A Critical History of Early Rome

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The conflict of orders was a struggle between two social classes in Ancient Rome: the plebeians and the patricians. This social movement started because of the plebeians’ discontent about their inequality, which resulted in concessions of the patricians and creation of the Law of Twelve Tablets .

The name “patricians” literally means “persons of family”. It indicated that only people born in the family of patricians could belong to this class of people. The name “plebeians” means “the masses”. This category included multitude of undistinguished and inferior people who formed a community. The patricians were an aristocratic class who had monopoly of political and civil rights and were elected as magistrates. The plebeians had an inferior position in the Roman society, largely because of poverty. They were mainly slaves, foreigners, refugees, and citizens of conquered states (Falconer Giles, 13). 

The distinction between the plebeians and the patricians began in times of Romulus and Rem. The first appointed one hundred senators whose descendants became members of the privileged class. There were nineteen clans of the patricians and three groups of the plebeians: rural proletariat, independent peasant farmers, and rich prominent families (Forsythe, 157). With the course of time, the plebeians increased in number. They were put into the category of subjects and not citizens, were not allowed to vote, to marry a patrician, and to own property. The plebeians’ status and treatment was humiliating. Particularly derogatory was the fact that during his rule king Priscus introduced the concept of gentlemen: plebeian gentlemen were titled lesser ones, while the patricians greater gentlemen. The plebeians were taxed according to the place where they lived and forced to serve in the army. The patricians monopolized positions of power – only people belonging to this group were appointed to the senate, the consulship, and religious offices (Forsythe, 158).

After Romans banished Tarquinius Superbus from Rome, monarchy was banned and republic was established. Inequality between the two classes became a pressing problem as the plebeians felt more and more oppressed and neglected. They had to leave their homes unattended and without protection during the service in Roman armies. So, invaders could destroy their crops, possessions, ran out families. In order to rebuild they took loans with high interest rate. If the plebeians did not agree to pay high interest, they faced the possibility of arrest, dungeon or slavery to the creditor. The only service for which Roman state depended on the plebeians was fighting, and they decided to use this fact to put forward their demands to the government. The plebeians refused to render the service which community required from them. Consequently, they left Rome taking a large portion of fighting force. The plebeians created Tribunes of Commons that were to represent their demands to the patricians. It was a time of constant warfare, so the patricians, afraid that Rome could be in danger, yielded and allowed the plebeians the right to elect tribunes that were to influence cases against aristocracy (Falconer Giles, 15).

During the course of struggle the plebeians won concessions from the patricians according to which they got legal equality and access to high office (Forsythe, 159). All the debts that had occurred during the time of the plebeians’ service in the army were eliminated; those plebeians who had been jailed or enslaved were released as well. Officially elected parties that represented the plebeians’ interests were created. They had the right to hold an assembly and to speak in public about the issues that affected them.

Because of absence of a codified law the patricians interpreted it freely and unfairly. So, the plebeians demanded to put rules down on paper. The ten patricians, who gathered to do this, were called the decemvirs, created first ten tablets with laws. They were further replaced by another ten men, half of them were plebeians. Consequently, two more tablets were created. The laws were still not fair and again treated the plebeians as if they were worthless. 

To conclude with, conflict of orders resulted in creation of aristocracy not based on birth, but based on political power and wealth. It did not destroy class division of the society and did not improve the lives of the poor.

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