Conflicts of the Orders Patrician and Plebeian

Ancient Roman historians Sallust and Livy / Getty Images

After the expulsion of the kings, Rome was ruled by its aristocrats (roughly, the patricians) who abused their privileges. This led to a struggle between the people (plebeians) and the aristocrats that is called the Conflict of the Orders. The term "orders" refers to the patrician and plebeian groups of Roman citizens. To help resolve the conflict between the orders, the patrician order gave up most of their privileges, but retained vestigial and religious ones, by the time of the lex Hortensia, in 287—a law was named for a plebeian dictator.

This article looks at events leading to the laws referred to as the "12 Tablets," codified in 449 BCE.

After Rome Expelled Their Kings

After the Romans expelled their last king, Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), the monarchy was abolished in Rome. In its place, the Romans developed a new system, with two annually elected magistrates called consuls, who served throughout the period of the republic, with two exceptions:

  1. When there was a dictator (or military tribune with consular powers)
  2. When there was a decemvirate (about which, more on next page)

Different Opinions on the Monarchy: Patrician and Plebeian Perspectives

Magistrates, judges, and priests of the new republic mostly came from the patrician order, or upper class.* Unlike the patricians, the lower or plebeian class may have suffered under the early republican structure more than they had under the monarchy, since they now had, in effect, many rulers. Under the monarchy, they had endured just one. A similar situation in ancient Greece sometimes led the lower classes to welcome tyrants. In Athens, the political movement against a hydra-headed governing body led to the codification of laws and then democracy. The Roman path was different.

In addition to the many-headed hydra breathing down their necks, the plebeians lost access to what had been regal domain and was now the public land or ager publicus, because the patricians who were in power took control of it to increase their profits, using the labor of enslaved people or clients in the country to run it while they and their families lived in the city. According to a descriptive, old-fashioned, 19th-century history book written by the H.D. Liddell of "Alice in Wonderland" and Greek Lexicon fame, "A History of Rome From the Earliest Times to the Establishment of the Empire," the plebeians were mostly not so well off "petty yeomen" on small farms who had needed the land, now public, to satisfy their families' basic needs.

During the first few centuries of the Roman republic, the number of chafing plebeians increased. This was partly because the plebeians' population numbers increased naturally and partly because neighboring Latin tribes, granted citizenship by treaty with Rome, were enrolled in the Roman tribes.

" Gaius Terentilius Harsa was a tribune of the plebs that year. Thinking that the absence of the consuls afforded a good opportunity for tribunitian agitation, he spent several days in haranguing the plebeians on the overbearing arrogance of the patricians. In particular he inveighed against the authority of the consuls as excessive and intolerable in a free commonwealth, for whilst in name it was less invidious, in reality it was almost more harsh and oppressive than that of the kings had been, for now, he said, they had two masters instead of one, with uncontrolled, unlimited powers, who, with nothing to curb their licence, directed all the threats and penalties of the laws against the plebeians."
Livy 3.9

The plebeians were oppressed by hunger, poverty, and powerlessness. Allotments of land didn't solve the problems of poor farmers whose tiny plots stopped producing when overworked. Some plebeians whose land had been sacked by the Gauls couldn't afford to rebuild, so they were forced to borrow. Interest rates were exorbitant, but since land couldn't be used for security, farmers in need of loans had to enter into contracts (nexa), pledging personal service. Farmers who defaulted (addicti), could be sold into enslavement or even killed. Grain shortages led to famine, which repeatedly (among other years: 496, 492, 486, 477, 476, 456 and 453 BCE.) compounded the problems of the poor.

Some patricians were making a profit and gaining enslaved people, even if the people to whom they lent money defaulted. But Rome was more than just the patricians. It was becoming the main power in Italy and would soon become the dominant Mediterranean power. What it needed was a fighting force. Referring back to the similarity with Greece mentioned earlier, Greece had needed its fighters, too, and made concessions to the lower classes in order to get bodies. Since there weren't enough patricians in Rome to do all the fighting the young Roman Republic engaged in with its neighbors, the patricians soon realized they needed strong, healthy, young plebeian bodies to defend Rome.

*Cornell, in Ch. 10 of The Beginnings of Rome, points out problems with this traditional picture of the makeup of early Republican Rome. Among other problems, some of the early consuls appear not to have been patricians. Their names appear later in history as plebeians. Cornell also questions whether or not patricians as a class existed prior to the republic and suggests that although the germs of the patriciate were there under the kings, the aristocrats consciously formed a group and closed their privileged ranks sometime after 507 BCE.

In the first few decades following the expulsion of the last king, the plebeians (roughly, the Roman lower class) had to create ways of dealing with problems caused or exacerbated by the patricians (the ruling, upper class):

  • poverty,
  • occasional famine, and
  • lack of political clout.

Their solution to at least the third problem was to set up their own separate, plebeian assemblies, and secede. Since the patricians needed the physical bodies of the plebeians as fighting men, the plebeian secession was a serious problem. The patricians had to yield to some of the plebeian demands.

Lex Sacrata and Lex Publilia

Lex is the Latin for law; leges is the plural of lex.

It is thought that between laws passed in 494, the lex sacrata, and 471, the lex publilia, the patricians granted the plebeians the following concessions.

  • the right to elect their own officers by tribe
  • to recognize officially the plebeians' sacrosanct magistrates, the tribunes.

Among the soon to be acquired powers of the tribune was the important right to veto.

Codified Law

After inclusion in the ranks of the ruling class via the office of tribune and the vote, the next step was for the plebeians to demand codified law. Without a written law, individual magistrates could interpret tradition however they wished. This resulted in unfair and seemingly arbitrary decisions. The plebeians insisted that this custom end. If laws were written down, magistrates could no longer be so arbitrary. There is a tradition that in 454 BCE three commissioners went to Greece* to study its written legal documents.

In 451, upon the return of the commission of three to Rome, a group of 10 men was established to write down the laws. These 10, all patricians according to the ancient tradition (although one appears to have had a plebeian name), were the Decemviri [decem=10; viri=men]. They replaced the year's consuls and tribunes and were given additional powers. One of these extra powers was that the Decemviri's decisions could not be appealed.

The 10 men wrote down laws on 10 tablets. At the end of their term, the first 10 men were replaced by another group of 10 in order to finish the task. This time, half the members may have been plebeian.

Cicero, writing some thrde centuries later, refers to the two new tablets, created by the second set of Decemviri (Decemvirs), as "unjust laws." Not only were their laws unjust, but the Decemvirs who wouldn't step down from office began to abuse their power. Although failure to step down at the end of the year had always been a possibility with the consuls and dictators, it hadn't happened.

Appius Claudius

One man, in particular, Appius Claudius, who had served on both decemvirates, acted despotically. Appius Claudius was from an originally Sabine family that continued to make its name known throughout Roman history.

  • The blind censor, Appius Claudius, was one of his descendants. In 279 Appius Claudius Caecus ('blind') expanded the lists from which soldiers could be drawn so as to include those without property. Before then soldiers had to have a certain level of property in order to enlist.
  • Clodius Pulcher (92-52 BCE) the flamboyant tribune whose gang caused trouble for Cicero, was another descendant.
  • Appius Claudius was also a member of the gens that produced the Claudians in the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Roman emperors.

This early despotic Appius Claudius pursued and brought a fraudulent legal decision against a free woman, Verginia, daughter of a high ranking soldier, Lucius Verginius. As a result of Appius Claudius' lustful, self-serving actions, the plebeians seceded again. To restore order, the Decemvirs finally abdicated, as they should have done earlier.

The laws the Decemviri created were meant to resolve the same basic problem that had faced Athens when Draco (whose name is the basis for the word "draconian" because his laws and punishments were so severe) was asked to codify Athenian laws. In Athens, before Draco, interpretation of the unwritten law had been done by the nobility who had been partial and unfair. Written law meant everyone was theoretically held to the same standard. However, even if exactly the same standard were applied to everyone, which is always a wish more than a reality, and even if the laws were written, a single standard doesn't guarantee reasonable laws. In the case of the 12 tablets, one of the laws prohibited marriage between plebeians and patricians. It's worth noting that this discriminating law was on the supplemental two tablets—those written while there were plebeians among the Decemvirs, so it is not true that all plebeians opposed it.

Military Tribune

The 12 tablets were an important move in the direction of what we would call equal rights for the plebeians, but there was still much to do. The law against intermarriage between the classes was repealed in 445. When the plebeians proposed that they should be eligible for the highest office, the consulship, the Senate wouldn't completely oblige, but instead created what we might call a "separate, but equal" new office known as military tribune with consular power. This office effectively meant plebeians could wield the same power as the patricians.

Secession [Secessio]

"Withdrawal or the threat of withdrawal from the Roman state during times of crisis."

Why Greece?

We know of Athens as the birthplace of democracy, but there was more to Roman's decision to study the Athenian legal system than this, especially since there is no reason to think the Romans were trying to create an Athenian-like democracy.

Athens, too, once had an underclass suffering at the hands of the nobles. One of the first steps taken was to commission Draco to write down the laws. After Draco, who recommended capital punishment for crime, continued problems between rich and poor led to the appointment of Solon the law-giver.
Solon and the Rise of Democracy

In The Beginnings of Rome, its author, T. J. Cornell, gives examples of English translations of what was on the 12 Tables. (The tablet placement of the injunctions follows H. Dirksen.)

  • "'Whoever shall have been lacking witness, he is to go every other day to clamor (?) at the door' (II.3)"
  • "'They are to make a road. Unless they laid it with stones, he is to drive carts where he shall wish' (VII.7)"
  • "'If the weapon flew from [his] hand rather than [he] threw it' (VIII.24)"
  • Table III says that a debtor who cannot repay within a set period can be sold into enslavement, but only abroad and across the Tiber (i.e. not in Rome, since Roman citizens could not be sold into enslavement in Rome).

As Cornell says, the "code" is hardly what we would think of as a code, but a list of injunctions and prohibitions. There are specific areas of concern: family, marriage, divorce, inheritance, property, assault, debt, debt-bondage (nexum), freeing of enslaved people, summonses, funeral behavior, and more. This hodge-podge of laws does not seem to clarify the position of plebeians but instead seems to address questions in areas in which there was disagreement.

It is the 11th Table, one of the ones written by the plebeian-patrician group of Decemvirs, that lists the injunction against plebeian-patrician marriage.


Scullard, H. H. A History of the Roman World, 753 to 146 BC. Routledge, 2008.

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Gill, N.S. "Conflicts of the Orders Patrician and Plebeian." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). Conflicts of the Orders Patrician and Plebeian. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Conflicts of the Orders Patrician and Plebeian." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).