How did the status of the plebians improve during the Roman Republic?
It is inaccurate to suggest that the plebeians, the commoners who comprised the overwhelming majority of the Rome's citizens, achieved “equality” relative to the patricians and other members of the elite. Rather, over the course of several hundred years, starting around 495 B.C., a sort of class warfare that pitted the plebeians against the elite resulted in the gradual recognition of basic rights for the former without the latter sacrificing its socioeconomic status. Basically, the elite acknowledged that the empire could not survive the kind of full-scale rebellion the plebeians could launch if its plight did not improve, and that it was in their own self-interest to ensure that the most basic of the plebeians’’ demands were at least nominally met.
One of the seminal events that precipitated greater recognition on the part of the patrician class for the conditions of the plebeians involved the spectacle, described by the historian Titus Livius (or Livy), of an elderly Roman soldier addressing the Forum for the purpose of illuminating the burden of debt under which most plebeians lived. As quoted by Susan Wise Bauer in The History of the Ancient World (2007), Livius described the scene as follows:
“With his soiled and threadbare clothes . . . his dreadful pallor and emaciated body . . . he was a pitiable sight. . . While I was on service, the old man said, during the Sabine war, my crops were ruined by enemy raids, and my cottage was burnt. Everything I had was taken . . . Then, when I was least able to do so, I was expected to pay taxes, and fell, consequently, into debt.”
Whether Livius’ description of this event is accurate will never be known. The histories, however, suggest that, against the backdrop of increasing anger regarding their financial status, such an event did precipitate riots against the patricians, who responded with measures designed to increase the plebeians’ representation in government, and to pass measures designed to protect serving soldiers from being placed into slavery as a result of debts incurred during military service. While these measures were minimal, Rome’s rulers understood that the upper classes were seriously outnumbered by the commoners, and that public resentment would not go away absent more profound steps. Consequently, tribunals were established comprised of and intended to represent the interests of the plebeians, and written laws were passed intended to convey the sense of legal equality among all citizens of Rome.
The plebeians’ socioeconomic status was nominally elevated as a result of its exercise of what political powers they held, including the exploitation of their vast numbers and importance to the Roman republic. They were able to leverage their numbers and role in society to continue to press their case for relief from excessive taxes and the revocation of personal freedoms associated with financial debts. In the end, however, it was the so-called system of “Panem et Circensus,” or “Bread and Circuses,” that enabled the patrician class to mollify the plebeians and retain their status in society. The Roman historian and satirist Juvenal is credited with this description of the system of bribes employing provisions of food and entertainment to essentially buy-off or appease the commoners through remedial measures. “Give them bread and circuses,” he wrote, “and they will never revolt.” And that was about as far as they got.