Magazine article The Spectator

A Tribune of the People

Magazine article The Spectator

A Tribune of the People

Article excerpt

All the foul-mouthed effing and blinding by Andrew Mitchell did not worry the copper, only his use of the word 'pleb'. Quite right too:

who could be more plebeian than Mr Mitchell?

If we can trust accounts of early Roman history when kings ruled Rome (traditional dates 753-509 bc) , plebs was contrasted with patricii simply because patricians came from those clans that had supplied the kings with his circle of advisers, while the plebs had not. Note in passing that plebs is singular, 'general body of citizens'. It does not refer to an individual member of the plebs, as 'pleb' does.

The distinction sharpened when the kings were driven out and in the new republic the Senate, dominated by patricians, came to play a major role. In 494 bc, a substantial body of plebs, tiring of the Senate's refusal to deal with their usual problems (debt and poverty), went on strike, in particular refusing to serve in the army. A compromise was reached, and a Plebeian Assembly was formed, whose plebi-scites soon became binding on all the Roman people and patrician-controlled state offices open to all. …

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