previous next


PLEBES or PLEBS, PLEBE´II. The word plebes is formed from the same root as appears in compleo, impleo, plenus, πλῆθος, &c. as properly signifies “the multitude,” “the common people,” as opposed to any eminent or privileged classes. This, its natural sense, was to a certain extent obscured (as in the case of our own “Commons” ) by the circumstance that many of the noblest and most powerful men in Rome belonged to the plebeian order, in its technical sense of non-patrician: this order was indeed in later days the whole state less two or three score of families. Nevertheless the natural sense of the word survives, as when Livy says (39.17, 6) that certain of the Bacchanalian ringleaders were “ex plebe Romana,” or when Cicero speaks of Verres as “solitus virgis plebem Romanam concidere” (in Verr. 1.47, 122). Under the Empire, after the functions of the plebs as a political corporation had fallen into disuse, the word was used very nearly in its etymological sense of the poorer citizens who were qualified to receive corn largesses (plebs frumentaria), as when Augustus is said by Tacitus (Tac. Ann. 1.8) to have bequeathed money “populo et plebi” (i. e. partly to the state-chest, partly to the needy citizens); and again more generally of the common people in distinction from senators and knights, as when Pliny (Plin. Nat. 33.29) says, “anuli distinxere alterum ordinem a plebe,” and Horace (Hor. Ep. 1.1, 57), “Si quadringentis sex septem millia desunt, Plebs eris.”

The, origin of such a multitude of nonprivileged citizens at Rome is wrapped in obscurity. Our ancient authorities, on the one hand, give us a plebs as coeval with Romulus, and, on the other hand, represent it as consisting wholly of the clients of the patricians. Now the term plebs implies citizens, but citizens excluded from a privileged class. It is therefore not applicable to the days when the word patricius actually meant what it says, and a patricius alone was capable of becoming a paterfamilias. In those days the patricius was the only citizen, because he alone could exercise the rights of a father over his legitimate child, or of a master over his property, and he alone was recognised as having a standing in the Roman law-courts. The client while he remains in his original position, though he may be protected by religion or custom from the actual treatment of a slave, is not really a free man, but rather to be assimilated to those informally emancipated persons who in later times were said “domini voluntate in libertate morari, et tantum metu serviendi liberari” (from the “Consultatio veteris Jurisconsulti,” quoted by Ortolan, Inst. Just. 2.55).

The subsequent process is best described in the words of Mommsen (Staatsr, iii. p. 66): “Out of a condition destitute of rights there was developed a capacity for rights, a guaranteed freedom, which was recognised by the state and its courts, ordinarily with the co-operation of the patron, but which in the last resort was enforced even against him. It was a legal status which, though at every given moment definite, seems as we look back on it continually in flux. Even though we had fuller knowledge of it, we could only characterise it as wavering between two extremes, so that the element of servitude, the clientship, is always waning; that of freedom, the plebeiate, always increasing; until the process ends with the conversion of the half-free into the full freeman.” If we reckon up all the legal capacities which the freeman possesses while they are denied to the slave, the acquisition of each will serve to mark a possible stage in this development. The freeman has a legal right to property, whereas the slave holds a peculium merely on the sufferance of his lord. A corollary to the possession of property is the power to alienate it, and to make binding contracts regarding it. The next step is a recognised standing in the law-courts, the power to sue and be sued in one's own person. On another line we have the power to contract a legal marriage; from this would follow the patria potestas over the children born of such a marriage, and from thence the agnatic relationship and the rights of succession bound up with it. Next comes the right and duty of serving in the armies of the state, and probably in close connexion with this the right to vote in the comitia. Last of all we have the eligibility to office. It is possible that, in spite of the hereditary nature of clientship, these rights were acquired first of all by clients who had been born in that station, and that they were only afterwards claimed by those who had been themselves released from actual slavery or who had.placed themselves as homeless strangers under the protection of a citizen. It is possible likewise, as Mommsen suggests, that some of these privileges may have been exercised first in fact, and only afterwards have obtained formal recognition. In any case it is difficult, to draw the line, and to lay down that here a man ceases to be a client and becomes a free plebeian. Perhaps we may say, that in the sphere of private rights the most distinctive characteristic of independence is the capacity to sue and be sued in one's own person, and that of public rights the most significant indication of citizenship is that of voting as a member of the sovereign populus. We have no means of ascertaining when the descendants of the clients attained to the first of these privileges, but of the second we can say with confidence that it was assured to them at least as early as the era known by the name of Servius Tullius, when the Comitia Centuriata with its elaborate grades of military service was organised. The arrangement of the infantry, at least, recognises no distinction in fighting or in voting between patricians, plebeians, and clients.

Though the clients undoubtedly won their way to the position of plebeians, it does not follow that the clients were the only or the [p. 2.435]most important element of the plebs. We find in very early times two relationships established amongst the kindred communities of Latium, the jus commercii and the jus exulandi. The first relates to the privileges mutually accorded to the citizens of the contracting states, when trading or temporarily sojourning in each other's territory. The second grants the right of permanent settlement and transfer of civic allegiance to those who wish to renounce their old state and to migrate to a new home ( “solum vertere exilii causa” ). The legal position of such an exul after his transfer of domicile is a matter of dispute, and the question will best be considered in connexion with. the privileges enjoyed by such persons before their migration. A Praenestine, while he remains a Praenestine, has the full right of commercium with Rome. This right is explained by the clause in the second Treaty of Rome with Carthage (Plb. 3.24, 12), regarding the Romans who go to trade in Sicily: πάντα καὶ ποιείτω καὶ πωλείτω ὅσα καὶ τῷ πολίτῃ ἔξεστιν: ὡσαύτως δὲ καὶ Καρχηδόνιος ποιείτω Ρώμῃ. The privileged foreigner then has the same right to acquire property and the same standing in the lawcourts as a citizen. He is thus in a different position from the hostis in the old sense of the word (Varr. L. L. 5.3), “peregrinus qui suis legibus uteretur.” The latter has a status only under the laws of his own country, which of course are not enforceable at Rome (see, however, the contrary view in Mommsen, Böm. Forsch. i. p. 349): he is incapable of using Roman law, and if he is wronged can sue only in the name of some citizen. He must secure this representation either by entering into an equal contract of hospitality with a Roman, in case he can promise him in turn similar assistance in his own home, or else by subjecting himself to the protection of the Roman, if he be a homeless outcast (see Mommsen, Röm. Forsch. i. p. 357). From any such necessities the privileged foreigner who has an independent standing in the Roman law-courts is free. Now let us suppose that our Praenestine by virtue of his jus commercii has acquired land in Roman territory, which he can hold, alienate by Roman methods, and defend in his own person in a lawsuit. Suppose next that the Praenestine afterwards finds it convenient to exercise his jus exulandi, to renounce his connexion with Praeneste, and to settle in Rome. Are we to believe that he thereby forfeits all his previous rights? Mommsen answers the question in the affirmative (Staatsr. iii. p. 58). The rights, he contends, belonged to the man as a guest of the community, and “a domiciled guest is an absurdity.” What the jus exulandi, he argues above (p. 50, n. 1), guarantees to the fugitive is not the full citizenship, but protection. This may be true in the sense that political as distinct from private rights would not necessarily accrue to the exul; but it seems difficult to uphold that the granting of protection consisted in the withdrawal of the privileges which he had previously possessed. Mommsen holds (ib. p. 64) that; every such exul would be obliged to put himself under the protection of a Roman citizen as his client. He defends this view (ib. p. 57) by the well-known passage from Cicero, de Or. 1.39, 177: “quid quod item in centumvirali judicio certatum esse accepimus, qui Romam in exilium venisset, cui Romae exulare jus esset, si se ad aliquem quasi patronum applicavisset, intestatoque esset mortuus . . . . nonne in ea causa jus applicationis,” &c. Now this passage shows that applicatio was possible for an exul, not that it was obligatory. “Si se applicavisset” is put parallel to the death without a will, as something which might, not which must occur, and the phrase “quasi-patronum” seems to indicate something irregular in the transaction. It is probable that the legal controversy in this case turned on the inconsistency between exilium and applicatio, and that it was this which made the patron's claim to the inheritance doubtful. As the deceased had the jus exulandi, which guaranteed him the rights of a freeman in Rome, was not his act in placing himself in the quasi-servile position of a client void ab initio? or, on the other hand, was his voluntary applicatio to be taken as a valid renunciation of his rights as an exul? Cicero does not inform us what was the answer.

If Mommsen's view be correct, the exules would merely swell the numbers of the clients: if the opposite theory be maintained, we have here an independent and more honourable source for the plebs. While the mass of fugitives who come from whence no man knew, would arrive in Rome without rights, and could gain protection only by subjecting themselves to a citizen, those who were openly exercising the jus exulandi, secured to them by the common law of Latium, would be under no such necessity. They might set up at once as patresfamilias on their own account, and we must consider them as from the first citizens, though citizens of an inferior order. It is obvious that the existence of such a class, distinct from and yet personally independent of the ruling citizens, would render more easy the acquisition of a similar status by the clients of the latter.

The same question occurs with regard to the people of conquered towns deported to Rome. One of the best attested facts of the Regal period is the destruction of Alba and the transfer of its inhabitants to Rome. Mommsen believes (Staatsr. iii. pp. 57 and 67) that in such cases the new comers would necessarily undergo an applicatio to some Roman citizen of their choice. This seems hardly probable. The existence of such families as that of the Julii shows that some Albans were, as Livy (1.28, 7) says, admitted to the patriciate, and it is difficult to believe that the civitas which he ascribes to the rest was nothing more than the choice of a master.

Closely connected withú the question, whether the original plebeians were all clients, is the question whether a plebeian can be a gentilis. According to Scaevola's definition: (Cic. Top. 6, 29), the descendant of a slave (or client), though he may belong to a gens and so have gentiles, can never himself be a gentilis: he is excluded by the clause “quorum majorum nemo servitutem serviret” (see Ortolan, Inst. Just. 3.1038). But Scaevola's definition says nothing about the patriciate as a qualification for gentilitas. Many of the later plebeian families could trace a descent in which there was no taint of servile blood. Marius could never (according to the definition) attain to [p. 2.436]gentilitas, because his family had been clients of the Herennii (Plut. Marius, 5); but there is no reason why Cicero (who claimed to spring from a Volscian royal family) should not have been a gentilis. We have the undoubted cases of the plebeian Minucii, who had a right to gentile inheritances (Cic. in Verr. 1.45, 115), and of the plebeian Popillii, who supplied the leading case (Cic. de Leg. 2.2. 2, 55) in the law of gentile sepulchre. There seems no reason to follow Mommsen (Staatsr. iii. pp. 66 and 74) in ascribing only a quasi-gentilitas to these plebeian houses, and in asserting that they had only a stirps and not a real gens of their own. If the view maintained above as to exilium be correct, the descendants of the first exul would satisfy every point of Scaevola's definition. They would therefore have a gens of their own; and if their house ever came in turn to have its own freedmen and clients, its pure-born members would be gentiles to the descendants of these, and have rights of succession and guardianship over them. The same would be the case with those patricians who had renounced their birthright and had been admitted as members of the plebeian order (see below). When Livy (10.8, 9) makes Decius Mus say, “Semper ista audita sunt eadem . . . . vos solos gentem habere,” he is not to be taken as admitting the claim, but rather as illustrating the insolence of the patricians, who spoke as if all the plebeians were their clients and ignored the more respectable origin which belonged to many of them. The famous lawsuit mentioned in Cicero, de Or. 1.39, 176, “Quum Marcelli ab liberti filio stirpe, Claudii patricii ejusdem hominis hereditatem gente ad se rediisse dicerent,” illustrates an exception which proves the rule. When there was a patrician and a plebeian family of the same name, it seems to have been the legal presumption that the latter had once been the clients of the former. The Claudii Marcelli had of course long ago extinguished their clientship by attaining to curule office (Plut. Marius, 5), but the original taint in their blood precluded the possibility of their ever being gentiles. It is obvious from Cicero's statement that the Marcelli lodged no claim to succeed patronatus jure, as they would undoubtedly have done had the deceased been their freedman. The right of the patron to inherit extended in the later Republic only over the actual freedman or applicant, not over his descendants (see Ortolan, op. cit. 3.1045). The inheritance of the son of a freedman would therefore be determined by the legitima successio of the Twelve Tables, which provided, “si agnatus nec sit gentiles familiam habento.” The patrician Claudii were clearly the only persons who could claim gente, but the Marcelli seem to have maintained that, when they attained to independence of their patrician namesakes, they founded a stirps which had rights of inheritance similar to those of the gens over the descendants of their own clients. It is not known whether the patricians in this case made good their claim; but even if they did, it would prove nothing against the gentilitas of plebeians in whose case no ancestral clientship could be established.

It was probably owing to the admixture of servile blood in their order, that the plebeians were so long debarred from the right of intermarriage with the patricians. The prohibition of conubium is first mentioned as part of the law of the Twelve Tables; but there can be no doubt that this law only formulated and confirmed a more ancient disqualification. Marriage between the orders was soon afterwards legalised by the Lex Canuleia of B.C. 445.

The struggle of the plebeians for admission to the magistracies of the Roman People occupies a large portion of the internal history for the first two centuries of the Republic. The quaestorship was held for the first time by a plebeian in B.C. 409, the consulship in B.C. 366, the dictatorship in B.C. 356, the censorship in B.C. 351, and the praetorship in B.C. 337. The priestly colleges were not opened to plebeians till B.C. 300. From that time onwards, though certain disqualifications survived on the one side and on the other [see PATRICII], the members of the two orders were on a footing of practical equality, and the distinction between them remained only as an historical reminiscence with the smallest possible effect upon practical politics.

But in the meantime the plebeians had formed themselves (on their secession to the Mons Sacer in B.C. 494) into an exclusive order, with magistrates and assemblies and powers of corporate action of their own. From that time to the end of the Republic plebs generally means not so much the vague and lowly multitude as. this clearly defined body, which comprised families as honourable and powerful, though not. as ancient, as those of the purest patrician stock.. The constitution and political powers of the plebs in its corporate capacity will be more conveniently discussed in the articles PLEBISCITUM and POPULUS Here it will be sufficient to say a few words on the qualifications for membership.

Every Roman who was not a patrician belonged to this order, so that, unlike the patriciate, the plebeiate was constantly being recruited. All newly-made citizens, whether they had formerly been slaves or foreigners, passed at once and without any special act of admission into this body. A person born a patrician became a plebeian if he underwent the “minima capitis deminutio” by being dismissed from his ancestral house by emancipatio. The same result would of course occur if he became by adoption the son of a plebeian. But besides these indirect methods of transfer, the plebeians had (unlike the patricians) a corporate assembly of their own, and so were able to admit new members by their own act. This is the process properly called “transitio ad plebem,” by which a patrician renounces his old order and sues for admission to a new one. It is best described by Zonaras (7.15), εἰ δέ τις τὸ τοῦ γένους ἀξίωμα ἐξωμόσατο καὶ πρὸς τὴν τοῦ πλήθους μετέστη μόμισιν, ἀσμένως αὐτὸν προσεδέχοντο. καὶ συχνοὶ το̂ν σφόδρα εὐπατριδῶν ἀπείπαντο τὴν εὐγένειαν ἔρωτι τοῦ μέγα δυνηθῆναι καὶ ἐδημάρχησαν. As far as can be gathered from the somewhat obscure notices, Clodius at first attempted to become a plebeian in this way; but finding opposition too powerful, he afterwards effected his object by the machinery of adoption. Some genealogists of the time of Augustus invented for the plebeian Octavii a history of this sort, which the emperor himself [p. 2.437]was sensible enough to ignore; see Suet. Aug. 2: “Ea gens a Tarquinio Prisco rege inter minores gentis adlecta in senatum, mox a Servio Tullio in patricias traducta, procedente tempore ad plebem se contulit.”

(The best modern authorities on the points discussed in this article are Mommsen, Römische Forschungen, vol. i., and Staatsrecht, vol. iii.; and Ortolan, Explication historique des Instituts de l'Empereur Justinien. The principal references have been given passim.


hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: