This series has four easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Rome’s Border Wars Leads to Social Unrest.
When wars and pestilence had laid a heavy burden upon the Roman people, there appears to have been a period in which internal commotions and civil strife were stilled, and the quarrels of patricians and plebeians gave way to temporary truce. On the inevitable renewal of the old struggle the college of tribunes adopted a measure favorable to the plebeians in so far as it provided means for checking the abuse of power on the part of consuls in punishing members of that class in connection with the prosecution of suits against them.
The passage of this measure had the effect of reopening former conflicts, the patrician elements becoming greatly alarmed at what they regarded as a fresh encroachment upon their hereditary rights. The contest was long and bitter, each side either bringing forward or rejecting again and again the same measures or the same representatives.
Finally, compromises were made, and in the year B.C. 452 a commission of ten men, called decemvirs, constituting the Decemvirate, was chosen, consisting wholly of patricians, who entered with great efficiency upon the discharge of legislative duties which resulted in the production of a new code. This was approved by the senate and by the popular representatives, and was published in the form of ten copper plates or tables, which were affixed to the speaker’s pulpit in the Forum. Among the new decemvirs appointed in the year B.C. 450 were several plebeians, the first official representatives of the entire people who were chosen from that class.
This selection is from A History of Rome by Henry G. Liddell published in 1855. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Henry G. Liddell was (1811-1898) was dean (1855–91) of Christ Church, Oxford, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University (1870–74), headmaster (1846–55) of Westminster School (where a house is now named after him), author of A History of Rome (1855), and co-author (with Robert Scott) of the monumental work A Greek–English Lexicon, known as “Liddell and Scott”, which is still widely used by students of Greek. Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for Henry Liddell’s daughter Alice.
Time: 450 BC
Place: City of Rome
The patrician burgesses endeavored to wrest independence from the “plebs” after the battle of Lake Regillus; and the latter, ruined by constant wars with the neighboring nations, being compelled to make good their losses by borrowing money from patrician creditors, and liable to become bondsmen in default of payment, at length deserted the city, and only returned on condition of being protected by tribunes of their own; they then, by the firmness of Publilius Volero and Laetorius, obtained the right of electing these tribunes at their own assembly, the “Comitia of the Tribes.” Finally the great consul Spurius Cassius endeavored to relieve the commonalty by an agrarian law, so as to better their condition permanently.
The execution of the Agrarian law was constantly evaded. But on the conquest of Antium from the Volscians, in the year B.C. 468, a colony was sent thither, and this was one of the first examples of a distribution of public land to poorer citizens; which answered two purposes — — the improvement of their condition, and the defense of the place against the enemy.
Nor did the tribunes, now made altogether independent of the patricians, fail to assert their power. One of the first persons who felt the force of their arm was the second Appius Claudius. This Sabine noble, following his father’s example, had, after the departure of the Fabii, led the opposition to the Publilian law. When he took the field against the Volscians, his soldiers would not fight, and the stern commander put to death every tenth man in his legions. For the acts of his consulship he was brought to trial by the tribunes M. Duillius and C. Sicinius. Seeing that conviction was certain, the proud patrician avoided humiliation by suicide.
Nevertheless the border wars still continued, and the plebeians suffered much. To the evils of debt and want were added about this time the horrors of pestilential disease, which visited the Roman territory several times at that period. In one year (B.C. 464) the two consuls, two of the four augurs, and the curio Maximus, who was the head of all the patricians, were swept off — — a fact which implies the death of a vast number of less distinguished persons. The government was administered by the plebeian aediles, under the control of senatorial interreges. The Volscians and Aequians ravaged the country up to the walls of Rome; and the safety of the city must be attributed to the Latins and Hernici, not to the men of Rome.
Meantime the tribunes had in vain demanded a full execution of the Agrarian law. But in the year B.C. 462, one of the Sacred College, by name C. Terentilius Harsa, came forward with a bill, the object of which was to give the plebeians a surer footing in the state. This man perceived that as long as the consuls retained their almost despotic power, and were elected by the influence of the patricians, this order had it in its power to thwart all measures, even after they were passed, which tended to advance the interests of the plebeians. He therefore no longer demanded the execution of the Agrarian law, but proposed that a commission of ten men (decemviri) should be appointed to draw up constitutional laws for regulating the future relations of the patricians and plebeians.
The Reform Bill of Terentilius was, as might be supposed, vehemently resisted by the patrician burgesses. But the plebeians supported their champion no less warmly. For five consecutive years the same tribunes were reelected and in vain endeavored to carry the bill. This was the time which least fulfils the character which we have claimed for the Roman people — — patience and temperance, combined with firmness in their demands. To prevent the tribunes from carrying their law, the younger patricians thronged to the assemblies and interfered with all proceedings; Terentilius, they said, was endeavoring to confound all distinction between the orders. Some scenes occurred which seem to show that both sides were prepared for civil war.
In the year B.C. 460 the city was alarmed by hearing that the Capitol had been seized by a band of Sabines and exiled Romans, under the command of one Herdonius. Who these exiles were is uncertain. But we know, by the legend of Cincinnatus, that Caeso Quinctius, the son of that old hero, was an exile. It has been inferred, therefore, that he was among them, that the tribunes had succeeded in banishing from the city the most violent of their opponents, and that these persons had not scrupled to associate themselves with Sabines to recover their homes. The consul Valerius, aided by the Latins of Tusculum, levied an army to attack the insurgents, on condition that after success the law should be fully considered. The exiles were driven out and Herdonius was killed. But the consul fell in the assault, and the patricians, led by old Cincinnatus, refused to fulfil his promises.
Then followed the danger of the Aequian invasion, to which the legend of Cincinnatus, as given above, refers. The stern old man used his dictatorial power quite as much to crush the tribunes at home as to conquer the enemies abroad.
One of the historians tells us that in this period of seditious violence many of the leading plebeians were assassinated (as the tribune Genucius had been), and to this time only can be attributed the horrible story, mentioned by more than one writer, that nine tribunes were burned alive at the instance of their colleague Mucius. Society was utterly disorganized. The two orders were on the brink of civil war. It seemed as if Rome was to become the city of discord, not of law. Happily, there were moderate men in both orders. Now, as at the time of the secession, their voices prevailed, and a compromise was arranged.
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