Affirmative action in the Roman Republic

Lucius Junius Brutus, the legendary founder of the Republic (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

Affirmative action in favour of minorities or the politically disadvantaged is not a modern phenomenon. It was also known in Antiquity. In the fourth century BCE, a form of affirmative action was introduced in the Roman Republic. The plans to introduce it sparked a heated debate. ‘Positive discrimination’ was just as controversial then as it is today.

Patricians and plebeians

When the Roman Republic was founded in 509 BCE, there were two distinct social classes (or castes): the patricians (patres) and the plebeians (plebes). The patricians formed Rome’s original nobility. When Rome was still ruled by kings, they had held the high religious offices and had acted as the king’s counsellors, the senators. From their name alone, we can deduce their elevated social status, for patres literally means ‘fathers’. So originally, the patricians were the moral and political fathers of the Roman people. If you were not a patrician, you were a plebeian. Nowadays, the word ‘plebeian’ has somewhat negative connotations and may remind us of people who are not just uncivilised, but also quite poor. But in Ancient Rome, this was not necessarily the case. A plebeian was simply someone who belonged to the common people. He could be very poor, but also exceptionally rich. He could be a gentleman-farmer who owned lots of land, a day labourer, a craftsman, a trader or an unemployed beggar. The only thing he could not be, was a patrician, unless he was adopted into a patrician family. Conversely, a patrician could become a plebeian by adoption.

Roman priests on a relief of the Ara Pacis in Rome. The priests in the middle are wearing the apex, a cap with a pointed piece of wood.

Now, why is this all relevant? When the Roman Republic was declared in the late sixth century BCE, the patricians monopolised all public offices. Priesthoods could only be held by members of patrician families, and this continued to be the case for some of these priesthoods until the end of the Republic in the first century BCE. The most important political and military office, the consulship, was also only open to patricians. The two consuls were the highest civil authorities in Rome. They could introduce bills in the popular assembly, were charged with the administration of justice, could use means of coercion (coercitio) against Roman citizens and had the power to convene the Senate for advice and to discuss both national and foreign policy.

Outside the religious boundaries of the city (the pomerium), the consuls led the Roman armies in the wars against neighbouring peoples. In their capacity as generals, the consuls held wide-ranging powers and could decide on life and death of the soldiers. If a consul won a glorious victory over Rome’s enemies, he would often be awarded a triumph. With his face painted red, like the old terracotta statues of Rome’s supreme god Jupiter Optimus Maximus, a victorious consul celebrating his triumph came as close as possible to being a god himself. It should not come as surprise that the consulship was the ultimate dream of every ambitious Roman citizen, patrician or plebeian. However, as stated above, plebeians were initially barred from holding this office. Either a statute (lex), or some unwritten rule or tradition – the precise legal situation is not entirely clear – forbade them to be candidates in the elections.

Power to the plebs

There were probably many plebeians who did not consider this situation to be problematic at all. The poor had other problems to deal with, like debt bondage (nexum) – a debtor who could not pay his debts became the creditor’s slave – and the outrageously high interest rates demanded by the creditors. Much of the public land that Rome had taken from neighbouring peoples had been occupied by the rich, some of whom were plebeians themselves. It is also likely that quite a few plebeians felt that the patrician families of Rome were simply destined to lead the State. It had always been like this, so why change it? Tradition was a very coercive argument for conservative Romans.

The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitol Hill (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

But there were definitely plebeians who were more ambitious. To acquire their goals, they made use of the only office that they could hold, that of people’s tribune (tribunus plebis). A tribune, like a consul, could introduce bills, but he could only do that in the council of the plebs, the concilium plebis. Initially, decisions taken by the concilium plebis were not binding for patricians, unless they were ratified by an assembly of the entire Roman people (or by Senate, which was a strictly patrician body at that time – the legal situation is again not entirely clear). It was only in 287 BCE with the famous Lex Hortensia that decisions by the concilium plebisplebiscita – acquired the same legal status as leges (statutes) and became binding for the entire Roman people (populus Romanus).

A people’s tribune had another, more formidable power: the right of veto, called intercessio in Latin. He could block each and every act of another magistrate, including the acts of fellow tribunes, simply by speaking the word ‘veto’ (‘I forbid it’ in Latin). This made the tribune a powerful force in the Roman political system. However, while the power of veto could be used to block conservative plans, it could just as well be used to block constitutional reforms. In the last century of the Republic, conservative politicians often tried to control one or more of the tribunes to obstruct their more progressive political opponents.

A monopoly challenged

The first crack in the patrician political monopoly was achieved in 445 BCE, when the office of consular tribune (tribunus consularis) was created. Each year, the popular assembly could choose whether it wanted to elect consuls or consular tribunes. These tribunes had the same powers as consuls; the main difference was in the number of magistrates elected: while there were always two consuls, the number of consular tribunes could be as high as eight. This made an individual consular tribune considerably less powerful than a consul, who only had one colleague to deal with. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why the patricians were willing to allow plebeians to hold the office. But there was certainly another reason as well: in the mid-fifth century BCE, Rome was embroiled in several wars with its neighbours and it needed competent commanders on multiple fronts.

A Roman citizen voting (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

A Roman citizen voting (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Nevertheless, a political office had been opened to plebeians. Did this represent a political breakthrough for their social class? The simple answer is: it did not. It was not until 400 BCE that the first plebeian consular tribune was elected, a man named Publius Licinius Calvus. The fact that many poor plebeians were clients (clientes) and thus highly dependent on their rich and powerful patrician patrons may serve as an explanation for the lack of plebeian political success over the course of some 45 years. It is quite possible that many plebeians wanted to vote for a member of their own social class, but simply could not do so because of their client status.

Voting took place in public. The secret ballot was not introduced until 139 BCE, so it would be entirely visible if plebeian clients did not vote for their patrician patronus, as was expected of them. Many Roman citizens still believed in the political talent and competence of the ancient patrician families and this may also have played an important role. The theory that political talent and virtues were passed on from generation to generation was deeply entrenched in Roman society. Another important factor may have been the fact that the Roman electoral system was not based on the principle of ‘one man, one vote’. Although each citizen had one vote, the vote of a rich Roman carried considerably more weight than that of a poor man. Perhaps at that time there were still too few rich and illustrious plebeians to get a candidate from the ranks of the plebs elected as consular tribune.

Stolo and Sextius

It must have been exceptionally frustrating for some plebeians. They had fought for equal political rights for so long, but had not achieved any significant results. The office of quaestor had been opened to plebeians in 421 BCE, but this was a junior office with mostly financial responsibilities and nothing compared to the grand prize: the consulship. Ambitious plebeians needed a little help from outside to get the issue back on the agenda. It came in the form of a band of marauding Celts, who destroyed a Roman army in 390 or 387 BCE and went on to take Rome itself. After the Romans paid them a handsome sum of gold, the Celts were willing to leave again; a tradition that states that the gold was taken back by the disgraced Roman general Camillus is best discarded as unreliable. In the years after the sack of Rome by the Celts, chaos reigned in the city. The debts of the poor were staggering and the distribution of farmland was most unfair. There were serious political tensions in the city. Two ambitious tribunes, Gaius Licinius Stolo and Lucius Sextius, made use of the tense situation to again demand the opening of the consulship to plebeians.

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

Stolo and Sextius devised a clever plan. They wrote one bill, in which they lumped together three measures: curbing usurious interest rates, redistribution of public land among the poor ánd positive action in favour of plebeian candidates for the consulship. This time, the tribunes did not just propose to make plebeians eligible to be elected as consuls. They went further and stipulated that one of the consuls had to be plebeian. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the popular assembly rejected the bill. Stolo and Sextius were furious and now threatened to withdraw as candidates for next year’s elections for the office of tribune. The common people would thus lose their final opportunity to get rid of their debts and to gain a fair distribution of farmland, issues for which Stolo and Sextius had fought long and hard. The plebs now had the choice between two options: it could re-elect both tribunes and get debt relief and land reforms, but that also meant it had to vote in favour of one consul for the plebeians. The other option was to lose its champions and be left to fend for itself.

Enter Appius Claudius

According to the Roman historian Livius (59 BCE-17 CE), it was a patrician named Appius Claudius who led the opposition against the two tribunes. Although the speech that Appius held and that we read about in Book 6 of Ab urbe condita was most likely entirely written by Livius himself, it is not unreasonable to assume that the arguments used in the speech were in fact used by Claudius when he debated the tribunes. The gens Claudia to which Appius belonged had a remarkable family history. Originally, it was not a Roman gens, but of Sabine stock. A few years after the founding of the Republic, a Sabine nobleman named Attus Clausus moved to Rome with his family and a large host of clients. Apparently, he managed to become a senator and a member of the patrician class, although how exactly he achieved this is unknown. The Claudii were known for their conservatism, their arrogance and their disdain for the common people. But they were also known for their patriotism, their political talent and their good looks. Many male members of the family were nicknamed ‘Pulcher’, which translates as ‘pretty boy’. The somewhat special status of the Claudii is furthermore demonstrated by the fact that they were the only Roman family to use the first name (praenomen) Appius.

The remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux on the Forum Romanum. Legislative assemblies often took place in the open space in front of the temple.

Appius Claudius severely criticised the actions of the two tribunes. First of all, he harangued Sextius and Stolo for having lumped together several topics in a single bill. This meant that the popular assembly had to either accept or reject the whole bill, even though it might agree with some parts of it and disagree with other parts, especially the part about the consular elections. Claudius compared this to placing food and poison before a starving man, and forcing him to choose between either eating nothing or eating the food mixed with the poison. The popular assembly could not amend a bill, nor could it initiate a new bill itself, so in this case, it was in a very awkward position. Claudius strongly felt that this was unacceptable: “If this were a free State, would not hundreds of voices have exclaimed, ‘Begone, with your tribuneships and proposals!'” (AUC 6.40)

Claudius also claimed that in a free Republic, it would be unacceptable to limit the liberty of citizens to vote for the candidate of their choice and to force them to elect at least one plebeian consul. What if the people simply wanted two patrician consuls from distinguished and illustrious families? Sextius’ and Stolo’s bill rendered that impossible. Claudius thought it was ridiculous: “Is this what you call an equal distribution of honours, when it is lawful for two plebeians to be made consuls, but not for two patricians?” (AUC 6.40). The argument may sound a little hypocritical, coming from the mouth of a nobleman who is defending the privileged position of the patrician class, but it is not altogether unconvincing.

Finally, Claudius tried to completely destroy the argument of the tribunes that if the possibility to elect two patrician consuls were to remain, the people would never elect a consul from the plebeians, and that therefore affirmative action was necessary. Claudius used sarcasm to summarise this argument:

“What is this but saying, ‘Because you would not of your own will elect unworthy persons, I will impose upon you the necessity of electing them against your will’? What follows? That if only one plebeian is standing with two patricians he has not to thank the people for his election; he may say he was appointed by the law not by their vote.” (AUC 6.40)

Claudius argued that in this way, the consulship was presented to the plebeians on a silver platter. A plebeian consul would win his office because of the simple fact that he was a member of the plebeian class, not because of any personal merit. And Claudius argued that it was only merit that counted.

A new nobility

Claudius’ speech failed to convince the assembly. Stolo and Sextius were re-elected and managed to introduce a new bill which was accepted by the people. The Lex Licinia Sextia was passed in 367 BCE. A year later, Sextius himself became the first plebeian consul (and Appius claimed that his ambition to hold the consulship was the main reason behind the bill). To soothe patrician feelings, new offices were created which would for the moment only be open to patricians. The first was the office of praetor, a magistrate charged with the administration of justice, the other the office of aedilis curulis (curule aedile), who was responsible for Rome’s grain supply, maintenance of buildings and temples and the organisation of games. Eventually these offices were opened to plebeians as well. Rich and distinguished plebeians could now hold all the magistracies. The old, exclusively patrician aristocracy gradually disappeared and was replaced by a new, mixed aristocracy of both patricians and plebeians: the nobilitas. This new nobility was at times just as conservative as the old nobility. So the opening of offices to plebeians led to a new aristocracy rather than to true democracy.

Hannibal Crossing the Alps by Jacopo Ripanda, Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Even though it was perfectly legal for the Roman people to elect two plebeian consuls, it was not until 172 BCE that this actually occurred, almost 200 years after the Lex Licinia Sextia was adopted. In 215 BCE, two plebeian candidates had been elected in the consular elections, but the election of one of them was challenged on religious grounds. Thunder was heard during the ceremony in which the newly elected consul Marcellus accepted his office. This was a bad omen, especially now that the Romans were locked in a death struggle with the Carthaginian general Hannibal. The patricians immediately started spreading the rumour that the gods were displeased because of the election of two plebeians. Marcellus decided to lay down his office, and the patrician candidate Fabius Maximus was elected in his stead. This incident shows that it is one thing to change the law, but another to change deeply rooted traditions.

This essay is based on a post I wrote back in 2009 on this forum.


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