Reforms the Roman Constitution Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Lex Hortensia brought about constitutional reform by making plebiscites equal to laws and enforceable on the entire community.

Summary of Event

Throughout the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e., persistent class conflict raged in Rome between the privileged patrician class and the plebeians over the distribution of political rights and powers. Eventually, the plebeians managed to win increasing degrees of equality with the patricians. By means of various laws, they had gained recognition of intermarriage with patricians and the right of election to all major political offices. The patricians had also recognized the plebeians as a distinct political body within the state by granting to them the power of electing their own officials, the tribunes of the people. Most of these gains (essentially tactical concessions to the new economic and military power of the plebeians) were won only grudgingly from the patricians, who retained ultimate control over the state by dominating the legislative process. Hortensius, Quintus

In the early Roman constitution, a measure became law after it had been proposed to and ratified by a validly convened assembly, or comitia, of the community. Such assemblies had to be convoked by a consul or a praetor, could meet only on specified days after the performance of stipulated religious rituals, and could only vote “yes” or “no” to properly submitted proposals. Even after a proposal had been affirmed, it still required ratification by the patrician senators before it became valid. To ensure further patrician control over the legislative process, the main assembly in the early period was the comitia centuriata, in which the voting groups were unequal and a minority of wealthy patrician citizens could influence the final ballot. Once a proposal had navigated this complex process, it became law and was binding on all members of the community regardless of class affiliation, but the restrictions on the autonomy of the legislative body allowed the predominantly patrician senate (which did not itself have the power to enact laws) to subordinate legislation to senatorial interests and programs.

From the earliest days of the Roman Republic, the plebeians had formed their own assembly (the Concilium Plebis), which contained only plebeian members and attended to their interests alone. Although convened by its own legitimate authority—one of the tribunes—it was not considered to be a comitia because it was limited to the enactment of proposals that were binding only on the plebeians themselves. Such enactments were termed plebiscites and were rigidly distinguished from laws, which obligated everyone.

The first attempt to change this situation was contained in one of the provisions of the Valerio-Horatian laws of 449 b.c.e., which stipulated that validly enacted plebiscites were to enjoy the same standing as laws and bind the entire citizen populace. The ineffectiveness of this law required a similar enactment by Quintus Publilius Philo in 339 b.c.e., which again attempted to convert plebiscites into laws. Some historians have seen both these laws as fictitious anticipations of the later Lex Hortensia, while others have argued that both laws were real enough but contained some qualifying condition, such as the necessity of senatorial ratification, before plebiscites became legally binding on everyone. It is likely, however, that both laws were passed without any qualification but were simply disregarded by the patricians as invalid since they had been passed without their approval.

This situation developed into a crisis in 287 b.c.e., when the plebeians, who had contributed greatly to the recent victory over the Samnites, imposed a general strike by withdrawing as a group from the city to force the patricians to meet their demands. In this emergency, the extreme measure was taken of appointing as dictator the plebeian and otherwise undistinguished Quintus Hortensius. Hortensius put through a law, called the Lex Hortensia, again making plebiscites equal to laws and enforceable on the entire community. The plebeians returned to the city after the acceptance of this constitutional reform by the patricians, and thereafter there was no further opposition to this particular issue by the patricians.


Roman legal theorists treat subsequent plebiscites and laws as equivalent legislative enactments differing only in their point of origin. Armed with the power of making laws, the plebeians became an influential part of Roman political life; the tribunate, as the initiator of plebiscites, grew into a more powerful office; and the democratic aspects of the Roman constitution became more evident and effective.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buckland, William Warwick. A Manual of Roman Private Law. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1953. Still the best source available for an analysis of the laws affecting Roman citizenship and private life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bush, Archie C. Studies in Roman Social Structure. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982. A general treatment of issues affecting Roman class and society, including marriage, the family, and kinship. The discussion of the conflicts inherent in Rome’s social structure will help clarify the issues leading to the passage of the Lex Hortensia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crook, John Anthony. Law and Life of Rome. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967. Discusses the evolution of Roman law within the context of social conditions.
  • 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 excellent discussion of class as an issue in Roman society and its impact upon the development of Roman legal and constitutional history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watson, Alan. The Evolution of Law. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. A good general introduction on the history and development of Roman law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yavetz, Zvi. Plebs and Princeps. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969. The classic study of the Roman class system. Though focusing primarily upon the imperial period, this work provides important background on social conflicts that extended early into republican society.

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