Establishment of the Canuleian Law Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Canuleian Law continued a process of Roman political reform by making it possible for the plebeian class to attain patrician status.

Summary of Event

During the last decade of the sixth century b.c.e., the political community already established in Rome took its first steps toward the Republican constitution of the first century b.c.e. The traditional system of kingship was overthrown and replaced by two magistrates equipped with broad executive powers who were elected annually. Legislative initiative and political power were vested in the senate, a self-sustaining body of elder counselors. Although both these organs of government appeared to be republican in character, they were unable to forestall civil strife at Rome and reflected the basic discrepancy in Roman society behind that strife. This dichotomy was the so-called struggle of the orders, a class conflict that was contested on almost all levels of communal life. Gaius Canuleius

The two classes engaged in the struggle were known as patricians and plebeians. After 509 b.c.e., the traditional date for the beginning of the Roman Republic, the plebeians held an inferior position within the Roman state. They were excluded from political office and the senate because such honors were reserved for the patricians. Furthermore, the plebeians were barred from the official religious bodies of the state and, by one of the laws in the Twelve Tables, from intermarriage with the patricians. The cause and significance of these prohibitions can be found in the underlying social structure of Rome.

The predominant social unit was the gens, or clan, which consisted of a group of families linked by a common name and the veneration of a common male ancestor. The origin of the gens structure has been keenly disputed, but there is general agreement among scholars that it was an outgrowth of the economic progress within the early agrarian society of Rome. Increased wealth caused a split into upper and lower classes that hardened into richer and poorer families. Members of the richer and more powerful clans called themselves patricians from their exclusive hold on the senate, whose original members were termed patres, or fathers. This nobility of wealth eventually became a nobility of blood that claimed for itself full citizenship and total dominance in all aspects of political life. For the fifth century b.c.e., scholars have found evidence of the existence of fifty such patrician clans, entrenched in power and maintained by privilege.

Opposed to the patricians were the plebeians. Scholars have debated their origin, but plebeians were probably not racially distinct from the patricians. In general, plebeians were the poorer elements of Roman society who had not shared in the economic advances of the early years of Roman history. This original core was augmented by the workers and peasants who had either been attracted to Rome by its commercial growth or engulfed by the spread of Roman conquest. Together, these various strands formed the plebs, or multitude. The plebeians were not a servile class; they always possessed a number of political and civil rights. Furthermore, the plebeians also had a gens structure within which individual plebeian clans gradually increased in size and wealth. They eventually became discontented with their second-class status; throughout the first half of the fifth century, they repeatedly demanded, and obtained, greater equity within the state. The plebeians acquired their own officials, the tribunes of the plebs, to act as their protectors and leaders. In 449 b.c.e., a special commission completed the first written codification of law at Rome, the famous Twelve Tables, which made knowledge of the law accessible to everyone. These gains were not obtained without patrician resistance, however, as evidenced by the inclusion in the Twelve Tables of the ban on intermarriage—a blatant reminder that the plebeians did not enjoy total equality.

It is misleading to say that marriage between the two groups was completely forbidden. Roman law recognized various forms of marriage, the simplest being the mere cohabitation of a man and a woman. If such an arrangement persisted without interruption for one year, the two parties were considered legally married, except in the case of patricians and plebeians. A plebeian woman could share the house of a patrician man for the required period without becoming patrician, and the children of such a union were not considered patrician. The decisive factor in this arrangement was a religious one. The only valid marriage ceremony for patricians was the solemn religious ritual called confarreatio. For a valid marriage between the two groups, therefore, the plebeians would have to be permitted entrance into the tenaciously guarded domain of patrician religion.

This impasse was circumvented in 445 b.c.e. by Gaius Canuleius, a tribune of the people, who proposed a law rescinding the ban on intermarriage. The law did not eliminate the exclusion of plebeians from the ceremony of confarreatio; instead, it recognized cohabitation and another secular form of marriage as legally binding so that a wife and her children gained patrician status. It seems probable that the patricians at first rejected even this compromise, which left their religion intact. The plebeians countered with their most effective weapon, a mass withdrawal from the communal life of the city. This drastic measure compelled the patricians to accept the law.


With the enactment of the Canuleian Law, the plebeians shed another vestige of their inferior status. Civil strife between the two classes persisted, but for the plebeians, the new law came to stand as one of their more gratifying victories.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aubert, Jean-Jacques, and Boudewijn Sirks, eds. Speulum iuris: Roman Law as a Reflection of Social and Economic Life in Antiquity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. A collection of essays examining the relationship between Roman law and the social and economic life of the Romans. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buckland, W. W. A Manual of Roman Private Law. 2d ed. Holmes Beach, Fla.: Wm. W. Gaunt, 1994. A detailed analysis of the major laws affecting Roman citizenship and private life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferenczy, Endre. From the Patrician State to the Patricio-Plebeian State. Translated by G. Dedinsky. Amsterdam: A. M. Hakkert, 1976. An excellent survey of the major reforms in the Roman government expanding the legal rights of non-nobles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardner, Jane F. Being a Roman Citizen. New York: Routledge, 1993. A good introduction for the general reader on the impact of Roman law upon private life. Written in a popular style but well researched.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, Richard E. Patricians and Plebeians: The Origin of the Roman State. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. An examination of the relationship between patricians and plebeians in the early Roman Republic. Bibiliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Münzer, Friedrich. Roman Aristocratic Parties and Families. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. This work on the aristocracy in Rome sheds light on the class structure in Republican Rome. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sandberg, Kaj. Magistrates and Assemblies: A Study of Legislative Practice in Republican Rome. Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2001. An examination of the legislative process under the Roman Republic. Bibliography and index.

Categories: History