebeian demands), and the First Secession of the Plebs ended peacefully. Livy recounts that part of the conditions were that “the plebeians were to have magistrates of their own, who should be inviolable, and in them should lie the right to aid the people against the consuls, nor should any senator be permitted to take this magistracy”. Thus, the office of Tribune of the Plebs was created. This office gave the plebs much of what they wanted, which at the core of their message was representation in the affairs of state. Now they could bitch about high taxes to one of their own! Taxation with representation! Uh, victory is ours?
The Tribune of the Plebs became an unequivocally important and influential position for almost the entirety of the Roman Republic. The office fell outside the cursus honorum, the typical succession of offices for a Roman political career, but because of their powers, they were never far from the action. The Tribunes were elected by the plebs, and had to be plebs themselves, putting a check on the patricians from controlling the office. Their role was to protect plebeians from the power of the consuls; to this end, Tribunes had the all-important ius intercessionis, “law of intercession”, or more popularly known as veto power.
In Rome, every magistrate had veto power over magistrates in a lower office; hence, an Aedile could overturn a Quaestor, a Praetor an Aedile, and the Consuls could veto a decree from anyone, including each other—where do you think our Founding Fathers got that whole “checks and balances” notion from? Veto for the Tribunes meant any action, by any magistrate, including the consuls, could be overturned. This put Tribunes in a unique position of falling outside the magistracy, yet practically on top of the pyramid. Even better, the position being “inviolable” (sacrosanctus or more literally “sacrosanct” in the Latin) meant attempting to harm a Tribune, prevent a Tribune from carrying out their duties, or disregarding a Tribune’s veto was punishable by death as an insult to the gods. No more fucking around. The plebs have POWER. So the struggle between the plebs and patricians basically ended with the plebeians winning.
Keen observers will notice that I earlier stated the Struggle of the Orders occurred over a 200 year period and not the three I’ve talked about so far; they might also note I referred to the above episode in Roman history as the First Secession of the Plebs. There is some disagreement over the number, but there are at least three such Secessio Plebis events in the Roman Republic. I will give a quick breakdown of the situation and changes that resulted in the plebs literally leaving the city in protest two more times. History really does repeat, and chances are, you can guess what the results were: The patricians act like jerks, the plebs leave, the patricians cave and more or less give the plebs what they want. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
The second Secessio Plebis occurred in 449 BC. Rome appointed 10 men, “decemvirs”, to overhaul the legal system and compile a code of laws. This would eventually become the Law of the Twelve Tables. In order to facilitate this, they suspended all magistrates and offices, and exempted the decemvirs’ statutes and actions from appeal. It’s still a mystery why they thought this was a good idea. Well, after their term ended and the legal codex was assembled, the decemvirs decided to keep their near unlimited power and acted how one would expect someone with unlimited power to act—like power-hungry bellends. The plebs seceded, the Senate caved, and eventually things went back to normal. The resulting lex Valeria Horatia (named after the two consuls of 449 BC) restored appeal and decreed that laws passed by the Plebeian Council were binding to all Roman citizens. So the plebs gained the right to issue laws that would also affect patricians, and not just themselves. Oh, and they also banned the creation of any new offices not subject to appeal—at least they learned something from this episode.
The Third Secessio Plebis occurred in 287 BC. Quintus Hortensius was appointed dictator after the plebs once again did their thing. While the previous law allowed the Plebeian Council to pass laws binding to both orders, there was still a stipulation that any “plebicites” (laws passed by the Plebeian Council) had to be approved by the Senate—filled, of course, with patricians. Essentially, the Senate was just vetoing all the pleb laws and bypassing having to follow them. Hortensius, a pleb himself, issued a law that made plebicites binding, whether they were Senate approved or not. Pretty easy solution.
There were other fights and laws leading up to the final secession in 287 BC. Sometimes historians will count these as separate secessions. For example, in 445 BC, tribune Gaius Carnuleius led a fight to get a law passed allowing intermarriage between plebs and patricians, and for the consulship to be opened to the plebs.
All in all, it worked out well for the plebeians. The little guys won. Probably because they outnumbered the big guys like 100 to 1. Like I said, when push comes to shove, the side with the numbers always wins. Threatening to move to Canada if Trump wins sounds silly, but the Romans essentially made this sort of threat work. Although there was still a divide between rich and poor, the function of the orders became more or less obsolete. Being a patrician just didn’t matter much after 287 BC. Being a plebeian was no longer a sentence of complete poverty and powerlessness either. Of course, the Roman Republic would unravel in the 1st century BC, and the Empire would rise in the 1st century AD, bringing with it a whole new set of rules, orders, and socioeconomic system.
But that’s an article for another day.