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Secession of the Plebs

The Secession of the Plebs and the Decemvirate


In the first few decades following the expulsion of the last king, the plebeians (roughly, the Roman lower class) had to create ways of dealing with problems caused or exacerbated by the patricians (the ruling, upper class):

  • poverty,
  • occasional famine, and
  • lack of political clout.

Their solution to at least the 3rd problem was to set up their own separate, plebeian assemblies, and secede. Since the patricians needed the physical bodies of the plebeians as fighting men, the plebeian secession was a serious problem. The patricians had to yield to some of the plebeian demands.

Lex Sacrata and Lex Publilia

Lex is the Latin for law; leges is the plural of lex.

It is thought that between laws passed in 494, the lex sacrata, and 471, the lex publilia, the patricians granted the plebeians the following concessions.

  • the right to elect their own officers by tribe
  • to recognize officially the plebeians' sacrosanct magistrates, the tribunes.

Among the soon to be acquired powers of the tribune was the important right to veto.

Codified Law

After inclusion in the ranks of the ruling class via the office of tribune and the vote, the next step was for the plebeians to demand codified law. Without a written law, individual magistrates could interpret tradition however they wished. This resulted in unfair and seemingly arbitrary decisions. The plebeians insisted that this custom end. If laws were written down, magistrates could no longer be so arbitrary. There is a tradition that in 454 B.C. three commissioners went to Greece* to study its written legal documents.

In 451, upon the return of the commission of three to Rome, a group of 10 men was established to write down the laws. These 10, all patricians according to the ancient tradition (although one appears to have had a plebeian name), were the Decemviri [decem=10; viri=men]. They replaced the year's consuls and tribunes, and were given additional powers. One of these extra powers was that the Decemviri's decisions could not be appealed.

The 10 men wrote down laws on 10 tablets. At the end of their term, the first 10 men were replaced by another group of 10 in order to finish the task. This time, half the members may have been plebeian.

Cicero , writing some 3 centuries later, refers to the 2 new tablets, created by the second set of Decemviri (Decemvirs), as "unjust laws." Not only were their laws unjust, but the Decemvirs who wouldn't step down from office began to abuse their power. Although failure to step down at the end of the year had always been a possibility with the consuls and dictators, it hadn't happened.

Appius Claudius

One man in particular, Appius Claudius, who had served on both decemvirates, acted despotically. Appius Claudius was from an originally Sabine family that continued to make its name known throughout Roman history.

  • The blind censor, Appius Claudius, was one of his descendants. In 279 Appius Claudius Caecus ('blind') expanded the lists from which soldiers could be drawn so as to include those without property. Before then soldiers had to have a certain level of property in order to enlist.
  • Clodius Pulcher (92-52 B.C.) the flamboyant tribune whose gang caused trouble for Cicero, was another descendant.
  • Appius Claudius was also a member of the gens that produced the Claudians in the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Roman emperors.

This early despotic Appius Claudius pursued and brought a fraudulent legal decision against a free woman, Verginia, daughter of a high ranking soldier, Lucius Verginius. As a result of Appius Claudius' lustful, self-serving actions, the plebeians seceded again. To restore order, the Decemvirs finally abdicated, as they should have done earlier.

The laws the Decemviri created were meant to resolve the same basic problem that had faced Athens when Draco (whose name is the basis for the word "draconian" because his laws and punishments were so severe) was asked to codify Athenian laws. In Athens, before Draco, interpretation of the unwritten law had been done by the nobility who had been partial and unfair. Written law meant everyone was theoretically held to the same standard. However, even if exactly the same standard were applied to everyone, which is always a wish more than a reality, and even if the laws were written, a single standard doesn't guarantee reasonable laws. In the case of the 12 tablets, one of the laws prohibited marriage between plebeians and patricians. It's worth noting that this discriminating law was on the supplemental two tablets -- those written while there were plebeians among the Decemvirs, so it is not true that all plebeians opposed it.

Military Tribune

The 12 tablets were an important move in the direction of what we would call equal rights for the plebeians, but there was still much to do. The law against intermarriage between the classes was repealed in 445. When the plebeians proposed that they should be eligible for the highest office, the consulship, the Senate wouldn't completely oblige, but instead created what we might call a "separate, but equal" new office known as military tribune with consular power. This office effectively meant plebeians could wield the same power as the patricians.

Secession [secessio]:

"Withdrawal or the threat of withdrawal from the Roman state during times of crisis."


*Why Greece?

We know of Athens as the birthplace of democracy, but there was more to the Roman's decision to study the Athenian legal system than this, especially since there is no reason to think the Romans were trying to create an Athenian-like democracy.
Athens, too, once had an underclass suffering at the hands of the nobles. One of the first steps taken was to commission Draco to write down the laws. After Draco, who recommended capital punishment for crime, continued problems between rich and poor led to the appointment of Solon the law-giver.
Solon and the Rise of Democracy

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