Peter Jones

Corbyn and the plebs

Rome’s plebs knew what they wanted – and got it. Do we need the MP for Islington North to tell us?

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Last week, guru Corbyn was invited to reflect on the 2,500-year-old Roman origins of the republicanism to which he is so devoted. This week, the ageing seer may care to ponder the plebeian fight for equality, a struggle Corbyn holds dear.

The picture as the historian Livy (c. 60 BC–AD 17) paints it is that Romans were full of hopes in 509 BC that, with the king thrown out, all would be peace and love. But now it was the patricians — the hereditary advisers to the kings — who were doing the exploiting: holding a monopoly of power and running the show in their own interests, with serious consequences for the plebeians (the non-patrician families), especially the poor. It became so bad that one plebeian suggested the patricians pass a law forbidding a pleb to live next door to a patrician, walk down the same street, go to the same get-together, or mingle in the same marketplace.

‘Equality’ was the cry, and action followed. The plebs refused to fight in the army, thereby threatening Rome’s very existence; they then walked out en masse, setting up a brief ‘state within a state’ on a nearby mountain. The result was that, in 494 BC, they won the right to their own law-making Plebeian assembly and to appoint sacrosanct tribunes to look after their interests in the senate. That was just the beginning. Over the next 200 years, further concessions were wrung out of the reluctant patricians: priesthoods and various minor offices were opened to plebeians, in 367 BC it was enacted that a plebeian could become consul, in 342 BC that both consuls could be plebeians and in 326 BC enslavement for debt was abolished. Finally, in 287 BC, plebiscites of the Plebeian assembly became binding on everyone. The battle for a level playing-field with the hereditary governing class was won.

‘Equality for all’ is one of Corbyn’s ten mantras. But in respect of what, precisely? Perhaps the guru will one day reveal the sacred mystery of his own response. The Roman plebeians knew what they wanted; do the British need Corbyn to tell them what they want?