Roman History in a Nutshell: The Patrician Era and the Conflict of the Orders 494 BCE – 287 BCE

A bronze bust believed to be Lucius Junius Brutus, a semi-legendary figure in Roman history believed to have expelled the last King, Tarquinius Superbus and been one of the first Consuls of the Roman Republic. (Credit: Jastrow, Public Domain)

Well, the Kings were gone, and in their stead we had a shower of sneering poshos who thought they knew everything. If they were so clever how come they didn’t have Playstations!? Hmm? Smart arses.

Anyway, life was, allegedly, good. Most people had some land to farm. Some people owned lots of land and had lots of surplus they could trade for money or other luxury goods. Some people had just enough land for their family to subsist without needing to depend on anyone else, maybe with a little surplus to make some leisure cash. Some people had barely enough to live off of and some people had no land at all and worked for other people.

For the latter group life was fucking shit, to be frank. To not own land, a small part of the ager publicus – the public land – Roman land, well it made you less than Roman. You were a slave or a beggar. You were as nothing.

Some land around Lake Bracciano, to the northwest of Rome. Would this have been ager publicus? Who knows, but its damn nice to look at. (Credit:
Albarubescens CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Even having just enough land was tough. Farmers found they had lean years and, to get by, they went to their wealthier patrons…PAUSE

I’ve explained the Roman patronage system (clientela) before, but I’ll explain it here again. Romans were a society that recognised it was hard to get by on your own. Wealthier people needed poorer people to do stuff for them, and poorer people sometimes needed wealthier people to give them a hand. So a patronus – a patron, would have cliens – clients. Benefits to the patron were a strong network of connections possibly with tradespeople and artisans so you could impress your own patrons and colleagues with finer goods, or as we shall see, perhaps a chance to enrich yourself. The benefits to the client included access to borrowing, as we describe here, but also legal protections and, again, being part of a greater network so, whatever your trade, you would have someone who would always bring your name up.

Wish I had a patron.

UNPAUSE… they went to their wealthier patrons and asked for assistance. The wealthy patrons asked for their land and farm as collateral on the borrowing and the next thing you know – boof – another lean year, you’ve lost your farm, some rich twat now owns it and you work for him.

The rich, known as the ‘Patrician’ class, found various ways to get richer while the poor ‘Plebeian’ class got poorer – An oh-so-familiar pattern.

This early Rome was not stable, and it was far from the vast empire it was to become. It was still barely bigger than the modern area of Greater Rome today. It was surrounded by various other hill tribes, competitors and barbarians and they would always be marauding and raiding. We will be covering the many battles that led to the expansion of Rome after this entry. The Romans had a well organised, well drilled military but it depended on the landed classes to fill it. If you couldn’t afford the weapons and armour you didn’t qualify to join the military. Army recruits were few, expansion was restricted, the poor were getting poorer, the rich were getting richer and something had to give.

The First Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer – One of the first major clashes between the plebs and the patricians, occuring some time around 495 BCE, and sparked by disagreements about debt. The plebs basically upped and left to settle on Mons Sacer, the Sacred Mount. Obviously this left the Patricians with nobody to boss around and actually do work so some agreement had to be made. The result was the creation of the political position of “Tribune of the Plebs” who would have the ability to represent plebeian interests to the patricians and the consuls. (Credit: Bartolomeo Barloccini, Public Domain.)

It possibly did. ‘The Conflict of the Orders’ happened. Well, some allege it didn’t but what we do know is at one point the plebeians were totally politically voiceless and the next thing they had tribunes and their voice counted for something.

But I’m condensing. This was a process hundreds of years in the making. From the ousting of the Kings, the founding of the Republic, the establishment of the Republic, the formalising of the political classes, the disagreements with that formalisation, the fighting on behalf of the plebs to get some voice – This was not 500 words worth of time. From the formalisation of Patrician power in around 494 BCE to the end of the so-called ‘Conflict of the Orders’ with the enactment of the lex Hortensia, the Hortensian Law which stated that no longer would Plebeian Council acts have to be ratified by Patricians, in 287 BCE, this was a 207 year long process!

While all of this was going on, though, much was brewing elsewhere. Rome was constantly at war with its near neighbours. Gathering strength, might and money nearby were the powers of the Etruscans, the Samnites, the Latins and Gauls; slightly further afield the Greeks and the Carthaginians were exerting their influence, too.

It goes a little beyond our timeline here but it is a great example of how small Rome and its influence was and how it expanded over time. Again we think of ‘Rome’ and we think of a vast empire, dominating the European continent and the Mediterranean basin. But that dark red blotch, that tiny spot, on this entire Italian penisula, is how it started. That tiny dot had to find ways to make deals with, integrate with, or otherwise dominate all these other cultures around them. (Credit: Javierfv1212, Public Domain)

It will become a common facet of Roman geopolitics that their ability to react to outside threats is marred by infighting. But we’ll get to those later. For now her seven hills are settled, the plebeians placated by a promise of shared power and the Patrician’s wondering how they can minimise the impact on themselves.

Read the other parts in our ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ Series:
Introduction
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before

The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE

Wars with Etruscans Pre-753 BCE – ~264 BCE
Wars with Sabines, Veii & Fidenae ~753 BCE – ~287 BCE
The Latin Wars 7th Century BCE – ~338 BCE
The Gallic Wars ~390 BCE – ~284 BCE
The Rest of the Med ~2,000 BCE – ~3rd Century BCE
The Samnite Wars ~343 BCE – ~290 BCE

Want to read more about Romans? We’ve got a little for you.
Bad History: Boudica and Bullshit Nationalism – Looking at the use of historical figures for current political or social agendas.
Bad History: Did Rome ever Actually Fall? Questioning the ‘Decline and Fall’ narrative and looking at structures inherited from the Romans we have to this day.

A New Lease of Life? – A Discussion about the new floor in the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum, and what Vespasian, who initially commissioned the building, might think.

Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Introduction
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Easily available abortion (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Drawing dicks on things.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Energy Drinks
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Gender and Sexuality Liberation (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Travel and Tourist Tat.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – AirBnB
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Bipartisan Politics
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Fast Food
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Pro-Wrestling
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Social Media (Especially Insta and Twitter)

The Fan-TAS-tic Virtues of Rome – A look at the moral virtues of Roman life.

What are the ‘Ides of March’ – Because I envitably get asked by my dad every Ides, I wrote about it!

The Mother of Rome: Livia Drusilla – Before the hit Sky TV series ‘Domina’ there was me espousing the life and works of Livia, the canny politician, the Patrician, the Patron and the wife and mother of an Empire.
The Pleb who Built Rome: Marcus Agrippa – It is my belief that the right-hand-man of Augustus had a much bigger part to play in the building and management of the Empire than did his friend with the titles. Find out why.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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