Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell has been in the news recently for allegedly calling a couple of policemen ‘plebs’. This appears to be unacceptable. So why has this word caused so much trouble for him?
Given that Mr Mitchell was a well-educated public schoolboy, it would be unwise for someone in his position to touch on a word that has strong class associations. But how did the plebs fit into the Roman class system?
Roman society consisted of a small privileged class called the patricians, and the vast majority of citizens who were the clients.
Plutarch wrote about Romulus’ foundation of Rome and talks about how this division first came to be:
“Romulus distinguished the senate from the commonalty…he separated the nobles from the multitude, calling the one "patrons," that is to say, protectors, and the other "clients," that is to say, dependents; this was the name given to the majority of Roman citizens”
It is not certain whether all clients were plebeians. In fact, it is not certain who the plebs were at all! Some think they originated from a foreign tribe, but there is no primary evidence for this. However, it is certain that they could not play an equal part in politics and religion.
Some plebeians became wealthy despite their separate identity. In fact, the more successful plebeians formed the ‘Conflict of the Orders,’ an organisation that fought for, and won, political equality with the Patricians.
It wasn’t until the later republic that the word 'plebeian' became associated solely with the lower social classes.