When the Peasants Went on Strike: Ancient Rome’s Secessions of the Plebs
Plebeian farmers interacting with Roman Patricians. From Hutchinson's History of the Nations, published 1915. Source: (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
In ancient Rome, there was a strict class structure. The upper classes of society—the senators, patricians, and the equestrian classes—were the wealthy elite who could afford to live lives of leisure and prosperity. Below them—far below—were the plebs. In the absence of a middle class, there were stark contrasts between the upper elite and the lowly plebs. The plebian class, however, greatly outnumbered the elite, and a few times in Roman history, they banded together to use the power of their numbers. Occasionally, they even went on strike, leaving the spoiled wealthy elite to fend for themselves. These events became known as the Secessions of the Plebs.
Who Were the Plebs?
The plebeian class was the working class in ancient Roman society. They were one step above slaves on the social hierarchy. Plebs were free Roman citizens, but they were stuck at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. These were the farmers, common laborers, bakers, and builders of society. They toiled long hours to earn enough money to support their families as well as the elite class, to whom they paid taxes.
Enough Is Enough
At least five times in Roman history, the plebeians got sick of breaking their backs to keep the wealthy in grapes and palm fronds. Called "Secessio plebis," or "the secession of the plebs," these events were akin to modern-day labor strikes, bringing the economy to a grinding halt and disrupting the comfortable lives of the ruling class. It was the most effective way for the plebeian class to shake up the hierarchy and make the patricians take notice.
The First Secession
In 494 BC, the plebs were fed up with the senate passing tax laws that increased the debt of the working class without offering them useful services in return. Lucius Sicinius Vellutus, a working-class pleb, suggested that the workers unite in a walk-off to protest the doings of the senate. In large numbers, the plebs walked out of the city and congregated on the Mons Sacer ("sacred mountain") while Vellutus and others negotiated with the patricians. The strike was a rousing success, resulting in the expungement of many plebs' debts and the creation of the Tribune of the Plebs, the first government position to be occupied by a member of the plebeian class.
The Plebs Strike Back
The Roman government, with its plebian representatives, worked well enough until 449 BC. The patricians killed a member of the Tribune of Plebs, a man who had been outspoken in his criticism of their abuse of power, which had spread outside the senate halls when a man named Appius Claudius Crassus tried to force a plebeian woman to marry him against her and her family's wishes. To spare her from the forced marriage, the woman's own father stabbed her to death. The incident ignited riots throughout the city, and the plebs demanded that certain members of the senate resign from their posts. When they refused, the plebs did what worked in the past: They retreated to the Sacred Mountain, crippling the Roman economy. They pushed for the reinstatement of the Tribune of the Plebs, the resignation of key figures, and term limits on senate seats. The patricians agreed.
The Third and Fourth Secessions
The plebeian class went on strike again in 445 BC and 342 BC. In both cases, the plebs were again protesting how the patricians in the senate were pushing out the plebeian representatives and abusing their power. In each case, the patricians got a wake-up call to show them just how ill-equipped they were to take care of themselves, finding themselves up to their ears in dirty laundry and hungry horses. In an ironic twist, they became the unwashed masses.
The Fifth Secession Plebis
The last of the plebeian strikes took place in 287 BC, and by all accounts, it was the secession that brought about real change in the Roman government. This strike resulted in the Hortensian law, which was passed by Quintus Hortensius after negotiations for the return of the plebeian workers. Under the Hortensian law, the patricians and plebeians had equal political rights and the patricians were no longer allowed to approve or disapprove of the work done by the Tribune of the Plebs. In fact, as a result of the Fifth Secession, the Plebeian Assembly was created. Via the Plebeian Assembly, the working class could pass their own laws, try their own judicial cases, and elect their own representatives. It was the first step towards a true democracy if you ignore the fact that they were still clearly delineated classes. Hey, a baby step is still a step.
Tags: ancient rome | The Plebian class
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