During the period of the Roman Republic (509-27 BC), the secessio plebis (secession of the plebs) was a political act by which the plebeians (the commoners) of Rome left the city. The object was to put pressure on the patrician-controlled Roman state to negotiate with them when their grievances were not addressed by the patricians (the aristocrats). The plebeians went to a hill outside the city and stayed there until the state sent someone to negotiate with them. There were three documented secessions. The number and type of people involved is not known.
Regarding the first secession, T. J. Cornell thinks that the people involved in the secession were the “poorest and most disadvantaged” and a mixture of peasants and urban workers. He also thinks that among the soldiers only the light infantrymen, who were small and poorer farmers, participated, and that the heavy infantrymen, who were larger and more prosperous peasants, did not. Raaflaub argues that the participants were mainly soldiers, both heavy and light infantry, and this secession was primarily a military strike. In those days the Roman army was a citizen militia made up of farmers. The soldiers were drafted every year for the military campaigning season (March up to October) and then went back to work on their farms.
In the run up to the first secession the patrician-controlled Roman state refused to meet the people’s demand for the state to address the abuse of defaulting debtors by creditors, who often imprisoned and tortured them. The people gathered in mass protests at the Forum. As the state did not to take action, they resorted to refusing to join the army when they were called up to increase their pressure as Rome was threatened by attacks by neighbouring peoples. Attacks on Rome were frequent in this period. Eventually a public official managed to persuade the people to enlist and go to fight off a number of attacks on Rome’s territories on the promise of measures to tackle the problem of debt. When they returned to Rome the senate refused to do so. Thus, the enlisted soldiers seceded to a hill outside Rome. This was a serious matter. A rebellion by soldiers threatened the security of Rome. Moreover, since the soldiers were farmers, this could also have disrupted food production. After a few days, the senate entered negotiations.
It is likely that the soldiers were joined by civilians. Many plebeians stayed in Rome. Livy said that: “[a] great panic seized the City, mutual distrust led to a state of universal suspense. Those plebeians who had been left by their comrades in the City feared violence from the patricians; the patricians feared the plebeians who still remained in the City, and could not make up their minds whether they would rather have them go or stay. How long, it was asked, would the multitude which had seceded remain quiet? What would happen if a foreign war broke out in the meantime? They felt that all their hopes rested on concord amongst the citizens, and that this must be restored at any cost.”
In the second secession, there were popular commotions following an act of violence. A crowd went to one of the hills of Rome and were joined by the soldiers who were encamped nearby. The demands of the plebeians on this occasion are outlined below. All that is known about the third secession is that a dictator (this was a temporary extraordinary official who was appointed to deal with emergencies) was appointed to negotiate with the people who had seceded. He passed a law favourable to the plebeians.
The first secession marked the beginning of the Conflict of the Orders between patricians and plebeians. The grievances of the poor plebeians were economic: indebtedness and shortages of land to farm for the poor. The rich plebeians who led the plebeian movement fought for power-sharing with the patricians who monopolised the consulship (the office of the two annually elected heads of the Republic), the seats of the senate and the priesthoods. Gradually, the rich plebeians managed to gain access to the consulship , the other offices which were created as the Roman Republic developed, and some of the priesthoods, thus achieving power sharing. The last secession is seen by historians as making the end of this conflict.
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
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 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.
The Second Secessio Plebis of 449 BC was caused by the abuses of a commission of the decemviri (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 451 BC Rome decided to appoint the commission of 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 form appeal. In 450 BC they issued a set of laws, but did not resign at the end of their term and became abusive. They killed a soldier who had been a plebeian tribune and who 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 with the crowd which witnessed the incident and spread to the army which was encamped outside the city. The people went to the Aventine Hill.
The senate tried to get the decemviri to resign, but they refused. The people decided to withdraw en masse to Mons Sacer like in the first secession. The senate blamed this on the decemviri and managed to force them to resign. It sent two senators, Lucius Valerus Potitus and Marcus Horatius Barbatus, to Mons Sacer to negotiate. The people demanded the restoration of the plebeian tribunes and the right to appeal, which had been suspended during the term of the decemviri. This was agreed and they returned to the Aventine Hill and elected their tribunes.
Lucius Valerius Potitus and Marcus Horatius Barbatus became the consuls (the two annually elected heads of the Republic) for 449 BC. They introduced new laws which strengthened the rights of the plebeians. The lex Valeria Horatia de plebiscìtis provided that the laws passed by the Plebeian Council were binding of all Roman citizens (that is, both patricians and plebeians) despite patrician opposition to laws passed by this assembly being binding on them. However, after being passed, these laws had to receive the approval of the senate (acutoritas partum). This meant that the senate could veto 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, the assistants of the plebeian tribunes. This meant that the plebeian tribunes and aediles had knowledge of these decrees (previously they were kept secret).This put them in the public domain. Previously, the consuls had been in the habit of suppressing or altering them. The lex Valeria Horatia de provocatio forbad the creation of offices of state which not subject to appeal.
- 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.
- Livy, "Ad urbe condita"
- Raaflaub, K., A., "Social struggles in Archaic Rome" New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders. Blackwell. 2005.
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