Secessio plebis (withdrawal of the commoners, or Secession of the Plebs) was an informal exercise of power by Rome's plebeian citizens, similar to a general strike taken to the extreme. During a secessio plebis, the plebs would simply abandon the city en masse and leave the patrician order to themselves. Therefore a secessio meant that all shops and workshops would shut down and commercial transactions would largely cease. This was an effective strategy in the Conflict of the Orders due to strength in numbers; plebeian citizens made up the vast majority of Rome's populace and produced most of its food and resources, while a patrician citizen was a member of the minority upper class, the equivalent of the landed gentry of later times. Authors report different numbers for how many secessions there were. Cary & Scullard (p. 66) state there were five between 494 BC and 287 BC.
Secessions in Roman history
In 494 BC, in response to the harsh rule of Appius Claudius Sabinus Inregillensis, the plebeians seceded and fled to Mons Sacer (the Sacred Mountain) and threatened to found a new town. (The mountain was not the Aventine Hill where they gathered in 449 BC [see below], thus giving its name to the Aventine Secession in the 20th century.) In response, the patricians freed some of the plebs from their debts and conceded some of their power by creating the office of the Tribune of the Plebs. This tribune was the first government position held by the plebs. The powers of the tribunes changed over time. At their zenith, the plebeian tribunes exercised the power of veto (Latin: "I forbid"), by which a tribune could forbid or invalidate any decision or action of a magistrate, including a consul or praetor, or indeed of the whole Senate, that the tribune deemed harmful to the plebs. Plebeian Tribunes were also personally sacrosanct during their period in office. The nadir of the tribunician power in the republican period may have occurred with the constitutional legislation of the dictator Sulla.
This settlement led to the foundation of the Temple of Concord. (Questionable: This temple was not built until the mid-2nd century BC.)
In 449 BC, the plebs seceded again to force the patricians to adopt the Twelve Tables. Unlike the earlier secret laws which only the priests had access to, these new laws amounted to a written and published legal code. And unlike the earlier non-published laws, the Twelve Tables presented a basic set of laws and rights to the Roman public, as opposed to hidden and secret laws which gave no specific rights to the ordinary plebeian Roman. The patricians vehemently opposed it but were nevertheless forced to found a commission headed by a decemvir who in turn announced the Twelve Tables in the Roman Forum. With the announcement of the new laws, the plebs were to a degree freed from injustice and subjectivity during trials. However, they were still obliged to pay slavery debt.
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- 'The Growth of Plebeian Privilege in Rome', The English Historical Review No. II (April 1886)
- Forsythe, G., A Critical History of Early Rome", Berkeley, 2005