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Conflict of the Orders

The Conflict of the Orders was a political struggle between the plebeians (plebs) and patricians (patricii) of the ancient Roman Republic, in which the plebeians sought political equality and achieved it in 287 BC, after two centuries of strife.

The traditional account

The traditional story, whose primary source is the first few books of Livy, is that the patricians were the aristocrats of Rome, taking over when the kings were expelled and the Republic formed in 509 BC, while the plebeians were the "lower class". Initially, only patricians could hold magistracies (such as the consulate), positions in the religious college s, and sit in the Roman Senate.

However, the patrician clans abused their position, using the creditor's right of nexum to take plebeian debtors into bondage and selling them as slaves, favoring patricians over plebeians in court cases, and overriding the will of the Centuriate Assembly .

Plebeian responses included the establishment of the tribunes, whose authority to protect plebeians was eventually accepted by the patricians, and the Council of Plebs (concilium plebis) whose decisions were originally binding on plebeians only, but in 287 applied to all citizens. The plebs convinced the patricians by engaging in secessio , the act of leaving the city and refusing to participate until the patricians gave in.

In 449 BC the decemvirs codified the law via the Twelve Tables, but then their 10th Table forbade intermarriage between patricians and plebeians, sharpening the distinction between the classes, and it was soon repealed by the lex Canuleia of 445.

In 367 the lex Liciniae Sextiae provided that one of the two consuls should always be a plebeian, and soon after the dictatorship, censorship, and praetorship became open to plebeians as well.

The final crisis in the struggle came in 287, when economically-stressed farmers demanded debt relief from the Senate and were rebuffed. A secessio resulted in the Senate appointing the plebeian Quintus Hortensius as dictator, who solved the problem in a manner unknown to us, then passed the lex Hortensia giving equal weight to the decrees of the Senate and the Council of Plebs. Although individuals identified themselves as plebeian or patrician for the remainder of the Republic and well into the Empire, and the patricians retained certain priesthoods, there was no political difference between the orders.

What really happened?

The traditional account was long accepted as factual, but it has a number of problems and inconsistencies, and almost every element of the story is controversial today; some scholars, such as Richard E. Mitchell , have even argued that there was no conflict at all, the Romans of the late Republic having interpreted events of their distant past as if they were comparable to the class struggles of their own time.

The crux of the problem is that there is no contemporaneous account of the conflict; writers such as Polybius, who might have met persons whose grandparents participated in the conflict, do not mention it, while the writers who do speak of the conflict, such as Livy or Cicero, report fact and fable equally readily, and invariably assume that there were no fundamental changes in Roman institutions in nearly 500 years.

For instance, the fasti report a number of consuls with plebeian names during the 400s, when the consulate was supposedly only open to patricians, and explanations to the effect that previously-patrician gentes somehow became plebeians later are difficult to prove.

Another point of difficulty is the apparent absence of armed revolt; as the history of the late Republic shows, similar types of grievances tended to lead to bloodshed rather quickly, yet Livy's account seems to entail debate mostly, with the occasional threat of secessio.

None of this is helped by our basic uncertainty as to who the plebs actually were; many of them are known to have been wealthy landowners, and the "lower class" label dates from the late Republic.


  • Kurt Raaflaub , ed. Social Struggles in Archaic Rome: New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders (University of California Press , 1986)

Last updated: 12-22-2004 06:09:47