Ancient History & Civilisation


Livy speaks of ‘duas civitates ex una factas’ as a result of the agitation of the plebs; it would be more accurate to say that the plebs succeeded in forming a state within the state by setting up their own organizations to resist the oppressive government of the patricians. They established plebeian assemblies and officers, and forced their rivals to recognize these. Such an attempt might well have led to a bloody revolution, but tolerance and patience averted this calamity; the Romans preferred to adapt their institutions to existing needs rather than to risk disaster by trying to pour new wine into old bottles. The prelude to the bloodless revolution was the First Secession of 494 BC, when the plebs on returning from a campaign refused to enter Rome and withdrew to the Mons Sacer (the ‘Mount of Curses’ rather than the ‘Sacred Mount’). Menenius Agrippa at last persuaded them to return, showing by a parable of the ‘Belly and the Limbs’ that they were a vital part of the state. A lex sacrata confirmed the terms of a compact, which guaranteed some economic relief to the peasants and the establishment of two plebeian tribunes as their champions. This tradition is doubtful and many historians would jettison the whole account as designed to explain the early existence of the tribunes. Others would suppose that there is a kernel of truth in the story and that early in the fifth century the plebs did secede to the Aventine, possibly in 471 when, as will be seen, the patricians officially recognized the tribunes.14 In any case the two orders did not enter a formal contract in 494; at the most the plebs swore an oath to slay anyone who destroyed their tribunes: that is, a section of the people declared its rights and that the infringement of these would justify a revolution.

The comparative facility with which the plebs established their own assembly and officers was due to the recent ‘Servian’ organization of the whole people into tribes. Whatever the chief object of this reform may have been, it produced a result which its promoters can hardly have foreseen. The plebs may already have been accustomed to hold meetings to discuss their common needs; in such gatherings, which were perhaps summoned by curiae, the urban plebs and the clients of patrician families would predominate. Whether or no such early meetings existed, it is certain that a plebeian gathering was now organized on the new tribal and territorial basis so that the small farmers and proprietors got the upper hand, or at least a fair representation. This new Concilium Plebis Tributum had at first no constitutional position, but the patricians were gradually forced to take note of it, until in 471 a law (lex Publilia) gave the plebs the right to meet and elect their officers by tribes: the Concilium Plebis and the tribunes were officially recognized.15

So convenient was the arrangement by tribes, compared with the more cumbersome centuriate organization, that later (perhaps in 447 when the quaestorship was thrown open to popular election) it was imitated by the creation of a new assembly of the whole people meeting by tribes to simplify the conduct of business in matters of minor importance. This assembly was called the Comitia Tributa Populi and is quite distinct from the Concilium Plebis; assemblies of the whole people (populus) were called Comitia, meetings of the plebs alone, Concilia.16 The functions of election, jurisdiction and legislation of the tribes remained distinct from those of the centuries.

The powers of the Concilium Plebis were strictly limited. It elected tribunes and aediles, but the Comitia Centuriata continued to elect all magistrates who had Imperium; the Comitia Tributa, if in existence, was not yet an electing body. In jurisdiction the Concilium Plebis was not a high court of justice in capital cases tried on appeal, as legend asserts; this duty was reserved to the Comitia Centuriata. It may, however, have tried cases relating to the infliction of fines on magistrates who in any way violated the rights of the plebs; such cases came later before the Comitia Tributa. Legislation was reserved for the Comitia Centuriata, but the Concilium Plebis passed its own resolutions (plebiscita) which bound the plebs only; if confirmed by the centuries they became laws (leges). The attempt to make these resolutions binding on the whole community without other sanction forms a large factor in the subsequent history of the struggle. In other respects these meetings by tribes resembled the Comitia Centuriata. The initiative lay with the presiding officer, the tribune, and the meeting could only answer his question (rogatio) by voting on the group vote system. There was no debate; if discussion was necessary, it took place at a preliminary contio. But the plebs had won a great victory in establishing their Concilium and still more in forcing through the recognition of their officers.

The origin of the tribuni plebis is obscure. They were not created by the secession of 494, but are to be explained by the growth of the tribal system. Doubtless there were tribal leaders who took the initiative in administrative matters relating to the tribes; these were gradually transformed by force of circumstances into annually elected magistrates who championed the plebs. Alternatively they may have originated from landed gentry who were outside the patrician circle, held minor commands as tribuni militum, and voiced the grievances of the plebeians. Their power was not legal, but sacrosanct: the plebs swore that he who did violence to a tribune should be an outlaw, sacer Iovi. Similarly, the number of the tribunes is obscure; originally two, they were increased to perhaps four in 471 BC and to ten probably before 449 BC. Their powers were negative over the whole people, and positive over the plebs. Most important was their right to help a plebeian against the arbitrary exercise of a magistrate’s Imperium (ius auxilii); for this purpose the house of the inviolable tribune remained open night and day and he was forbidden to leave the city. He could enforce his will by his right to constrain even a magistrate (coercitio). There gradually developed a power to veto (intercessio) or annul any official act, so that the tribune could check the whole state machinery. On the positive side he acquired the right to consult the plebs and convene its meetings (ius agendi cum plebe) and thus became a plebeian magistrate. Yet he was not technically a magistrate as he had noImperium and his authority did not extend beyond the city. Though he checked the magistrates and represented a kind of extension of the principle of collegiality to the plebs, he too was subject to the restraint of his colleagues.17

In one further respect the plebs modelled their institutions on those of the city: the tribunes were given two assistants, called aediles, who stood in the same relation to them as the quaestors to the consuls. They kept the archives of the plebs (doubtless documents relating to tribal administration) in the temple of Ceres on the Aventine Mount, and after 449 BC copies of senatorial decrees were deposited with them. They had other functions, such as seizing the victims of the tribunes’ coercitio, and later they took an important share in municipal administration.

The tribune’s sacrosanctity secured his person from danger, but he lacked the trappings of office. The consul wore a robe bordered with purple (toga praetexta) or of full royal red when in command of an army; twelve lictors attended him with their bundles of rods (fasces) which, beyond the city walls, contained an axe; he had an official seat (sella curulis) which later gave its name to the curule offices. All this outward show of dignity the tribunes lacked, but their power grew at the expense of the consuls’. Many were the clashes between the two authorities, as can be surmised from the early story of Coriolanus, the type of proud noble who tried to spurn the tribunes’ power. But the good sense of the Roman people, shown in the timely concessions of the patricians, who countenanced the creation of plebeian assemblies and officers, averted an open revolution.

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