You may be familiar with two of the social classes in Rome, the patricians and plebeians, but how much do you know about the conflicts between them? This lesson explores the Struggle of the Orders that began in 494 B.C. and lasted until 287 B.C.
Social Classes in Ancient Rome
You've probably heard the phrase 'social class,' but what does it mean? Social classes are the way society is divided into different groups. These groupings may be based on status or how much money a person has. The United States has social classes, although they're not always easy to recognize. In Ancient Rome, however, social classes were very clearly labeled!
Beginning in the Early Republic (around 500 B.C.), the patrician class was at the top of the social order. Patricians were very similar to aristocrats or nobles. This group held the majority of power in Rome, including control of the government. The plebeian class, below the patricians, was made up of working class Romans. At the start of the Roman Republic, tensions between these groups started to grow, leading to the Struggle of the Orders.
Struggle of the Orders
In addition to controlling the government, patricians also owned most of the land inside the city limits of Rome. Meanwhile, the plebeians were given parcels of land outside of the city walls. This presented a major problem for the plebeians. Whenever Rome was at war (which was pretty often), plebeian land was vulnerable to attack and damage! To help make repairs or buy food for their families if crops were damaged, the plebeians borrowed money at a very high-interest rate. At the time, Rome had really harsh laws regarding debt. If a plebeian was unable to pay back their loan, they could be thrown in jail, or worse. . . they could be made a slave!
As you can see, life for the plebeians was pretty rough during the Early Republic. Clearly, something needed to change for them. The goals of the plebeians were simple: they wanted to be treated fairly by the patricians. This meant more rights and representation in the government. Those sound like pretty reasonable demands, right? The Struggle of the Orders (also called the Conflict of the Orders) was a social movement led by the plebeians that lasted from roughly 494 B.C. to 287 B.C. Over more than 200 years of social conflict; the plebeians slowly but surely gained rights through constant agitation.
The First Secession
In 494 B.C. Rome was in the middle of a war. As Roman citizens, the plebeians were expected to fight in Rome's military to defend the Republic. The plebeians knew that the patricians could not win without the strength of their numbers. Instead of fighting, the plebeians decided to go on strike; not only were they not going to fight for the Republic, but they were also going to form their own separate little government. This was the first secession by the plebeians.
The patricians realized pretty quickly that they needed plebeians to win the war. To convince them to rejoin the Republic (and the military!), the patricians allowed the plebeians to elect their own leaders, referred to as the tribunes of the plebeians. In 471 B.C., there were only two tribunes, but by 457 B.C., there were ten. These tribunes could both pass and enforce laws to govern the plebeians. This didn't give the plebeians much say in the Roman Senate, but it was one step closer to equal rights.
Law of the Twelve Tables
Within a few years of the first secession, the plebeians began pushing the patricians for a set of written laws. The plebeians believed that having a written set of laws would better protect their rights - this way they knew exactly what the government and the patricians could and could not do. In 451 B.C., both the patricians and the plebeians put a hold on their representative governments. Meanwhile, a group of ten patrician men called decemvirs were appointed to write the laws and run the Republic.
After a year, they had not finished their work, so a second group of ten was appointed. The second group was very corrupt. According to some ancient historians, the plebeians seceded from Rome a second time in protest. Whether or not this actually happened, it's hard to tell. Historians do know that the second group of decemvirs was forced to step down, and Rome was left with a set of 12 laws written on 12 separate tablets. The Law of the Twelve Tables was displayed in public for all Romans to see.
Over time, the cycle of the Struggle of the Orders repeated itself. When the plebeians were unhappy with their situation, they pushed the patricians for changes and reforms. After the Law of the Twelve Tables were written, plebeians secured the right to appeals in the court of law. In 445 B.C., the patricians agreed to repeal a law that prevented plebeians and patricians from marrying each other. Around the same time, the plebeians were allowed to form a military tribune with consular power. By the Middle Republic, beginning in the 280s B.C., both patricians and plebeians held high-ranking government positions. In many cases, the social classes became indistinguishable from each other.
Beginning in the Early Republic (around 500 B.C.), Rome had two very distinct social classes:
- Patricians, or Rome's wealthy aristocracy
- Plebeians, made up of Rome's working class
The patricians held most of the power in Rome, while the plebeians struggled with very limited rights. In 494 B.C., the plebeians decided to take action, marking the beginning of the Struggle of the Orders that lasted for over 200 years. While Rome was in the middle of a war, the plebeians went on strike. Their first secession forced the patricians to cave into some of the plebeians' demands. As a result, the plebeians were given the right to elect their own leaders that made up tribunes of the plebeians.
About 40 years later, tensions continued to grow. The plebeians demanded that the patricians write down Rome's laws. In 451 B.C., a group of ten decemvirs assumed control of the Republic and began writing the laws. A second group of decemvirs was appointed a year later but was very corrupt. According to some historians, the plebeians seceded from Rome a second time. Over time, the plebeians gained the right to marry patricians, appeal in a court of law, and form military tribunes with consular power. By the Middle Republic (beginning in the 280s B.C.), both patricians and plebeians shared control of Rome.