Who were the Roman plebs? (Would Mr Mitchell have been one of them?)
This post is not an attempt to give a lifeline to Andrew Mitchell. In fact I have been congratulating myself a bit smugly these last couple of days for some rare prescience on my part. That is to say, almost as soon as he had, or hadn't said, what he is reported as saying, I observed that the F word was far less damaging than the P word..."plebeian" or "pleb".
Within modern British culture, since the sixteenth century at least, this bit of sub-Latin has been used with a decidely derogatory sense. "Hath not the pulchritude of my vertues protected me from the contaminating hands of these plebeians"... is a line penned by Sir Philip Sidney (who died in 1586). And the Oxford English Dictionary can produce examples almost up to the present day. "Why can't these plebeians live like the ants that they are in high-rise public-housing projects."... from the Boston Herald in 2004. Or there's the shortened form: "‘A bit of a pleb, wasn't he?’ put in the military friend.".. that's from Huxley's Point, Counter Point.
But what does it originally mean?
The word comes from Latin (plebeius, or plebs). But the Latin story is a bit more complicated. Sure there is also a strongly derogatory use. Cicero was typical of the Roman upper class when he talked about the sordida plebs ("the great unwashed"). Just like the late first century AD poet Statius, could say as a compliment of a patron's house and bathing establishment nil ibi plebeium ("nothing common there!"). There is no doubt at all that most Roman toffs would have perfectly well understood what Mr Mitchell did or didnt say.
But it was more complicated than that.
The full version of the term, plebeius, goes back at least to the early years of the Republic in the fifth century BC (and probably into the even earlier period of the Roman kings, from Romulus to Tarquin the Proud).
If we are to follow the account of (say) Livy, the fifth and early fourth centuries BC at Rome were marked by a class struggle between two hereditary groups of people: the patricians -- a small set of families, who led all the power in the state, who monopolised political and religious office and wealth; and the plebeians -- who were all the rest, who were not allowed much if any of a say in running the state. The big issues of this period was the so-called Struggle of the Orders -- the series of campaigns by which the plebeians gradually got access to all important offices of the state (including tactics, like the first known sit down strike, which were to be hugely influential on the later Labour movement).
Anyway, in the fifth century, the plebeians got their own officials to look after their own interests (Tribunes of the People.. hence the "Tribune Group"), and in 367 BC -- so Roman story went -- plebeians were admitted to the top office of consulship. By the second century BC there was no functional difference between patricians and plebeians, except there were a few old-fashioned priesthoods that still went to patricians only. (That's the offical Roman version at least... we suspect the story was a bit more complicated; in fact the recorded names of some of the earliest consuls pre 367 BC are recognisably plebeian, and no one has ever quite explained that.)
The point about the Romans, though, was that they never quite threw any of their old catgories and divisions away. And although it had no practical purpose, the formal hereditary division of patricians and plebeians remained forever. Everyone at Rome would always have known whether they were technically a patrician or plebeian. And the office of Tribune of the People remained throughout Roman history, and was only filled by plebeians... but by the first century BC, Tribunes were just as often introducing deeply conservative legislation as popular measures in support of the people.
The irony then is that most of the mega rich, pushy and snobby Roman politicians of the first century BC were, in formal terms, plebeians. Cicero was, Pompey was, so was Mr Moneybags himself ("Count no man as rich unless he can raise his own army"), Marcus Licinius Crassus. So when Cicero was being snooty about the sordida plebs (and plebs is just short for plebeius), we have to remember that strictly he was actually a plebeian himself.
So I think that the best way to get at Mr Mitchell might be to point out to him that, snob as I guess he is, he is probably just as plebeian as those he was insulting. Pots and kettles.