The “plebs” were the vast majority of society and they constituted an important portion of Roman society made up of the common folk. Generally speaking they were the descendants of people who had come to Rome after the Patrician families had founded it. Possibly they were descended from freed men or simple immigrants.
Plebeians were usually poor and this meant that their work was related to working the land of the rich Patricians. They also carried out other Roman jobs as well as being actively involved in trade and commerce.
The basic subdivision between Patricians and Plebeians lasted throughout the history of Rome. The shift from Roman kingdom to Roman republic and then to a Roman empire brought changes in the relative access to power for the different social classes.
Much of Roman politics, particularly during the republican age, was to do with the struggle for rights and the sharing of power between the Plebeians and Patricians. They were rather like two political parties. The political power of the Plebeian class was considerable, sufficient to draw the attention and alignment of individuals from the nobility. The Gracchi brothers are the greatest example of this and were eventually assassinated for the reforms they drove in favour of the Plebeians. Julius Caesar was likewise sided with the Plebeians such as that the civil war was pitching him (and the plebeians) against Pompey and the aristocracy.
Plebeians selling themselves into Slavery or joining the army
Something which may seem totally bizarre is the situation whereby the poorest plebeians might actually sell their children or even themselves into slavery so as to be able to have access to the houses of the rich and hence some hope of an education and future. This would allow them the possibility of an education, of earning money, their freedom and eventually of allowing their descendants to ascend the social ladder.
Another means of escaping their dire situation was to join the Roman army: General Marius had reformed the Roman army turning it from something which was largely exclusive to the Roman nobility (which could afford its own weapons) to something more like a modern professional army. This meant that individuals could hence gain a hope of a fixed albeit small salary, a cut of the war booty and eventually a pension and parcel of land to raise their family on.
Roman Plebeian culture
This article about the Roman plebeians is shamefully short if we realise that much of what we consider as “ancient Roman” is in fact related to the achievements of the Roman nation, the “Romans” led by the Roman nobility and Roman army. Roman society can be simply considered as the Patrician nobility, the army, the plebeians and slaves.
The plebeians and slaves were the most numerous especially if we consider that the volume of the Roman army was in effect an extension of the Roman plebeian society which otherwise had little place to go to make a living. By virtue of their number they had a fundamental role to play in the development of Roman society: the Roman civil wars for example, not to mention the weight they carried in elections during the Republican period and their importance in the Roman army during the Roman empire.
Perhaps most significant yet little spoken of is their importance to the economy of ancient Rome. The plebeians were the mass consumers of Roman society. For example, Roman wine wasn’t all quality wine; vast volumes were produced for local consumption. The regular wheat supplies, known as the “annona” were a significant element of the Roman state economy and the vast crowds at the circuses and amphitheatres were also largely composed of Plebeians.
So why is it that so little is said about the Roman Plebeians? Perhaps it’s that we have little individual testimony or that our focus tends to lie on what appears most grand.
Roman plebeian art
Was there such a thing as Roman plebeian art? Did plebeian art exist? yes it did and for those who are willing to look beyond the glitz of the art of the Roman state and Roman nobility – that art which we consider an extension of Greek classical art – there lies a continuous undercurrent of Roman plebeian art which spanned throughout the fortunes of ancient Roman history and eventually outlived the art of Greece and formed the foundation of Christian art during the middle ages.
Why were Plebeians so important to Rome?
The Plebeians and Patricians were in many ways two peoples come together as a single entity. Aligned in their ultimate objectives, values, beliefs and morality. Each of them constituted an essential element of Roman society. Plebeians and Patricians were easily identified by family name though not necessarily in terms of wealth – some plebeian families came to be extremely wealthy whilst Patrician families also fell to poverty in spite of their rich history.
The history of Ancient Rome is also the history of the power struggle and balance between these two parts of society and the Plebeian quest for a greater balance of rights and power.
On more than one occasion the power struggle between Plebeians and Patricians escalated into power struggles and civil war such as in the 5th century BC, during the early days of the Roman Republic- the Plebeians chose to literally walk out (aka “the secession of the plebs”) . The historian Livy tells us that the consul Menenius Agrippa made a speech which convinced them to reconsider: Figuratively he chose to depict their position in society as the arms of a broader body, the Patricians and Senate as the stomach; a body could not live without its head, it’s stomach, nor without its limbs. The public office “Tribune of the Plebs” was created at this time – it held considerable power of legislative veto and was the focus of much political ambition and rivalry in the hundreds of years of republic which followed .