Were the plebs of Rome a poor, dominated social category, or were they a privileged "people-king"? Nicolas Tran offers a fresh look at their identity and status.

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In Roman history, few subjects have been as associated with conventional images as the "plebs": idleness, bread and the Circus, daily sportule, disorderly agitation... The notion of plebs can carry a negative connotation and be associated with those of tumult and rabble: not the populus, a term that emphasizes citizenship, but the crowd, or even the underbelly of society. Literary sources, often translating the point of view of the upper classes, are at the origin of these representations.

While historical research has progressively moved away from such conceptions, the nature of the Roman plebs continues to raise debate. Nicolas Tran, whose work on associations and work in the Roman world is well known, offers both a scholarly synthesis and an interpretative essay. Drawing on archaeology and inscriptions, but also on a re-reading of numerous literary sources, he proposes to define the complex features of the identity of Rome's plebs.

A megalopolis, a microcosm of the world

Rome is a pre-industrial megalopolis. The hypothesis of a population of one million in the 2nd century AD can be supported. It was first and foremost a city of consumption, but also a center of production. Goods flowed in from "every land and sea", as the orator Aélius Aristide put it before the emperor Antoninus the Pious in 144 AD, as did men and women from all over the Roman Empire. In this sense, "it was like a microcosm".

Its topographical structure is unique. The site, made up of high and low-lying areas, and history have created a contrasting urban landscape. Some central districts are very sparsely populated, reserved in part for public spaces (monuments and gardens), with housing concentrated in small, overcrowded areas. Horizontally, housing spreads out towards the periphery to the point where, as the historian Denys d'Halicarnasse wrote in 8 BC, "urban space (...) gives the observer the impression of a city that extends into infinity". In the middle of the 1st century BC, as a result of the growth of vertical building, Cicero declared that Rome "was as if suspended in the air".

Latin was spoken here in every possible provincial accent, and many immigrant communities had their own sanctuaries. Former slaves of all origins, when freed and thus made citizens, contributed to the cosmopolitanism of the plebs, while their children born after their emancipation joined the category of ingenues, i.e. free-born citizens. Cosmopolitanism and citizenship are not incompatible.

A megalopolis made up of microcosms

This microcosm of the world is also a sum of individual microcosms. There's no opposition between "beautiful neighborhoods" and "working-class neighborhoods". Rome began as a "sum of small villages". It has become a collection of neighborhoods, even micro-neighborhoods, made up of a tangle of narrow streets. Each micro-neighborhood has its own identity, centered around small sanctuaries at crossroads, whose main deities are the Compital Lares, whose annual festivals (Compitalia) take place between late December and early January. Each house also has its own Lares, and perhaps each collective dwelling too. The day after the private ceremonies, public festivities were organized everywhere, similar to large "neighbor festivals".

From the reign of Augustus onwards, subordinate magistrates (vicomagistri) were in charge of the neighborhoods (vici) and presided over the annual neighborhood festivals. But the Augustan vici, which grouped together several thousand souls, were probably not the real setting for the daily life of the inhabitants. Instead, they live in small communities of a few hundred people, around a few streets and near a fountain.

On an even smaller scale, the closest setting is that of the micro-communities of a block of flats, which often gather around a small sanctuary: plebeian social life is marked by religious imprinting, with cultic practices expressed in particular on the occasion of festivals that punctuate the course of the year. It was in these micro-neighborhoods, in their many stores and even in the street, that rumors circulated and political discussions often arose. People lived in the open air, or in stalls, or in community halls, as collective housing was often little more than dormitories with no real kitchens or other living spaces.

Plebeians, a dominated social category

Plebeians are dominated in several ways. First of all, even if the city was certainly not the hellhole described by Anglo-Saxon historians at the end of the last century, living conditions for the plebs were nothing like those of the aristocrats. Whereas aristocrats and their servants lived in luxurious houses of their own, most plebeians, as tenants, crammed into apartment blocks of at least three floors, and sometimes five or more, where the social stratification corresponded to the gradation of the levels: downstairs were the stores, with the mezzanine floor housing the tabernarius (= shopkeeper, small tradesman or craftsman), and upstairs were the poorest. The fragile, unhealthy housing was threatened by collapse and fire.

Secondly, part of the plebeian population - not necessarily the poorest - is caught up in the asymmetrical relations of client relationships. These did not only concern freedmen towards their former masters who had become their patrons, but also ingenues, whether as individuals or as part of communities. These ties, which had great political importance under the Republic, did not disappear in the imperial era. For aristocrats, they were an expression of their prestige, helping to maintain their clients' standard of living and security.

Finally, in the imperial era, power controlled the city as much as it could, not only through the official rituals of festivals and shows, but also through the fear inspired by the Praetorian and urban cohorts stationed nearby, who constituted a veritable "political police force", and by undercover soldiers on the lookout for suspicious comments or behavior.

Rome's plebs, a dominant social category

In other respects, the plebs of Rome can be described as dominant; at least a very significant part of the plebs (not all, due to the inequalities that cut across them), in contrast to the non-free (the slaves) and the free non-citizens of the Roman world (the so-called peregrine foreigners). The plebs of Rome are first and foremost, by definition, free and citizens, whether this quality results from birth (ingenuity) or from emancipation. They dominate the servile population, which accounts for perhaps a quarter of the total, and many plebeians, including poor ingenues and freedmen, have slaves.

On the other hand, the plebs dominated the free non-citizens of the Roman world, referred to as peregrines. Originally, in republican times, citizenship did not apply to the peoples of Italy; then, when citizenship spread to the populations of Italy, some could only benefit from reduced citizenship, without the right to vote, and it was only following the Social War (or Italian War, 91–87 BC), that all the free people of Italy became citizens. In the rest of the Empire, citizenship became universal in 212 AD. But in practice, only the plebs of Rome exercised the right to vote: it was they who, in relation to Italy and the provinces, were the "people-king". The political role of the plebs has not disappeared, even in imperial times: the emperor needs their acclamations and tributes, and takes particular care of their welfare.

The distribution of wheat (frumentationes), first at low prices and then free of charge, reflected this status. They were never intended to assist the poor, but indirectly "rewarded civic participation". Their complex history shows that, from Augustus onwards, the number of beneficiaries was limited to 150,000. The imperial power guaranteed the plebs relative comfort, through the distribution of drinking water, the management of wastewater, the existence of public latrines, street cleaning and access to the thermal baths, allowing them to wash and enjoy themselves in luxurious surroundings, except for the poorest who were unable to pay the entrance fee (however modest). And at the games, "the Roman people made a spectacle of themselves".

The plebs of Rome had no reason to question the principles on which social relations were based. Certainly, at the end of the Republic, they expressed their demands through collective action. The sources and many historians have seen these as irrational manifestations or the fruit of aristocratic manipulation. Recently, Cyril Courier has suggested that these "popular emotions" were the result of genuine political demands for supplies and taxation. Far from calling into question the institutional framework, they would rather have been the expression of "citizens attached to the dignity of the Roman people". Nicolas Tran defines them as "more conservative than revolutionary".

Is Rome's plebeian population homogeneous?

The answer of course is no, given a number of observations. Firstly, there were subtle legal inequalities between ingenues and freedmen. For example, in imperial times, the latter did not seem to have access to frumentationes. Moreover, the very notion of plebs frumentaria, benefiting from a hereditary privilege, creates a divide with the rest of the plebs. What's more, it would probably take several generations for the servile origins of the plebs to be completely forgotten.

On the other hand, inequalities in conditions and income are significant. At one end of the scale are the destitute, the beggars, the homeless and all those, poorly identified by the sources, whom debts or bankruptcy have led to social decline. At the other end of the scale is a category identified some twenty years ago by Paul Veyne as the plebs media, i.e. the upper stratum of the plebs, the intermediary (media) between the aristocracy and the modest, even poor, plebs. For Veyne, these were comfortable plebeians, owners of a business and a few slaves, who celebrated work, friendship and the pleasures of life. But according to him, the ideals of this superior plebeian would have had nothing in common with those of the aristocracy: these plebeians would have had their own "class wisdom". Cyril Courier and Nicolas Tran propose a more nuanced interpretation: while it's true that the wealthiest plebeians and others of more modest means celebrated work as a value in identical ways, an upper stratum of the plebs, narrower than Veyne thought, shared a form of culture with the aristocracy, in particular a taste for reading - the leisure of the honest man (otium).

The hypothesis of a subtle, but not fixed, hierarchization of the plebs could certainly be formulated. It's also significant that plebeian associations tend to reproduce the hierarchical structures of the city: they like to wear titles. This mimicry of behavior on the part of the "notables" of associative life highlights the cleavages within the plebs. More generally, Roman society was marked by many forms of social distinction: the plebs of Rome were no exception to this phenomenon.

Plebeian structures cannot therefore be simplistically described. There were poor ingenues and well-to-do ingenues, poor freedmen and well-to-do freedmen; and many intermarriages between the two legal categories. Above all, there are discrepancies between the world of the wage-earner, rather discredited, and that of the tabernarii, small and sometimes wealthy owners of the family business, the real heart of the plebs. Between the two, there were still intermediate situations, including those of the more modest tabernarii, who sometimes ran their own stall as tenants, possibly as freedmen of an owner-manager.

A plebeian identity in spite of everything

But there was indeed a plebeian identity, based on two foundations: the practice of work, and even its celebration, and the commonalities of plebeian sociability. Due to high mortality and divorce rates, many families, hit by the death of children, are reconstituted. Yet the plebeian family ideal expressed in funeral inscriptions is one of affection and moral virtue. It could no doubt be argued that these were, in the first place, precisely formulas, and that realities could be more complex; but the similarities in expression are significant. More generally, plebeian epigraphy celebrates the pleasures of life, friendship, communal meals and mutual aid - without women's voices being clearly identified.

Despite their unequal conditions, plebeians live together in the same micro-neighborhoods, or even in the same building, even if not on the same floor. They are the ones who meet on the premises of private associations, possibly funerary, even if not in the same row. They are the patrons of taverns (in the contemporary sense, but referred to as popina in Latin), these places of life par excellence, where aristocrats do not venture, except in the case of slumming. Attached to their dignity as citizens, hard-working and industrious, behaving like good parents and husbands, familiar with popular festivals and enjoying life away from home, Rome's plebeians were a people of the store, the sanctuaries and the street. They formed a singular, multi-faceted society, often cosmopolitan in origin, but structured by integration into community groups with shared values and behaviors. This society was not just a collection of microcosms, but a people of "ordinary" inhabitants of a City in which all felt "at home" and proud to be so. With erudition, subtlety and clarity, Nicolas Tran has written a necessary book.