Patricians, Plebs and Proles - Class and Citizenship in the Roman Republic

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It is a popular myth that the Roman Republic was ruled by patricians and that the common people were plebian. In the TV series Rome when Caesar appoints Lucius Vorenus to the Senate Cicero protests because he is plebian. This is highly unlikely to have occured as Cicero was himself of plebian birth1. By the late Republic the Senate was primarily composed of plebians although some of the old patrician families were still represented.


To be a patrician in Rome was to be a member of a family that had been considered noble before Rome became a republic. Originally the patrician class had held all political power in republican Rome but this had been gradually whittled away. By the late republic all that being patrician granted was a certain amount of status and the right to hold certain religious posts. Since entry to the Senate required ownership of a certain amount of land some patrician families were no longer represented in the Senate, others had died out and others had survived only by adoption2.


That the great mass of Roman citizens were plebian is true. However there was considerable variation in wealth and status within this class. Pompey the Great, whose family owned vast tracts of land in Umbria, was plebian. As the plebians had won a share of political power in Rome some plebian families had became wealthy and as proud of their ancestry as any patrician aristocrat. Political divides in Rome were not about class or a specific set of policies, rather they were about networks of alliances between individuals. In some ways the plebian classes had more power than the patricians. Of the two counsels elected to rule Rome every year one had to be of plebian origin, both could be and often were. The Tribunes of the Plebs, junior magistrates who had to be of plebian origin, could veto decisions taken by any of the other magistrates.


The proletariat were the lowliest class of Roman society, freemen without property. As such they had no vote in any of the Roman assemblies although the mob, largely composed of proletarians, was a factor that Roman politicians had to consider.
1Not particularly illustrious plebian birth either. Marcus Tullius Cicero was a New Man, the first member of his family to enter the Senate.2Adoption was common in the upper echelons of Roman society. A family with too many sons would give one to another family to bring up. The adopted child was now legally considered a member of their new family.

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