This Week in Labor History, vol. 4: The Secessions of the Plebs
by Sean Lundergan, Fr. Boyle Fellow
Working class agitation has a long history. Over two centuries in Ancient Rome, a series of struggles known as the Conflict of the Orders took place between the elites, the patricians, and the commoners, the plebeians.
From the onset of the Roman Republic, patricians sought to hoard as much wealth and power as they could. Though the people of Rome had ousted the last king of the city to establish a republic, the richest Romans relied on hereditary titles—essentially a prototype of the nobility that would emerge in Wester Europe a millennium later—to maintain oligarchic control over political, economic and social life in the city. Despite nominally being full citizens, the plebs could be arbitrarily punished and even enslaved over unpaid debts.
By 494 BC, the plebs had faced enough abuses to warrant collective action: they left their jobs, gathered on a hill known as the Sacred Mountain, and refused to disband until they exacted concessions from the patricians. This action—essentially a general strike—is known as the First Secession of the Plebs. After some haggling, the plebs reached an agreement with the patrician counterparts that led to the cancellation of some debts and, more consequential for the future of Rome, the formation of the Tribune of the Plebs. The Tribune was a council of elected plebeians who would be answerable to the public, and it represented the first time a pleb was allowed to hold elected office in the Republic.
The plebs seceded four more times in the next two centuries. The next three secessions are frankly not very interesting, though they were significant events in their time and showed the power that the majority of Romans could exert against the wealthy few. But the fifth and final secession would prove immensely consequential for the balance of power between the orders of Rome.
In 287 BC, the Roman Senate was tasked with doling out land that had been won in a war with the neighboring Sabines. A wholly aristocratic body, the Senate only awarded land to patricians. Historians believe that this occurred during a period of economic hardship for the plebs, which drove them to riot and pillage before seceding to a hill across the river from the city. A pleb named Hortensius was appointed dictator (a temporary position in ancient times that didn’t carry the modern negative connotation) to end the insurrection, which he did by proposing the Lex Hortensia, a law that effectively ended the legal system of class discrimination in Rome. The Lex Hortensia made votes of the Plebeian Councils, which could only be called by the Tribune of the Plebs and in which only plebeians could vote, legally binding on all Romans.
The Lex Hortensia marked a new era in the Roman Republic. The Tribunate became a political force that asserted the will of the common people, often to the horror of the still aristocratic Senate. (In the 130s and 120s BC, for instance, the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were tribunes of the plebs who attempted to redistribute patrician-held land to plebeian citizens—conservative Senators had both men assassinated, twelve years apart.)
The secessions of the plebs proved, even in antiquity, the power of common people to extract political and economic concessions from the ruling class by withholding their labor.
Maddox, Graham. “The Economic Causes of the Lex Hortensia.” Latomus, vol. 42, no. 2, 1983, pp. 277–286. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41532825. Accessed 16 Apr. 2020.
Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Rome. 2015. pp. 146-147.
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