Original Roman Constitution - Early History under the Kings - Origin of the Plebeians

With the enlargement of the population of Rome by the addition of these new masses of citizens, a change of the constitution became of course necessary. The following seems to have been the form ultimately assumed: - Governed by a common sovereign, eligible by the whole community from one of the superior tribes - the Ramnes and the Tities - the three tribes intrusted the conduct of their affairs to a senate composed of 200 members, 100 of whom represented the gentes of the Ramnes, and 100 the gentes of the Tities. The Luceres as an inferior tribe, were not rep resented in the senate; and their political influence was limited to the right to vote with the other two tribes in the general assemblies of the whole people.

In these general assemblies, or Comitia, as they were called, the people voted; not individually, nor in families, nor in gentes, but in divisions called Curia or Curies; the Curia being the tenth part of a tribe, and including, according to the ancient system of round numbers, ten gentes. Thus the entire Populus Romanus, or Roman people, of this primitive time, consisted of thirty curies ten curies of Ramnes, ten of Tities, and ten of Luceres: the ten curies of each tribe corresponding to 100 gentes, and the thirty curies together making up 300 gentes. As the Luceres were an inferior tribe, their gentes were called Gentes Minores, or Lesser Houses; while those of the Ramnes and Tities were called Gentes Majores or Greater Houses. The assembly of the whole people was called the Comitia Curiatia, or meeting of curies. After a measure had been matured by the king and senate, it was submitted to the whole people in their curies, who might accept or reject, but could not alter, what was thus proposed to them. An appeal was also open to the curies against any sentence of the king, or of the judges nominated by him in his capacity of supreme justiciary. The king, moreover, was the high priest of the nation in peace, as well as the commander-in-chief during war. The 300 gentes furnished each a horseman, so as to constitute a body of cavalry; the mass of the people forming the infantry. The right of assembling the senate lay with the king, who usually convened it three times a month.

Such was ancient Rome, as it appears to the historic eye endeavoring to penetrate the mists of the past, where at first all seems vague and wavering. The inquirer to whom we owe the power to conceive the condition of ancient Rome, so far as that depended on political institutions, was the celebrated German historian Niebuhr. Not so, however, did the Romans conceive their own early history. In all ancient communities, it was a habit of the popular imagination, nay, it was part of the popular religion; to trace the fortunes of the community to some divine or semi-divine founder; whose exploits, as well as those of his heroic successors, formed the subject of numerous sacred legends and ballads. Now, it was part of the Roman faith that their city had been founded at a point of time corresponding with B.C. 754, by twin brothers of miraculous birth, called Romulus and Remus, whose father was the war god Mars, and their mother a vestal virgin of the line of the Alban kings.

Romulus, according to this legend, surviving his brother Remus, became the king of the village of shepherds which he had founded on the Palatine; and it was in his reign that those events took place which terminated in the establishment of the triple community of the Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres. Setting out with Romulus, the Romans traced the history of their state through a series of legends relating to six kings his successors, whose characters, and the lengths of their reigns, are all duly determined. Of this traditionary succession of seven kings, extending over a period of 245 years (B.C. 754-509), history can recognize with certainty the existence of only the two or three latest. It is possible, however, to elicit out of the legends a glimmering of the actual history of the Roman state during these imaginary reigns.

Possessed, as all our information respecting the Romans in later times justifies us in supposing, of an unusual degree of that warlike instinct which was so rampant among the early tenants of our globe, the shepherd farmers of Rome were incessantly engaged in raids on their Latin, Etruscan, and Sabine neighbors. Strong-bodied, valiant, and persevering, as we also know them to have been, they were, on the whole, successful in these raids; and the consequence was, a gradual extension of their territory, particularly on the Latin side, by the conquest of those who were weaker than themselves. After each conquest, their custom was to deprive the conquered community of a part of their lands, and also of their political independence, annexing them as subjects to the Populus Romanus. The consequence was a gradual accumulation round the original Populus, with its 300 Houses, of a subject-population, free-born, and possessing property, but without political influence. This subject-population, the origin of which is dated by the legends from the reign of Ancus Martins, the fourth king from Romulus, received the name of the Plebs, a word which we translate common people,' but which it would be more correct, in reference to these very ancient times, to translate conquered people.' Besides the plebs, the Roman community received another ingredient in the persons called Clients; strangers, that is, most of them professing mechanical occupations, who, arriving in Rome, and not belonging to a gens, were obliged, in order to secure themselves against molestation, to attach themselves to some powerful citizen willing to protect them, and called by them Patronus, or Patron. About six centuries before Christ, therefore, the population of the growing township of Roma may be considered as having consisted of four classes: 1st, The populus, or patricians, a governing class, consisting of a limited number of powerful families, holding themselves aloof from the rest of the community, not intermarrying with them, and gradually diminishing in consequence; 2d, The plebs, or plebeians, a large and continually-increasing subject-population, of the same mixed Etrusco Sabine-Latin blood as the populus, but domineered over by them by right of conquest; 3d, The clients, a considerable class, chiefly occupied in handicraft professions in the town, while the populus and the plebs confined themselves to the more honorable occupation, as it was then esteemed, of agriculture and 4th, The slaves or servi, whether belonging to patricians, plebeians, or clients a class who were valued along with the cattle.

The increasing numbers of the plebs, the result of fresh wars, and the value of their services to the community, entitled them to possess, and emboldened them to claim, some political consideration. Accordingly, in the reign of Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth of the legendary kings, and in whose reputed Etruscan lineage historians fancy that they can discern a time when Etruscan influence, if not Etruscan arms, reigned paramount in Rome, a modification of the original constitution took place. A number of the richest plebeian families were drafted into the populus, to supply the blanks caused by the dying out of many of the ancient gentes of the Ramnes, Titles, and Luceres; and at the same time the number of senators was increased to 300, by the admission of the Luceres to the same rights as the other two tribes. Even this modification was insufficient; and in order to do justice to the claims of the plebs, Servius Tullius, the successor of Tarquinius, and who is gratefully celebrated in Roman history as the King of the Commons,' proposed and effected an entire renovation of the political system of the state. His first reform consisted in giving the plebs a regular internal organization for its own purposes, by dividing it into thirty tribes or parishes - four for the town, and twenty-six for the country - each provided with an officer or tribe convener called the Tribune, as well as with a detailed machinery of local government; and all permitted to assemble in a general meeting called the Comitia Tributa, to discuss matters purely affecting the plebs. But this was not all. To admit the plebs to a share in the general legislative power of the community, he instituted a third legislative body, called the Comitia Centuriata, in addition to the two the senate and the comitia curiata - already existing. The comitia centuriata was an assembly of the whole free population of the Roman territory - patricians, plebeians, and clients - arranged, according to the amount of their taxable property, in five classes, which again were subdivided into 195 bodies, called Centuries, each century possessing a vote, but the centuries of the rich being much smaller than those of the poor, so as to secure a preponderance to wealth. The powers of the comitia centuriata were similar to those of the comitia curiata under the former system. They had the right to elect supreme magistrates, and to accept or reject a measure referred to them by the king and senate. The comitia curiata, however, still continued to be held; and a measure, even after it had passed the comitia centuriata, had still to be approved by the curies ere it could become a law. Notwithstanding this restriction, the constitution of Servius Tullius was a great concession to the popular spirit, as it virtually admitted every free individual within the Roman territory to a share in the government.

An attempt on the part of Tarquinius Superbus, the successor of Servius Tullius, to undo the reforms of his predecessor, and to establish what the ancients called a tyranny, or a government of individual will, led to the expulsion of him and his family, and to the abolition of the kingly form of government at Rome, B.C. 509, or in the year of the city 245. Instead of a king, two annual magistrates called Consuls were appointed, in whom were vested all the kingly functions, with the exception of the pontifical, for which special functionaries were created. Otherwise, the Servian constitution remained in full operation.