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From Hutton Webster's, Early European History (1917); edited for this on-line publication, by ELLOPOS
IV. THE RISE OF ROME TO 264 B.C.
» Contents of this ChapterPage 15
This divided power of the consuls might work very well in times of peace. During dangerous wars or insurrections it was likely to prove disastrous. A remedy was found in the temporary revival of the old kingship under a new name. When occasion required, one of the consuls, on the advice of the Senate, appointed a dictator. The consuls then gave up their authority and the people put their property and lives entirely at the dictator's disposal. During his term of office, which could not exceed six months, the state was under martial law. Throughout Roman history there were many occasions when a dictatorship was created to meet a sudden emergency.
PATRICIANS AND PLEBEIANS
The Roman state, during the regal age, seems to have been divided between an aristocracy and a commons. The nobles were called patricians,  and the common people were known as plebeians.  The patricians occupied a privileged position, since they alone sat in the Senate and served as priests, judges, and magistrates. In fact, they controlled society, and the common people found themselves excluded from much of the religious, legal, and political life of the Roman city. Under these circumstances it was natural for the plebeians to agitate against the patrician monopoly of government. The struggle between the two orders of society lasted about two centuries.
 From the Latin patres, "fathers."
 Latin plebs, "the crowd."
Cf. The Ancient Greece * The Ancient Rome
Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) * Western Medieval Europe * Renaissance in Italy