Conflict of the Orders

Dafato Team | May 25, 2022

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The Conflict of the Orders was a political dispute between plebeians ("commoners") and patricians ("aristocrats") in the ancient Roman Republic and lasting from 494 until 287 BC, in which the plebeians fought for political equality with the patricians. The conflict played a major role in the development of the republican constitution. Soon after the founding of the republic, the conflict led to the first of many secessions of the plebs, in which the plebs withdrew from the city and gathered on the Sacred Hill precisely at a time of war, which led to the creation of the office of tribune of the plebs, which represented the first sharing of power between the traditional Roman orders up to that time.

At first, only patricians could run in elections for political office, but over time these laws were repealed and by the end of the conflict, all offices were available to commoners. Since most individuals elected to political office were admitted to the Roman Senate, this development helped transform the senate from an exclusively patrician body to a mixed one. In the same period, an exclusively plebeian legislative assembly was created, the Council of the Plebs, which was acquiring more and more power. When it was created, its acts (the "plebiscites") applied only to plebeians, but after 339 B.C., with the passage of the Leges Publiliae by the dictator Quintus Pubilius Philamus, its laws became binding on plebeians and patricians, with the senators retaining the right of veto over all measures passed by the Council.

It was not until 287 BC that the patrician senators lost the last power they had over the Council of the Plebs. However, the patrician-plebeian aristocracy formed in the senate still held means of controlling the Council, especially the close relations between the tribunes of the plebs and the senators. Although this act represented the end of the Conflict of the Orders, with the plebs finally achieving full equality with the patricians, the fate of the average plebeian did not change. A small number of aristocratic plebeian families emerged and most plebeian politicians came from these families. Since this new aristocracy was based on the structure of society, the only real change could only come through a revolution, which happened in 49 BC, when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and started the civil war that would lead to the end of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire.

In 494 B.C., Rome was at war against three Italic tribes (équos, sabinos and volcanos), but the plebeian soldiers refused to march against the enemy and instead seceded and gathered on the Sacred Hill outside Rome. A settlement was negotiated and the patricians agreed that the plebs would have the right to elect their own officers, whom they called plebeian tribunes (Latin: "tribuni plebis") and plebeian edis (Latin: "edil").

During the early years of the republic, plebeians could not hold magisterial positions. Technically, neither tribunes nor edis were technically magistrates, since they were elected solely by plebeian votes and not by plebeians and patricians. With their power to interpose vetoes on any decision by the Senate or the people's assemblies, the tribunes tried to block laws unfavorable to their order while the patricians often countered by getting the support of one or more of the other tribunes. An example of this occurred in 448 BC, when only five tribunes were elected; according to tradition and pressured by the patricians, they co-opted five other colleagues, two of whom were patricians. The possibility of the patricians trying this tactic again in the future, or even trying to get the posts for themselves to prevent plebeian tribunes from exercising their rights, led to the passage of the Lex Trebonia, which forbade the co-option of tribunes in the future.

Soon after the founding of the republic, the Assembly of the Centuries became the most important of the Roman assemblies, in which magistrates were bedded, laws were passed, and trials were held. Around the same time, the plebeians gathered in an "Assembly curiata plebeia," an informal meeting that later gave rise to the Council of the plebs. Since they were organized on the basis of the curias (based, in turn, on the gentry), the plebs remained dependent on their patrician patrons. In 471 BC, a law was passed by the tribune Voleron Publilius, the Lex Publilia Voleronis, which allowed the plebs to organize by tribe rather than by curia. The plebeian tribal assembly, independent of the patricians, was born.

During the Roman monarchy, the king had the prerogative to appoint two quaestors to serve as his assistants, and after the founding of the republic, the consuls retained this power. However, in 447 BC, according to Cicero, the quaestors began to be elected by the tribal Assembly, which was presided over by a patrician magistrate. Apparently, this was the first joint Assembly between patricians and plebeians, and therefore a victory for the plebeians. Although the patricians won the right to vote in a joint assembly, there were never many patricians in Rome. Therefore, the majority was always plebeians, and yet any magistrate elected by a joint assembly had jurisdiction over plebeians and patricians. So, for the first time, the plebeians apparently indirectly acquired some authority over the patricians. Most accounts of the time about an "assembly of tribes" are clear references to the Council of the plebs, however. The distinction between the tribal assembly (which would be a joint body between patricians and plebs) and the Council of the plebs (exclusive to the plebs) is not very clear in contemporary accounts, and so the very existence of a joint tribal assembly can only be inferred through indirect evidence.

In 445 BC, the tribune of the plebs, Gaius Canuleius, demanded the creation of the lex Canuleia, a law that allowed marriage between plebs and patricians. However, it is important to note that marriage between the two classes would already be a common situation, so the law only intended to make the situation legal. In addition, Canuleus also demanded, for the first time, the right of plebeians to stand for election to the consulship, the highest magistrate of the Roman Republic. The patricians accepted the first demand, but refused to grant them the right to be consuls. In the end, an intermediate solution was agreed upon: although the consulship remained beyond the reach of the plebs, consular command authority (Latin: "imperium") was granted to a select group of military tribunes. These individuals, called consular tribunes (Latin: "tribuni militar consulari potestate" or "military tribunes with consular powers"), were elected by the Assembly of Centuries, the assembly of the members of the army, plebeians and patricians, and the senate had veto power over any elected names. This was the first of many attempts by the plebeians in their struggle for equal political rights with the patricians.

Beginning around 400 BC, a series of wars were fought against various neighboring tribes, especially équos, volksos, latins and veins). The plebeians, without political rights, fought in the army while the patrician aristocracy enjoyed the results of the conquests. The commoners, by then fed up and disbelieving, demanded royal concessions, and to this end, the tribunes Gaius Licinius Stanion and Lucius Sextius passed a law in 367 BC called the "Lex Licinia Sextia" to ease the harsh financial conditions that afflicted the commoners. However, the law also required the election of at least one plebeian consul each year. The opening of the consulship to plebeians was probably the cause of a concession to the patricians the following year, the creation of the offices of praetor and edil curul, restricted to members of their order.

In the decades following the passage of the Lex Licinia Sextia in 367 BC, a series of laws were passed that effectively granted plebeians political equality with the patricians. The patrician era, however, did not come to an end until 287 BC, with the passage of the "Lex Hortensia" by the dictator Quintus Hortensius after the third secession of the plebs. When the office of edil curul was created, only patricians could hold it. However, an unusual agreement was made between plebeians and patricians: the curul edil would be patrician one year and plebeian the next. However, this agreement was also abandoned and this magistracy was also opened to plebeians. Furthermore, after the consulship was opened to plebeians, they additionally gained the de facto power to hold the positions of dictator and censor, magistracies available only to former consuls. In 356 BCE the first plebeian dictator, Gaius Marcius Rutile, was appointed, and in 339 BCE the plebeians assisted in the passage of the Leges Publiliae, which required that one of the two censors elected every five years be a plebeian. Two years later, the first plebeian praetor, Quintus Publilius Philamus, was elected. Furthermore, during this period, the tribunes of the plebs and the senators became very close, especially since the senators realized that they needed the plebs to achieve their goals. Thus, in order to win over the tribunes, the senators gave them more and more power, and the senators, as might be expected, began to owe debts of gratitude to the senators. As the two groups grew closer together, the plebeian senators were usually able to secure the tribunate for members of their families, and in time the tribunate became another stepping stone in a victorious political career ("cursus honorum").

During the monarchical period, the king of Rome appointed the new senators through a process called "lectio senatus," but after the fall of the monarchy, the consuls retained this power. Around the middle of the 4th century BC, however, the Council of the plebs passed the so-called "Ovinian Plebiscite" (Latin: "plebiscitum Ovinium"), which passed this power to the censors and properly codified a customary practice, the appointment of any new magistrate elected to the Senate by the censors. Although this was not an absolute requirement, the letter of the law was so strict that the censors rarely disobeyed. The exact date of the passage of this law is unknown, but it is likely to have been between the opening of the censor magistracy to the plebeians in 339 BCE and the first "lectio senatus" held by a known censor (in 312 BCE). By this time, plebeians held a significant portion of the magisterial offices, and so the number of plebeian senators had grown considerably. It was probably a simple matter of time before plebeians took over the majority in the Roman Senate.

In this new system, newly elected magistrates were automatically considered members of the Senate, but it was still very difficult for a plebeian of unknown family to become a senator. When a member of an unknown family (Latin: "ignobilis") was elected to a magistracy, it was usually because of some specific characteristic of the individual, as was the case with both Gaius Mario and Cicero. Several factors created this difficulty, especially the presence of a very ancient nobility, which appealed to the Romans' deep respect for the past. In addition, elections were expensive and neither senators nor magistrates were paid. In addition, expenses incurred by magistrates while in the service of the Roman state were not reimbursed. Therefore, an individual needed to be wealthy before attempting the higher magistracies. This process resulted in the emergence of a new patrician-plebeian aristocracy (Latin: "nobilitas") in place of the old patrician nobility, the primary cause of the plebs' struggle for their rights and the origin of the Conflict of the Orders. This new nobility, however, was fundamentally different from the old one, which existed only by virtue of laws that guaranteed privileges to the patricians and which was extinguished when these same laws were repealed.

The Conflict of the Orders was coming to an end, as the plebeians had gained political equality with the patricians. A small number of plebeian families achieved a status similar to what the old patrician families had always had, but these new plebeian aristocrats had no interest in the difficulties of the average plebeian as the old patrician aristocrats had. At this time, these hardships were mitigated by the constant state of war of the Roman Republic, which generated employment, income, and glory for the average plebeian, and a sense of patriotism that virtually eliminated the risk of a new plebeian revolt. One of the Leges Publiliae, which guaranteed the election of a plebeian censor, contained another provision: before it, a law passed in an assembly (the plebeian council, the tribal assembly, or the assembly of the centuriates) could only become law after the patrician senators approved it. This approval took the form of an "auctoritas patrum" ("authority of the fathers" or "authority of the patricians"). The new law changed the flow, requiring that approval be given before the law passed through an assembly, rather than after the law had already been voted on. It is not known why, but this modification seems to have made "auctoritas patrum" irrelevant.

By 287 B.C., the economic condition of the average plebeian had deteriorated greatly, a problem that was apparently linked to indebtedness, and the plebeians began to demand some were of relief. The senators, most of them creditors, refused to meet any demand in this regard and the result was the last secession of the plebs. All the plebeians went to the Janiculum Hill, and to deal with the crisis, the Senate appointed a dictator, Quintus Hortensius, a plebeian. He passed a law, the Lex Hortensia, which ended the need for "auctoritas patrum," except for laws to be voted on in the Assembly of Centuries. The Lex Hortensia also reaffirmed the principle that a law passed by the Council of the plebs would have the force of law for plebeians and patricians, an interpretation that already dated back to the passage of the Valerian Laws as recently as the 5th century B.C. This passage should not, however, be considered a victory over the aristocracy, for through its influence over the tribunes, the Senate could still control the Council of the plebs. Thus, the major importance of this law lay in the fact that it took away from the patricians their last power over the plebs, but the result was that the ultimate control over the Roman state did not pass into the hands of democracy but those of the new patrician-plebeian aristocracy.

The traditional account has been accepted as factual, but there are several problems and inconsistencies, and virtually every element of the story is controversial today; some scholars, such as Richard E. Mitchell, have argued, for example, that there was no conflict at all, and that the Romans of the late Republic period simply interpreted the events of their distant past by comparing them to the struggles occurring in their own time (between optimates and populars). The root of the problem is that there are no contemporary accounts of the Conflict of Order; writers such as Polybius, who may have known people whose grandparents participated in the conflict, do not mention it (which does not necessarily mean much, since he covered a historical period after the conflict in his works), while the other writers who cite the conflict, such as Livy or Cicero, generally cite facts considered as fact or fable with equal disposition and generally assume that Roman institutions would have remained unchanged for almost 500 years. However, there are several Roman and Greek authors who report events that were part of the Conflict of the Orders and each of them drew on older sources. So for the whole story to be false it would take either a great deal of collusion between them to distort the facts or some deliberate falsification of history, which is extremely unlikely.

As an example, the Fastos appoints several consuls with plebeian names in the 5th century BC, when the consulship was supposedly open only to patricians, and theses that propose that patrician gentry somehow became plebeians are difficult to prove. Another difficulty is the apparent absence of armed revolts; as the history of the late Republican period shows, very similar dissatisfactions tended to lead to bloodshed quickly; Livius, however, reduces the entire conflict to debates and, occasionally, a threat of secession by the plebs. Added to this scenario is the lack of clear understanding about who this "plebs" was; many of its members were known to be wealthy landowners, and the designation "lower class" only came about in the late period.


  1. Conflict of the Orders
  2. Conflito das Ordens