Roman citizens were divided up into two distinct classes: the plebeians and the patricians. The patricians were the wealthy upper class people. Everyone else was considered a plebeian.
The patricians were the ruling class of the early Roman Empire. Only certain families were part of the patrician class and you had to be born a patrician. The patricians were only a small percentage of the Roman population, but they held all the power.
All the other citizens of Rome were Plebeians. Plebeians were the farmers, craftsmen, laborers, and soldiers of Rome.
In Early Rome
In the early stages of Rome, the plebeians had few rights. All of the government and religious positions were held by patricians. The patricians made the laws, owned the lands, and were the generals over the army. Plebeians couldn't hold public office and were not even allowed to marry patricians.
The Plebeians Revolt
Starting around 494 BC, the plebeians began to fight against the rule of the patricians. This struggle is called the "Conflict of the Orders." Over the course of around 200 years the plebeians gained more rights. They protested by going on strike. They would leave the city for a while, refuse to work, or even refuse to fight in the army. Eventually, the plebeians gained a number of rights including the right to run for office and marry patricians.
The Law of the Twelve Tables
One of the first concessions that the plebeians got from the patricians was the Law of the Twelve Tables. The Twelve Tables were laws that were posted in the public for all to see. They protected some basic rights of all Roman citizens regardless of their social class.
Eventually the plebeians were allowed to elect their own government officials. They elected "tribunes" who represented the plebeians and fought for their rights. They had the power to veto new laws from the Roman senate.
As time went on, there became few legal differences between the plebeians and the patricians. The plebeians could be elected to the senate and even be consuls. Plebeians and patricians could also get married. Wealthy plebeians became part of the Roman nobility. However, despite changes in the laws, the patricians always held a majority of the wealth and power in Ancient Rome.
Interesting Facts About Plebeians and Patricians
A third social class in Roman society was the slaves. Around one third of the people living in Rome were slaves.
One of Rome's most famous senators, Cicero, was a plebeian. Because he was the first of his family to be elected to the senate, he was called a "New Man."
In general, plebeians and patricians did not mix socially.
Julius Caesar was a patrician, but he was sometimes considered a champion of the common people.
The Plebeian Council was led by the elected tribunes. Many new laws were passed by the Plebeian Council because the procedures were simpler than in the senate. The Plebeian Council lost its power with the fall of the Roman Republic.
Freshmen students in the United States military academies are nicknamed "plebs."
Some of the most famous patrician families include Julia (Julius Caesar), Cornelia, Claudia, Fabia, and Valeria.