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Who Were the Roman Plebeians?

Devon Denomme, Flint Johnson
  • Author
    Devon Denomme

    Devon has tutored for almost two years. They have a Bachelor's in Air Traffic Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and minored in Aviation Safety and Homeland Security. They also are AT-CTI certified.

  • Instructor
    Flint Johnson

    Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn the plebeian meaning and explore who the Roman plebs were, what their lifestyles were like, and the plebs' fight for power in the Roman class system. Updated: 08/10/2021

Plebeian: Definition

Plebeians, also referred to as Roman plebs, were one of the many social classes that made up ancient Rome. The plebeian class contained common working class citizens who were not part of the patrician, senatorial, or equestrian social classes. Plebeian class members included bakers, farmers, craftsmen and builders, most of whom did not hold any power in the government. They could not be a priest, could not access the laws of Rome, and could not hold any office.

While other classes were more powerful as individuals, the Roman plebs were not. Members had little influence in the government on their own, but by the first century C.E., the plebeian class had effectively asserted their voice in society. Over time, plebeians became just as important to Roman society as the most powerful social classes.

Etymology and Usage

The current "plebeian" meaning and usage began in the 1560s to refer to the historical social class of Rome. The term derives from the Latin word plebeius, which translates to "belonging to the lower class or common people." A plebeian can also refer to someone who is not of nobility in addition to a large population of common people. Similar names for plebs include:

  • commoner
  • prole/proletarian
  • laborer
  • worker
  • peon

Roman Plebeians: A Definition

Legend has it that Romulus, the founder of Rome, chose one hundred of the best men in his new city and made them and their families patricians. These became the wealthiest, most powerful and most respected people in Rome. No one is sure how true the legend is, but at some point during the Kingdom of Rome, a patrician class did emerge. Back then, there were no entertainers to look up to, so the patricians with their money and status were the ones to be admired. On the other side of the equation were the plebeians, or plebs, who did the admiring. The plebs were a class of people living on farms or working a craft for a living.

Plebeians were the commoners of early Roman society. They owned land, so they served in the military, but they rarely became leaders at even the lowest levels. After their military commitment, the plebeians were restricted from serving in the government or the temples. They weren't even allowed to know the laws that governed them!

The Roman Class System

Before Rome truly had social classes, there was still a divide among the people in terms of ranking. Some people were extremely poor and had few possessions. These people were grouped together with the common people to create one of the original two social classes in the Roman class system, the plebeians.

The Roman class system was comprised of the plebeian, patrician, senatorial, and equestrian social classes. The other social classes were created and evolved over time, but there was one other social class when the ranking system was created: the patricians.

Patricians

The patrician class was initially the general term for the more wealthy individuals in Roman society. While it was not nearly as large of a group as the plebeian class, it was far more influential in politics. The Roman elites in this class made up the populus Romanus, a grouping of sovereign people who essentially ruled themselves.

It was not acceptable for the patricians to associate with or marry a plebeian, and marriages between the classes would not be recognized by the government until around 445 B.C.

The Roman empire was large and expansive because of the social structure within society. Plebeians made up the largest population, while the patrician class members were the individuals who held the most power.

plebeian definition

Some patricians were part of the senatorial class and were involved in Roman government. Others were businessmen who worked more in economics; they were part of the equestrian class. Though these were smaller branches of the overarching patrician class that had more specific requirements to be a part of, the patrician class is the most recognized Roman social class along with the plebeian class.

Slaves

Slaves were typically not considered part of a social class, or were considered their own social class, in Roman society. Slaves were often prisoners of war, but sometimes included orphaned children who were purchased by a landowner or business owner. It is important to recognize that Roman slavery was not based on race at all and was degrading and cruel. Romans accepted slavery in society, but some citizens believed that slaves should have been treated more fairly.

Owners could rent or sell their slaves at any time. They could also kill their slaves without any form of punishment. If a Roman slave was freed through either being granted freedom or paying for their freedom, they often went to work on their own. There was a chance that former slaves could become part of the plebeian class, though it was not extremely common for a slave to be freed in the first place.

Roman Plebeians: History

The plebeian class, like other Roman social classes, developed over the course of Roman history. They made up a large amount of Roman society and had little power at first, but collectively proved their place in society during times of struggle. The plebeian class has an interesting history that holds much influence in ancient Roman society.

Conflict of the Orders

Plebeian history began formally with the Conflict of the Orders, the plebeian fight for rights and power in Roman society. Initially, citizens were placed into a class based on their value or livelihood. The common people were all grouped as one body and generally viewed and treated as the lower class. In times of trouble, they were treated even worse.

One advantage that the Roman plebs had was that they were large in number. In conflict or times of political unrest, they made their voices heard loudly to get what they desired through riots and large demonstrations. Enough conflict had eventually transpired for the government to take action.

Members of the higher classes recognized the impact a large group of rioting people could have on society and attempted to reduce the risk. By keeping the lower classes well fed through free grain laws and controlled food prices, as well as entertained by events such as gladiator fights and chariot races, the patrician class maintained order for a remarkable period of time. These tactics became known as "bread and circuses."

One way that Roman elites attempted to keep the plebeian class happy was through live entertainment at venues, such as the Colosseum. Keeping citizens well fed and entertained became known as 'bread and circuses.'

plebeian meaning

Overall, Rome kept conflict within society generally low between the social classes. They implemented methods to resolve conflict and minimize the wealth gap in society so the military could be a larger and more successful focus. Though early conflicts between the social classes were impactful to the military, it is notable that Rome never allowed control of the people to become a large problem to affect military operations again.

Growth in Influence

Following unrest and conflict, the plebeian class was allowed to have more rights over a gradual amount of time. Plebeians were allowed to marry patricians following the Conflict of the Orders and they had the right to hold any Roman office, including the office of the Plebeian Tribune.

This office could propose legislation and protect plebeians legally. It was the first and most important office a plebeian could hold. The class could also gain wealth and power following the publication of the Twelve Tables, the code of Roman law.

Although they were still viewed as common folk, more plebs were allowed to join the military. This was a way for plebeians to gain recognition and improve their social class standing because in the army they would be equal with the patricians. The military was such a large and important part of Roman society that it was more advantageous for plebs to risk their lives and show their worth to the Roman empire than to remain in the lower class.

The military also provided a sense of unity among the social classes. If everyone worked together, the empire would be able to become more powerful and acquire more territory. Money was not the only form of wealth in Roman society; land was just as important. Any opportunity that a plebeian had to gain more land for themselves for the empire increased their chances of having a higher standing in society.

As more plebs joined the military, the social classes became more balanced. A larger number of common workers were becoming equal to the higher class members within the military and therefore the class became more influential. Plebeians, even if not as present in the government as other classes, still had a large impact on how Roman society progressed.

Life as a Plebeian

The plebeian class was the largest social class in the empire. It included anyone who was not wealthy or part of the governing body of Rome. Therefore, lifestyles and work varied between different members of the class. Roman plebs had a unique lifestyle from that of the patrician class and the smaller senatorial and equestrian classes.

Roman soldiers, plebeians, who could fight for Rome but were not represented in the Early Republic
Roman soldiers

Conflict of the Orders

The problem with a working class that has no rights and an elite that does not work is that eventually the workers realize the elite need them and they don't need the elite. That is what happened in Rome beginning in 494 B.C.E. In that year, the plebeians started The Conflict of the Orders (497-287 B.C.E.) by threatening to leave Rome unless they were given more rights.

As a compromise, the plebs were offered a new government official, called the Plebeian Tribune. The new tribunes could call a meeting of the senate and the Concilium Plebis, or people's assembly, and chair the Consilium Plebis. They could propose legislation and protect plebeians in legal matters. Best of all, a plebeian tribune could veto any action the Roman government had decided on.

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Additional Info

Roman Plebeians: A Definition

Legend has it that Romulus, the founder of Rome, chose one hundred of the best men in his new city and made them and their families patricians. These became the wealthiest, most powerful and most respected people in Rome. No one is sure how true the legend is, but at some point during the Kingdom of Rome, a patrician class did emerge. Back then, there were no entertainers to look up to, so the patricians with their money and status were the ones to be admired. On the other side of the equation were the plebeians, or plebs, who did the admiring. The plebs were a class of people living on farms or working a craft for a living.

Plebeians were the commoners of early Roman society. They owned land, so they served in the military, but they rarely became leaders at even the lowest levels. After their military commitment, the plebeians were restricted from serving in the government or the temples. They weren't even allowed to know the laws that governed them!

Roman soldiers, plebeians, who could fight for Rome but were not represented in the Early Republic
Roman soldiers

Conflict of the Orders

The problem with a working class that has no rights and an elite that does not work is that eventually the workers realize the elite need them and they don't need the elite. That is what happened in Rome beginning in 494 B.C.E. In that year, the plebeians started The Conflict of the Orders (497-287 B.C.E.) by threatening to leave Rome unless they were given more rights.

As a compromise, the plebs were offered a new government official, called the Plebeian Tribune. The new tribunes could call a meeting of the senate and the Concilium Plebis, or people's assembly, and chair the Consilium Plebis. They could propose legislation and protect plebeians in legal matters. Best of all, a plebeian tribune could veto any action the Roman government had decided on.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why are plebs called plebs?

"Pleb" is an abbreviation for "Plebeian." The term means to be among the common folk in a society, often part of the working class. Plebeian held jobs such as being bakers, farmers, and carpenters. Later, they were known to be warriors in the Roman military.

What is the meaning of plebeian?

The term "plebeian" means to be part of the common folk or part of a large working class. The plebeian were the largest social class in ancient Rome, even though they had the least political power. Many were poor and lived in poor conditions.

What is the synonym of plebeian?

Plebeians were the common working class members of ancient Rome. They can also be referred to as a commoner, prole/proletarian, laborer, worker, and peon.

What are the 3 social classes of ancient Rome?

In ancient Rome, there were three social classes.

  • The plebeian class was made up of the common folk. Anybody who was not wealthy and did not have a role in the government was a pleb. Roman plebs were often poor and viewed lesser than members of the higher class.
  • The smaller and more wealthy class of ancient Rome was the patrician class. These members often held positions in government (senatorial) and economics (equestrian). They made up the Roman elite and had the most influence in society.
  • A third class in the Roman class system was the slave class. These members were often prisoners of war or orphaned children who were purchased by a landowner. Slavery was not conducted by race and was generally a cruel and abusive relationship between slave and owner.

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