Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
The Roman Empire - In The First Century
Home The Roman Empire Special Features The Series Resources For Educators
Plebians
 
Plebians
Rome’s working class, the plebeians had little individual power. Grouped together, however, they became a Roman mob and had to be handled carefully.

By the first century AD, plebeians comprised a formal class, which held its own meetings, elected its own officials and kept its own records. The term plebeian referred to all free Roman citizens who were not members of the patrician, senatorial or equestrian classes.

Working class heroes

Plebeians were average working citizens of Rome – farmers, bakers, builders or craftsmen – who worked hard to support their families and pay their taxes. Over the course of this period, early forms of public welfare were established by Titus and Trajan and, in difficult times, plebeians could ask Roman administrators for help.

We know much less about daily life for the lower classes, such as plebeians. Unlike the more privileged classes, most plebeians could not write and therefore they could not record and preserve their experiences.

A glimpse of normal life

This is one reason why archeological sites like the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are so important: they preserve the living spaces, shops, tools, and graffiti of the common people that would otherwise be lost to history.

Social climbing

Some plebeians, who were doing reasonably well, might try to save enough money to join the equestrian class. For many, however, life was a daily struggle.

But although individual plebeians had little power, there were a lot of them. In bad times, or during political unrest, there was always the risk of the Roman ‘mob’ rioting or rebelling against the upper classes.

Bread and circuses


The Emperor Augustus was well aware of this risk and was keen to keep the poorest plebeians happy enough and reasonably well fed so that they would not riot. He began the system of state bribery that the writer Juvenal described as ‘bread and circuses’.

Free grain and controlled food prices meant that plebeians could not starve, while free entertainment – such as chariot races and gladiators in amphitheaters and the Circus Maximus – meant that they would not get bored and restless. Bribery it may have been, but it often worked.


Where to next:
Life in Roman Times – Chariot races
Life in Roman Times – Gladiators


 
Related Links:

  Gladiators
  Chariot Races
The Roman Empire

Republic to Empire

Age of Augustus

Years of Trial

Empire Reborn

Emperors

Social Order
- Patricians
- Senators
- Equestrians
- Plebians
- Slaves & Freemen
- Soldiers
- Women
- On The Frontiers

Life in Roman Times

Writers

Enemies and Rebels

Religion

The Roman Empire - In The First Century