The Conflict of the Orders Explained

Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/forum-romanum-rome-ancient-italy-4583598/
Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/forum-romanum-rome-ancient-italy-4583598/

The Conflict of the Orders was a political struggle that took place during the early Roman Republic between the patrician and the plebeian social classes. It began in 494 BC and lasted until 287 BC. The conflict led to a series of laws passed by the patricians that gradually provided more freedoms for the plebeians. 

 

 

In this article, we will explore the causes and effects of the Conflict of the Orders in detail.

Origins of the patricians and the plebs

The two main groups in Roman society can be traced back to the early days of the Roman Republic. The patricians were the wealthier class of citizens who owned most of the land. The plebs, on the other hand, were poorer citizens.

 

Both of these groups were full citizens or Rome. However, the plebs were also excluded from holding any public office or participating in government. This led to a lot of frustration among the plebeians, who felt that they were being treated unfairly.

The republican government

After the fall of the Roman monarchy in 509 BC, the patricians held almost all of the political, economic and religious power in the city.  They were the only people who could be elected to political positions each year. This meant that they maintained control over all of the decisions that affected the citizens, including the plebeians. As is to be expected, patricians usually only made decisions that benefitted themselves and the plebeians could do very little about it.

 

The most coveted political position was consul, of which two were elected every year. A consul was the only position that had the power of imperium, which gave the ability to raise an army and command them in battle. Since patricians were the only class eligible for this role, and plebeians made up the majority of the soldiers, it became accepted that patricians were the ones that gave orders and plebeians were simply required to follow them.

 

The plebeians did have a limited range of powers in the early Roman republic. Namely, the plebeians were an important part of the election process. While they couldn't seek election in any of the political positions, they were the ones who cast the vote for those roles. Ultimately, the plebeians attempted to use their limited powers to try and demand greater political and legal rights. 


Plebeian discontent

As the plebeians became more aware of how much power the patricians had, they began to feel increasingly frustrated. This was compounded by the fact that, as Rome expanded its territory, the more the patricians relied upon the plebeians to fight in the Roman armies.

 

However, fighting wars every year took a greater toll on the plebeians than the patricians, as it was the common soldiers who suffered the greatest numbers of casualties. As soldiers were required to pay for their own weapons and equipment from the income they made on their farms, any family that lost their fathers and sons in battle often could no longer keep their farms.

 

As a result, plebeians either had to sell their property and fall into poverty, or rely upon loans from richer patrician families to keep themselves afloat, which trapped them in increasing levels of debt.

The First Secession of the Plebs

In 494 BC, the plebeians had had enough. As a group, they left Rome and set up their own camp on the Sacred Mount, three miles north-east of Rome. This event is known as the 'First Plebeian Secession'. 

 

This took place during a war Rome was fighting against the Volsci, which Rome was losing. As enemy armies marched towards the city, the plebeians refused to fight and die any more if they did not have a greater say in politics. The plebeians realised that their most effective political power was their refusal to cooperate in a system that did more harm than good. During the First Secession, the plebeians essentially went on strike until their concerns were addressed.

 

The patricians quickly realized that they needed the plebeians in order to avert a military disaster, and so they sent a delegation to talk to them. In order to agree to return to Rome, the plebeians forced the patricians to accept a series of concessions.

 

The first concession was the creation of two political roles that were to focus on the concerns of the plebeians. These two roles were called the Plebeian Aedile and the Tribune of the Plebs. The most powerful of these two roles was the tribune, which will be described in more detail below. What made these roles particularly important is that only plebeians could hold them.

 

The second thing that the patricians had to accept was the creation of a council that was just for plebeians. This was called the concilium plebis (Council of the Plebs). The Council’s main function was to elect the plebeian tribunes and aediles each year. However, it was also given the power to propose laws which could then be presented to the Senate for approval.

 

Once the patricians agreed to these terms, the First Secession was ended and the plebeians agreed to return to Rome. As result, the Roman army was able to reform and fight off the Volsci threat.

The Tribune of the Plebs

The Tribune of the Plebs was a powerful position as it gave the plebeians a voice in government for the first time. In order to become a tribune, a plebeian had to be elected by the Plebeian Council. Once in the role, the tribune had a special political power called the 'veto'. In Latin, veto means 'I forbid it', and it was a phrase that a tribune could say whenever the Senate made a decision that harmed plebeians. All the tribunes had to do was to stand up and say the phrase, and the Senate could no longer pass the law under discussion. 

 

As is to be expected, the new tribunate role caused a lot of anger and frustration among the patricians. As a result, people who became tribunes feared that they could be attacked for angering the powerful patrician class. So, to protect the tribune from harm, they were declared to be 'sacrosanct'. This meant that the person of the tribune was holy, and that it was a crime punishable by death to hurt or kill a tribune.


The Twelve Tables

Despite the success of the First Secession, social, political, and economic inequalities remained in Roman society, and it wasn't long before discontent arose again. In an attempt to quell the rising frustration among the plebeians, the patrician class agreed to create a written set of laws in 451 BC, which came to be known as the Twelve Tables.

 

The actual laws that were stated in the Twelve Tables have not survived to the modern day and historians have had to rely upon quotations and summaries of these laws in later sources to reconstruct what was said. From this information, it appears that most of the laws focused on economic and legal rules to clarify what people were expected to do. 

 

The Twelve Tables were intended to be fair and just for all citizens of Rome, regardless of social class. However, many of the laws still favored the patrician class, since they remained the richest and most powerful members of society. For example, one law stated that only a patrician could prosecute another patrician in court. Another law said that debtors could be enslaved if they could not pay their debts. This often affected the plebeians more than the patricians as they were more likely to be in debt.

 

However, the new laws significantly improved the lot of plebeians, as it meant that patricians had to abide by the rules, regardless of their political power. As a result, the patricians delayed its implementation.

The Second Secession of the Plebs

In 448 BC, the plebeians once again became frustrated with their lack of progress. During the creation of the Twelve Tables, both the patricians and the plebeians had agreed to temporarily suspend their most powerful officials (consuls for the patricians and tribunes for the plebeians) for a year to allow a special ten-man commission (called the Decemvirate) of patricians to create the new laws. The Decemvirate were given supreme power for a year.

 

However, after the Twelve Tables were created, the ten men refused to resign at the end of the year and, instead, held onto their supreme power instead. The Decemvirate became cruel tyrants who abused their position and prevented the return of the Tribunes of the Plebs. Calls for their resignation were ignored, and riots broke out in Rome. In order to force the patricians to listen to their demands, the plebeians marched once more to the Sacred Mount, which began the Second Secession. 

 

Once again, the patricians quickly realized that they needed the plebeians and the Decemvirate finally stood down. The consuls and tribunes were reinstituted for the following year, and the Twelve Tables took effect. Following this, the Second Secession ended.

Additional plebeian gains

In 445 BC, the Canuleian law was passed, which allowed plebeians to hold any office in Rome. This law was a huge step forward for the plebeian class as it broke down a significant barrier preventing them from achieving equality with the patricians.

 

As a result, the plebeians had their first elected consul in 367 BC, and another was chosen a year later. Following this, the Licinian-Sextian laws required that at least one consul be a plebeian. 

 

Around 339 BC, people who had been elected to political roles in the past became members of the Senate for the rest of their lives. This meant that plebeians automatically joined the Senate when their year in office ended.

 

Finally, in 287 BC, the lex Hortensia stated that the Plebeian Council's decisions and legislation were declared binding on not just the plebeians, but all Roman citizens. Following this law, the Conflict of the Orders came to an end. For all legal and political purposes, the plebeians were equal to the patricians. 


Patrician adoption

Despite the victories the plebeians had gained, the patricians still sought ways to hold on to social and political power. One way that they did this is by using Roman adoption practices.

 

In ancient Rome, it was common for wealthy families to adopt children from poorer families. This allowed the wealthier family to pass on their name and property to the adopted child. 

 

The patricians began to use this practice to their advantage by adopting plebeian children into their families. This way, they could increase their numbers while at the same time diluting the power of the plebeian class.

 

The reverse was also used. A poor patrician could be adopted into a wealthy plebeian family, and by this means, they could improve their social and economic status.

The power of the Senate

When the Conflict of the Orders came to an end in 287 BC, the Senate became the most powerful institution in Rome. It had the power to pass laws, declare war, and ratify treaties. It also had control over Rome's finances and administration.

 

The Senate was now made up of patricians and plebeians. The distinction between these two groups was less important than a new divide growing in Roman society. A new group, known as the nobilitas, was beginning to form.

 

This group was made up of families who had produced multiple consuls. They saw themselves as being above the rest of society and were determined to maintain their power and privilege. Both patrician and plebeian families were part of the nobilitas, and they started to prevent new families from gaining the consulship.


Further reading