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Conflict of the Orders Patrician and Plebeian

Government of Rome After the Kings - Patrician and Plebeian in Conflict



Livy Titus Livius (c. 59 B.C. - A.D. 17) - Roman Historian


After the expulsion of the kings, Rome was ruled by its aristocrats (roughly, the patricians) who abused their privileges. This led to a struggle between the people (plebeians) and the aristocrats that is called the Conflict of the Orders. The term "orders" refers to the patrician and plebeian groups of Roman citizens. To help resolve the conflict between the orders, the patrician order gave up most of their privileges, but retained vestigial and religious ones, by the time of the lex Hortensia, in 287 -- a law was named for a plebeian dictator.

This article looks at events leading to the laws referred to as the "12 Tablets," codified in 449 B.C.

After Rome Expelled Their Kings

After the Romans expelled their last king, Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), monarchy was abolished in Rome. In its place, the Romans developed a new system, with 2 annually-elected magistrates called consuls, who served throughout the period of the republic, with two exceptions:

  1. when there was a dictator (or military tribune with consular powers) or
  2. when there was a decemvirate (about which, more on next page).

Different Opinions on the Monarchy
Patrician and Plebeian Perspectives

Magistrates, judges, and priests of the new republic mostly came from the patrician order, or upper class*. Unlike the patricians, the lower or plebeian class may have suffered under the early republican structure more than they had under monarchy, since they now had, in effect, many rulers. Under the monarchy, they had endured just one. A similar situation in ancient Greece sometimes led the lower classes to welcome tyrants. In Athens, the political movement against a hydra-headed governing body led to codification of laws and then democracy. The Roman path was different.

In addition to the many headed hydra breathing down their necks, the plebeians lost access to what had been regal domain and was now the public land or ager publicus, because the patricians who were in power, took control of it to increase their profits, running it by slaves or clients in the country while they and their families lived in the city. According to a descriptive, old-fashioned, 19th century history book written by the H.D. Liddell of Alice in Wonderland and Greek Lexicon fame, A History of Rome From the Earliest Times to the Establishment of the Empire, the plebeians were mostly not so well off "petty yeomen" on small farms who had needed the land, now public, to satisfy their families' basic needs.

During the first few centuries of the Roman republic the number of chafing plebeians increased. This was partly because the plebeians' population numbers increased naturally and partly because neighboring Latin tribes, granted citizenship by treaty with Rome, were enrolled in the Roman tribes.

"Gaius Terentilius Harsa was a tribune of the plebs that year. Thinking that the absence of the consuls afforded a good opportunity for tribunitian agitation, he spent several days in haranguing the plebeians on the overbearing arrogance of the patricians. In particular he inveighed against the authority of the consuls as excessive and intolerable in a free commonwealth, for whilst in name it was less invidious, in reality it was almost more harsh and oppressive than that of the kings had been, for now, he said, they had two masters instead of one, with uncontrolled, unlimited powers, who, with nothing to curb their licence, directed all the threats and penalties of the laws against the plebeians."
Livy 3.9

The plebeians were oppressed by hunger, poverty and powerlessness. Allotments of land didn't solve the problems of poor farmers whose tiny plots stopped producing when overworked. Some plebeians whose land had been sacked by the Gauls couldn't afford to rebuild, so they were forced to borrow. Interest rates were exorbitant, but since land couldn't be used for security, farmers in need of loans had to enter into contracts (nexa), pledging personal service. Farmers who defaulted (addicti), could be sold into slavery or even killed. Grain shortages led to famine, which repeatedly (among other years: 496, 492, 486, 477, 476, 456 and 453 B.C.) compounded the problems of the poor.

Some patricians were making a profit and gaining slaves, even if the people to whom they lent money defaulted. But Rome was more than just the patricians. It was becoming the main power in Italy and would soon become the dominant Mediterranean power. What it needed was a fighting force. Referring back to the similarity with Greece mentioned earlier, Greece had needed its fighters, too, and made concessions to the lower classes in order to get bodies. Since there weren't enough patricians in Rome to do all the fighting the young Roman Republic engaged in with its neighbors, the patricians soon realized they needed strong, healthy, young plebeian bodies to defend Rome.

*Cornell, in Ch. 10 of The Beginnings of Rome, points out problems with this traditional picture of the makeup of early Republican Rome. Among other problems, some of the early consuls appear not to have been patricians. Their names appear later in history as plebeians. Cornell also questions whether or not patricians as a class existed prior to the republic and suggests that although the germs of the patriciate were there under the kings, the aristocrats consciously formed a group and closed their privileged ranks sometime after 507 B.C.

Next Page: The Conflict of the Orders Comes to A Head and Resolution.

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