The plebs were, in ancient Rome, the general body of free Roman citizens who were not patricians, as determined by the census. The precise origins of the group and the term are unclear, though it may be that they began as a limited political movement in opposition to the elite (patricians) which became more widely applied.[1]

In ancient Rome

In Latin the word plebs is a singular collective noun, and its genitive is plebis.

The origin of the separation into orders is unclear, and it is disputed when the Romans were divided under the early kings into patricians and plebeians, or whether the clientes (or dependents) of the patricians formed a third group. Certain gentes ("clans") were patrician, as identified by the nomen (family name), but a gens might have both patrician and plebeian branches that shared a nomen but were distinguished by a cognomen, as was the case with the gens Claudia.

The 19th-century historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr held that plebeians began to appear at Rome during the reign of Ancus Marcius and were possibly foreigners settling in Rome as naturalized citizens. In any case, at the outset of the Roman Republic, the patricians had a near monopoly on political and social institutions. Plebeians were excluded from magistracies and religious colleges, and they were not permitted to know the laws by which they were governed. Plebeians served in the army, but rarely became military leaders.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo occasionally mounted to the point that the plebeians engaged in a sort of general strike, a secessio plebis, during which they would withdraw to the mountain "Mons Sacer" as a form of protest, leaving the patricians to themselves. From 494 to 287 BC, five such actions during the so-called "Conflict of the Orders" resulted in the establishment of plebeian offices (the tribunes and plebeian aediles), the publication of the laws (the Law of the Twelve Tables), the establishment of the right of plebeian–patrician intermarriage (by the passage of the Lex Canuleia), the opening of the highest offices of government and some state priesthoods to the plebeians and passage of legislation (the Lex Hortensia) that made resolutions passed by the assembly of plebeians, the concilium plebis, binding on all citizens.

Noble plebeians

During the Second Samnite War (326–304 BC), plebeians who had risen to power through these social reforms began to acquire the aura of nobilitas, "nobility" (more literally "notability"), marking the creation of a ruling elite of nobiles that allied the interests of patricians and noble plebeians.[2] From the mid-4th century to the early 3rd century BC, several plebeian–patrician "tickets" for the consulship repeated joint terms, suggesting a deliberate political strategy of cooperation.[3] Although nobilitas was not a formal social rank during the Republican era, in general, a plebeian who had attained the consulship was regarded as having brought nobility to his family. Such a man was a novus homo ("new man"), a self-made noble, and his sons and descendants were nobiles.[4]

Marius and Cicero are notable examples of novi homines in the late Republic, when many of Rome's richest and most powerful men—such as Lucullus, Crassus, and Pompeius—were plebeian nobles. Some or perhaps many noble plebeians, including Cicero and Lucullus, aligned their political interests with the faction of Optimates, conservatives who sought to preserve senatorial prerogatives. By contrast, the Populares, which sought to champion the plebs in the sense of "common people", were sometimes led by patricians such as Julius Caesar and Clodius Pulcher.


United States military academies

Marching Plebes USNA
Plebes (first year students) marching in front of Bancroft Hall, United States Naval Academy

In the U.S. military, plebes are freshmen at the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy, Valley Forge Military Academy and College, the Marine Military Academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Georgia Military College, and California Maritime Academy. The term is also used for new cadets at the Philippine Military Academy.

British Empire

Early public schools in the United Kingdom would enroll pupils as "plebeians" as opposed to sons of gentry and aristocrats.

In British, Irish, Australian, New Zealand and South African English the back-formation pleb, along with the more recently derived adjectival form plebby,[5] is used as a derogatory term for someone considered unsophisticated or uncultured.[6]

See also

  • Bread and circuses – Figure of speech referring to a superficial means of appeasement
  • Capite censi – The lowest class of citizens of ancient Rome
  • Plebeian Council – The principal assembly of the ancient Roman Republic
  • Proletariat – The class of wage-earners in an economic society whose only possession of significant material value is their labour-power
  • Roman Republic – Period of ancient Roman civilization (509–27 BC)
  • Plebgate, (aka Plodgate or Gategate), a 2012 British political scandal involving the use of the word as a slur


  1. ^ See for example Momigliano, Arnaldo (1967). "Osservazioni sulla distinzione fra patrizi e plebei". In Gjerstad, Einar (ed.). Les origines de la République romaine: neuf exposés suivis de discussions. Fondation Hardt pour l'étude de l'antiquité classique. pp. 199–221.
  2. ^ E.T. Salmon, Samnium and the Samnites (Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 217.
  3. ^ Gary Forsythe, A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War (University of California Press, 2005), p. 269.
  4. ^ Fergus Millar, "The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic, 200–151 B.C.," as reprinted in Rome, the Greek World, and the East (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), p. 126; P.A. Brunt, "Nobilitas and novitas," Journal of Roman Studies 72 (1982) 1–17.<
  5. ^ "plebby". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 September 2012.
  6. ^ "pleb". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 September 2012.


  • Jackson J. Spielvogel (2008). World History: Journey Across Time. New York: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.
  • Scott Wertsching (2008). What is a Pleb?. Rome: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.

Further reading

  • Ferenczy, Endre (1976). From the Patrician State to the Patricio-Plebeian State. Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert.
  • Horsfall, Nicholas (2003). The Culture of the Roman Plebs. London: Duckworth.
  • Millar, Fergus (2002). The Crowd In Rome In the Late Republic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Mitchell, Richard E. (1990). Patricians and plebeians: The origin of the Roman state. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Morstein-Marx, Robert (2004). Mass oratory and political power in the late Roman Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mouritsen, Henrik (2001). Plebs and politics in the late Roman Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Raaflaub, Kurt A. (2004). Social struggles in Archaic Rome: New perspectives on the conflict of the orders (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Vanderbroeck, Paul J.J. (1987). Popular leadership and collective behavior in the late Roman Republic (ca. 80–50 B.C.). Amsterdam: Gieben.
  • Vishnia, Rachel Feig (1996). State, Society, and Popular Leaders In Mid-Republican Rome 241-167 BC. London: Routledge.
  • Williamson, Callie (2005). The laws of the Roman people: Public law in the expansion and decline of the Roman Republic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

External links

Agrippa Menenius Lanatus

Agrippa Menenius Lanatus (died 493 BC), sometimes called Menenius Agrippa, was a consul of the Roman Republic in 503 BC, with Publius Postumius Tubertus. He was victorious over the Sabines and was awarded a triumph which he celebrated on 4 April, 503 BC. According to Livy, he also led Roman troops against the Latin town of Pometia.According to Livy, writing five hundred years after the fact, Menenius was chosen by the patricians during the secession of the plebs in 494 BC to persuade the plebs to end their secession. Livy says that Menenius told the soldiers a fable about the parts of the human body and how each has its own purpose in the greater function of the body. The rest of the body thought the stomach was getting a free ride so the body decided to stop nourishing the stomach. Soon, the other parts became fatigued and unable to function so they realized that the stomach did serve a purpose and they were nothing without it. In the story, the stomach represents the patrician class and the other body parts represent the plebs. Eventually, Livy says, an accord was reached between the patricians and the plebs, which included creating the office of tribune of the plebs.It is not improbable that Saint Paul, an educated Roman citizen, knew this story (not necessarily through Livy) and was prompted by it in his use of the same parable when he admonished the Christians of Corinth that, for all their "diversity of gifts", they were all members of one body (I Cor. 12: 13 ff). However, the imagery was not new, even for Livy. It appears in Xenophon's Memorabilia (2.iii.18) and in Cicero's De Officiis (III.v.22).

One puzzle about Menenius concerns his social status: Was he patrician or plebeian? Livy asserts that he was "an eloquent man and dear to the plebeians as being one of themselves by birth." On the other hand, he was sent to the plebs as a representative of the Senate, and furthermore he had held the office of consul. The consulship, according to the traditional historiography, was at this time reserved strictly for patricians. Ancient accounts of early Roman history are compromised by uneven use of sources, the author's bias toward either senatorial or popular interests, and sheer uncertainty. The existence of the "plebeian" and "patrician" social division in the earliest period of Rome's history has been questioned by modern scholars.Menenius died in 493 BC. Livy records that during his life he had been beloved of both the senate and the plebs (particularly the latter since his involvement in ending their secession). As his estate lacked funds to pay for his funeral, the people contributed to his funeral expenses by way of a levy.Menenius had a son who would become consul in 439 BC.Menenius was also a character in William Shakespeare's Coriolanus.

Aventine Triad

The Aventine Triad (also referred to as the plebeian Triad or the agricultural Triad) is a modern term for the joint cult of the Roman deities Ceres, Liber and Libera. The cult was established ca. 493 BC within a sacred district (templum) on or near the Aventine Hill, traditionally associated with the Roman plebs. Later accounts describe the temple building and rites as "Greek" in style. Some modern historians describe the Aventine Triad as a plebeian parallel and self-conscious antithesis to the archaic Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus and the later Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Minerva and Juno. The Aventine Triad, temple and associated ludi (games and theatrical performances) served as a focus of plebeian identity, sometimes in opposition to Rome's original ruling elite, the patricians.

Cursus honorum

The cursus honorum (Latin: lit. "course of honor", or more colloquially "ladder of offices") was the sequential order of public offices held by aspiring politicians in both the Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire. It was designed for men of senatorial rank. The cursus honorum comprised a mixture of military and political administration posts. Each office had a minimum age for election. There were minimum intervals between holding successive offices and laws forbade repeating an office.These rules were altered and flagrantly ignored in the course of the last century of the Republic. For example, Gaius Marius held consulships for five years in a row between 104 BC and 100 BC. He was consul seven times in all, also serving in 107 and 86. Officially presented as opportunities for public service, the offices often became mere opportunities for self-aggrandizement. The reforms of Sulla required a ten-year interval before holding the same office again for another term.To have held each office at the youngest possible age (suo anno, "in his own year") was considered a great political success. For instance, to miss out on a praetorship at 39 meant that one could not become consul at 42. Cicero expressed extreme pride not only in being a novus homo ("new man"; comparable to a "self-made man") who became consul even though none of his ancestors had ever served as a consul, but also in having become consul "in his year".


The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, were Romans who both served as tribunes in the late 2nd century BC. They attempted to pass land reform legislation that would redistribute the major aristocratic landholdings among the urban poor and veterans, in addition to other reform measures. After achieving some early success, both were assassinated by enemies of these reforms.

List of Roman laws

This is a partial list of Roman laws. A Roman law (Latin: lex) is usually named for the sponsoring legislator and designated by the adjectival form of his gens name (nomen gentilicum), in the feminine form because the noun lex (plural leges) is of feminine grammatical gender. When a law is the initiative of the two consuls, it is given the name of both, with the nomen of the senior consul first. Sometimes a law is further specified by a short phrase describing the content of the law, to distinguish that law from others sponsored by members of the same gens.

List of Roman tribunes

The following is a list of Roman tribunes as reported by ancient sources.

A tribune in ancient Rome was a person who held one of a number of offices, including Tribune of the plebs (a political office to represent the interests of the plebs), Military tribune (a rank in the Roman army), Tribune of the Celeres (the commander of the king's personal bodyguard), and various other positions. Unless otherwise noted, all dates are reported in BC.

Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi (consul 133 BC)

Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi (sometimes Censorinus), born around 180 BC, was a Roman politician and historian of plebeian origin.


The Optimates (; Latin: optimates, "best ones", singular optimas; also known as boni, "good men") were a conservative political faction in the late Roman Republic.

They formed in reaction against the reforms of the Gracchi brothers—two tribunes of the plebs between 133 and 121 BC who tried to pass an agrarian law to help the urban poor, and a political reform that would have diminished the influence of the senatorial class. As the Optimates were senators and large landowners, they violently opposed the Gracchi, and finally murdered them, but their program was upheld by several politicians, called the Populares ("favouring the people"). For about 80 years, Roman politics was marked by the confrontation of these two factions. The Optimates favoured the ancestral Roman laws and customs, as well as the supremacy of the Senate over the popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebs. They also rejected the massive extension of Roman citizenship to Rome's Italian allies advocated by the Populares. Although suspicious of powerful generals, they sided with Pompey when they came to believe that Julius Caesar—himself a Popularis—planned a coup against the Republic. They disappeared with their defeat in the subsequent Civil War.

While several leaders of the Optimates were patricians—belonging to the oldest noble families—such as Sulla or Scipio Nasica Serapio, many were plebeians: the Caecilii Metelli, Pompey, Cato the Younger, Titus Annius Milo, etc. Cicero—the most famous Optimas—was even a novus homo (the first of his gens to be senator).

Plebeian Council

The Concilium Plebis (English: Plebeian Council or Plebeian Assembly) was the principal assembly of the ancient Roman Republic. It functioned as a legislative assembly, through which the plebeians (commoners) could pass laws, elect magistrates, and try judicial cases. The Plebeian Council was originally organized on the basis of the Curia. Thus, it was originally a "Plebeian Curiate Assembly". The Plebeian Council usually met in the well of the comitium and could only be convoked by the Tribune of the Plebs. The assembly elected the Tribunes of the Plebs and the plebeian aediles, and only the plebeians were allowed to vote.

Plebs' League

The Plebs' League was a British educational and political organisation which originated around a Marxist way of thinking in 1908 and was active until 1926.

Central to the formation of the League was Noah Ablett, a miner from the Rhondda who was at the core of a group at Ruskin College, Oxford who challenged the lecturers' opposition to Marxism. In the 1907–8 academic year, Ablett began leading unofficial classes in Marxist political economy which were attended by Ebby Edwards, among others. Ablett returned to South Wales in 1908, where he began promoting Marxist education through local branches of the Independent Labour Party.A mixture of students and former students at Ruskin founded the Plebs' League in November 1908, also launching the Plebs' Magazine. In the first issue of the Plebs, dated February 1909, Ablett contributed an article on the need for independent working class education. The League ran classes teaching Marxist principles and later syndicalist ideas.During 1909, student agitation for Marxism continued at Ruskin. The students were supported by the Principal, Dennis Hird, and when he was dismissed the students went on strike, refusing to attend classes. The rebels formed the Central Labour College, which worked closely with the Plebs' League.By 1910, the Plebs' League was active in South Wales, Lancashire and Scotland. Activists included A. J. Cook, William Mainwaring, Mark Starr and John Maclean.The League had sympathies with De Leonism, primarily represented in Britain by the Socialist Labour Party. It later had a relationship with the Communist Party of Great Britain.The League was absorbed by the National Council of Labour Colleges the year after the 1926 United Kingdom general strike, although the Plebs' Magazine continued to appear for many years.

Plebs (TV series)

Plebs is a British television series broadcast on ITV2. It was first broadcast in March 2013, and is produced by Tom Basden, Caroline Leddy, Sam Leifer and Teddy Leifer. It stars Tom Rosenthal, Jonathan Pointing (from Series 4) and Ryan Sampson, who play young residents of ancient Rome.

Joel Fry played 'Stylax' in series 1–3. The format has been compared to The Inbetweeners, Up Pompeii and Blackadder. The first series, comprising six episodes, was broadcast between 25 March and 22 April 2013. Three subsequent series of eight episodes each were broadcast between 22 September and 3 November 2014, between 4 April and 16 May 2016, and between 9 April and 21 May 2018. A fifth series has been commissioned with Rosenthal, Sampson and Pointing all returning. Filming for the fifth series started on 20 May 2019 with an expected air date in Autumn of the same year.The show makes comical use of anachronistically modern parlance and concepts in a historical setting and uses predominantly ska/rocksteady music during all the opening and closing titles and during each episode as background music.


The Populares (; Latin: populares, "favoring the people", singular popularis) were a political faction in the late Roman Republic who favoured the cause of the plebeians (the commoners).

The Populares emerged as a political group with the reforms of the Gracchi brothers, who were tribunes of the plebs between 133 and 121 BC. Although the Gracchi belonged to the highest Roman aristocracy, being the grandsons of Scipio Africanus, they were concerned for the urban poor, whose dire condition increased the risk of a social crisis at Rome. They tried to implement a vast social program comprising a grain dole, new colonies, and a redistribution of the Ager publicus in order to alleviate their situation. They also drafted laws to grant Roman citizenship to Italian allies, and reform the judicial system to tackle corruption. Both brothers were nevertheless murdered by their opponents, the Optimates—the conservative faction representing the interests of the landed aristocracy, who dominated the Senate. Several tribunes of the plebs later tried to pass the Gracchi's program by using plebiscites (in order to bypass senatorial opposition), but Saturninus and Clodius Pulcher suffered the same fate as the Gracchi. Furthermore, many politicians of the late Republic postured as Populares to enhance their popularity among the plebs, notably Julius Caesar and Octavian (later Augustus), who finally enacted most of the Populares' platform during their rule.

The Populares counted a number of patricians—the most ancient Roman aristocrats—such as Appius Claudius Pulcher, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, or Julius Caesar. They were allied to politicians of lesser status, especially "new men" like Gaius Marius, or Gaius Norbanus (who might have even been a new Roman citizen).


Praetor (Classical Latin: [ˈprajtoːr], also spelled prætor) was a title granted by the government of Ancient Rome to men acting in one of two official capacities: the commander of an army (in the field or, less often, before the army had been mustered); or, an elected magistratus (magistrate), assigned various duties (which varied at different periods in Rome's history). The functions of the magistracy, the praetura (praetorship), are described by the adjective: the praetoria potestas (praetorian power), the praetorium imperium (praetorian authority), and the praetorium ius (praetorian law), the legal precedents established by the praetores (praetors). Praetorium, as a substantive, denoted the location from which the praetor exercised his authority, either the headquarters of his castra, the courthouse (tribunal) of his judiciary, or the city hall of his provincial governorship.

Quindecimviri sacris faciundis

In ancient Rome, the quindecimviri sacris faciundis were the fifteen (quindecim) members of a college (collegium) with priestly duties. Most notably they guarded the Sibylline Books, scriptures which they consulted and interpreted at the request of the Senate. This collegium also oversaw the worship of any foreign gods which were introduced to Rome.

Originally these duties had been performed by duumviri (or duoviri), two men of patrician status. Their number was increased to ten by the Licinian-Sextian Law in 367 BC, which also required for half of the priests to be plebs. During the Middle Republic, members of the college were admitted through co-option.

At some point in the third century BC, several priesthoods, probably including the quindecimviri, began to be elected through the voting tribes.

Roman tribe

A tribus, or tribe, was a division of the Roman people, constituting the voting units of a legislative assembly of the Roman Republic. The word is probably derived from tribuere, to divide or distribute; the traditional derivation from tres, three, is doubtful.According to tradition, the first three tribes were established by Romulus; each was divided into ten curiae, or wards, which were the voting units of the comitia curiata. Although the curiae continued throughout Roman history, the three original tribes that they constituted gradually vanished from history.Perhaps influenced by the original division of the people into tribes, as well as the number of thirty wards, Servius Tullius established thirty new tribes, which later constituted the comitia tributa. This number was reduced to twenty at the beginning of the Roman Republic; but as the Roman population and its territory grew, fifteen additional tribes were enrolled, the last in 241 BC.All Roman citizens were enrolled in one of these tribes, through which they were entitled to vote on the election of certain magistrates, religious officials, judicial decisions in certain suits affecting the plebs, and pass resolutions on various proposals made by the tribunes of the plebs and the higher magistrates. Although the comitia tributa lost most of its legislative functions under the Empire, enrollment in a tribe remained an important part of Roman citizenship until at least the third century AD.

Secessio plebis

Secessio plebis (withdrawal of the commoners, or Secession of the Plebs) was an informal exercise of power by Rome's plebeian citizens, similar to a general strike taken to the extreme. During a secessio plebis, the plebs would simply abandon the city en masse and leave the patrician order to themselves. Therefore, a secessio meant that all shops and workshops would shut down and commercial transactions would largely cease. This was an effective strategy in the Conflict of the Orders due to strength in numbers; plebeian citizens made up the vast majority of Rome's populace and produced most of its food and resources, while a patrician citizen was a member of the minority upper class, the equivalent of the landed gentry of later times. Authors report different numbers for how many secessions there were. Cary & Scullard state there were five between 494 BC and 287 BC.

Titus Annius Milo

Titus Annius Milo Papianus () was a Roman political agitator. The son of Gaius Papius Celsus, he was adopted by his maternal grandfather, Titus Annius Luscus. In 52 BC, he was prosecuted for the murder of Publius Clodius Pulcher. He was unsuccessfully defended by his friend, Marcus Tullius Cicero, in the speech Pro Milone.


Tribune (Latin: Tribunus) was the title of various elected officials in ancient Rome. The two most important were the tribunes of the plebs and the military tribunes. For most of Roman history, a college of ten tribunes of the plebs acted as a check on the authority of the senate and the annual magistrates, holding the power of ius intercessionis to intervene on behalf of the plebeians, and veto unfavourable legislation. There were also military tribunes, who commanded portions of the Roman army, subordinate to higher magistrates, such as the consuls and praetors, promagistrates, and their legates. Various officers within the Roman army were also known as tribunes. The title was also used for several other positions and classes in the course of Roman history.

Tribune of the Plebs

Tribunus plebis, rendered in English as tribune of the plebs, tribune of the people or plebeian tribune, was the first office of the Roman state that was open to the plebeians, and throughout the history of the Republic the most important check on the power of the Roman Senate and magistrates. These tribunes had the power to convene and preside over the Concilium Plebis (people's assembly); to summon the senate; to propose legislation; and to intervene on behalf of plebeians in legal matters; but the most significant power was to veto the actions of the consuls and other magistrates, thus protecting the interests of the plebeians as a class. The tribunes of the plebs were sacrosanct, meaning that any assault on their person was prohibited by law. In imperial times, the powers of the tribunate were granted to the emperor as a matter of course, and the office itself lost its independence and most of its functions. During the day the tribunes used to sit on the tribune benches on the Forum Romanum.

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.