They were the true populus Romanus, alongside of whom grew up a secondary Roman people, the plebs or commons.
The plebs did not gather round the patres, neither were they conquered by the patres; the patres were developed by natural selection out of the plebs, or, more strictly, out of the ancient populus.
The tribunate called into existence a purely plebeian assembly, firstly, for the election of plebeian magistrates; secondly, for jurisdiction in cases where these magistrates had been injured; thirdly, for presenting petitions on behalf of the plebs through the consuls to the comitia centuriata.
At the time of the Servian reforms both branches of the plebs had a plausible claim to recognition as members of the state, the clients as already partial members of the curia and the gees, the unattached plebeians as equally free with the patricians and possessing clans of their own as solid and united as the recognized gentes.
It may therefore be assumed that long before the clients obtained the right to hold land in their own names and appear in the courts in their own persons there was a free plebs existing alongside of the patricians enjoying limited rights of citizenship. But it is equally certain that before the time of Servius Tullius the rights and duties of citizenship were practically exercised only by the members of the patrician clans.
Of the two latter titles, the first is derived from the name of Venus Genetrix, the ancestress of the Julian house, the second indicates that the colonists were drawn from the plebs Urbana.
The stages of the process (marked by the Valerio-Horatian laws of 449 B.C., the Publilian law of 339 B.C., and the Hortensian law of 287 B.C.) are unknown; but it is probable that the two first of the laws progressively weakened the discretionary power of senate and consuls in admitting such petitions; and that the Hortensian law fully recognized the right of resolutions of the plebs (plebiscita) to bind the whole community.
Thus has been preserved an absolutely unique historical document of great importance, recounting (I) the numerous public offices and honours conferred on him, (2) his various benefactions to the state, to the plebs and to his soldiers, and (3) his military and administrative services to the empire.
On the whole it seems most likely that, while the kernel of the Roman plebs was rural or belonged to the small towns admitted to the Roman franchise, the Attic demos, largely at least, though doubtless not wholly, arose out of the mixed settlers who had come together in the city, answering to the p rotKot of later times.
Cicero and Livy bear testimony to the disappearance of a free plebs from the country districts and its replacement by gangs of slaves working on great estates.