Lex Hortensia

Lex Hortensia was a law passed in Ancient Rome in 287 BCE which made all resolutions passed by plebeians binding on all citizens.


In Roman law, Lex Hortensia (287 BC) was the final result of the long class struggle between patricians and plebeians, where the plebeians would periodically secede from the city in protest (secessio plebis) when they felt they were deprived of their rights. After 287 BC, the Comitia Centuriata falls into the background and the tribunes, working with the Senate, make the Lex Hortensia a stage in the development of Senatorial domination in the State.[1] The Lex Hortensia contained similar stipulations of the two earlier laws, the Lex Valeria-Horatia of 449 BC and Lex Publica ut plebei scita omnes quirites tenerent of 339 BC.[2] The statement that set the Lex Hortensia apart was the prelude that ‘olim patricii dicebant plebi scitis se non teneri, quae sine auctoritate eorum facta essent.’[2] This meant that through their plebeian assembly the plebeians could make laws that were considered binding for the entire Roman people (both patrician and plebeian), but which excluded the patricians of having any say in the legislative process in the plebeian assembly. The patricians were the wealthiest class of ancient Roman society, whilst the plebeians were the working class of Rome. Although many still attained wealth and status, they did not have the ancestral background associated with the patricians. This resulted in the struggle for power between the two classes.


Quintus Hortensius was a Roman dictator during the 3rd century BC, when the struggle between plebeians and patricians was at an apex. For two centuries, the classes had been locked in a struggle, in which the patricians tried to control and maintain the ever-growing plebeian privilege.[3] Often in response to the actions of the Senate, the plebs would take composite action and seceded from the city. In 287 BC, the plebeians seceded to the Janiculam hill, and in response Quintus Hortensius was appointed dictator. Shortly thereafter he passed a law to attempt to end the struggle between the plebeian and patrician classes; because the law was sponsored by Quintus Hortensius, it became known as the Lex Hortensia, or "the Hortensian law". Though very little is known about him personally, it has been suggested he died while still dictator.

Lex Hortensia

A law passed in 287 BC, as suggested by appointed dictator, Quintus Hortensius, which made all resolutions passed by plebeians binding on all citizens. What made this law especially noteworthy was that each resolution was binding, regardless of prior approval of the Senate, which made the measures passed just as binding as those passed by the Roman assemblies. It was passed in direct response to the patricians’ refusal to accept some of the plebeian decisions as binding upon them.[2] This also allowed for the plebeians to rise to a higher status, where the wealthy now held the same amount of power and voice as the patricians did in the Senate. This also allowed the dominance of the patrician officials to wither.

Growing Plebeian privilege and the "Struggle of the Orders"

After 509 BC, when the last kings of the Roman republic were overthrown, all focus in power came to be on the Roman Senate, which ruled through elected magistrates that ruled for a lifetime.[4] The members of this Senate, and thus the elected magistrates, were members of the elite wealthy families who could afford for their members to spend money and time on campaigning and elections. In 494 BC, when the plebeians organized en masse and seceded to the Sacred Hill, they forced the higher orders to recognize them “as a constituted order with assemblies and magistrates of its own, and right of corporate action on its own account.”[5] They sought to represent only the concerns of the members of this “constituted order” and no records claim they sought to exercise either sovereignty or legislative power over the community. The secession of 287 would prove to be the final one, because in response the dictator Quintus Hortensius sponsored a law which gave the Plebeian Council the right to enact laws (plebiscites) that were not subject to vetoes by the senate.[6] Yet, by the time of the Punic Wars from 264 to 146 BC between Carthage and Rome, the plebeian assembly had been delegated the entirety of powers similarly granted to the populous.[7] This new plebeian governing committee was allowed to form their own concilium with their own magistrates and tribunes, under their own set of traditions and procedures.[5] This concilium came to be known as the concilium plebis, whose decisions were binding only to other plebeians.[8] Providing that the decisions were approved by patricians, then and only then could they be applied to all Roman citizens.[9] This council also elected the ten tribunes and Aediles in interest of the plebeians.[10] Around the mid-5th century BC, the plebeians began to demand the Roman rulers to codify Roman law so that all citizens were seen as equal.[8] The Plebeian Council had already acquired the right to pass laws that were binding on both Plebeians and Patricians (in 449 BC), but up to this point, plebiscites were subject to vetoes by the Patrician senators (through the auctoritas patrum, or "authority of the fathers" or "authority of the Patrician senators"). This law also ended this requirement for laws (leges) passed by the Tribal Assembly, but not for the Centuriate Assembly. During the late Roman Republic, thanks to the Lex Hortensia, the concilium plebis became the main legislative body in the Roman government. This law should not be viewed as the final triumph of democracy over aristocracy,[11] since, through its close relations with the Plebeian Tribunes, the senate could still control the Plebeian Council. Thus, the ultimate significance of this law was in the fact that it robbed the Patricians of their final weapon over the Plebeians. The result was that the ultimate control over the state fell, not onto the shoulders of democracy, but onto the shoulders of the new Patricio-Plebeian senatorial aristocracy.[11]

First Instance of Plebeian Assembly Sovereignty

After the Lex Valeria-Horatia and the Lex Hortensia, the majority of plebeian votes were seen as a mere petition to which the patricians would then act upon accordingly.[12] Frequently the tribune would see the vote of the plebs as moral support rather than legal validity.[12] Once the Lex Valeria-Horatia and Lex Publica ut plebei scita omnes quirites tenerent were passed, the plebeians and its magistrates did hold practical power of initiative.[12] After these laws, the tribune was given the power to confirm or object what the majority of the Plebeian council had decided.[12] It has been argued that the two most notable laws passed to grant power to the plebeian assembly, Lex Valeria and Lex Horatia, were the actual first instance of considerable and sovereign power being granted to the plebs; some scholars accept another theory.[13] Most scholars believe that a mistake was made in the interpretation of the articles of the laws, namely by Livy, who assumed them to be dealing with the plebeian assembly, but were actually meant for the comitia tributa, a minor assembly of the populus Romanus. Suffice it to say, modern scholars accept Lex Hortensia as being the monumental movement in bringing the power between the plebs and the nobles to an equal standing.

Other laws concerning the status of plebeians were:

See also


  1. F. E. Adcock. Reviewed work(s): “Comitia Tributa-Concilium Plebis, Leges-Plebiscita” by A. G. Roos. The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 36, Parts 1 and 2 (1946), pp. 195-196, http://www.jstor.org/stable/298054 (accessed February 12, 2010).
  2. 1 2 3 R. Develin. “"Provocatio" and Plebiscites. Early Roman Legislation and the Historical Tradition.” Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, Vol. 31, Fasc. 1 (1978), pp. 45-60, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4430760 (accessed February 12, 2010).
  3. “Quintus Hortensius.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/272473/Quintus-Hortensius (accessed February 12, 2010).
  4. Arlene W. Saxonhouse, “Classical Greece and Rome,” in Theories Thin, Political Philosophy: Theories, Thinkers, and Concepts, ed. Seymour Martin Lipset (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2001), 308-310.
  5. 1 2 J. L. Strachan-Davidson, “The Growth of Plebeian Privilege at Rome,” The English Historical Review 1, no. 2 (Apr 1886):14, http://www.jstor.org/stable/546888 (accessed February 12, 2010).
  6. Abbott, 52
  7. I.e. the old sovereign of Rome. J. L. Strachan-Davidson, “The Growth of Plebeian Privilege at Rome,” The English Historical Review 1, no. 2 (Apr 1886):14, http://www.jstor.org/stable/546888 (accessed February 12, 2010).
  8. 1 2 “Plebeians, Romans,” in Ancient Greece and Rome, ed. Carroll Moulton (New York: Simon and Schuster MacMillan, 1998), 134-135.
  9. "Plebeians, Romans,” in Ancient Greece and Rome, ed. Carroll Moulton (New York: Simon and Schuster MacMillan, 1998), 134-135.
  10. Plebeians, Romans,” in Ancient Greece and Rome, ed. Carroll Moulton (New York: Simon and Schuster MacMillan, 1998), 134-135.
  11. 1 2 Abbott, 53
  12. 1 2 3 4 J. L. Strachan-Davidson, “The Decrees of the Roman Plebs,” The English Historical Review 5, No. 19 (July 1890): 462-474, http://www.jstor.org/stable/546448 (accessed February 18, 2010).
  13. J. L. Strachan-Davidson, “The Growth of Plebeian Privilege at Rome,” The English Historical Review 1, no. 2 (April 1886):15, http://www.jstor.org/stable/546888 (accessed February 12, 2010).


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