Secessio plebis (withdrawal of the commoners, or secession of the plebs) was an informal exercise of power by Rome’s plebeian citizens, similar in concept to the general strike. During the secessio plebis, the plebs would abandon the city en masse and leave the patrician order to themselves. Therefore, a secessio meant that all shops and workshops would shut down and commercial transactions would largely cease. This was an effective strategy in the Conflict of the Orders due to strength in numbers; plebeian citizens made up the vast majority of Rome’s populace and produced most of its food and resources, while a patrician citizen was a member of the minority upper class, the equivalent of the landed gentry of later times. Authors report different numbers for how many secessions there were. Cary & Scullard state there were five between 494 BC and 287 BC.
Secessions in Roman history
First Secession – 494 BC
Beginning in 495 BC, and culminating in 494–493 BC, as a result of concerns about debt and the failure of the senate to provide for plebeian welfare, the plebeians on the advice of Lucius Sicinius Vellutus seceded to the Mons Sacer (the Sacred Mountain). As part of a negotiated resolution, the patricians freed some of the plebs from their debts and conceded some of their power by creating the office of the Tribune of the Plebs. This office was the first government position held by the plebs, since at this time the office of consul was held by patricians solely. Plebeian Tribunes were made personally sacrosanct during their period in office.
Second Secession – 449 BC
The Second Secessio Plebis of 449 BC was precipitated by the abuses of a commission of the decemviri (Latin for “ten men”) and involved demands for the restoration of the plebeian tribunes (the representatives of the plebeians) and of the right to appeal, which had been suspended.
In 450 BC Rome decided to appoint the decemviri which was tasked with compiling a law code (which became the Law of the Twelve Tables). The commission was given a term of one year, during which the offices of state were suspended. The decemviri were also exempted from appeal. In 450 BC, they issued a set of laws, but did not resign at the end of their term and held onto their power instead. They killed a soldier, a former plebeian tribune, who had criticised them. One of the decemviri, Appius Claudius Crassus, tried to force a woman, Verginia, to marry him. To prevent this, her father stabbed her and cursed Appius Claudius Crassus. This sparked riots which started when the crowd witnessed the incident and spread to the army, encamped outside the city. The crowd went to the Aventine Hill.
The senate pressured the decemviri to resign, but they refused. The people decided to withdraw to Mons Sacer, as they had during the first secession. The senate blamed the decemviri for the new secession and managed to force their full resignation. The body selected two senators, Lucius Valerus Potitus and Marcus Horatius Barbatus, to go meet with the people to negotiate. Those gathered at Mons Sacer demanded the restoration of both the plebeian tribunes and the right to appeal, as they had been suspended during the term of the decemviri. The senate’s delegation of two agreed to these terms and they returned to the Aventine Hill and elected their tribunes.
Lucius Valerius Potitus and Marcus Horatius Barbatus became the consuls for 449 BC. They introduced new laws which increased the power and added to the political strength of the plebeians. The lex Valeria Horatia de plebiscìtis stipulated that the laws passed by the Plebeian Council were binding of all Roman citizens (that is, both patricians and plebeians) despite the patrician opposition to the requirement that they adhere to the universal law. However, once passed, these laws had to receive the approval of the senate (auctoritas patrum). This meant that the senate had the power of veto over the laws passed by the plebeians. Lex Valeria Horatia de senatus consulta ordered that the senatus consulta (the decrees of the senate) had to be kept in the Temple of Ceres by the plebeian aediles (assistants of the plebeian tribunes). This meant that the plebeian tribunes and aediles had knowledge of these decrees, which previously was privileged knowledge. Thus, the decrees entered into the public domain. In the past, the consuls had been in the habit of suppressing or altering them. The lex Valeria Horatia de provocatio forbade the creation of state offices that were not subject to appeal.
Third Secession – 445 BC
As part of the process of establishing the Twelve Tables of Roman law, the second decemvirate placed severe restrictions on the plebeian order, including a prohibition on the intermarriage of patricians and plebeians. Gaius Canuleius, one of the tribunes of the plebs in 445 BCE, proposed a rogatio repealing this law. The consuls vehemently opposed Canuleius, arguing that the tribune was proposing nothing less than the breakdown of Rome’s social and moral fabric, at a time when the city was faced with external threats.[i]
Undeterred, Canuleius reminded the people of the many contributions of Romans of lowly birth, and pointed out that the Senate had willingly given Roman citizenship to defeated enemies, even while maintaining that the marriage of patricians and plebeians would be detrimental to the state. He then proposed that, in addition to restoring the right of conubium, the law should be changed to allow plebeians to hold the consulship; all but one of the other tribunes supported this measure.
A remark by a consul, that the children of mixed marriages might incur the displeasure of the gods, inflamed the plebeians into a military strike, refusing to defend the city against attacking neighbors. This caused the consuls to yield to their demands, allowing a vote on Canuleius’ original rogatio. The prohibition on intermarriage between patricians and plebeians was thus repealed.
However, the proposal that would permit plebeians to stand for the consulship, was not brought to a vote. Threatening a radical escalation of the conflict between the plebeian assembly and the patrician senate. A compromise was instead suggested that military tribunes with consular power might be elected from either order. This proposal was well-received, and the first consular tribunes were elected for the following year.
Fourth Secession – 342 BC
Fifth Secession – 287 BC
In 287 BC, the plebeians seceded for the fifth and final time. Lands confiscated from the Sabines during war had been distributed solely to the Patricians. Meanwhile the plebeian farmers, returning from those very wars, found difficulty in repaying debts incurred with these wealthy patricians. This time plebeians seceded to Aventine Hill in protest. To resolve the matter, Quintus Hortensius was appointed as dictator, who convinced the crowd to stop the secession.
Shortly afterwards Hortensius promulgated a law, the Lex Hortensia, which established that the laws decided on by plebeian assemblies (plebiscite) were made binding on all Roman citizens, including patricians. This law finally eliminated the political disparity between the two classes, closing the Conflict of Orders after about two hundred years of struggle. This event, although far from resolving all the economic and social inequalities between patricians and plebeians, nevertheless marked an important turning point in the history of Roman democracy as it gave rise to the formation of a new type of patrician-plebeian nobility (nobilitas) which, allowing continuity in the government of the republic, constituted one of the main elements of strength in its economic and military expansion.
- Livy, “Ab urbe condita”
- Cornell, T.J., “The Beginnings of Rome”, Routledge, 1995.
- ‘The Growth of Plebeian Privilege in Rome’, The English Historical Review No. II (April 1886)
- Forsythe, G., A Critical History of Early Rome”, Berkeley, 2005