The plebs were, in ancient Rome, the general body of free Roman citizens who were not patricians, as determined by the census. The precise origins of the group and the term are unclear, though it may be that they began as a limited political movement in opposition to the elite (patricians) which became more widely applied.[1]

In ancient Rome

In Latin the word plebs is a singular collective noun, and its genitive is plebis.

The origin of the separation into orders is unclear, and it is disputed when the Romans were divided under the early kings into patricians and plebeians, or whether the clientes (or dependents) of the patricians formed a third group. Certain gentes ("clans") were patrician, as identified by the nomen (family name), but a gens might have both patrician and plebeian branches that shared a nomen but were distinguished by a cognomen, as was the case with the gens Claudia.

The 19th-century historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr held that plebeians began to appear at Rome during the reign of Ancus Marcius and were possibly foreigners from other parts of Italy settling in Rome as naturalized citizens. In any case, at the outset of the Roman Republic, the patricians had a near monopoly on political and social institutions. Plebeians were excluded from magistracies and religious colleges, and they were not permitted to know the laws by which they were governed. Plebeians served in the army, but rarely became military leaders.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo occasionally mounted to the point that the plebeians engaged in a sort of general strike, a secessio plebis, during which they would withdraw to the mountain "Mons Sacer" as a form of protest, leaving the patricians to themselves. From 494 to 287 BC, five such actions during the so-called "Conflict of the Orders" resulted in the establishment of plebeian offices (the tribunes and plebeian aediles), the publication of the laws (the Law of the Twelve Tables), the establishment of the right of plebeian–patrician intermarriage (by the passage of the Lex Canuleia), the opening of the highest offices of government and some state priesthoods to the plebeians and passage of legislation (the Lex Hortensia) that made resolutions passed by the assembly of plebeians, the concilium plebis, binding on all citizens.

Noble plebeians

During the Second Samnite War (326–304 BC), plebeians who had risen to power through these social reforms began to acquire the aura of nobilitas, "nobility" (more literally "notability"), marking the creation of a ruling elite of nobiles that allied the interests of patricians and noble plebeians.[2] From the mid-4th century to the early 3rd century BC, several plebeian–patrician "tickets" for the consulship repeated joint terms, suggesting a deliberate political strategy of cooperation.[3] Although nobilitas was not a formal social rank during the Republican era, in general, a plebeian who had attained the consulship was regarded as having brought nobility to his family. Such a man was a novus homo ("new man"), a self-made noble, and his sons and descendants were nobiles.[4]

Marius and Cicero are notable examples of novi homines in the late Republic, when many of Rome's richest and most powerful men—such as Lucullus, Crassus, and Pompeius—were plebeian nobles. Some or perhaps many noble plebeians, including Cicero and Lucullus, aligned their political interests with the faction of Optimates, conservatives who sought to preserve senatorial prerogatives. By contrast, the Populares, which sought to champion the plebs in the sense of "common people", were sometimes led by patricians such as Julius Caesar and Clodius Pulcher.


United States military academies

In the U.S. military, plebes are freshmen at the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy, Valley Forge Military Academy and College, the Marine Military Academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Georgia Military College, and California Maritime Academy. The term is also used for new cadets at the Philippine Military Academy.

British Empire

Early public schools in the United Kingdom would enroll pupils as "plebeians" as opposed to sons of gentry and aristocrats.

In British, Irish, Australian, New Zealand and South African English the back-formation pleb, along with the more recently derived adjectival form plebby,[5] is used as a derogatory term for someone considered unsophisticated or uncultured.[6]

See also

  • Bread and circuses  Figure of speech referring to a superficial means of appeasement
  • Capite censi  The lowest class of citizens of ancient Rome
  • Plebeian Council  The principal assembly of the ancient Roman Republic
  • Proletariat  The class of wage-earners in an economic society whose only possession of significant material value is their labour-power
  • Roman Republic  Period of ancient Roman civilization (509–27 BC)
  • Plebgate, (aka Plodgate or Gategate), a 2012 British political scandal involving the use of the word as a slur


  1. See for example Momigliano, Arnaldo (1967). "Osservazioni sulla distinzione fra patrizi e plebei". In Gjerstad, Einar (ed.). Les origines de la République romaine: neuf exposés suivis de discussions. Fondation Hardt pour l'étude de l'antiquité classique. pp. 199–221.
  2. E.T. Salmon, Samnium and the Samnites (Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 217.
  3. Gary Forsythe, A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War (University of California Press, 2005), p. 269.
  4. Fergus Millar, "The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic, 200–151 B.C.," as reprinted in Rome, the Greek World, and the East (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), p. 126; P.A. Brunt, "Nobilitas and novitas," Journal of Roman Studies 72 (1982) 1–17.<
  5. "plebby". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 September 2012.
  6. "pleb". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 September 2012.


  • Jackson J. Spielvogel (2008). World History: Journey Across Time. New York: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.
  • Scott Wertsching (2008). What is a Pleb?. Rome: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.

Further reading

  • Ferenczy, Endre (1976). From the Patrician State to the Patricio-Plebeian State. Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert.
  • Horsfall, Nicholas (2003). The Culture of the Roman Plebs. London: Duckworth.
  • Millar, Fergus (2002). The Crowd In Rome In the Late Republic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Mitchell, Richard E. (1990). Patricians and plebeians: The origin of the Roman state. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Morstein-Marx, Robert (2004). Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511482878. ISBN 9780511482878.
  • Mouritsen, Henrik (2001). Plebsand Politics in the Late Roman Republic. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511482885. ISBN 9780511482885.
  • Social Struggles in Archaic Rome. 2005. doi:10.1002/9780470752753. ISBN 9780470752753.
  • Vanderbroeck, Paul J.J. (1987). Popular leadership and collective behavior in the late Roman Republic (ca. 80–50 B.C.). Amsterdam: Gieben.
  • Vishnia, Rachel Feig (1996). State, Society, and Popular Leaders In Mid-Republican Rome 241-167 BC. London: Routledge.
  • Williamson, Caroline (2005). The Laws of the Roman People. doi:10.3998/mpub.15992. ISBN 9780472110537.
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