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]

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 four 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

In the annalistic tradition of Livy and Dionysius, the distinction between patricians and plebeians was as old as Rome itself, instituted by Romulus' appointment of the first hundred senators, whose descendants became the patriciate.[2] Modern hypotheses date the distinction "anywhere from the regal period to the late fifth century" BC.[2] The 19th-century historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr believed plebeians were possibly foreigners immigrating from other parts of Italy.[3] This hypothesis, that plebeians were racially distinct from patricians, however, is not supported by the ancient evidence.[1][4] Alternatively, the patriciate may have been defined by their monopolisation of hereditary priesthoods that granted ex officio membership in the senate.[5] Patricians also may have emerged from a nucleus of the rich religious leaders who formed themselves into a closed elite after accomplishing the expulsion of the kings.[6]

Certain gentes ("clans") were patrician, signalled by their family names (nomen).[citation needed] In the early Roman Republic, there are attested 43 clan names, of which 10 are plebeian with 17 of uncertain status.[2] A single clan also might have both patrician and plebeian branches sharing a nomen distinguished by a cognomen.[citation needed]

There existed an aristocracy of wealthy families in the regal period, but "a clear-cut distinction of birth does not seem to have become important before the foundation of the Republic".[1] The literary sources hold that in the early Republic, plebeians were excluded from magistracies, religious colleges, and the Senate.[1] Those sources also hold that they were also not permitted to know the laws by which they were governed.[citation needed] However, some scholars doubt that patricians monopolised the magistracies of the early republic, as plebeian names appear in the lists of Roman magistrates back to the fifth century BC.[7] It is likely that patricians, over the course of the first half of the fifth century, were able to close off high political office from plebeians and exclude plebeians from permanent social integration through marriage.[8]

Plebeians were enrolled into the curiae and the tribes; they also served in the army and also in army officer roles as tribuni militum.[1]

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.[9] 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".[10]

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.[11] This succession also forced the creation of plebeian tribunes with authority to defend plebeian interests.[9] 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.[12] In 445 BC, the lex Canuleia permitted intermarriage among plebeians and patricians.[13]

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"[14] over the religious objections of patricians, requiring at least one of the consuls to be a plebeian.[15] And after 342 BC, plebeians regularly attained the consulship.[16] Debt bondage was abolished in 326, freeing plebeians from the possibility of slavery by patrician creditors.[17] 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.[18] Moreover, it banned senatorial vetoes of plebeian council laws.[19][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".[18]

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".[20] 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.[7] Contradicting 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.[7] 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.[21]

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.[22] 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.[23] This culture also focused considerably on achievements in terms of war and personal merit.[16]

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.[24] 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.[25]

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, patrician whose families had become plebeian (in a conjectural transitio ad plebem), and plebeians who had held curule offices (e.g., dictator, consul, praetor, and curule aedile).[26] Becoming a senator after election to a quaestorship did not make a man a nobilis, only those who were entitled to a curule seat were nobiles.[27] However, by the time of Cicero in the post-Sullan Republic, the definition of nobilis had shifted.[28] Now, nobilis came to refer only to former consuls and the direct relatives and male descendants thereof.[28] 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.[29]

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,[30] 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 socio-economic status.[1] 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.[31]

Living quarters

Ruins of insulae
Ruins of insulae

Plebeians in ancient Rome lived in three or four-storey buildings called insula, apartment buildings that housed many families. These apartments usually lacked running water and heat. These buildings had no bathrooms and was common for a pot to be used. Not all plebeians lived in these run-down conditions, as some wealthier plebs were able to live in single-family homes, called a domus.[31]


Plebeian men wore a tunic, generally made of wool felt or inexpensive material, with a belt at the waist, as well as sandals.[32] Meanwhile, women wore a long dress called a stola.[31]


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.[31]


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 (only for the first quarter), 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 also know the different plebe knowledges.

British and Commonwealth usage

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,[33] is used as a derogatory term for someone considered unsophisticated, uncultured,[34] or lower class.[35]

In popular culture

The British comedy show Plebs followed plebeians during ancient Rome.[36]

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".[37]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Momigliano & Lintott 2012.
  2. ^ a b c Forsythe 2005, p. 157.
  3. ^ Cornell 1995, p. 242.
  4. ^ Cf Cornell 1995, p. 244. "That anyone could ever have thought that the Conflict of the Orders arose from a primordial division of the community into two ethnic groups is almost beyond belief".
  5. ^ Forsythe 2005, pp. 167–68.
  6. ^ Cornell 1995, pp. 251–52.
  7. ^ a b c Beard 2015, p. 151.
  8. ^ Cornell 1995, pp. 255–56.
  9. ^ a b Beard 2015, p. 146.
  10. ^ Beard 2015, p. 147.
  11. ^ Flower 2010, p. 48.
  12. ^ Flower 2010, p. 49.
  13. ^ Flower 2010, p. 45.
  14. ^ Flower 2010, p. 50.
  15. ^ Beard 2015, pp. 148, 151.
  16. ^ a b Flower 2010, p. 51.
  17. ^ Beard 2015, pp. 147–8.
  18. ^ a b Flower 2010, p. 52.
  19. ^ Harris, Karen. "Secession of the Plebs: When the Peasants Went on Strike". History Daily. Retrieved 2020-04-15.
  20. ^ Beard 2015, pp. 150–1.
  21. ^ Beard 2015, p. 152.
  22. ^ Flower 2010, p. 25.
  23. ^ Flower 2010, p. 39.
  24. ^ Salmon, E. T. (1967). Samnium and the Samnites. Cambridge University Press. p. 217. ISBN 978-0-521-06185-8.
  25. ^ Forsythe 2005, p. 269.
  26. ^ Brunt, P A (1982). "Nobilitas and Novitas". The Journal of Roman Studies. 72: 1–17. doi:10.2307/299112. ISSN 0075-4358. JSTOR 299112.
  27. ^ Flower 2010, pp. 155–6.
  28. ^ a b Flower 2010, p. 156.
  29. ^ Flower 2010, pp. 156–7.
  30. ^ Lintott, A. W. (1974). "Review: Novi Homines". The Classical Review. 24 (2): 261–263. doi:10.1017/S0009840X00243242. ISSN 0009-840X. JSTOR 708820. S2CID 162366274.
  31. ^ a b c d Karen, Harris. "Life as a Plebeian" (PDF). Retrieved 14 April 2020.
  32. ^ "Ancient Roman Clothing". Retrieved 2023-01-13.
  33. ^ "plebby". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 September 2012.
  34. ^ "pleb". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 September 2012.
  35. ^ Walker, Peter (2014-11-27). "Andrew Mitchell and the Plebgate affair explained for non-Brits". The Guardian. Retrieved 2022-02-14.
  36. ^ Plebs (TV Series 2013– ) - IMDb, retrieved 2020-04-15
  37. ^ "Oryx and Crake: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis". SparkNotes. Retrieved 2022-02-28.


Further reading