Magazine article The Spectator

Pleb Power

Magazine article The Spectator

Pleb Power

Article excerpt

Momentarily banish thoughts of policemen on duty at the House of Commons, and picture a Roman pleb. You will probably visualise a toothless peasant howling for 'bread and circuses' (i. e. chariot races), and rioting if refused. But if you were then told that the Roman statesman Cicero and Caesar's rival Pompey the Great were both plebs, you might reconsider; even more so if you were to discover that the plebs were involved in shaping some of the most dramatic events in the ancient world.

For Romans, the term 'plebeian' took them right back to the foundation of Rome in, as they calculated, 753 bc . Rome was an agricultural society. Wealth was expressed in the size of one's land holdings and in the number of people who owed their livelihood to you, from family retainers to farm-workers and slaves. It was from the wealthiest of such families that the first king Romulus drew his circle of 100 advisers. These advisers were called patres ('fathers'), and their families given the title of 'patrician'. All other families were called 'plebeian', from the Latin plebs, 'people'.

In 509 bc , Livy explains, the last king was ejected, to be replaced by a republican system, in which the patres eventually became the Senate, Rome's de facto legislature. But trouble was in store, because patrician families claimed the right to all the top positions. Further, it was a time of considerable economic difficulty. Debt was rife among the plebeian poor, and their treatment at the hands of their creditors unsympathetic. The army was the heart of Rome's power, but its pleb soldiers ran the risk of losing everything if, while serving the state, their own land was pillaged or, because the family went into debt, seized by a creditor. Wealthy Romans would promptly take this opportunity to extend their estates.

The resulting tensions led to what has been called the 'Conflict of the Orders' (ordo, a grouping). For elite plebeians, it was a matter of winning the right to share power with patricians; for the poor, of getting a fair social deal. The extraordinary initiative that changed the game came from a concerted effort, not of the wealthy, but of the poor.

The Roman historian Livy tells the story.

In 494 bc , the plebs in the army, tired of the Senate's indifference to their problems, withdrew to the Sacred Mountain three miles from the city. …

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