The Commonwealth to the Gaulish Invasion - Struggle between the Patricians and Plebeians

After the expulsion of the kings, the little republic had to struggle through many difficulties arising from the attacks of the neighboring nations, incited thereto by the Tarquinii. Ten of the twenty-six rural parishes were torn away in the contest - a loss equivalent to a full third part of the Roman territory. It would have required a prophetic eye to foresee that, of all the states into which Italy was then divided, this little struggling republic was to obtain the preeminence. One would have been disposed to promise the supremacy of the peninsula rather to the cultured and large-brained Etruscans, already masters of the north of Italy; to the hardy and valiant Samnites, who were fast overspreading the southern interior; or, most probably of all, to the Greeks, who, after adding Sicily to the empire of their gifted race, were rapidly establishing colonies on the southern coasts of the peninsula. Nay, clustered round the Roman territories there were various petty states, any one of which might have appeared a match for Rome the Latins, the Aequians, the Volcians, the Hernicans, the Sabines, and the Etruscans of Veii on the right bank of the Tiber. Who could have predicted that, bursting this cincture of nations, the men of the Tiber would overspread the peninsula, and, by the leavening influence of their character and institutions, throw first it and then all Europe, into fermentation?

It required a period of 119 years (B.C. 509 - 390) to enable the Romans to burst the chain of petty nations Latins, Volscians, Vejentes, etc. - which girdled in their strength. This was a period of almost incessant warfare; the last glorious act of which was the siege and capture of Veil by the hero Camillus, B.C. 395, or in the year of the city 359. By this capture part of Etruria was added to the Roman dominions, and the influence of the state considerably extended on all sides. This conquest, as well as the career of victory against Aequians, Volscians, etc., which had preceded it, was greatly facilitated by a confederacy, offensive and defensive, which had subsisted between the Romans and the adjacent nations of the Latins and the Hernicans from the year of the city 268, the twenty-third year after the expulsion of the kings, when it had been established by the instrumentality of an able patrician named Spurius Cassius, who was three times, in cases of difficulty, elected to the consulship. This confederacy with two powerful nations had insured the stability of the infant republic against all assaults.

The second consulship of Spurius Cassius (year of Rome 261, or B.C. 493) had also been remarkable as the epoch of a formidable civic tumult the first of that long series of struggles between the patricians and the plebeians which constitutes the most interesting portion of the annals of the early Commonwealth. Not long after the expulsion of the kings, the patrician gentes had begun to show a disposition to tamper with the Servian constitution, or at least to prevent the plebs from obtaining more power than they already possessed. The principal instrument by which they were able to cripple the energies of the plebs was the operation of the law of debt. In primitive Rome, as in other ancient states, an insolvent debtor was liable to be seized by his creditor, and kept in chains, or made to work as his slave. Now, such had been the distress of the first years of the republic, that multitudes of the plebeians, deprived, by the casualties of war, of their little properties, had been Obliged, in order to preserve the lives of their families, to become debtors to the patricians, the exclusive proprietors of the state lands. Hundreds had, in consequence, fallen into a condition of slavery; and many more, fearing to offend their patrician creditors by opposing their designs, had become mere ciphers in the comitia centuriata. In short, the plebs, as a body, were disintegrated and disheartened. Some instances of oppression, more flagrant than ordinary, led to an outbreak, and a clamor for the abolition of all existing debts; and to enforce their demands, the plebeians adopted a method of agitation which seems singular enough to our modern conceptions; they, or at least such of them as were in arms for military service, retired in a mass from the city at a time when it was threatened with invasion, and encamped on a hill near, declaring they would starve sooner than live in such a place as Rome was: The government was thus reduced to a dead lock; Spurius Cassius was chosen consul by the patricians; and by his instrumentality an arrangement was come to, by which the demands of the commons were conceded, existing debts abolished, a treaty of mutual obligation for the future agreed to between the populus and the plebs as between two independent communities, and a new office instituted, under the title of the Tribuneship of the Common People, for the express purpose of protecting the interests of the plebs. The commons then returned to the city; two tribunes of the people were appointed; and their number was subsequently increased first to five, and afterwards to ten. No one could have foreseen how important this office would become.