The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 1/Rome Established as a Republic

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184021The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol. 1 — Rome Established as a Republic
Institution of Tribunes
Henry George Liddell



B.C. 510-494


The republic of Rome was the outcome of a sudden revolution caused by the crimes of the House of Tarquin, an Etruscan family who had reached the highest power at Rome. The indignation raised by the rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius, and the suicide of the outraged lady at Collatia, moved her father, in conjunction with Lucius Junius Brutus and Publius Valerius, to start a rebellion. The people were assembled by curiæ, or wards, and voted that Tarquinius Superbus should be stripped of the kingly power, and that he and all his family should be banished from Rome.
This was accordingly done; and, instead of kings, consuls were appointed to wield the supreme power. These consuls were elected annually at the comitia centuriata and they had sovereign power granted them by a vote of the comitia curiata. The first consuls chosen were Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus.
What is known as the Secession to the Sacred Hill took place when the plebeians of Rome, in the early days of the Republic, indignant at the oppression and cruelty of the patricians, left the city en masse and gathered with hostile manifestations at a hill, Mons Sacer, some distance from Rome. It was here Menenius Agrippa conciliated them by reciting the famous fable of "The Belly and the Members." After this the people were induced to come to terms with the patricians and to return to the city.
The people had, however, gained a great advantage by their bold defiance of the consular and patrician class, who had practically been supreme in the state, had been oppressive money-lenders, and had controlled the decisions of the law courts. It was not in vain that the people now demanded that as the two consuls were practically elected to further the interests of the upper class, so they, the plebeians, should have the election of two tribunes to protect them from wrong and oppression. These new officers were duly appointed, and eventually their number was increased to ten. Their power was almost absolute, but it never seems to have been abused, and this fact is a proof of the native moderation of the ancient Romans. There have been many constitutional struggles in the history of modern times, but nothing like the plebeian tribunate has ever appeared, and it is a question if the institution could have existed for a month, in any country of modern times, with the salutary influences which it exercised in early Rome.

Tarquin had made himself king by the aid of the patricians, and chiefly by means of the third or Lucerian tribe, to which his family belonged. The burgesses of the Gentes were indignant at the curtailment of their privileges by the popular reforms of Servius, and were glad to lend themselves to any overthrow of his power. But Tarquin soon kicked away the ladder by which he had risen. He abrogated, it is true, the hated Assembly of the Centuries; but neither did he pay any heed to the Curiate Assembly, nor did he allow any new members to be chosen into the senate in place of those who were removed by death or other causes; so that even those who had helped him to the throne repented them of their deed. The name of Superbus, or the Proud, testifies to the general feeling against the despotic rule of the second Tarquin.

It was by foreign alliances that he calculated on supporting his despotism at home. The Etruscans of Tarquinii, and all its associate cities, were his friends; and among the Latins also he sought to raise a power which might counterbalance the senate and people of Rome.

The wisdom of Tarquinius Priscus and Servius had united all the Latin name to Rome, so that Rome had become the sovereign city of Latium. The last Tarquin drew those ties still closer. He gave his daughter in marriage to Octavius Mamilius, chief of Tusculum, and favored the Latins in all things. But at a general assembly of the Latins at the Ferentine Grove, beneath the Alban Mount, where they had been accustomed to meet of olden time to settle their national affairs, Turnus Herdonius of Aricia rose and spoke against him. Then Tarquinius accused him of high treason, and brought false witnesses against him; and so powerful with the Latins was the king that they condemned their countryman to be drowned in the Ferentine water, and obeyed Tarquinius in all things.

With them he made war upon the Volscians and took the city of Suessa, wherein was a great booty. This booty he applied to the execution of great works in the city, in emulation of his father and King Servius. The elder Tarquin had built up the side of the Tarpeian rock and levelled the summit, to be the foundation of a temple of Jupiter, but he had not completed the work. Tarquinius Superbus now removed all the temples and shrines of the old Sabine gods which had been there since the time of Titus Tatius; but the goddess of Youth and the god Terminus kept their place, whereby was signified that the Roman people should enjoy undecaying vigor, and that the boundaries of their empire should never be drawn in. And on the Tarpeian height he built a magnificent temple, to be dedicated jointly to the great gods of the Latins and Etruscans, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva; and this part of the Saturnian Hill was ever after called the Capitol or the Chief Place, while the upper part was called the Arx or Citadel.

He brought architects from Etruria to plan the temple, but he forced the Roman people to work for him without hire.

One day a strange woman appeared before the king and offered him nine books to buy; and when he refused them she went away and burned, three of the nine books and brought back the remaining six and offered to sell them at the same price that she had asked for the nine; and when he laughed at her and again refused, she went as before and burned three more books, and came back and asked still the same price for the three that were left. Then the king was struck by her pertinacity, and he consulted his augurs what this might be; and they bade him by all means buy the three, and said he had done wrong not to buy the nine, for these were the books of the Sibyl and contained great secrets. So the books were kept underground in the Capitol in a stone chest, and two men (duumviri) were appointed to take charge of them, and consult them when the state was in danger.

The only Latin town that defied Tarquin's power was Gabii; and Sextus, the king's youngest son, promised to win this place also for his father. So he fled from Rome and presented himself at Gabii; and there he made complaints of his father's tyranny and prayed for protection. The Gabians believed him, and took him into their city, and they trusted him, so that in time he was made commander of their army. Now his father suffered him to conquer in many small battles, and the Gabians trusted him more and more. Then he sent privately to his father, and asked what he should do to make the Gabians submit. Then King Tarquin gave no answer to the messenger, but, as he walked up and down his garden, he kept cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies with his staff. At last the messenger was tired, and went back to Sextus and told him what had passed. But Sextus understood what his father meant, and he began to accuse falsely all the chief men, and some of them he put to death and some he banished. So at last the city of Gabii was left defenceless, and Sextus delivered it up to his father.

While Tarquin was building his temple on the Capitol, a strange portent offered itself; for a snake came forth and devoured the sacrifices on the altar. The king, not content with the interpretation of his Etruscan soothsayers, sent persons to consult the famous oracle of the Greeks at Delphi, and the persons he sent were his own sons Titus and Aruns, and his sister's son, L. Junius, a young man who, to avoid his uncle's jealousy, feigned to be without common sense, wherefore he was called Brutus or the Dullard. The answer given by the oracle was that the chief power of Rome should belong to him of the three who should first kiss his mother; and the two sons of King Tarquin agreed to draw lots which of them should do this as soon as they returned home. But Brutus perceived that the oracle had another sense; so as soon as they landed in Italy he fell down on the ground as if he had stumbled, and kissed the earth, for she (he thought) was the true mother of all mortal things.

When the sons of Tarquin returned with their cousin, L. Junius Brutus, they found the king at war with the Rutulians of Ardea. Being unable to take the place by storm, he was forced to blockade it; and while the Roman army was encamped before the town the young men used to amuse themselves at night with wine and wassail. One night there was a feast, at which Sextus, the king's third son, was present, as also Collatinus, the son of Egerius, the king's uncle, who had been made governor of Collatia. So they soon began to dispute about the worthiness of their wives; and when each maintained that his own wife was worthiest, "Come, gentlemen," said Collatinus, "let us take horse and see what our wives are doing; they expect us not, and so we shall know the truth." All agreed, and they galloped to Rome, and there they found the wives of all the others feasting and revelling: but when they came to Collatia they found Lucretia, the wife of Collatinus, not making merry like the rest, but sitting in the midst of her handmaids carding wool and spinning; so they all allowed that Lucretia was the worthiest.

Now Lucretia was the daughter of a noble Roman, Spurius Lucretius, who was at this time prefect of the city; for it was the custom, when the kings went out to war, that they left a chief man at home to administer all things in the king's name, and he was called prefect of the city.

But it chanced that Sextus, the king's son, when he saw the fair Lucretia, was smitten with lustful passion; and a few days after he came again to Collatia, and Lucretia entertained him hospitably as her husband's cousin and friend. But at midnight he arose and came with stealthy steps to her bedside: and holding a sword in his right hand, and laying his left hand upon her breast, he bade her yield to his wicked desires; for if not, he would slay her and lay one of her slaves beside her, and would declare that he had taken them in adultery. So for shame she consented to that which no fear would have wrung from her: and Sextus, having wrought this deed of shame, returned to the camp.

Then Lucretia sent to Rome for her father, and to the camp at Ardea for her husband. They came in haste. Lucretius brought with him P. Valerius, and Collatinus brought L. Junius Brutus, his cousin, And they came in and asked if all was well Then she told them what was done: "but," she said, "my body only has suffered the shame, for my will consented not to the deed. Therefore," she cried, "avenge me on the wretch Sextus. As for me, though my heart has not sinned, I can live no longer. No one shall say that Lucretia set an example of living in unchastity." So she drew forth a knife and stabbed herself to the heart.

When they saw that, her father and her husband cried aloud; but Brutus drew the knife from the wound, and holding it up, spoke thus: "By this pure blood I swear before the gods that I will pursue L. Tarquinius the Proud and all his bloody house with fire, sword, or in whatsoever way I may, and that neither they nor any other shall hereafter be king in Rome." Then he gave the knife to Collatinus and Lucretius and Valerius, and they all swore likewise, much marvelling to hear such words from L. Junius the Dullard. And they took up the body of Lucretia, and carried it into the Forum, and called on the men of Collatia to rise against the tyrant. So they set a guard at the gates of the town, to prevent any news of the matter being carried to King Tarquin: and they themselves, followed by the youth of Collatia, went to Rome. Here Brutus, who was chief captain of the knights, called the people together, and he told them what had been done, and called on them by the deed of shame wrought against Lucretius and Collatinus—by all that they had suffered from the tyrants—by the abominable murder of good King Servius—to assist them in taking vengeance on the Tarquins. So it was hastily agreed to banish Tarquinius and his family. The youth declared themselves ready to follow Brutus against the king's army, and the seniors put themselves under the rule of Lucretius, the prefect of the city. In this tumult, the wicked Tullia fled from her house, pursued by the curses of all men, who prayed that the avengers of her father's blood might be upon her.

When the king heard what had passed, he set off in all haste for the city. Brutus also set off for the camp at Ardea; and he turned aside that he might not meet his uncle the king. So he came to the camp at Ardea, and the king came to Rome. And all the Romans at Ardea welcomed Brutus, and joined their arms to his, and thrust out all the king's sons from the camp. But the people of Rome shut the gates against the king, so that he could not enter. And King Tarquin, with his sons Titus and Aruns, went into exile and lived at Cære in Etruria. But Sextus fled to Gabii, where he had before held rule, and the people of Gabii slew him in memory of his former cruelty.

So L. Tarquinius Superbus was expelled from Rome, after he had been king five-and-twenty years. And in memory of this event was instituted a festival called the "Regifugium" or "Fugalia," which was celebrated every year on the 24th day of February.

To gratify the plebeians, the patricians consented to restore, in some measure at least, the popular institutions of King Servius; and it was resolved to follow his supposed intention with regard to the supreme government—that is, to have two magistrates elected every year, who were to have the same power as the king during the time of their rule. These were in after days known by the name of Consuls; but in ancient times they were called "Prætors" or Judges. They were elected at the great Assembly of Centuries; and they had sovereign power conferred upon them by the assembly of the Curies. They wore a robe edged with violet color, sat in their chairs of state called curule chairs, and were attended by twelve lictors each. These lictors carried fasces, or bundles of rods, out of which arose an axe, in token of the power of life and death possessed by the consuls as successors of the kings. But only one of them at a time had a right to this power; and, in token thereof, his colleague's fasces had no axes in them. Each retained this mark of sovereign power (Imperium) for a month at a time.

The first consuls were L. Junius Brutus and L. Tarquinius Collatinus.

The new consuls filled up the senate to the proper number of three hundred; and the new senators were called "Conscripti," while the old members retained their old name of "Patres." So after this the whole senate was addressed by speakers as "Patres, Conscripti." But in later times it was forgotten that these names belonged to different sorts of persons, and the whole senate was addressed as by one name, "Patres Conscripti."

The name of king was hateful. But certain sacrifices had always been performed by the king in person; and therefore, to keep up form, a person was still chosen, with the title of "Rex Sacrorum" or "Rex Sacrificulus," to perform these offerings. But even he was placed under the authority of the chief pontifex.

After his expulsion, King Tarquin sent messengers to Rome to ask that his property should be given up to him, and the senate decreed that his prayer should be granted. But the king's ambassadors, while they were in Rome, stirred up the minds of the young men and others who had been favored by Tarquin, so that a plot was made to bring him back. Among those who plotted were Titus and Tiberius, the sons of the Consul Brutus; and they gave letters to the messengers of the king. But it chanced that a certain slave hid himself in the place where they met, and overheard them plotting; and he came and told the thing to the consuls, who seized the messengers of the king with the letters upon their persons, authenticated by the seals of the young men. The culprits were immediately arrested; but the ambassadors were let go, because their persons were regarded as sacred. And the goods of King Tarquin were given up for plunder to the people.

Then the traitors were brought up before the consuls, and the sight was such as to move all beholders to pity; for among them were the sons of L. Junius Brutus himself, the first consul, the liberator of the Roman people. And now all men saw how Brutus loved his country; for he bade the lictors put all the traitors to death, and his own sons first; and men could mark in his face the struggle between his duty as a chief magistrate of Rome and his feelings as a father. And while they praised and admired him, they pitied him yet more.

Then a decree of the senate was made that no one of the blood of the Tarquins should remain in Rome. And since Collatinus, the consul, was by descent a Tarquin, even he was obliged to give up his office and return to Collatia. In his room, P. Valerius was chosen consul by the people.

This was the first attempt to restore Tarquin the Proud.

When Tarquin saw that the plot at home had failed, he prevailed on the people of Tarquinii and Veii to make war with him against the Romans. But the consuls came out against them; Valerius commanding the main army, and Brutus the cavalry. And it chanced that Aruns, the king's son, led the cavalry of the enemy. When he saw Brutus he spurred his horse against him, and Brutus declined not the combat. So they rode straight at each other with levelled spears; and so fierce was the shock, that they pierced each other through from breast to back, and both fell dead.

Then, also, the armies fought, but the battle was neither won nor lost. But in the night a voice was heard by the Etruscans, saying that the Romans were the conquerors. So the enemy fled by night; and when the Romans arose in the morning, there was no man to oppose them. Then they took up the body of Brutus, and departed home, and buried him in public with great pomp, and the matrons of Rome mourned him for a whole year, because he had avenged the injury of Lucretia.

And thus the second attempt to restore King Tarquin was frustrated.

After the death of Brutus, Publius Valerius ruled the people for a while by himself, and he began to build himself a house upon the ridge called Velia, which looks down upon the Forum. So the people thought that he was going to make himself king; but when he heard this, he called an assembly of the people, and appeared before them with his fasces lowered, and with no axes in them, whence the custom remained ever after, that no consular lictors wore axes within the city, and no consul had power of life and death except when he was in command of his legions abroad. And he pulled down the beginning of his house upon the Velia, and built it below that hill. Also he passed laws that every Roman citizen might appeal to the people against the judgment of the chief magistrates. Wherefore he was greatly honored among the people, and was called "Poplicola," or "Friend of the People."

After this Valerius called together the great Assembly of the Centuries, and they chose Sp. Lucretius, father of Lucretius, to succeed Brutus. But he was an old man, and in not many days he died. So M. Horatius was chosen in his stead.

The temple on the Capitol which King Tarquin began had never yet been consecrated. Then Valerius and Horatius drew lots which should be the consecrator, and the lot fell on Horatius. But the friends of Valerius murmured, and they wished to prevent Horatius from having the honor; so when he was now saying the prayer of consecration, with his hand upon the doorpost of the temple, there came a messenger, who told him that his son was just dead, and that one mourning for a son could not rightly consecrate the temple. But Horatius kept his hand upon the doorpost, and told them to see to the burial of his son, and finished the rites of consecration. Thus did he honor the gods even above his own son.

In the next year Valerius was again made consul, with T. Lucretius; and Tarquinius, despairing now of aid from his friends at Veii and Tarquinii, went to Lars Porsenna of Clusium, a city on the river Clanis, which falls into the Tiber. Porsenna was at this time acknowledged as chief of the twelve Etruscan cities; and he assembled a powerful army and came to Rome. He came so quickly that he reached the Tiber and was near the Sublician Bridge before there was time to destroy it; and if he had crossed it the city would have been lost. Then a noble Roman, called Horatius Codes, of the Lucerian tribe, with two friends—Sp. Lartius, a Ramnian, and T. Herminius, a Titian—posted themselves at the far end of the bridge, and defended the passage against all the Etruscan host, while the Romans were cutting it off behind them. When it was all but destroyed, his two friends retreated across the bridge, and Horatius was left alone to bear the whole attack of the enemy. Well he kept his ground, standing unmoved amid the darts which were showered upon his shield, till the last beams of the bridge fell crashing into the river. Then he prayed, saying, "Father Tiber, receive me and bear me up, I pray thee." So he plunged in, and reached the other side safely; and the Romans honored him greatly: they put up his statue in the Comitium, and gave him as much land as he could plough round in a day, and every man at Rome subscribed the cost of one day's food to reward him.

Then Porsenna, disappointed in his attempt to surprise the city, occupied the Hill Janiculum, and besieged the city, so that the people were greatly distressed by hunger. But C. Mucius, a noble youth, resolved to deliver his country by the death of the king. So he armed himself with a dagger, and went to the place where the king was used to sit in judgment. It chanced that the soldiers were receiving their pay from the king's secretary, who sat at his right hand splendidly apparelled; and as this man seemed to be chief in authority, Mucius thought that this must be the king; so he stabbed him to the heart. Then the guards seized him and dragged him before the king, who was greatly enraged, and ordered them to burn him alive if he would not confess the whole affair. Then Mucius stood before the king and said: "See how little thy tortures can avail to make a brave man tell the secrets committed to him"; and so saying, he thrust his right hand into the fire of the altar, and held it in the flame with unmoved countenance. Then the king marvelled at his courage, and ordered him to be spared, and sent away in safety: "for," said he, "thou art a brave man, and hast done more harm to thyself than to me." Then Mucius replied: "Thy generosity, O king, prevails more with me than thy threats. Know that three hundred Roman youths have sworn thy death: my lot came first. But all the rest remain, prepared to do and suffer like myself." So he was let go, and returned home, and was called "Scævola," or "The Left-handed," because his right hand had been burnt off.

King Porsenna was greatly moved by the danger he had escaped, and perceiving the obstinate determination of the Romans, he offered to make peace. The Romans gladly gave ear to his words, for they were hard pressed, and they consented to give back all the land which they had won from the Etruscans beyond the Tiber. And they gave hostages to the king in pledge that they would obey him as they had promised, ten youths and ten maidens. But one of the maidens, named Cloelia, had a man's heart, and she persuaded all her fellows to escape from the king's camp and swim across the Tiber. At first King Porsenna was wroth; but then he was much amazed, even more than at the deeds of Horatius and Mucius. So when the Romans sent back Cloelia and her fellow-maidens—for they would not break faith with the king—he bade her return home again, and told her she might take whom she pleased of the youths who were hostages; and she chose those who were yet boys, and restored them to their parents.

So the Roman people gave certain lands to young Mucius, and they set up an equestrian statue to the bold Cloelia at the top of the Sacred Way. And King Porsenna returned home; and thus the third and most formidable attempt to bring back Tarquin failed.

When Tarquin now found that he had no hopes of further assistance from Porsenna and his Etruscan friends, he went and dwelt at Tusculum, where Mamilius Octavius, his son-in-law, was still chief. Then the thirty Latin cities combined together and made this Octavius their dictator, and bound themselves to restore their old friend and ally, King Tarquin, to the sovereignty of Rome.

P. Valerius, who was called "Poplicola," was now dead, and the Romans looked about for some chief worthy to lead them against the army of the Latins. Poplicola had been made consul four times, and his compeers acknowledged him as their chief, and all men submitted to him as to a king. But now the two consuls were jealous of each other; nor had they power of life and death within the city, for Valerius (as we saw) had taken away the axes from the fasces. Now this was one of the reasons why Brutus and the rest made two consuls instead of one king: for they said that neither one would allow the other to become tyrant; and since they only held office for one year at a time, they might be called on to give account of their government when their year was at an end.

Yet though this was a safeguard of liberty in times of peace, it was hurtful in time of war, for the consuls chosen by the people in their great assemblies were not always skilful generals; or if they were so, they were obliged to lay down their command at the year's end.

So the senate determined, in cases of great danger, to call upon one of the consuls to appoint a single chief, who should be called "dictator," or master of the people. He had sovereign power (Imperium) both in the city and out of the city, and the fasces were always carried before him with the axes in them, as they had been before the king. He could only be appointed for six months, but at the end of the time he had to give no account. So that he was free to act according to his own judgment, having no colleague to interfere with him at the present, and no accusations to fear at a future time. The dictator was general-in-chief, and he appointed a chief officer to command the knights under him, who was called "master of the horse."

And now it appeared to be a fit time to appoint such a chief, to take the command of the army against the Latins. So the first dictator was T. Lartius, and he made Spurius Cassius his master of the horse. This was in the year B.C. 499, eight years after the expulsion of Tarquin.

But the Latins did not declare war for two years after. Then the senate again ordered the consul to name a master of the people, or dictator; and he named Aul. Postumius, who appointed T. Æbutius (one of the consuls of that year) to be his master of the horse. So they led out the Roman army against the Latins, and they met at the Lake Regillus, in the land of the Tusculans. King Tarquin and all his family were in the host of the Latins; and that day it was to be determined whether Rome should be again subject to the tyrant and whether or not she was to be chief of the Latin cities.

King Tarquin himself, old as he was, rode in front of the Latins in full armor; and when he descried the Roman dictator marshalling his men, he rode at him; but Postumius wounded him in the side, and he was rescued by the Latins. Then also Æbutius, the master of the horse, and Oct. Mamilius, the dictator of the Latins, charged one another, and Æbutius was pierced through the arm, and Mamilius wounded in the breast. But the Latin chief, nothing daunted, returned to battle, followed by Titus, the king's son, with his band of exiles. These charged the Romans furiously, so that they gave way; but when M. Valerius, brother of the great Poplicola, saw this, he spurred his horse against Titus, and rode at him with spear in rest; and when Titus turned away and fled, Valerius rode furiously after him into the midst of the Latin host, and a certain Latin smote him in the side as he was riding past, so that he fell dead, and his horse galloped on without a rider. So the band of exiles pressed still more fiercely upon the Romans, and they began to flee.

Then Postumius the dictator lifted up his voice and vowed a temple to Castor and Pollux, the great twin heroes of the Greeks, if they would aid him; and behold there appeared on his right two horsemen, taller and fairer than the sons of men, and their horses were as white as snow. And they led the dictator and his guard against the exiles and the Latins, and the Romans prevailed against them; and T. Herminius the Titian, the friend of Horatius Cocles, ran Mamilius, the dictator of the Latins, through the body, so that he died; but when he was stripping the arms from his foe, another ran him through, and he was carried back to the camp, and he also died. Then also Titus, the king's son, was slain, and the Latins fled, and the Romans pursued them with great slaughter, and took their camp and all that was in it. Now Postumius had promised great rewards to those who first broke into the camp of the Latins, and the first who broke in were the two horsemen on white horses; but after the battle they were nowhere to be seen or found, nor was there any sign of them left, save on the hard rock there was the mark of a horse's hoof, which men said was made by the horse of one of those horsemen.

But at this very time two youths on white horses rode into the Forum at Rome. They were covered with dust and sweat and blood, like men who had fought long and hard, and their horses also were bathed in sweat and foam: and they alighted near the Temple of Vesta, and washed themselves in a spring that gushes out hard by, and told all the people in the Forum how the battle by the Lake Regillus had been fought and won. Then they mounted their horses and rode away, and were seen no more.

But Postumius, when he heard it, knew that these were Castor and Pollux, the great twin brethren of the Greeks, and that it was they who fought so well for Rome at the Lake Regillus. So he built them a temple, according to his vow, over the place where they had alighted in the Forum. And their effigies were displayed on Roman coins to the latest ages of the city.

This was the fourth and last attempt to restore King Tarquin. After the great defeat of Lake Regillus, the Latin cities made peace with Rome, and agreed to refuse harborage to the old king. He had lost all his sons, and, accompanied by a few faithful friends, who shared his exile, he sought a last asylum at the Greek city of Cumæ in the Bay of Naples, at the court of the tyrant Aristodemus. Here he died in the course of a year, fourteen years after his expulsion.

We shall now record, not only the slow steps by which the Romans recovered dominion over their neighbors, but also the long-continued struggle by which the plebeians raised themselves to a level with the patricians, who had again become the dominant caste at Rome. Mixed up with legendary tales as the history still is, enough is nevertheless preserved to excite the admiration of all who love to look upon a brave people pursuing a worthy object with patient but earnest resolution, never flinching, yet seldom injuring their good cause by reckless violence. To an Englishman this history ought to be especially dear, for more than any other in the annals of the world does it resemble the long-enduring constancy and sturdy determination, the temperate will and noble self-control, with which the Commons of his own country secured their rights. It was by a struggle of this nature, pursued through a century and a half, that the character of the Roman people was molded into that form of strength and energy, which threw back Hannibal to the coasts of Africa, and in half a century more made them masters of the Mediterranean shore.

There can be no doubt that the wars that followed the expulsion of the Tarquins, with the loss of territory that accompanied them, must have reduced all orders of men at Rome to great distress. But those who most suffered were the plebeians. The plebeians at that time consisted entirely of landholders, great and small, and husbandmen, for in those times the practice of trades and mechanical arts was considered unworthy of a freeborn man. Some of the plebeian families were as wealthy as any among the patricians; but the mass of them were petty yeoman, who lived on the produce of their small farm, and were solely dependent for a living on their own limbs, their own thrift and industry. Most of them lived in the villages and small towns, which in those times were thickly sprinkled over the slopes of the Campagna.

The patricians, on the other hand, resided chiefly within the city. If slaves were few as yet, they had the labor of their clients available to till their farms; and through their clients also they were enabled to derive a profit from the practice of trading and crafts, which personally neither they nor the plebeians would stoop to pursue. Besides these sources of profit, they had at this time the exclusive use of the public land, a subject on which we shall have to speak more at length hereafter. At present, it will be sufficient to say, that the public land now spoken of had been the crown land or regal domain, which on the expulsion of the kings had been forfeited to the state. The patricians being in possession of all actual power, engrossed possession of it, and seem to have paid a very small quit-rent to the treasury for this great advantage.

Besides this, the necessity of service in the army, or militia—as it might more justly be called—acted very differently on the rich landholder and the small yeoman. The latter, being called out with sword and spear for the summer's campaign, as his turn came round, was obliged to leave his farm uncared for, and his crop could only be reaped by the kind aid of neighbors; whereas the rich proprietor, by his clients or his hired laborers, could render the required military service without robbing his land of his own labor. Moreover, the territory of Rome was so narrow, and the enemy's borders so close at hand, that any night the stout yeoman might find himself reduced to beggary, by seeing his crops destroyed, his cattle driven away, and his homestead burnt in a sudden foray. The patricians and rich plebeians were, it is true, exposed to the same contingencies. But wealth will always provide some defence; and it is reasonable to think that the larger proprietors provided places of refuge, into which they could drive their cattle and secure much of their property, such as the peel-towers common in our own border counties. Thus the patricians and their clients might escape the storm which destroyed the isolated yeoman.

To this must be added that the public land seems to have been mostly in pasturage, and therefore the property of the patricians must have chiefly consisted in cattle, which was more easily saved from depredation than the crops of the plebeian. Lastly, the profit derived from the trades and business of their clients, being secured by the walls of the city, gave to the patricians the command of all the capital that could exist in a state of society so simple and crude, and afforded at once a means of repairing their own losses, and also of obtaining a dominion over the poor yeoman.

For some time after the expulsion of the Tarquins it was necessary for the patricians to treat the plebeians with liberality. The institutions of "the Commons' King," King Servius, suspended by Tarquin, were, partially at least, restored: it is said even that one of the first consuls was a plebeian, and that he chose several of the leading plebeians into the senate. But after the death of Porsenna, and when the fear of the Tarquins ceased, all these flattering signs disappeared. The consuls seem still to have been elected by the Centuriate Assembly, but the Curiate Assembly retained in their own hands the right of conferring the Imperium, which amounted to a positive veto on the election by the larger body. All the names of the early consuls, except in the first year of the Republic, are patrician. But if by chance a consul displayed popular tendencies, it was in the power of the senate and patricians to suspend his power by the appointment of a dictator. Thus, practically, the patrician burgesses again became the Populus, or body politic of Rome.

It must not here be forgotten that this dominant body was an exclusive caste; that is, it consisted of a limited number of noble families, who allowed none of their members to marry with persons born out of the pale of their own order. The child of a patrician and a plebeian, or of a patrician and a client, was not considered as born in lawful wedlock; and however proud the blood which it derived from one parent, the child sank to the condition of the parent of lower rank. This was expressed in Roman language by saying, that there was no "Right of Connubium" between patricians and any inferior classes of men. Nothing can be more impolitic than such restrictions; nothing more hurtful even to those who count it their privilege. In all exclusive or oligarchical,pales, families become extinct, and the breed decays both in bodily strength and mental vigor. Happily for Rome, the patricians were unable long to maintain themselves as a separate caste.

Yet the plebeians might long have submitted to this state of social and political inferiority, had not their personal distress and the severe laws of Rome driven them to seek relief by claiming to be recognized as members of the body politic.

The severe laws of which we speak were those of debtor and creditor. If a Roman borrowed money, he was expected to enter into a contract with his creditor to pay the debt by a certain day; and if on that day he was unable to discharge his obligation, he was summoned before the patrician judge, who was authorized by the law to assign the defaulter as a bonds man to his creditor—that is, the debtor was obliged to pay by his own labor the debt which he was unable to pay in money. Or if a man incurred a debt without such formal contract, the rule was still more imperious, for in that case the law itself fixed the day of payment; and if after a lapse of thirty days from that date the debt was not discharged, the creditor was empowered to arrest the person of his debtor, to load him with chains, and feed him on bread and water for another thirty days; and then, if the money still remained unpaid, he might put him to death, or sell him as a slave to the highest bidder; or, if there were several creditors, they might hew his body in pieces and divide it. And in this last case the law provided with scrupulous providence against the evasion by which the Merchant of Venice escaped the cruelty of the Jew; for the Roman law said that "whether a man cut more or less [than his due], he should incur no penalty." These atrocious provisions, however, defeated their own object, for there was no more unprofitable way in which the body of a debtor could be disposed of.

Such being the law of debtor and creditor, it remains to say that the creditors were chiefly of the patrician caste, and the debtors almost exclusively of the poorer sort among the plebeians. The patricians were the creditors, because from their occupancy of the public land, and from their engrossing the profits to be derived from trade and crafts, they alone had spare capital to lend. The plebeian yeomen were the debtors, because their independent position made them, at that time, helpless. Vassals, clients, serfs, or by whatever name dependents are called, do not suffer from the ravages of a predatory war like free landholders, because the loss falls on their lords or patrons. But when the independent yeoman's crops are destroyed, his cattle "lifted," and his homestead in ashes, he must himself repair the loss. This was, as we have said, the condition of many Roman plebeians. To rebuild their houses and restock their farms they borrowed; the patricians were their creditors; and the law, instead of protecting the small holders, like the law of the Hebrews, delivered them over into serfdom or slavery.

Thus the free plebeian population might have been reduced to a state of mere dependency, and the history of Rome might have presented a repetition of monotonous severity, like that of Sparta or of Venice.[1] But it was ordained otherwise. The distress and oppression of the plebeians led them to demand and to obtain political protectors, by whose means they were slowly but surely raised to equality of rights and privileges with their rulers and oppressors. These protectors were the famous Tribunes of the Plebs. We will now repeat the no less famous legends by which their first creation was accounted for.

It was, by the common reckoning, fifteen years after the expulsion of the Tarquins (B.C. 494), that the plebeians were roused to take the first step in the assertion of their rights. After the battle of Lake Regillus, the plebeians had reason to expect some relaxation of the law of debt, in consideration of the great services they had rendered in the war. But none was granted. The patrician creditors began to avail themselves of the severity of the law against their plebeian debtors. The discontent that followed was great, and the consuls prepared to meet the storm. These were Appius Claudius, the proud Sabine nobleman who had lately become a Roman, and who now led the high patrician party with all the unbending energy of a chieftain whose will had never been disputed by his obedient clansmen; and P. Servilius, who represented the milder and more liberal party of the Fathers.

It chanced that an aged man rushed into the Forum on a market-day, loaded with chains, clothed with a few scanty rags, his hair and beard long and squalid; his whole appearance ghastly, as of one oppressed by long want of food and air. He was recognized as a brave soldier, the old comrade of many who thronged the Forum. He told his story, how that in the late wars the enemy had burned his house and plundered his little farm; that to replace his losses he had borrowed money of a patrician, that his cruel creditor (in default of payment) had thrown him into prison,[2] and tormented him with chains and scourges. At this sad tale, the passions of the people rose high.

Appius was obliged to conceal himself, while Servilius undertook to plead the cause of the plebeians with the senate.

Meantime news came to the city that the Roman territory was invaded by the Volscian foe. The consuls proclaimed a levy; but the stout yeomen, one and all, refused to give in their names and take the military oath. Servilius now came forward and proclaimed by edict that no citizen should be imprisoned for debt so long as the war lasted, and that at the close of the war he would propose an alteration of the law. The plebeians trusted him, and the enemy was driven back. But when the popular consul returned with his victorious soldiers, he was denied a triumph, and the senate, led by Appius, refused to make any concession in favor of the debtors.

The anger of the plebeians rose higher and higher, when again news came that the enemy was ravaging the lands of Rome. The senate, well knowing that the power of the consuls would avail nothing, since Appius was regarded as a tyrant, and Servilius would not choose again to become an instrument for deceiving the people, appointed a dictator to lead the citizens into the field. But to make the act as popular as might be, they named M. Valerius, a descendant of the great Poplicola. The same scene was repeated over again. Valerius protected the plebeians against their creditors while they were at war, and promised them relief when war was over. But when the danger was gone by, Appius again prevailed; the senate refused to listen to Valerius, and the dictator laid down his office, calling gods and men to witness that he was not responsible for his breach of faith.

The plebeians whom Valerius had led forth were still under arms, still bound by their military oath, and Appius, with the violent patricians, refused to disband them. The army, therefore, having lost Valerius, their proper general chose two of themselves, L. Junius Brutus and L. Sicinius Bellutus by name, and under their command they marched northward and occupied the hill which commands the junction of the Tiber and the Anio. Here, at a distance of about two miles from Rome, they determined to settle and form a new city, leaving Rome to the patricians and their clients. But the latter were not willing to lose the best of their soldiery, the cultivators of the greater part of the Roman territory, and they sent repeated embassies to persuade the seceders to return. They, however, turned a deaf ear to all promises, for they had too often been deceived. Appius now urged the senate and patricians to leave the plebeians to themselves. The nobles and their clients, he said, could well maintain themselves in the city without such base aid.

But wiser sentiments prevailed. T. Lartius, and M. Valerius, both of whom had been dictators, with Menenius Agrippa, an old patrician of popular character, were empowered to treat with the people. Still their leaders were unwilling to listen, till old Menenius addressed them in the famous fable of the "Belly and the Members":

"In times of old," said he, "when every member of the body could think for itself, and each had a separate will of its own, they all, with one consent, resolved to revolt against the belly. They knew no reason, they said, why they should toil from morning till night in its service, while the belly lay at its ease in the midst of all, and indolently grew fat upon their labors. Accordingly they agreed to support it no more. The feet vowed they would carry it no longer; the hands that they would do no more work; the teeth that they would not chew a morsel of meat, even were it placed between them. Thus resolved, the members for a time showed their spirit and kept their resolution; but soon they found that instead of mortifying the belly they only undid themselves: they languished for a while, and perceived too late that it was owing to the belly that they had strength to work and courage to mutiny."

The moral of this fable was plain. The people readily applied it to the patricians and themselves, and their leaders proposed terms of agreement to the patrician messengers. They required that the debtors who could not pay should have their debts cancelled, and that those who had been given up into slavery should be restored to freedom. This for the past. And as a security for the future, they demanded that two of themselves should be appointed for the sole purpose of protecting the plebeians against the patrician magistrates, if they acted cruelly or unjustly toward the debtors. The two officers thus to be appointed were called "Tribunes of the Plebs." Their persons were to be sacred and inviolable during their year of office, whence their office is called sacrosancta Potestas. They were never to leave the city during that time, and their houses were to be open day and night, that all who needed their aid might demand it without delay.

This concession, apparently great, was much modified by the fact that the patricians insisted on the election of the tribunes being made at the Comitia of the Centuries, in which they themselves and their wealthy clients could usually command a majority. In later times, the number of the tribunes was increased to five, and afterward to ten. They were elected at the Comitia of the tribes. They had the privilege of attending all sittings of the senate, though they were not considered members of that famous body. Above all, they acquired the great and perilous power of the veto, by which any one of their number might stop any law, or annul any decree of the senate without cause or reason assigned. This right of veto was called the "Right of Intercession."

On the spot where this treaty was made, an altar was built to Jupiter, the causer and banisher of fear, for the plebeians had gone thither in fear and returned from it in safety. The place was called Mons Sacer, or the Sacred Hill, forever after, and the laws by which the sanctity of the tribunitian office was secured were called the Leges Sacratæ.

The tribunes were not properly magistrates or officers, for they had no express functions or official duties to discharge. They were simply representatives and protectors of the plebs. At the same time, however, with the institution of these protective officers, the plebeians were allowed the right of having two ædiles chosen from their own body, whose business it was to preserve order and decency in the streets, to provide for the repair of all buildings and roads there, with other functions partly belonging to police officers, and partly to commissioners of public works.


  1. A well-known German historian calls the Spartans by the name of "stunted Romans." There is much resemblance to be traced.
  2. Such prisons were called ergastula, and afterward became the places for keeping slaves in.