What Was the Secessio Plebis?
Maybe you’re feeling powerless about your current political situation. Or maybe you’re feeling weirdly emboldened by that Area 51 thing. Regardless, if you’re looking for a healthy dose of “they can’t stop all of us” or some kind of insight for how people got things changed in the olden days, we have you covered. You’re probably here because you heard something from the Romans about the “secessio plebis.” But what was the secessio plebis? And more importantly, can they really stop all of us?
Secessio Plebis: “They Can’t Stop All of Us”
Before we actually get into what secessio plebis was, we should probably translate that. Mostly because it isn’t English and the rest of this post is in English. Roughly speaking, the secessio plebis was about the “withdrawal of the common folk.” More literally, though, you could read it as “Secession of the Plebs.”
You can probably guess what secessio plebis entailed from the name, especially now that it’s translated. If you guessed something along the lines of “the most extreme general strike ever,” you’d be right. In short, the entire common plebian class would leave the ruling patrician class to fend for themselves by simply leaving the city en masse. Imagine if every single person in America decided they weren’t going to do anything and they were just going to leave all the CEOs, lobbyists, and politicians to fend for themselves. Quite literally, secessio plebis is the people realizing that the government can’t stop all of us.
One might be able to imagine what follows a mass consensus to no longer serve the ruling class. Food stops getting produced, shops and markets close down, society more or less grinds to a halt. Despite being ultra rich, the ruling class could now do nothing but sit on their piles of money–with nothing to buy since nobody was making or trading goods. They probably weren’t getting too much food either–since no member of the ruling class (ancient or modern) is going to be getting into the dirt with their workers.
The First Secessio Plebis (~494 BC)
So what were the Roman common folk protesting so universally that they all agreed to grind society to a halt? Turns out, it’s actually not that much different from what we see in modern Western society today (who would have thought that societies based off of Roman culture would have similar problems).
The plebeians were struggling to gain political relevance to the Roman consul and senate. This is because over time, the vast majority of political officers within the Roman government were of the ruling patrician class. As they accumulated more wealth, they began to shift more and more of the burden of debt onto the plebeian class. Basically, the plebeians were being indirectly taxed because they were poorer, and they had no ability to voice their concerns.
Plebeian concerns began to rise with the conclusion of the Battle of Lake Regillus. While the Romans had secured an important tactical victory, the poor (commoners) were hit the hardest. Debt and creditors held rule over the plebeians as the already poor grew ever poorer.
Things would come to a head when a former Roman military officer stood before the forum. We should remember that Roman culture was steeped in valor, and while soldiers were members of the plebeian class, they were still viewed with a lot of respect. So while not ultra rich, many would expect Roman soldiers to be able to at least live comfortably.
Not so was the case in a debt-ruled society–believe us, the Romans were a lot more surprised than you are.
So this former military officer throws himself before the forum. He is ragged, gaunt, with an unkempt beard. But the people recognized him, they recognized the honors he achieved and his service in the Roman Sabine Wars (these honors were in part battle-scars which he used as proof of his service). The next logical step was to inquire how such a decorated soldier would come to this state.
During his service, his home was destroyed, all his assets seized by the enemy. Afterwards, the patricians taxed him. But the soldier already was not wealthy, and all the money he had was taken as spoils of war anyway. With no money to pay the tax imposed on him by the rich, the soldier had to take loans to pay his taxes.
Unfortunately for him (you probably saw this coming from miles away), the loans available to him were exploitative. He had to give up his grandfather’s and father’s farms on top of more assets. With literally nothing left, the once decorated soldier could no longer pay off his debt. He was imprisoned and threatened with death, showing the forum the whip lashes he received for the people to see.
Sadly, the story you just read might seem fairly common now (at least stories in that vein). But in 495 BC when this soldier threw himself before the people, it was a relative first. The plebeians were outraged, and an anger spread through the streets of Rome like none other.
The people would rise to the consuls, but turns out most of the senators didn’t show up in what would be perceived as a massive act of cowardice.
It didn’t help that Rome was receiving requests from Latin horsemen for military assistance; the Volscian army had invaded. While the senate tried to get Romans to fight the Volscian armies, the Romans were understandably reluctant to enlist. So consul Servilius came forth, more or less telling the Romans that serving in the military against the Volsci would prevent their property from being seized by debt-collectors, and they (as well as their family) would not be imprisoned for being poor.
With that promise made, the Romans were released from prisons and served the military en masse.
It Gets Worse
Yeah turns out, consul Servilius didn’t keep up his end of the deal. After returning to Rome from war, the people hoped that the senate and the consuls would be addressing the massive debt plague that had infested Rome. Consul Appius made things worse, basically giving debtors back to their creditors to be imprisoned for the crime of being poor. It was strikingly convenient to the people. The people had their debt reinstated only after the immediate need for a military was sated.
While consul Servilius tried to stand by his previous promises, the other consul members stood by Appius. Mostly because the patricians wouldn’t have to give up any of their money with Appius’ solution. As such, Servilius was hated by the consul for being contrarian, and hated by the people for betraying their trust.
All the while the consuls were deciding on making a new temple, dedicated to Mercury. This consul would also be in charge of other honors. But with public distrust in the government mounting, the people instead gave the honor to a senior military officer–notably not a patrician.
Shortly after, the people would see a debtor being dragged to court. In protest, the people stood and protected the debtor, turning on the creditor.
It didn’t help that Rome needed more soldiers; and now nobody was enlisting after what happened the first time.
They Couldn’t Stop All of Them
There’s a lot more to discuss, but suffice to say the senate, consul, and the patrician class continued to shoulder the plebeians with more and more debt (as money was continually funneled upwards towards themselves).
The people eventually decided that the consul and senate “can’t stop all of us,” and went to Mons Sacer while fortifying themselves.
As was alluded to earlier, the senate was forced to negotiate with the plebeians. And hey, it all worked out! Well kind of. There were another 4 secessio plebis-es later on. But after the first one the plebeians were able to gain their own Tribune–basically representation in the Roman government. Turns out they really can’t stop all of us.
Depressed at any similarities between 500 BC issues and 2000 AD issues? Enjoy a quiz about puppies to palette cleanse here.