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Plebs, Plebes

A part of the population of Rome, which derived its origin mainly from the conquered Latins settled on Roman territory by the kings Tullus Hostilius and Ancus Martius. At first these possessed only the passive rights of citizenship, being excluded from all its privileges as well as from service in war, and forming a community sharply separated from the old citizens, the patricians. In particular, they did not possess the right of concluding valid marriages with patricians, although they were otherwise equal in matters of private law. When, by the constitution of Servius Tullius, they were compelled to serve in war and to pay war-taxes, they obtained the right of voting with the patricians in the Comitia Centuriata. After the establishment of the Republic in B.C. 510, the plebeians began the struggle with the patricians, who were then in sole possession of the secular and priestly offices. The aim of the plebeians was to secure complete equality of rights, answering to their equality of duties. An important engine in this struggle was the tribunate of the people (see Tribuni Plebis) established in 491, as well as the Comitia Tributa. (See Comitia.) The plebeians had the chief weight in that assembly, and after B.C. 448 it was invested with the right of passing decrees binding on the whole people. Among their first acquisitions was the right of entering into valid marriages with the patricians (B.C. 445). One after another, the plebeians gained admittance to the most important offices of State and the priesthoods, down to the year 300, so that only insignificant offices remained reserved for the patricians. (See Patricii.) When the struggle of the orders was thus settled, the opposition between patricians and plebeians lost its practical importance. The two orders were completely blended together, and the place of the aristocracy of birth was taken by the aristocracy of office, the members of which were called nobiles (q. v.). From this time the name plebs passed to the lower ranks of the people, as contrasted with this nobler class. See Mommsen, Römische Forschungen, vol. i., and id. Röm. Staatsrecht, vol. iii.

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