The plebeians, also called plebs, were, in ancient Rome, the general body of free Roman citizens who were not patricians, as determined by the census, or in other words "commoners". The precise origins of the group and the term are unclear, though it may be that they began as a limited political movement in opposition to the elite (patricians) which became more widely applied and known as the conflict of orders.
For more on how plebeians fit into social classes in ancient Rome, see Social class in ancient Rome.
In Latin, the word plebs is a singular collective noun, and its genitive is plebis. Plebeians were not a monolithic social class. Those who resided in the city and were part of the 4 urban tribes are sometimes called the plebs urbana, while those who lived in the country and were part of the 31 smaller rural tribes are sometimes differentiated by using the label plebs rustica. (List of Roman tribes)
The origin of the separation into orders is unclear, and it is disputed when the Romans were divided under the early kings into patricians and plebeians, or whether the clientes (dependents) of the patricians formed a third group. Certain gentes ("clans") were patrician, as identified by the nomen (family name), but a gens might have both patrician and plebeian branches that shared a nomen but were distinguished by a cognomen, as was the case with the gens Claudia.
The 19th-century historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr held that plebeians began to appear at Rome during the reign of Ancus Marcius and were possibly foreigners from other parts of Italy settling in Rome as naturalized citizens. In any case, at the outset of the Roman Republic, the patricians had a near monopoly on political and social institutions. Plebeians were excluded from magistracies and religious colleges, and they were not permitted to know the laws by which they were governed. Plebeians served in the army, but rarely became military leaders.
Dissatisfaction with the status quo occasionally mounted to the point that the plebeians engaged in a sort of general strike, a secessio plebis, during which they would withdraw to the mountain Mons Sacer as a form of protest, leaving the patricians to themselves. From 494 to 287 BC, five such actions during the so-called "Conflict of the Orders" resulted in the establishment of plebeian offices (the tribunes and plebeian aediles), the publication of the laws (the Law of the Twelve Tables), the establishment of the right of plebeian-patrician intermarriage (by the passage of the lex Canuleia), the opening of the highest offices of government and some state priesthoods to the plebeians and passage of legislation (the lex Hortensia) that made resolutions passed by the assembly of plebeians, the concilium plebis, binding on all citizens.
During the Second Samnite War (326-304 BC), plebeians who had risen to power through these social reforms began to acquire the aura of nobilitas ("nobility", more lit. '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 ("new man"), a 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, which sought to champion the plebs in the sense of "common people", were sometimes led by patricians such as Julius Caesar and Clodius Pulcher.
In 494 BCE, plebeians decided it was time to revolt against patrician officials in a pacifist manner. The struggle was known as the Conflict of the Orders. This conflict lasted approximately 200 years, finally coming to a halt in 287 BCE. Even though the conflict ended, many problems continued to arise in the feud between plebs and patricians. Prior to this struggle, patricians were in control of relatively any sort of power, with plebs and slaves having no status quo, plebs decided to protest their rights going through a series of secessions known as secessio plebis (secession of the plebs).
Due to the increasing tax on the working class with no benefits to show from it, the plebs decided to go on strike and flee to Mons Sacer. The plebs established their own assembly known as the Council of Plebs, from which 10 tribunes of plebs were elected. Their job was to protect the concerns for plebs against patrician officials.
Patricians were the only ones allowed to interpret early Roman law; many unwritten laws were known more as traditions due to the fact they were not made official. The decemvirs were in charge of composing new laws which did not show more significance to plebeians but was also made available to the general public. The final composition of laws would be known as the Law of Twelve Tables.
The final secession brought about a new law which would truly bring some form equality between plebs and patricians in the political offices. A new law was brought about known as Hortensian law, which banned the senate's veto of the plebeian council. That brought a halt to aristocracy-based offices based on wealth. Rome was beginning to become like a democracy.
Childhood for plebeians was very different compared to their patrician counterparts since they were expected to enter the workforce at a much earlier age. Plebeians typically belonged to a lower socio-economic class than their patrician counterparts, and therefore did not have as many household servants. As a result, plebeian children were responsible for maintaining the household and caring for their aging parents.
Education was limited to what their parent would teach them, which consisted of only learning the very basics of writing, reading and mathematics. Wealthier plebeians were able to send their children to schools or hire a private tutor.
Plebeians in ancient Rome lived in buildings called insula, apartment buildings that housed many families. These apartments usually lacked running water and heat. Not all plebeians lived in these run-down conditions, as some wealthier plebs were able to live in single-family homes, called a domus.
Since meat was very expensive, animal products such as pork, beef and veal would have been considered a delicacy to plebeians. Instead, a plebeian diet mainly consisted of bread and vegetables. Common flavouring for their food included honey, vinegar and different herbs and spices. A well-known condiment to this day known as 'garum', which is a fish sauce was also largely consumed.
In the U.S. military, plebes are freshmen at the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy, Valley Forge Military Academy and College, the Marine Military Academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Georgia Military College, and California Maritime Academy. The term is also used for new cadets at the Philippine Military Academy.
Early public schools in the United Kingdom would enroll pupils as "plebeians", as opposed to sons of gentry and aristocrats.
In British, Irish, Australian, New Zealand and South African English, the back-formation pleb, along with the more recently derived adjectival form plebby, is used as a derogatory term for someone considered unsophisticated or uncultured.