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Plebeians

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Lucius Iunius Brutus, semi-legendary Roman patrician who was born a commoner. He became famous for the expulsion of the last king of Rome – Tarquinius the Delicious.

Plebeians (plebei) was a social class in ancient Rome, which was probably formed from conquered territories or peoples settling in Rome. However, we do not have one hundred percent certainty as to the genesis of the birth of this state. The name itself comes from the word “people” (plebs).

Social, political and economic changes

The plebeians were free people, but had no civil rights and originally had only a military function. Patricians who had a monopoly on power and offices in the days of the Republic effectively prevented plebeians from getting involved in politics. Plebeians were not allowed to take state offices or marry the sons or daughters of patricians. They were mainly craftsmen, traders and farmers. They also served in the army, and they had to buy weapons with their money (although after the so-called Marius’s reform at the end of the 2nd century BCE, equipment was largely provided by the state).

Over time, the plebeians began to demand influence in the state. The richer among the plebeians wanted access to state offices, while the poorer demanded that they be granted land in the conquered areas. For this reason, fights for access to land continued between the plebeians and patricians from the 6th to the 3rd century BCE. This struggle was started by the exodus to the so-called Holy Mountain and refusal to participate in the war against the Aequi in 494 BCE.

Subsequent secessions of the plebeians ended with successive victories of the plebeians, including the creation of the office of people’s tribune in 494 BCE, the law of the twelve tables from 449 BCE, the abolition of debt bondage and access to all offices and lex Hortensia of 287 BCE, which gave the resolutions of committees (comitia tributa) the force of statutes. Gradually, the plebeians were divided due to the property certificate, and to the new layer nobilitas the rich plebeian families entered.

End of 2nd century BCE brought further changes to the Roman social structure. One of the greatest people of that time, defending the rights of the commoners and the lower classes, was people’s tribune Tiberius Gracchus. He demanded a just distribution of the land belonging to the patricians among the poorest plebeians.

The rich bought large estates in which slaves worked, massively imported from various parts of the country. Small landowners, who were the backbone of the army, spent a long time in the war. This fact was used by the rich who seized their property. The loss of property led to the fall of middle-class Romans below the property census. This, in turn, prevented them from joining the army. This situation on a mass scale could have tragic consequences for the entire state.

Before completing his plan, Tiberius was murdered on the orders of the patricians, and his body was thrown into the Tiber. A similar fate befell his brother Gaius, who wanted to finish his work.

Later, the plebeians were used to describe the poor strata of Rome’s inhabitants and the rural population, who, however, already had political rights and whose votes were sought by the so-called politicians. populations. Numerous representatives of the upper classes with great ambitions (including Gaius Marius, Julius Caesar or Clodius Pulcher) treated the plebeians as their electorate. Interestingly, Marius or Cicero came from the plebeian state and played a significant role in the Roman republic.

The times of the empire are already a decline in the importance of popular assemblies and the influence of the social masses (plebeians) on politics. Power was concentrated in the hands of the emperors, who cared for the social mood, providing entertainment and food (famous words of Juvenal: “bread and games”).

Everyday life

Plebeians in cities lived mainly in tenement houses – the so-called insulae. Insulas were buildings ranging in size from 300 to 400 m2 and 15 to 20 m high. The tenement houses had several floors, and the walls were full of windows and doors facing the streets, which usually surrounded them on four sides.

Lower Romans ate a breakfast of bread, cheese, and olives; They also liked to dip the bread in, for example, wine. People tried to eat enough to be able to work all day. Usually, there was no time or money for dinner. So the next meal was at bedtime and was usually rather modest. If you ate at home, a stool/chair and table were used. Usually, wheat was cooked to make some kind of porridge. The oatmeal was very bland, so extra ingredients were often added to add flavor. Sometimes wheat was made into bread if they could afford an oven. However, overall poor Romans ate very little meat and often uncooked food. Due to the lack of a kitchen, public pubs were used.

Sources
  • Alfoldy Geza, Historia społeczna starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2003
  • Łoposzko Tadeusz, Historia społeczna republikańskiego Rzymu

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