This supreme council of ten, or decemvirs, was first appointed in the year B.C. 450.
Continuing The Decemvirate In Rome,
our selection 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. The selection is presented in four easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Decemvirate In Rome.
Time: 450 BC
Place: City of Rome
In the eighth year after the first promulgation of the Terentilian law, this compromise was made (B.C. 454). The law itself was no longer pressed by the tribunes. The patricians, on the other hand, so far gave way as to allow three men (triumviri) to be appointed, who were to travel into Greece, and bring back a copy of the laws of Solon, as well as the laws and institutes of any other Greek states which they might deem good and useful. These were to be the groundwork of a new code of laws, such as should give fair and equal rights to both orders and restrain the arbitrary power of the patrician magistrates.
Another concession made by the patrician lords was a small installment of the Agrarian law. L. Icilius, tribune of the plebs, proposed that all the Aventine hill, being public land, should be made over to the plebs, to be their quarter forever, as the other hills were occupied by the patricians and their clients. This hill, it will be remembered, was consecrated to the goddess Diana (Jana), and though included in the walls of Servius, was yet not within the sacred limits (pomoerium) of the patrician city. After some opposition the patricians suffered this Icilian law to pass, in hopes of soothing the anger of the plebeians. The land was parcelled out into building — sites. But as there was not enough to give a separate plot to every plebeian householder that wished to live in the city, one allotment was assigned to several persons, who built a joint house flats or stories, each of which was inhabited — as in Edinburgh and in most foreign towns — by a separate family.
The three men who had been sent into Greece returned in the third year (B.C. 452). They found the city free from domestic strife, partly from the concessions already made, partly from expectation of what was now to follow, and partly from the effect of a pestilence which had broken out anew.
So far did moderate counsels now prevail among the patricians, that after some little delay they agreed to suspend the ordinary government by the consuls and other officers, and in their stead to appoint a council of ten, who were, during their existence, to be entrusted with all the functions of government. But they were to have a double duty: they were not only an administrative, but also a legislative council. On the one hand, they were to conduct the government, administer justice, and command the armies. On the other, they were to draw up a code of laws by which equal justice was to be dealt out to the whole Roman people, to patricians and plebeians alike, and by which especially the authority to be exercised by the consuls, or chief magistrates, was to be clearly determined and settled.
This supreme council of ten, or decemvirs, was first appointed in the year B.C. 450. They were all patricians. At their head stood Appius Claudius and T. Genucius, who had already been chosen consuls for this memorable year. This Appius Claudius (the third of his name) was son and grandson of those two patrician chiefs who had opposed the leaders of the plebeians so vehemently in the matter of the tribunate. But he affected a different conduct from his sires. He was the most popular man of the whole council, and became in fact the sovereign of Rome. At first he used his great power well, and the first year’s government of the decemvirs was famed for justice and moderation.
They also applied themselves diligently to their great work of law — making, and before the end of the year had drawn up a code of ten tables, which were posted in the Forum, that all citizens might examine them and suggest amendments to the decemvirs. After due time thus spent, the ten tables were confirmed and made law at the Comitia of the Centuries. By this code equal justice was to be administered to both orders without distinction of persons.
At the close of the year the first decemvirs laid down their office, just as the consuls and other officers of state had been accustomed to do before. They were succeeded by a second set of ten, who, for the next year at least, were to conduct the government like their predecessors. The only one of the old decemvirs reelected was Appius Claudius. The patricians, indeed, endeavored to prevent even this, and to this end he was himself appointed to preside at the new elections; for it was held impossible for a chief magistrate to return his own name, when he was himself presiding. But Appius scorned precedents. He returned himself as elected, together with nine others, men of no name, while two of the great Quinctian gens, who offered themselves, were rejected.
Of the new decemvirs, it is certain that three — and it is probable that five — — were plebeians. Appius, with the plebeian Oppius, held the judicial office, and remained in the city; and these two seem to have been regarded as the chiefs. The other six commanded the armies and discharged the duties previously assigned to the quaestors and aediles.
The first decemvirs had earned the respect and esteem of their fellow-citizens. The new Council of Ten deserved the hatred which has ever since cloven to their name. Appius now threw off the mask which he had so long worn, and assumed his natural character — the same as had distinguished his sire and grandsire, of unhappy memory. He became an absolute despot. His brethren in the council offered no hindrance to his will; even the plebeian decemvirs, bribed by power, fell into his way of action and supported his tyranny. They each had twelve lictors, who carried fasces with the axes in them the symbol of absolute power, as in the times of the kings; so that it was said, “Rome had now twelve Tarquins instead of one, and one hundred and twenty armed lictors instead of twelve!” All freedom of speech ceased. The senate was seldom called together. The leading men, patricians and plebeians, left the city. The outward aspect of things was that of perfect calm and peace, but an opportunity only was wanting for the discontent which was smoldering in all men’s hearts to break out and show itself.
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