The Oxford Biblical Studies Online and Oxford Islamic Studies Online have retired. Content you previously purchased on Oxford Biblical Studies Online or Oxford Islamic Studies Online has now moved to Oxford Reference, Oxford Handbooks Online, Oxford Scholarship Online, or What Everyone Needs to Know®. For information on how to continue to view articles visit the subscriber services page.

Related Content

More Like This

Show all results sharing this subject:

  • Classical studies


Show Summary Details



Quick Reference

The name given to the mass of Roman citizens, as distinct from the privileged patricians. Our sources maintain that in the early republic the plebeians were excluded from religious colleges, magistracies, and the senate; a law of the Twelve Tables confirmed an existing ban on their intermarriage with patricians, only to be repealed within a few years by the lex Canuleia. However, they were enrolled in curiae (see curia (1) ) and tribus, they served at all times in the army and could hold the office of tribunus militum. The ‘Struggle of the Orders’, by which the plebs (or, more precisely, its richer members) achieved political equality with the patricians, is an essential part of the story of the development of Rome. The plebs won because it turned itself into an association which held its own assemblies (concilia plēbis; see comitia), appointed its own officers, the tribuni plebis and aediles (usually selected from the richer members of the order), and deposited its own records in the temples of Ceres and Diana on the Aventine. Its major tactic in crises was sēcessio, secession en masse from Rome. During the first secession it secured inviolability for the persons of its officers by a collective undertaking to protect them. In fact the tribunes and aediles became in due course magistrates of the Roman people. The final secession in 287 bc led to the lex Hortensia, which made plebiscita binding on the whole community. This is normally regarded as the end of the struggle of the Orders, since the plebeians were no longer significantly disadvantaged qua plebeians. However, there continued to be clashes between the interests of the aristocrats and the rich and those of the humbler citizens over issues such as public land (see ager publicus), which had first emerged in the early republic. Under the later republic the name ‘plebeian’ acquired in ordinary parlance its modern sense of a member of the lower social orders. Hence from at least Augustus' reign onwards those who did not belong to the senatorial or equestrian orders or to the order of the local senate (see decuriones) in colonies or municipia were often called the plebs.

Subjects: Classical studies

Reference entries

View all reference entries »