The political history of the two hundred years which followed the fall of the monarchy is mainly that of the struggle of the social orders, as the plebeians sought protection from, and then equality with, the patricians. The kings may have tried to temper the power of the nobles by giving consideration to the people, but in the Republic the plebeians had no protection against the consuls, and their political disabilities were numerous. Most, if not all, magistrates, priests and judges were patricians. But when the losses in the numerous wars with the Etruscans, Aequi and Volsci (see Chap. IV) fell mainly on the patricians, they were soon forced to realize the military value of the rapidly increasing plebeians. At the same time the plebeians, who risked their lives in Rome’s defence, became conscious of their rights and found a means by which to extort them. Their method was a general strike (secessio); they threatened to withdraw from Rome when their military services were most needed. Tradition records five such secessions between 494 and 287 BC; not all of them are historical and many of the details are false, but this was certainly the method adopted.
This struggle between the orders was political and social, but it was also economic; the influence of this aspect has been very differently estimated. As our records of the struggle were composed after the agrarian troubles of Gracchan days, many have supposed that the economic element has been greatly exaggerated in order to provide precedents for later agrarian legislation, and that the party fights are modelled on the political upheavals of Sulla’s day. Undoubtedly the influence of later history has falsified much of the traditional account, but the basic elements may still be sound. In so far as the concessions won by the plebs were political, we may suppose that the richer plebeians worked to that end. But as economic legislation also resulted, it cannot be denied that economic distress was a real cause of the trouble; whether directly or only because the leaders of the movement were clever enough to use it as a handle for their own political ends, is another question. Probably the urban plebs wanted protection and political recognition and privilege, while the country plebs clamoured for more land and greater freedom. The whole history of the struggle is closely interrelated with Rome’s wars with her neighbours which are recounted in the next chapter.
The new Republic presumably wished to maintain Rome’s earlier trade relations, and indeed made a treaty with Carthage which probably merely renewed an earlier agreement of regal times (p. 53). Nevertheless, her commerce and industry suffered a gradual decline. Greek pottery was still imported, but on a smaller scale than in the sixth century, until a dramatic change took place in the mid-century: fifty-three red-figure vases imported from Athens have been found at Rome which date from the years 500–450 BC, whereas only two occur from the years 450–420, and the trade did not begin to revive until c. 400.8 During the early part of the fifth century Rome’s commerce was matched by much building activity in the city: temples to Saturn in 496, to Mercury (the god of commerce) in 495, to Ceres, Liber and Libera on the Aventine in 495 (to secure their favour for the corn supply), to the Dioscuri in the Forum in 484, and to Dius Fidius in 466. Thus Greek artists and Roman workmen were kept busy; but then the activity died down: economic difficulties were obviously increasing, while Etruscan cultural influences were waning (as we have seen, a few men with Etruscan names occasionally even held the consulship until 487, but only a small number appear between 461 and 448). Rome was clearly reverting to a simpler state and greater dependence on what was always her main interest, agriculture.
With the decline of industry in the city, some of the workers who remained, being landless, may have sunk into some kind of dependence. But the plight of the farmers formed the main grievance. This arose from shortage of land. A strip of two iugera (1⅓ acres), which formed a minimum heredium in early Rome, was hardly sufficient to support a family, and its soil might soon be overworked and become less productive. It could be supplemented by grazing animals on commons, while the ager publicus could be rented from the state by individual tenants. But this was of little use to the peasant who lacked capital. The situation was aggravated by the harsh laws of debt, for a peasant would soon fall into debt when his crops failed through a series of bad seasons or when he returned from military service to find his farm ruined through mishandling or enemy raids during his absence. Whether or not he had to pay high rates of interest the nature of the contract which he formed soon reduced him to serfdom.9 As the development of full private property was slow, probably at this period a peasant could not alienate his land outside his family, or mortgage it. At Solonian Athens land was not entailed within the family, but farms were expropriated and later restored to the debtors; at Rome we hear of no such process. As a man could not offer his land as security, he must perforce offer his person. He might anticipate events by becoming a client; if he failed to achieve this status he had to enter into a formal contract (nexum) which pledged personal service as security, so that the peasant became a serf until he worked off his debt. Defaulters (addicti) could be sold into slavery or even put to death by their creditors (at any rate in theory).10 Though extreme cases may have been rare, it can easily be understood that the plight of the debtor was wretched. His misery and that of the town-dweller was often increased by actual shortage of food, due in part to the ravages of war. So severe were these famines in the fifth century that the government had to interfere and to import foreign corn into the home market, for instance from Cumae (492) and Sicily (488).11 In 440 or 439 a famine was so acute that the plebs appointed L. Minucius to deal with the corn supply; when he failed, a rich plebeian, named Spurius Maelius, appeared as a deus ex machina, distributed corn to the people and was thereafter killed by C. Servilius Ahala for aspiring to a tyranny. Whatever the truth about Maelius may be, attempts to undermine the historicity of Minucius have failed, and there is good reason to suppose that Rome on occasion suffered from famine in the fifth and fourth centuries, as well as outbreaks of severe epidemics.12
The wretchedness of their economic position induced the peasants to raise the cry that land from the ager publicus should be distributed to individuals. Though the amount of public land at this period was small, and though such a cry was typical of Gracchan times, there is no cause to doubt this. The leader of the movement, the consul Sp. Cassius, who proposed to distribute public land, was killed for aiming at kingship (486). Many details of his story are false, and he himself bears a suspicious resemblance to Gracchus, but he may well be an historical figure who voiced the grievances of the peasants and pricked the conscience of the patricians.13 For thirty years after his death we hear of continued but unsuccessful agitation to renew his proposal. In 456 on the proposal of L. Icilius the public land on the Aventine was distributed to provide dwellings for the plebs. This would relieve the unemployed proletariat in the city (if such existed), but it hardly affected the distress of the peasantry, which was ameliorated rather by the foundation of colonies, or outposts of Roman citizens; these served both as garrisons in newly-conquered territory and as outlets for surplus population. The conquered land would doubtless have been exploited by the patricians, so that its employment for colonies was a useful concession by the nobles, though the earlier colonies were not so numerous as tradition alleges, and many were of Latin foundation.