In Rome, citizens had multiple rights, but that did not mean there were no challenges for the ruling class. The plebeians (commoners) were part of the general body of free Roman citizens, but they were not patricians.
Both classes of citizens in Rome were hereditary, and thanks to these commoners, Rome’s government ended up creating laws and a government that reflected the needs of all of its citizens.
What was the tool that they used so successfully? It was a secession. But what did it mean, and what role did it play in the history of Rome?
A secessio plebis or withdrawal of the commoners was an informal exercise of power by its plebeian citizens. The plebeian citizens would leave the city, leaving all the shops and workshops non-operational. The concept is similar to what we know today as a general strike.
Any commercial transactions would largely cease, leaving its patrician citizens without resources. There was strength in numbers since the plebeian citizens were the vast majority of Rome’s population and the primary source of food production and other critical resources.
There were multiple secessions throughout Roman history, most of which were related to specific grievances against the ruling class. Let’s explore the five successions and the results of each one.
Roman was a city-state governed by two consuls and a senate, which performed the executive and most of the legislative functions.
These governing bodies were only made up of patricians, the wealthy minority of Rome. In 494 BC, the plebeian class was unhappy with the political rule of the patrician class.
The issues began with how the money lenders were treating debtors. A debtor could have his possessions and land taken, then be imprisoned, beaten, and even threatened with death.
Instead of the ruling class taking this issue seriously, they supported the money lenders and passed unpopular decrees reinforcing the imprisonment of debtors for creditors.
The ruling class didn’t act on other issues, which made the plebeians secede to the Sacred Mountain (Mons Sacer) over three miles outside Rome. There they set up defenses, waiting for the Senate to act.
This secession of the plebs led to negotiations that freed some of the plebeians from debt and resulted in the creation of the Tribune of the Plebs.
This was the first government position held by the plebs, and they were sacrosanct, which meant that any person harming them was subject to punishment by death.
Yet, the peace created from these negotiations was not to last.
Second Secessio Plebis
In 449 BC, the plebeians again decided that secession would address their grievances. By 450 BC, the plebeians’ tribune had been suspended, as a commission of decemvir had been put into place.
The decemvir was ten men tasked with compiling a law code known as the Law of the Twelve Tables. With a year to complete their work, the decemvir was the law of the land. All other offices of the state were suspended.
Unsurprisingly, the decemvir issued their laws but did not give power back at the end of their term. Their decisions were final and not subject to appeal. The Senate pressured them to resign, but it did not work.
Tyranny, focused on the plebeians, was the result. Institutions, including the tribune of plebs, were severely limited. The officials’ behavior was outrageous, as they had a member of the tribune of the plebs killed for speaking out against them.
There was also a plebeian representative who killed his daughter to protect her honor after a patriciate attempted to force her to marry him. The patrician tricked her father into selling her as a slave to the decemvir. Her father killed her and then cursed the decemvir.
Riots broke out, and the plebs went first to Aventine, leaving the city behind. The second secession of the plebs was planned, with the plebeians eventually withdrawing to Mons Sacer.
That secession gave the Senate the leverage needed to get the decemvir out of power. Then the Senate negotiated with the plebeians, restoring the tribunes and the right to appeal.
After this succession, laws gave more power to the plebeians and added to their political strength. The Plebeian Council could pass laws binding on both plebeians and patricians.
The Senate did have veto power, but now all the laws were part of public knowledge. State offices could not be created without being subject to appeal.
The law of the XII tablets was a victory for the plebeians, demanding the ruling patriciate comply with written laws. However, that did not mean the plebs were better off.
Many of the problems they faced were not regulated, and the debtors’ debt was not alleviated. Ultimately, these problems rose back to the surface and led to another secession.
In 445 BC, a second decemvirate placed severe restrictions on the plebeian order. There was even a prohibition on intermarriage between patricians and plebeians. The city faced extreme external threats, so the consuls opposed lifting that law. If the prohibition was lifted, it was argued that it would lead to a breakdown of Rome’s social and moral order.
A military strike by the plebeians came after a consul suggested that children of mixed marriages might incur the gods’ displeasure. Eventually, a compromise was reached, allowing military tribunes to have consular power and be elected from any order.
Fourth and Fifth Secessions
While the fourth secession was seen as a small military revolt, the fifth secession had broader implications. In 290 BC, Roman armies conquered large amounts of territory, but once the territory was distributed, none of the plebeians benefited. Plebeian farmers, who had fought in the war, were stuck with debts and no way to repay them. This time the plebeians seceded to Aventine Hill in protest.
Quintus Hortensius was appointed as dictator to resolve the matter, and he convinced the crowd to stop the secession. A short time later, the Lex Hortensia was established, making laws decided on by plebeian assemblies binding on all Roman citizens.
Each of these secessions resulted in a growth of the power of the plebeians but also gave rise to a new type of patrician and plebeian nobility. It also constituted one of the main elements of strength as its economy and military expanded.