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.

Not content with alleviating the temporary distresses of the plebeians, Spurius Cassius wished permanently to ameliorate their condition; and accordingly, in his third consulship, in the year of the city 268, or B.C. 486, he boldly proposed and carried what was called an Agrarian Law, It is absolutely necessary that the reader of Roman history should under stand this term. According to the early Roman constitution, the lands acquired in war became the property of the whole populus, or body of patricians, in common. Portions of the conquered lands might be purchased from the state by rich persons; and in such cases the purchaser, whether patrician or plebeian, became absolute owner. Usually, however, the lands were not sold, but were annexed to the unallotted property al ready belonging to the populus. With regard to this state land, a very curious system prevailed. Any patrician (but none else) was allowed to occupy and cultivate as much of it as he chose, on condition of paying to the state a tithe of the annual produce if it were arable land, and a fifth if it were laid out in oliveyards or vineyards. The land thus occupied lid not, by right of possession, become the property of the individual he was liable to be turned out of it at the pleasure of the state his landlord; and it was entirely at his own risk that he laid out capital in improving it. As, however, it rarely happened that an individual was ejected from land which he had thus occupied, large tracts of the state land were speedily occupied by enterprising patricians. Such being the plan of distribution, it is evident that in the state lands, occupied and unoccupied, the government possessed a constant fund upon which they could draw in cases of emergency. By selling portions of it, they could raise money; and by assigning portions of it to indigent families, they could permanently provide for them. Several times, it appears, this had been done in the case of indigent plebeian families; and the agrarian law of Spurius Cassius was simply a proposal that a large accession to the state lands having just taken place the government should seize the opportunity to provide for the distressed plebeians, by apportioning them small portions of these state lands. To the plebeians this proposal was exceedingly agreeable; not so, however, to the patricians, who possessed the right of occupying and farming as much of the public territory as they chose, but who lost that right from the moment that the land was apportioned by the state. The patricians, accordingly, resisted the proposal with all their might; and Spurius Cassius having carried it notwithstanding, they caused him to be impeached and put to death as soon as his consulship had expired.

After this event, the patricians renewed their efforts to suppress the plebs, proceeding so far as to transfer the right of electing the consuls from the centuries to the purely patrician body of the curies. The plebeians, however, behaved resolutely, asserting their rights through their tribunes, and by clamors in the comitia tributa, where none but plebeians had a right to take a part. In the year of the city 271, or B.C. 483, they regained the power of choosing one of the consuls; and in the year 283, or B.C. 471, they wrung from the patricians the right of electing their tribunes in their own comitia tributa, instead of the centuries, at the same time obtaining the right to discuss in the comitia tributa affairs affecting the whole Commonwealth. Other concessions followed; and at length, in the year 292, or B.C. 462, a tribune named Caius Terentilius Harsa was so bold as to propose a complete revision of the constitution in all its parts. It was not desirable, he said, that the old distinction be tween populus and plebs, which had originated in war, should be longer kept up; let, therefore, a revision of the whole body of the laws be under taken, with a view to put the plebeians on a legal equality with the patricians, and let some more limited form of supreme magistracy be substituted for the consulship. After a protracted opposition, this proposal resalted, in the year 303, or B.C. 452, in the appointment of the famous First Decemvirate; a board of ten patricians, who were to revise the entire body of the laws, as well as the political machinery of the state, superseding in the meantime all other authority. The digest of Roman law prepared by these decemvirs became the foundation of all subsequent jurisprudence among the Romans; the amendments which they effected on the old laws were favorable to the plebeians. The principal constitution al changes which they carried out were the incorporation of patricians and clients with the plebeian tribes; the investment of the centuries with the powers of an ultimate court of appeal; and the substitution of the decemviral office, of which they themselves were an example, for the consulship, five of the decemvirs to be plebeians. This last change, however, was of short duration; for the second decemvirate was brought to an end by its own depravity. Compelled, by a new secession of the commons, to abdicate, the decemvirs of 305 were succeeded by two popular consuls, under whose auspices several important privileges were obtained for the plebeians, the most important of which was a law conferring on a plebis citum, or resolution of the tribes, the right to become law on receiving the sanction of the patricians, thus enabling the whole people to originate measures as well as the senate. In 310, the plebeians mustered courage to demand that one of the consuls should thenceforward be chosen from their order. To divert them from this, the patricians yielded to another demand - the repeal of the law prohibiting intermarriage between the two orders. The plebeians, however, still persisting in their demand regarding the consulship, the patricians, in 311, offered a compromise, which consisted in breaking down the supreme authority, hitherto concentrated in the consulship, into three offices - the Censorship, the Quaestorship, and the Military Tribunate with consular powers. The censors were to be two in number, chosen for a period of five years, by the curies from among the patricians, subject to the approval of the centuries. Theostensible duty of the censors was the administration of the public revenues; but as they were intrusted with the task of determining the rank of every citizen, and of rating his taxable property, their power was, in reality, enormous. To watch over the moral conduct of the citizens, and to degrade such senators or knights as disgraced their order, were parts of their understood duty. The quaestors, two in number, were to keep the public accounts they were likewise to be patricians, but were to be chosen by the centuries. Regarding the third office, the military tribunate, the plebeians were to have the option of this office, consisting of an indefinite number of persons of somewhat less dignity than the consuls, but to be chosen by the centuries from either order indiscriminately, or of consuls to be chosen, as before, from among the patricians only.

This compromise having been accepted, the period from 311 to 350 was one of incessant agitation on the part of the plebeians, of incessant opposition on the part of the patricians, of incessant shifting between the consulship and the military tribunate, according as the patricians or the plebeians were the stronger. On the whole, however, the plebeians gain ed ground. In 321, the active authority of the censors was limited to eighteen months out of the five years for which they were appointed. In 328, the tribes obtained the right of deliberating on questions of peace and war. In 334, the number of the quaestors was increased to four, to be chosen indiscriminately from either order. Lastly, in 350, or B. O. 404, the system of payment for military service became common. During these forty years the patricians had frequently had recourse to the expedient of appointing a Dictator, or supreme magistrate, with unlimited authority for six months. Such an appointment almost always proved a temporary check to the political advancement of the plebeians. In cases of difficulty also, arising from external danger, it was usual to appoint some able man dictator and it was at such a juncture, in the year 359, that, determined to bring the siege of Veii to a close, the Romans appointed Camillus to this high office.

The siege of Veii having terminated so successfully, the Romans were prepared to resume their career of conquest without, and their political agitations within, when both the one and the other received a check from an unexpected quarter. Some cause, now unknown, had thrown the Gauls, or Celtic populations inhabiting the western portion of Central Europe, into commotion and bursting from their native haunts, a mass of these savages crossed the Alps in quest of plunder and settlements, established a permanent abode in the country adjacent to the Po, and pushed their destructive way through almost the whole length of the peninsula. Rome suffered more severely than any other city. For several months (364-5, or B.C. 390-89) it was in the possession of the savages - its rightful in habitants, routed in the battle, having dispersed themselves for safety through the surrounding country. At length, however, the Gauls were bribed to return to their homes in the north, leaving Rome in ruins.