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In ancient Rome, the plebeians (also called plebs) were the general body of free Roman citizens who were not patricians, as determined by the census, or in other words "commoners". Both classes were hereditary.


The precise origins of the group and the term are unclear, but may be related to the Greek, plēthos, meaning masses.[1] The term then became more widely applied throughout the Conflict of the Orders,[2] a struggle for political rights between the plebeians and patricians.[3] By 287 BC, plebeians had eliminated their political disadvantages in relation to the patricians.[1] In the later republic, the term referred instead to citizens of lower socioeconomic status and, by the early empire, referred to non-aristocrats (not senators or equestrians).[1]

In Latin, the word plebs is a singular collective noun, and its genitive is plebis. Plebeians were not a monolithic social class. Those who resided in the city and were part of the 4 urban tribes are sometimes called the plebs urbana, while those who lived in the country and were part of the 31 smaller rural tribes are sometimes differentiated by using the label plebs rustica. (List of Roman tribes)

In Ancient Rome

Further information: Social class in ancient Rome

The original management of the separation into orders is unclear, and it is disputed when the Romans were divided under the early kings into patricians and plebeians, or whether the clientes (dependents) of the patricians formed a third group. Certain gentes ("clans") were patrician, as identified by the nomen (family name), but a gens might have both patrician and plebeian branches that shared a nomen but were distinguished by a cognomen, as was the case with the gens Claudia.

The 19th-century historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr held that plebeians began to appear at Rome during the reign of Ancus Marcius and were possibly foreigners from other parts of Italy settling in Rome as naturalized citizens. In any case, at the outset of the Roman Republic, the patricians had a near monopoly on political and social institutions. Plebeians were excluded from magistracies and religious colleges, and they were not permitted to know the laws by which they were governed. Plebeians served in the army, but rarely became military leaders.

Conflict of the orders

Main article: Conflict of the Orders

The Conflict of the Orders (Latin: ordo meaning "social rank") refers to a struggle by plebeians for full political rights from the patricians.[3] According to Roman tradition, shortly after the establishment of the republic, plebeians objected to their exclusion from power and exploitation by the patricians. The plebeians were able to achieve their political goals by a series of secessions from the city: "a combination of mutiny and a strike".[4]

Ancient Roman tradition claimed that the Conflict led to laws being published, written down, and given open access starting in 494 BC with the law of the Twelve Tables, which also introduced the concept of equality before the law, "often referred to in Latin as libertas", which became foundational to republican politics.[5] This early law also banned intermarriage between patricians and plebeians.[1] This succession also forced the creation of plebeian tribunes with authority to defend plebeian interests.[3] Following this, there was a period of consular tribunes who shared power between plebeians and patricians in various years, but the consular tribunes apparently were not endowed with religious authority.[6] In 445 BC, the lex Canuleia permitted intermarriage among plebeians and patricians.[7]

There was a radical reform in 367–6 BC, which abolished consular tribunes and "laid the foundation for a system of government led by two consuls, shared between patricians and plebeians"[8] over the religious objections of patricians, requiring at least one of the consuls to be a plebeian.[9] And after 342 BC, plebeians regularly attained the consulship.[10] Debt bondage was abolished in 326, freeing plebeians from the possibility of slavery by patrician creditors.[11] By 287, with the passage of the lex Hortensia, plebiscites – or laws passed by the concilium plebis – were made binding on the whole Roman people.[12] Moreover, it banned senatorial vetoes of plebeian council laws.[13][verification needed] And also around the year 300 BC, the priesthoods also were shared between patricians and plebeians, ending the "last significant barrier to plebeian emancipation".[12]

The veracity of the traditional story is profoundly unclear: "many aspects of the story as it has come down to us must be wrong, heavily modernised... or still much more myth than history".[14] Substantial portions of the rhetoric put into the mouths of the plebeian reformers of the early republic are likely imaginative reconstructions reflecting the late republican politics of their writers.[15] Contra claims that plebs were excluded from politics from the fall of the monarchy, plebeians appear in the consular lists during the early fifth century BC.[15] The form of the state may also have been substantially different, with a temporary ad hoc "senate", not taking on fully classical elements for more than a century from the republic's establishment.[16]

Noble plebeians

The completion of plebeian political emancipation was founded on a republican ideal dominated by nobiles who were defined not by caste or heredity, but by their accession to the high offices of state, elected from both patrician and plebeian families.[17] There was substantial convergence in this class of people, with a complex culture of preserving the memory of and celebrating one's political accomplishments and those of one's ancestors.[18] This culture also focused considerably on achievements in terms of war and personal merit.[10]

Throughout the Second Samnite War (326–304 BC), plebeians who had risen to power through these social reforms began to acquire the aura of nobilitas ("nobility", also "fame, renown"), marking the creation of a ruling elite of nobiles.[19] From the mid-4th century to the early 3rd century BC, several plebeian–patrician "tickets" for the consulship repeated joint terms, suggesting a deliberate political strategy of cooperation.[20]

No contemporary definition of nobilis or novus homo – a person entering the nobility – exists; Mommsen, positively referenced by Brunt (1982), said the nobiles were patricians, plebeians whose families had become plebeian, and plebeians who had held curule offices (eg dictator, consul, praetor, and curule aedile).[21] Becoming a senator after election to a quaestorship did not make a man a nobilis, only those who were entitled to a curule chair were nobiles.[22] However, by the time of Cicero in the post-Sullan republic, the definition of nobilis had shifted.[23] Now, nobilis came to refer only to former consuls and the direct relatives and male descendants thereof.[23] The new focus on the consulship "can be directly related to the many other displays of pedigree and family heritage that became increasingly common after Sulla" and with the expanded senate and number of praetors diluting the honour of the lower offices.[24]

A person becoming nobilis by election to the consulate was a novus homo (a new man). Marius and Cicero are notable examples of novi homines (new men) in the late Republic,[25] when many of Rome's richest and most powerful men – such as Lucullus, Marcus Crassus, and Pompey – were plebeian nobles.

Later history

In the later republic, the term lost its indication of a social order or formal hereditary class, becoming used instead to refer to citizens of lower socioeconomic status. By the early empire, the word was used to refer to people who were not senators (of the empire or of the local municipalities) or equestrians.[1]


Childhood and education

The average plebeian did not come into a wealthy family; the politically active nobiles as a whole comprised a very small portion of the whole population. The average plebeian child was expected to enter the workforce at a young age. Plebeians typically belonged to a lower socio-economic class than their patrician counterparts, but there also were poor patricians and rich plebeians by the late republic.

Education was limited to what their parent would teach them, which consisted of only learning the very basics of writing, reading and mathematics. Wealthier plebeians were able to send their children to schools or hire a private tutor.[26]

Living quarters

Ruins of insulae
Ruins of insulae

Plebeians in ancient Rome lived in buildings called insula, apartment buildings that housed many families. These apartments usually lacked running water and heat. Not all plebeians lived in these run-down conditions, as some wealthier plebs were able to live in single-family homes, called a domus.[26]


Plebeian men wore a tunic with a belt at the waist, and women wore a long dress called a stola.[26]


Since meat was very expensive, animal products such as pork, beef and veal would have been considered a delicacy to plebeians. Instead, a plebeian diet mainly consisted of bread and vegetables. Common flavouring for their food included honey, vinegar and different herbs and spices. A well-known condiment to this day known as 'garum', which is a fish sauce was also largely consumed.[26]


United States military academies

See also: Plebe Summer

Plebes (first-year students) marching in front of Bancroft Hall, United States Naval Academy
Plebes (first-year students) marching in front of Bancroft Hall, United States Naval Academy

In the U.S. military, plebes are freshmen at the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy, Valley Forge Military Academy and College, the Marine Military Academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Georgia Military College, and California Maritime Academy. The term is also used for new cadets at the Philippine Military Academy.

Philippine Military Academy

Since the construction of Philippine Military Academy, the system and traditions were programmed the same as the United States Military Academy. First Year Cadets in PMA are called Plebes or Plebos (short term for Fourth Class Cadets) because they are still civilian antiques and they are expected to master first the spirit of Followership. As plebes, they are also expected to become the "working force (force men or "porsmen") in the Corps of Cadets. They must know also the different plebe knowledges.

British Empire

Early public schools in the United Kingdom would enroll pupils as "plebeians", as opposed to sons of gentry and aristocrats.

In British, Irish, Australian, New Zealand and South African English, the back-formation pleb, along with the more recently derived adjectival form plebby,[27] is used as a derogatory term for someone considered unsophisticated or uncultured.[28]

In popular culture

A British comedy show, Plebs has since 2013 followed plebeians during Ancient Rome in a comical manner.[29]

In Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake, there is a major class divide. The rich and educated live in safeguarded facilities while others live in dilapidated cities referred to as the "pleeblands".[30]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Momigliano, Arnaldo; Lintott, Andrew William (2014). "plebs". In Hornblower, Simon; Spawforth, Antony (eds.). The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198706779.
  2. ^ See for example Momigliano, Arnaldo (1967). "Osservazioni sulla distinzione fra patrizi e plebei". In Gjerstad, Einar (ed.). Les origines de la République romaine: neuf exposés suivis de discussions. Fondation Hardt pour l'étude de l'antiquité classique. pp. 199–221.
  3. ^ a b c Beard 2015, p. 146.
  4. ^ Beard 2015, p. 147.
  5. ^ Flower 2010, p. 48.
  6. ^ Flower 2010, p. 49.
  7. ^ Flower 2010, p. 45.
  8. ^ Flower 2010, p. 50.
  9. ^ Beard 2015, pp. 148, 151.
  10. ^ a b Flower 2010, p. 51.
  11. ^ Beard 2015, pp. 147–8.
  12. ^ a b Flower 2010, p. 52.
  13. ^ Harris, Karen. "Secession of the Plebs: When the Peasants Went on Strike". History Daily. Retrieved 2020-04-15.
  14. ^ Beard 2015, pp. 150–1.
  15. ^ a b Beard 2015, p. 151.
  16. ^ Beard 2015, p. 152.
  17. ^ Flower 2010, p. 25.
  18. ^ Flower 2010, p. 39.
  19. ^ E.T. Salmon, Samnium and the Samnites (Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 217.
  20. ^ Gary Forsythe, A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War (University of California Press, 2005), p. 269.
  21. ^ Brunt, P A (1982). "Nobilitas and Novitas". The Journal of Roman Studies. 72: 1–17. doi:10.2307/299112. ISSN 0075-4358. JSTOR 299112.
  22. ^ Flower 2010, pp. 155–6.
  23. ^ a b Flower 2010, p. 156.
  24. ^ Flower 2010, pp. 156–7.
  25. ^ Lintott, A. W. (1974). "Review: Novi Homines". The Classical Review. 24 (2): 261–263. doi:10.1017/S0009840X00243242. ISSN 0009-840X. JSTOR 708820.
  26. ^ a b c d Karen, Harris. "Life as a Plebeian" (PDF). Retrieved 14 April 2020.
  27. ^ "plebby". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 September 2012.
  28. ^ "pleb". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 September 2012.
  29. ^ Plebs (TV Series 2013– ) - IMDb, retrieved 2020-04-15
  30. ^ Oryx and Crake Chapter 2


Further reading