What Is a Plebian?
When we describe someone as plebian we mean someone of low birth or rank and often someone who is undistinguished, common place, lacking in imagination or vulgar. The word comes from the Latin “plebius” meaning a citizen who did not belong to one of the privileged patrician families. A clear division between patricians and plebians first developed in the early 5th Century.
The patricians were descended from the “partres”, a body of advisors who surrounded the early kings of Rome. They gradually excluded plebians from many public offices, while continuous wars and the loss of trade worsened the conditions of the poorest plebians. Some of these became slaves or “followers” (clientes), men who gave service and obedience in exchange for protection.
In the years of prosperity the plebians themselves developed a class structure, with their own wealthy elite, who became very influential. Leading families of plebs and patricians intermarried and new nobility emerged drawn from a limited number of families who were as exclusive as the old patriciate had been. During the Second Samnite War (326–304 BC), plebeians who had risen to power through social reforms, began to acquire the aura of nobilitas, “nobility” (more literally “notability”), marking the creation of a ruling elite of nobiles that allied the interests of patricians and noble plebeians.
From the mid-4th century to the early 3rd century BC, several plebeian–patrician “tickets” for the consulship repeated joint terms, suggesting a deliberate political strategy of cooperation. Although nobilitas was not a formal social rank during the Republican era, in general a plebeian who had attained the consulship was regarded as having brought nobility to his family. Such a man was a novus homo, a “new man” or self-made noble and his sons and descendants were nobiles.
Marius and Cicero are notable examples of novi homines in the late Republic, when many of Rome’s richest and most powerful men—such as Lucullus, Crassus, and Pompeius—were plebeian nobles. Some or perhaps many noble plebeians, including Cicero and Lucullus, aligned their political interests with the faction of optimates, conservatives who sought to preserve senatorial prerogatives. By contrast, the populares or “people’s party”, which sought to champion the plebs in the sense of “common people”, were sometimes led by patricians such as Julius Caesar and Clodius Pulcher.
Nevertheless, the word “plebian” still has a contemptuous ring about it, indicating that a man is plodding, without finer feelings or nobility, dull and uncultured. Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus exemplifies this attitude of contempt towards classical plebians. The over-proud Coriolanus refers scathingly to them as the “mutable rank-scented many” and, later, when he is banished from Rome, as “you common cry of curs! Whose breath I hate as reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize as the dead carcasses of unburied men that do corrupt my air”. It seems not very surprising that he was unpopular.