The Struggle of the Orders

One of the greatest disputes in early Rome took place between two major social groups known as the Patricians and Plebeians. This conflict is known as the Struggle of the Orders. The problem originated because the Patricians enjoyed all political rights leading to a large amount of oppression upon Plebeians. The former ones were enslaved, imprisoned in dungeons, or even killed if they didn’t pay their debts and were not allowed to marry Patricians. Now, you could not become a Patrician or buy your way into it, you were simply born in it.

In 494 BC the Plebeians, whom were the majority in population, resolved that maybe they didn’t have wealth or political power, but they had themselves. The Patricians, in a certain way, needed the Plebeians more, as for military protection, than the Plebeians needed the Patricians. Therefore, they concluded that the best way to fight for their equality was to secede from Rome and win concessions. It is the old saying, “you don’t know what you have, until you lose it.” Patricians experienced it and thus began to give way to their privileges.

Little by little, Plebeians began to return to Rome as they were given concessions. The greatest one is probably making the Roman law public by placing the 12 Tables in the center of the city. Laws that included the capital punishment or enslavement to defaulting debtors and others similar to “an-eye-for-an-eye” justice. Of course, this would hamper the possibility of tremendous abuse. Plebeians also received the power to elect sacrosanct tribunes to represent them in the Roman government. And in 471 BC, the concilium plebis (Plebeian Council) was formed, which provided self-government on the Plebeians and the capability to pass laws on themselves. In 287 BC, the concilium plebis’ resolutions became binding on all.

By the late 5th century BC, various political offices were opened to Plebeians. In the early 4th century BC the Senate began to distribute some conquered land to the Plebeians, like the Etruscan city of Veii, intermarriage was allowed, and debt slavery was abolished altogether. Around the year 367 BC, the Plebeians were made eligible for consulship, in 347 BC at least one consul had to be a Plebeian, and in 172 BC came the first time when both consuls were Plebeians.

As we can see, this is a practical example of what may occur to the liberty of a people when they apply their individual rights and demand the enforcement of them. However, even with all of these changes, accepted due to the fear of the Plebeians leaving again, Rome had not yet become a democracy as it continued to be dominated by the aristocracy and normal people did not have any “good” political representation.


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