The Struggle of Orders was a social conflict between the Roman aristocracy (patricians) and the Roman commoners (plebeians). The clash between social classes began due to the plebeians' desire to have greater political representation in government and protection from avaricious aristocrats. The problem stemmed from economic troubles the commoners faced as wheat farmers. Wheat farming on the same land every year led to the depletion of soil nutrients, and thus, the farmers had to move to new land to replant the crops in fresh soil until eventually, the soil worsened over time. The farmers' income sharply declined over a short period of time whereas Rome as a whole was still experiencing a population boom — hence the disparity in population size and lack of resources threw the plebeians into a panic. Over time, the farmers borrowed money from the patricians to continue producing enough food to last until the next planting season, but the dying nature of farm work prevented the commoners from paying back their debts. The result was that nearly all the farmers of Rome were in debt to the Roman aristocracy.
The patricians chose to regain their wealth by condemning the plebeians into “nexum” — debt slavery.
Commoners were appalled by the punishment they’d have to pay for their debts, so they gave careful thought to the circumstances Rome was in before making their next move. In the midst of the Struggle of Orders, Rome was also preoccupied in a conflict of sorts with their neighbors, the Etruscans. The patricians required the protection of the commoners who not only labored as farmers but also served as the backbone of the Roman army. The plebeian foot soldiers realized the physical power they held in their hands and chose to walk away from the problem — literally. The foot soldiers marched outside of Rome, refused to shield the aristocrats and demanded political and economic reformation in exchange for Rome’s protection. The strike terrified the vulnerable patricians who immediately agreed to the plebeians’ request. Thus, began Rome’s reform.
The Struggle of Order continued well into the 400s as the commoner class fought and won numerous victories in the tussle for legislative equality between the social classes.
For instance, in 471 B.C.E., the plebeians attained their very own assembly which issued regulations pertaining only to the lower class. The law, in itself, was still unknown to the majority of the commoners who understood that they would need to grasp the workings of the government and its judicial system if the commoner class were to obtain any rights. Consequently, the laws were written down onto 12 tablets in 449 B.C.E. which lessened the aristocrats’ control over legal matters. Now, in court cases, the accuser would have to cite which statue they were accusing the defendant by, and the accused would have the right to know. A lawyer was still required in order to navigate the legal system, but this systematic move ensured the protection of the plebeian rights in court.
Yet another issue the plebeians faced was their exclusion from the Roman Senate.
In response, an association known as the office of tribune was established with the legislative branch of Rome. The tribune office was entrusted with the power to veto any legislation the senate declared that would hurt the commoner class in any way. The office was also given the power to call the senate to order and allow plebeians to meet with the tribunes at any given time to express complaints. Although the tribune office lacked any legislative power itself, this aspect was later reformed as well. Furthermore, despite the fact that the tribunes were part of the wealthiest class the plebeians had, they were unable to run as senators.
To be a senator, the individual would have to be a member of the upper class — an impossible occurrence for plebeians because the law did not permit commoners to intermarry with patricians. The law was changed, but social prejudice further encouraged legislation to rule that plebeians who had married into the upper class could not serve as senators. The year 367 B.C.E. brought another victory for the commoner class. Chief magistrates who were originally composed of individuals from the upper class now required at least one of their members to be a commoner. The following years produced more councils governed by plebeians. Finally, in 267 B.C.E., the ultimate triumph of the lower class was achieved through the Lex Hortensia, which acknowledged all Romans — plebeian or patrician — equal under the law.
All rulings issued by the plebeian assembly would now hold power over both the lower and upper class.
It became the new elite governing force which marked the end of the Struggle of Orders as Rome became a unified force. Rome’s social unionization strengthened their power in their conflict against the Italian peninsula. Rome met the series of external threats as the prevailing victor. The Samnian and Oskan folk both eventually came under the rule of Rome, and the alliances gave Rome a greater hold on the lands around them. The Romans’ series of victories were brought to a halt by the Greeks, but the Greeks — having faced a severe loss of men and supplies — chose to go back home rather than conquer the defeated force.