Can Things Change? The Romans Might Have an Answer

(Last Updated On: August 26, 2019)

Can Things Change?

Are We Stuck?

You might be a little more than overwhelmed with the modern political landscape. Increasing economic disparity, protests in France and Hong Kong, rising nationalist/fascist ideologies, climate change, and the almost daily public shooting are all great reasons to feel a little helpless. Feeling existential dread about being poor is basically in vogue after all. But it turns out, widening class disparity is kind of a running theme. There’s a lot we can learn about the Roman tactic of secessio plebis, and there’s a lot of parallels with American politics and the first 494 BC secessio plebis. Can things change? And if they can, are they looking up? 

The Secessio Plebis

“Secessio Plebis” translated refers to a withdrawal of the people, “secession of the plebs.” You can read more about the story behind the first secessio plebis on our blog, but suffice to say that the tactic essentially boiled down to the poor deciding they had enough of the shenanigans of the rich. Rome was split starkly into a wealthy and non-wealthy class system, where only the former held any political power (they were also the minority).

So it was that after shouldering the poor plebeians with the horrors of war and mounting debt (as the rich creditors continued to line their pockets) the people organized a mass protest. 

Enter the secessio plebis. The people straight up left Rome, eventually forcing the rich to negotiate with them–after all, what good is a government with no people to govern?

In short, what the poor lacked in financial and political power, they made up for with unity and numbers.

The Secessio Plebis and Us

Many of the reasons the Roman plebeians decided to rise up parallel quite easily with the ailings of American culture right now. Some take different forms, but the similarities are there. Who would have thought that American society being based on Roman society would bring Roman issues with it?

Wealth Disparity

The root of Rome’s first secessio plebis lies in part to economic disparity and political non-representation. There existed the plebeians, the common relative poor-folk, and the patricians; politicians, rich, the works. Remember that, generally speaking, the plebeians were looking for more equity than they were destruction of the Roman establishment.

As tensions between the plebeians and patricians rose, the plebeians shouldered more debt, while also being directed to serve in war. While they were off fighting, the Roman consul and senate promised a solution to the people’s debt. Turns out the solution was sending them back to prison and reinstating their debt. By this time, being poor was a crime in Rome; and all that did was make the poor poorer. At the same time, it made the rich richer–as solving the debt crisis would have required the patricians shoulder the burden wrought upon by wars they chose to involve themselves in. 

Most contemporary sources seem to suggest that the rich are continuing to get richer today. CEOs, for example, are making more than ever before (over 360 times what the average worker earns in some cases!). 

While people are not always being criminalized directly for poverty, the prospect of losing one’s job in America is more than just a temporary drop in income or a career setback. With healthcare and many other insurance benefits tied to employment, life becomes insurmountably harder without higher-end income. Lower-end income also makes usage of banks far more difficult to put it lightly.

Thanks to corporate tax breaks and offshore tax havens, it doesn’t help that the less-well-off feel pretty stiffed at the fact they’re paying Bobby Kottick’s taxes. Also Alice Walton escaping criminal charges by flinging money around doesn’t help the perception that it is possible to be too rich for prosecution (sometimes).

Mounting Debt

The Roman plebeians were almost under full control of their debt. While we covered the lining of the patrician’s pockets, there’s more to it.

Forced to surrender their estates (and family’s estates), their bodies, rights, and more to pay off exploitative debt, there wasn’t much Roman plebeians could do but suffer existential dread over losing money to people who needed it less than they did.

Many students are facing their own similar debt crises, with 2019 being the highest year for student debt in America. For-profit health insurance and the inability to finance injuries and illnesses push Americans ever farther into a debt spiral. 

While being unable to pay for insulin isn’t the same as having your home pillaged by another empire, financially struggling because a drunk person drove into your car is about as close as you can get.

Political Evasion

When confronted with the crises of the plebeians, the Roman consul chose a different approach. They managed to scapegoat and turn the people against the only consul member who had stood by the people (consul Servilius had promised to essentially take away the debt). Servilius had promised to handle the debt crisis, and gotten the plebeian debt removed in an act of good faith; so the plebeians would enlist in the military. 

It was easy to turn the people against him, as the rest of consul sent the indebted back to prison and blocked his attempts to help the people.

There’s more though. The consul engaged in a healthy amount of political distraction and diversion. While the people were whipped and detained, the consul was focusing on a merchant’s guild and a temple to Mercury. 

It doesn’t take a lot to find political distraction not only in America, but worldwide. One of the more recent examples being the current blame for mass shootings directed at the video game industry. While there is a lot of research out there that debunks these claims, we can see Walmart rolling back on games while still selling guns. We won’t tell you what to think about guns or video games, but we’d imagine you can probably think of at least a few times where blame has been thrown around more than actual solutions.

Regardless, the use of entertainment as a scapegoat provides so much fodder it prevents people from actually discussing mass shootings. Like America drowns out discussions (and actively blocks) regarding domestic terrorism, Rome too drowned out discussion of its mounting debt crisis with a temple.

Can Things Change?

Well obviously the Roman Empire isn’t around any longer to deal with their debt crisis and unrepresented common-folk. But there’s still something they can teach us. 

Remember this whole secessio plebis we’ve been comparing America to so much? Well it worked for the Romans. At the end of the first secessio plebis the plebeians were able to secure a Tribune, and as such political voice and power. 

One needs only look at Hong Kong’s protests to see that the Roman plebeians were onto something; having halted an entire airport. Hopping onto social media channels, it isn’t difficult to find whispers of another general strike in America beginning to surface again. 

Just like the people figured out they couldn’t all be stopped with Area 51; the Romans figured out that it works for more than just memes. They figured out that money and power couldn’t stop them all, and how to flip their officers onto their backs to expose the seething underbelly beneath. 

There are many other controversies we didn’t cover in this post, as the Romans weren’t dealing as much with immigration and climate change as America is now (just to name a few). But these are things you were probably thinking about as you read this post, and they should not be ignored either. We didn’t even get into the whole kerfuffle that came with the Romans and enlisting in the military with their debt-interned citizens. Yes, it is comparable to how prospective college students use military service as a way to escape future debt. But back to our original question, are things looking up; can things really change? 

Well we just said the Romans figured out that they couldn’t all be stopped. Things were looking really bleak for them too before the plebeians decided to step up and incite change when their senate and consul weren’t doing so. We’ve taken a lot from Roman society; perhaps it’s time to take one more thing if we too want things to change.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.