The Struggle of the Orders: Division to New Order in Ancient Rome


From The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett (c.1850) / Wikimedia Commons

Plebeians sought to enforce reform on Patricians – and it worked.


By Dr. Mary Beard
Professor of Classics
University of Cambridge


First, what happened in politics at home? The Twelve Tables were one of the outcomes of what is often now called the Conflict of the Orders (the Latin word ordo meaning, among other things, ‘social rank’), which according to Roman writers dominated domestic politics in those crucial couple of hundred years after the end of the monarchy. This was the struggle by the plebeian citizens for full political rights and for parity with the elite, patrician citizens, who were generally loath to give up their hereditary monopoly of power. In Rome it was seen ever after as a heroic vindication of the political liberty of the ordinary citizen, and it has left its mark on the politics, and political vocabulary, of the modern world too. The word ‘plebeian’ remains an especially loaded term in our class conflicts; even in 2012, the allegation that a British Conservative politician had insulted a policeman by calling him a ‘pleb’ – short for ‘plebeian’ – led to his resignation from the government.

As the story of this conflict unfolds, it was only a few years after the Republic had been established, at the beginning of the fifth century BCE, that the plebeians began objecting to their exclusion from power and their exploitation by the patricians. Why fight in Rome’s wars, they repeatedly asked, when all the profits of their service lined patrician pockets? How could they count themselves full citizens when they were subject to random and arbitrary punishment, even enslavement if they fell into debt? What right had the patricians to keep the plebeians as an underclass? Or, as Livy scripted the ironic words of one plebeian reformer, in terms uncannily reminiscent of twentieth-century opposition to apartheid, ‘Why don’t you pass a law to stop a plebeian from living next door to a patrician, or walking down the same street, or going to the same party, or standing side by side in the same Forum?’

In 494 BCE, plagued by problems of debt, the plebeians staged the first of several mass walkouts from the city, a combination of a mutiny and a strike, to try to force reform on the patricians. It worked. For it launched a long series of concessions which gradually eroded all the significant differences between patricians and plebeians and effectively rewrote the political power structure of the city. Two hundred years later there was little to patrician privilege beyond the right to hold a few ancient priesthoods and to wear a particular form of fancy footwear.

The first reform in 494 BCE was the appointment of official representatives, known as tribunes of the people (tribuni plebis), to defend the interests of the plebeians. Then a special assembly was established for plebeians only. This was organised, like the Centuriate Assembly, on a system of block voting, but the technical details were crucially different. It was not based on a hierarchy of wealth. Instead, the voting groups were defined geographically, with voters enrolled in tribes (tribus), or regional subdivisions of Roman territory, nothing to do with any ethnic grouping that the modern sense of ‘tribe’ might imply. Finally, after one last walkout, in a reform that Scipio Barbatus would have witnessed in 287 BCE, the decisions of this assembly were given the automatic binding force of law over all Roman citizens. A plebeian institution, in other words, was given the right to legislate over, and on behalf of, the state as a whole.

Between 494 and 287 BCE, amid yet more stirring rhetoric, strikes and threats of violence, all major offices and priesthoods were step by step opened up to plebeians and their second-class status was dismantled. One of the most famed plebeian victories came in 326 BCE, when the system of enslavement for debt was abolished, establishing the principle that the liberty of a Roman citizen was an inalienable right. An equally significant but more narrowly political milestone had been passed forty years earlier, in 367 BCE. After decades of dogged refusal and claims by hard-line patricians that ‘it would be a crime against the gods to let a plebeian be consul,’ it was decided to open one of the consulships to plebeians. From 342 BCE it was agreed that both consuls could be plebeian, if so elected.

One of the offices that always remained restricted to patricians was the ‘flaminate’ – ancient priesthoods of some of the major gods. A group of these priests are seen here on the first-century BCE Altar of Peace (see Fig. 65), recognisable by their strange headgear. / Wikimedia Commons

By far the most dramatic events in the conflict surrounded the drafting of the Twelve Tables, in the mid fifth century BCE. The clauses that are preserved may be brief, allusive and even slightly dry, but, as the Romans told the story, they were compiled in an atmosphere involving a tragic, highly coloured mixture of deception, allegations of tyranny, attempted rape and murder. The story was that for several years, the plebeians had demanded that the city’s ‘laws’ be made public and not be merely a secret resource of the patricians; and, as a concession, normal political offices were suspended in 451 BCE and ten men (decemviri) were appointed to collect, draft and publish them. In the first year, the decemviri successfully completed ten tables of laws, but the job was not finished. So for the following year another board was appointed, which proved to be of a very different, and far more conservative, character. This second board produced the remaining two tables, introducing a notorious clause banning marriage between patricians and plebeians. Although the initiative behind the drafting had originally been reformist, it turned into the most extreme attempt to keep the two groups utterly separate: ‘the most inhuman law’ Cicero called it, entirely against the spirit of Roman openness.

There was worse to come. This second board of decemviri – the Ten Tarquins, as they were sometimes known – started to ape the behaviour of tyrants, right down to sexual violence. In what was almost a replay of the rape of Lucretia, which had led to the foundation of the Republic, one of their number, the patrician Appius Claudius (a great-great-grandfather of the road builder) demanded sex with a young plebeian woman, the aptly named Virginia, unmarried but betrothed. Deception and corruption followed. Appius suborned one of his hangers-on to claim that she was his slave, who had been stolen by her so-called father. The judge in the case was Appius himself, who of course found in his accomplice’s favour, and strode through the Forum to grab Virginia. In the arguments that followed, her father, Lucius Virginius, picked up a knife from a nearby butcher’s stall and stabbed his daughter to death: ‘I am making you free, my child, in the only way I can,’ he shouted.

Virginia’s story has always been even more unsettling than that of Lucretia. It not only combines domestic murder with the brutality of class conflict but inevitably raises the question of the price to be paid for chastity. What kind of model of fatherhood is this? Who was most at fault? Did high principles need to come at such a terrible cost? But once more, (attempted) rape turned out to be a catalyst of political change. The display of Virginia’s body and a passionate speech that Virginius gave to the army led to riots, mutiny, the abolition of the tyrannical board of decemviriand, as Livy puts it, the recovery of liberty. Despite the taint of tyranny, the Twelve Tables remained. They were soon regarded as the honoured ancestor of Roman law, excluding the ban on intermarriage, which was quickly repealed.

This story of the Conflict of the Orders adds up to one of the most radical and coherent manifestos of popular power and liberty to survive from the ancient world – far more radical than anything to survive from classical democratic Athens, most of whose writers, when they had anything explicitly to say on the subject, were opposed to democracy and popular power. Taken together, the demands put into the mouths of the plebeians offered a systematic programme of political reform, based on different aspects of the freedom of the citizen, from freedom to participate in the government of the state and freedom to share in its rewards to freedom from exploitation and freedom of information. It is hardly surprising that working class movements in many countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries found a memorable precedent, and some winning rhetoric, in the ancient story of how the concerted action of the Roman people wrung concessions from the hereditary patrician aristocracy and secured full political rights for the plebeians. Nor is it surprising that early trades unions could look to the plebeian walkouts as a model for a successful strike.

Coriolanus Addressing the Plebeians, George Cruikshank / Creative Commons

But just how accurate is the story that the Romans told of this conflict? And what light does it shed on Rome’s ‘great leap forward’? Here the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle become hard to fit together. But the outlines of a picture, and some probably crucial dates, do stand out.

Many aspects of the story as it has come down to us must be wrong, heavily modernised by later writers or, especially towards the beginning of the period of the conflict, still much more myth than history. Virginia is probably no less a fictional construct than Lucretia. There is an awkward mismatch between the surviving clauses of the Twelve Tables and the elaborate story of the decemviri. Why, if the compilation came directly out of the clashes between patricians and plebeians, is there just one reference to that distinction (in the marriage ban) in the clauses preserved? Much of the argument, and even more of the rhetoric, of the early plebeian reformers is almost certainly an imaginative reconstruction by writers of the first century BCE, drawing on the sophisticated debates of their own day rather than being a product of the world of the Twelve Tables – and it may well be better evidence for the popular political ideology of that later period than for the Conflict of the Orders. What is more, despite Roman certainty that the exclusion of plebeians from power in the state went back to the fall of the monarchy, there are hints that it developed only in the course of the fifth century BCE. The standard list of consuls, for example, however fictionalised it may be, includes in the early fifth century BCE plenty of recognisably plebeian names (including that of the first consul, Lucius Junius Brutus himself), which completely disappear in the second half of the century.

That said, there is no doubt that long periods of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE were fractured by social and political struggles between a privileged, hereditary minority and the rest. More than half a millennium later, the formal distinction between patrician and plebeian families still survived, as one of those ‘fossils’ I discussed earlier (p. 79), with a whiff of snobbery attached to it and not much more. It would be hard to explain why the distinction existed at all if the difference between the two groups had not once been a significant marker of political, social and economic power. There are also strong reasons to think that the year 367 BCE was a major turning point, even if not in quite the way Roman historians imagined it.

For them, this was the revolutionary moment when it was decided not only that the consulship should be open to plebeians but that one of the two consuls must always be a plebeian. If so, the law was flouted as soon as it was made, as on several occasions in the following years two patrician names are recorded as consuls. Livy noticed the problem and unconvincingly suggests that the plebeians were satisfied with getting the right to stand and not so bothered about being elected. Much more likely is that there was no obligatory plebeian consul but that this was the year when the consulship as the major annual office of state was established on a permanent basis, presumably open to both patricians and plebeians.

That would certainly fit with two other significant clues. First, even in the traditional Roman record, the entries for most of the years between the 420s and the 360s BCE name the mysterious ‘colonels’ as the chief officials of the state. That changes once and for all in 367 BCE, when consuls become the norm for the rest of Roman history. Second, it may well be that the senate was given its definitive form at this time. Roman writers tended to take it for granted that the origins of the senate went back to Romulus, as a council of ‘old men’ (senes), and that by the fifth century BCE it was already a fully fledged institution operating much as it did in 63 BCE. One highly technical entry in an ancient Roman dictionary implies a very different version, suggesting that it was only around the middle of the fourth century BCE that the senate was established as a permanent body with lifelong members rather than being just an ad hoc group of friends and advisors to whatever officials were in charge, with no continuity from one year, or even one day, to the next. If this is correct (and, of course, not all arcane pieces of technical information necessarily are), then it backs up the idea that the Roman political system took its characteristic form in the mid fourth century BCE. Whatever the precursors, whatever elements such as assemblies or the census, may long have been in place, Rome did not look distinctively ‘Roman’ for more than a century after 509 BCE.

That means that what we find outlined on Barbatus’ tomb is not a traditional career of a traditional member of the Roman elite, though that is how he was later seen. Buried sometime in the early third century BCE, Barbatus was in fact a representative of the relatively new Republican order at home – and, as we shall now see, outside.


From SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard (Liverlight Published Corporation, 11.09.2015), published by Erenow, public open access.

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