Sixty years of strife: the patrician regime, c. 509–449 BC

By the late 6th century, the monarchy was in decay. The Tarquins had come to power with popular support, but their government became autocratic and repressive. The kings fought numerous wars of conquest and built many great monuments, but these policies came at a cost to the general population. When the kings also claimed descent from the gods and behaved like despots – in itself a response to declining popularity – their supporters abandoned them. Crucially, their main political base was eroded by the very success of their reforms: once the Assembly of the Centuries was securely established as a sovereign body, the hostility of the middling sort towards the patricians subsided, and the popular role of the Tarquins was largely played out. The focus shifted to secondary matters: the burden of war service, the cost of public works, abuses of power. In these conditions, the patrician aristocracy was able to reassert itself and, under the increasingly tyrannical regime of Tarquinius Superbus, to plot the overthrow of the monarchy.

The plotters’ aim was not full-blooded counter-revolution. The patricians did not wish to – or were not strong enough to – abolish the Assembly of the Centuries and impose a narrow oligarchy. Broadly, they accepted the new political order, based, as it was, on the city-state’s dependence on a mass army of citizen-hoplites. Indeed, in a sense, the army was the prize in contention between king and nobles. The growing wealth of the city was a result of successful war, but court government meant favouritism and whimsy in the distribution of spoils, a tendency exacerbated by the king’s declining popularity and his consequent reliance on a small inner circle. The plotters wanted to destroy the system of royal patronage and put the state under collective aristocratic control. The aim was a government that would not restrict the distribution of offices and spoils to a court clique.

The king was with the army at Ardea when revolt broke out in Rome in c. 509 BC. He immediately marched back to the capital, but there he found the rebels in firm control and the gates shut against him. Meantime, some of the rebel leaders had reached Ardea and persuaded the army to join the revolt. Tarquinius and most of his family then fled to Caere in Etruria, setting up a court in exile which spent its time trying to drum up support for restoration. For some years, the final outcome remained uncertain. The Etruscan adventurer Lars Porsenna – acting ostensibly in the Tarquin interest but really in his own – invaded Roman territory and threatened the city. This effort, however, was among the last gasps of Etruscan imperial power. Stretched thin across their sprawling domains, the Etruscans were being driven back on several fronts. The Greeks of Cumae had inflicted a decisive defeat on them in distant Campania in c. 524 BC, and, responding to a request for help from the Latin cities, had recently sent a seaborne expedition north to challenge Etruscan supremacy in Latium. A Greek victory over an army led by one of Lars Porsenna’s sons at Aricia in c. 506 BC enabled the Latin cities to assert their independence. Rome’s anti-Tarquin revolution – part of a broader anti-Etruscan movement across west-central Italy – was not to be reversed.

Though the patricians enjoyed a measure of popular support – else the army would not have mutinied – they were neither nationalists nor democrats, and in fact had no particular political programme at all save to overthrow the king and advance themselves to power. The monarchy, latterly at least, had been centralized and authoritarian. The new government was the opposite, a loose alliance of rival families, each commanding an extensive network of personal dependants. The head of each patrician family had an inner retinue of kinsmen and servants – like 7th century clan-chiefs – but also an outer retinue of clients (clientes) who, though not related by blood or marriage, were tied to their patron (patronus) by reciprocal obligations of service and protection. Where the state’s organs of justice were weak or partial, patrons provided support amid the vicissitudes of life: the resources and influence to secure legal redress; the means to execute judgments in the absence of official law enforcement; letters of introduction (from one great man to another) to facilitate travel and trade; loans, even gifts, to bridge the effects of harvest failure, war damage or accidental loss; the services of a doctor, a tutor, a cook, or a pretty slave-girl. The benefits to patrons were no less tangible. In a world where the measure of a man was the size of his retinue, clients were expected to attend any summons – to a feast, a court-hearing, an election contest, a street confrontation, even a pitched battle. And since a strong patron offered better protection and succour, all clients had an interest in the advancement of their own leader. Around 500 BC, ‘the comrades (sodales) of Publius Valerius’ set up a dedication to Mars at the Latin city of Satricum. Not as subjects of a king, citizens of a state, or members of a tribe did they define themselves, but as a group of men united by allegiance to an aristocratic patron. Even private wars were possible. The Fabii clan mobilized its retinue in c. 477 BC to wage its own war against the Etruscan city of Veii – and suffered shattering defeat at the battle of Cremera. Others turned on Rome herself: disgruntled nobles and their clients fought alongside Etruscans, Sabines and Volsci against the mother-city. The rivalry of patrician retinues contained destructive power. Baronial anarchy threatened the fledgling Republic.

The city constitution evolved as an attempt to contain the retinues and structure their rivalry. The composition of the aristocracy at first remained open. New families, some Roman, some foreign, joined the 136 reputedly recognized as patrician in the time of the kings. When the Sabine chieftain Appius Claudius migrated to Rome in c. 504 BC – with, it is said, 5,000 dependants and clients – he was granted patrician rank and admitted to the Senate. Subsequently, however, the ranks of the aristocracy closed against newcomers, and the patricians became an exclusive caste. The twin principles of collegiality and annual elections then served to channel and contain competition within this group. In place of the king, whose authority had been autocratic and for life, the Early Republic was administered by two supreme magistrates – at first called ‘praetors’ (praetores), later ‘consuls’ (consules) – elected annually from among the patricians. The latter formed an advisory council – the Senate (senatus) – but only gradually did ad hocmeetings of invited ‘elders’ (patres) evolve into a regular assembly of fixed composition.

The consuls inherited much of the king’s political, military and legal authority – but only one third of his religious authority, which they shared with two other high priests, the chief priest (pontifex maximus) and the ‘king of sacred affairs’ (rex sacrorum). Consuls enjoyed wide executive powers – including that of life and death when acting as army commanders-in-chief in the field. But there were limits: each man was constrained by his colleague’s power of veto, such that both consuls had to agree for action to be taken; each could be called to account at the end of his year in office (though not before, since serving magistrates were immune to prosecution); and each knew he would return to his seat on the backbenches, to sit again as an equal among peers, dependent on their support for any further honour.

The consulship had two great advantages. First, it directed the competition between aristocratic houses towards office-holding and military commands within – as opposed to against – the state. The highly prestigious supreme office was rotated, and many men could aspire to achieve it. Any patrician could hope one day to be Rome’s first citizen, the leader of her armies, the master of her assemblies and pageants, the year of his tenure bearing his name forever (since the Romans employed a system of consular dates). Second, the consulship protected the state against over-mighty subjects: by directing ambition’s flow, by ensuring that authority was always shared, short-term and subject to critical review, the danger of civil war – a war of rival retinues – was minimized. It was from these special qualities of the consulship that the Senate derived its famed auctoritas – a word which means, in Latin, a combination of authority, influence and prestige. Strictly, the Senate had no formal power to make law or direct the executive: its constitutional role was purely advisory. In practice, before the late 2nd century BC, the collective sanction of the Senate over individual members was so great that few consuls ever defied a senatorial consultum (tellingly, the word means ‘advice’, but it came to have the force of ‘edict’). The patricians of the Early and Middle Republic operated as a well-organized and united ruling class. It was as well for them that they did, for they faced many enemies, both at home and abroad.

The Tarquins had been empire-builders who had made Rome the most powerful state in Latium and the head of a league of Latin cities. The revolution at Rome and the break-up of the Etruscan imperium seemed to offer the Latins a chance of independence. So they severed relations with Rome and formed a new league without her, placing themselves under the protection of the goddess Diana at the ancient Grove of Ferentina at Aricia, and electing a ‘Latin dictator’ to command the free federate forces (the worddictatordid not have its modern connotation: it signified an elected magistrate given sole and supreme authority for a limited period, either the duration of an emergency or a six-month maximum). Rome, her military pre-eminence threatened by withdrawal of Latin manpower, treated the secession as rebellion and declared war. The main Latin army was soon beaten at the battle of Lake Regillus (c. 499 BC), but the war then dragged on, the Romans unable to capture the Latin cities, their columns facing constant harassment from guerrillas. The peace agreement finally drawn up by the consul Spurius Cassius in c. 493 BC reflected the stalemate – the Latins were too strong to be crushed, but they lacked the offensive power necessary to overthrow Rome. Besides, Romans and Latins needed each other, threatened as they both were by the Itruscans and the hill-tribes. The former Latin League was restored. Within it, Rome, by far the strongest member, was bound to remain dominant – a political reality symbolized by the relocation of the cult of Diana from Aricia to a temple on the Aventine Hill. Despite this, in a real sense the Treaty of Cassius was an alliance of partners: by its terms, Romans and Latins were to remain at peace, enjoy the same legal rights, give support to one another in war, and have equal shares in land and booty. It was an agreement to work as a team, fighting, plundering and colonizing other people. It was destined to hold firm for 150 years.

In the first half of the 5th century BC, however, there was more fighting than plundering or colonizing. Every year, the Latin League found itself at war with the hill-tribes. Hard times in the Apennines were driving the tribesmen down on to the coastal plains to raid and settle. On the frontiers of Latium, Sabines attacked the north-east, Aequi occupied towns in the east, and Volsci settled a swathe of territory in the south. Among them were Roman and Latin renegades like Coriolanus. There was little glory or booty in this fighting; it was a gruelling struggle to defend frontiers and farms against elusive barbarian raiders. Roman land was laid waste. The cost of constant campaigning drained resources. The burden of military service weighed heavily on the people. Men with land near the frontier saw farms destroyed or annexed. The 6th century boom in temple building and pottery production came to an end. The Roman economy slumped, and life for many went sour. Some said it had been better under the kings.

Patricians, on the other hand, seem to have got richer. As they did so, they closed ranks against new blood and entrenched their constitutional power. Republican Rome was an agrarian society where most wealth came from farming and most men owned some land. The division of land, though, was unequal. Some patricians owned several farms, while many poor peasants had such tiny plots that they could not support families without supplementing income by domestic craftwork or seasonal wage-labour. The majority lay somewhere between these two extremes. They were either middle peasants, who had a family farm just sufficient for subsistence, or rich peasants, whose farms needed extra hands at harvest time and produced small surpluses. A man’s whole social being was bound up with the size of that portion of the ager Romanus passed down to him by his forebears. To live independently of others, from the produce of one’s own land and labour, was the mark of a free man. To be dependent for one’s livelihood on others – to be a wage-labourer, debt-bondsman, slave or beggar – was to be something less than a man. It was a distinction enshrined in the constitution of the city-state: only property-owners did military service, and only substantial property-owners – the middling sort who served as hoplites – fought in the all-important phalanx. These differential burdens of military service earned differential political rights – since block-votes were weighted by wealth in the popular assembly. Property-ownership, personal independence, hoplite service, a high-value vote: these things defined a citizen of substance in Early Republican Rome. But the livelihood – and therefore the status and respectability – of many men of modest means was under threat. With little in reserve, they lived in fear that a twist of fortune – crop blight, flooding, an enemy raid, cattle disease, a drought in spring, personal sickness, a war wound – might bring them down. They dreaded, above all, proletarianization: being reduced to the level of men who worked for others and whose citizenship counted for little.

Cumulatively, the failures of peasant farms were, in history’s longue durée, the clicks of a mechanism that dispossessed the poor and enriched the already-rich. For, while each small farmer could, with luck, escape disaster much of the time, it was not the case that all small farmers could escape all disaster all the time. In the long run, nature, if not war, exacted a toll, and in their struggle to get through hard times, poor men would incur debts, and if hard times continued, they would be unable to repay them, and would then lose their land and sometimes their freedom. The loan sharks – in the absence of banks – were big landowners with surpluses to spare. By this means, the land and labour of the poor passed into the hands of the rich. It is, in fact, one of the iron laws of traditional agrarian societies based on private property that, over time – without collective action to counteract the tendency – big estates get bigger and small ones disappear. Loans were made, indeed, on the very expectation that they would not be repaid, and that land and freedom would be forfeit. Bad debt built patrician estates. The arrangement by which a citizen-debtor pledged his liberty as security for a loan – legally enforceable over centuries of Roman history – was known as nexum. Those who fell foul of it and became debt-bondsmen might find themselves working the land of their ancestors for a new owner-master. Or worse: they might be ‘sold across the Tiber’ to an Etruscan or Greek slave-dealer. Little wonder that the two great historic demands of the ancient poor were for cancellation of debts and redistribution of land.

In c. 494 BC, the patrician regime was knocked sideways by plebeian revolt. Prior to this, the Roman plebs had had no real existence: they were not organized as a corporate body in the same sense as clans, cantons and centuries, all of which had roles in the constitution. Nor were the plebeians a homogeneous class with uniform interests that lent themselves to coherent political expression: though most plebeians were relatively poor, some were as rich as patricians. The plebeians were simply everyone who was not a patrician, a condition that meant that even the richest of them was excluded from the Senate, the consulship, and the high priesthoods. The plebeian movement which developed in the early 5th century BC was, therefore, a class alliance: at the top were some of Rome’s richest citizens, with aspirations to join the governing elite; at the bottom were impoverished debtors, the landless poor, and recent immigrants to the city’s commercial district. What gave the movement its power, however, was the adherence of the hoplite class: small property-owners made insecure by patrician exploitation. War service, farm debt, and a rapacious ruling class turned the solid yeomen of Rome’s legions into revolutionaries. ‘The reaction of military events upon domestic politics runs like a red thread through Roman history,’ argued one eminent ancient historian. ‘In assuming the burden of regular military duty, the plebeians became more conscious of their own value to the state, and acquired habits of discipline and co-operation which enabled them to assert their rights more effectively. The leadership which they required in their political warfare was supplied by the more substantial landowners who stood outside the privileged circle and were not qualified for the consulship, but might hold subordinate commands astribuni militum [military tribunes]’.(5)

The plebeians massed on the Aventine Hill south-west of the city, which, being close to the river, had become the main centre for Rome’s artisans and traders. They met on consecrated ground, at a place where a new temple was being constructed for Ceres, Bacchus and Proserpina (the deities respectively of grain, wine and the bountiful earth), and it was the temple officials, known as ‘aediles’ (aediles), who were their first convenors. They declared themselves in a state of secession (secessio), which involved refusing military service until grievances had been met: in effect, on strike. (The plebeians would employ this form of protest at least five times in the 150 years that the Struggle of the Orders lasted.) But the patricians proved obdurate, for their powers of patronage were sufficient to prevent their clients deserting wholesale to the plebeian movement. Patrician retinues and plebeian crowds confronted one another on the streets. There was a rough balance between the two sides, producing political stalemate and a permanent division of the state into rival camps. For decades, the conduct of public affairs was frequently log-jammed – a condition readily recognized by contemporary Greeks, many of whose cities were consumed by similar conflicts between oligarchs and democrats, resulting in what they called stasis: paralysis of the state due to civil strife.

The stalemate turned plebeian protest into an organized movement with its own assemblies, officers and procedures – a permanent opposition to the patricians and the networks of clansmen and clients they controlled. The early mass rallies evolved into the Assembly of the Plebs (Concilium Plebis). The aediles were joined by ten annually elected ‘tribunes of the plebs’. Voting en masse gave way to voting by tribe (to ensure that rural plebeians who could not attend meetings in the city would not be under-represented). Somehow, despite the conflict, Rome continued to function, but the unresolved issues in dispute ensured that the Struggle of the Orders flared up repeatedly in renewed agitation over food shortages, military service, and the debt question. Not until the middle of the century was some sort of settlement achieved.

Both patrician consuls and plebeian tribunes stepped down in c. 451 BC to make way for a ‘Decemvirate’, a provisional ruling committee of ten, charged with the task of establishing the constitution, codifying the law, and committing matters to writing so that every citizen should know his rights. Writing was not new – Latin texts go back to the 8th century BC – but its uses had been largely ritual and administrative. Now writing was to be used to record laws. Too much law had been based on memory, precedent, and the tendentious ‘interpretations’ of upper-class judges. Writing promised fairness. ‘When the laws are written down,’ wrote the Greek playwright Euripides around this time, ‘weak and rich men get equal justice; the weaker, when abused, can respond to the prosperous in kind, and the small man with justice on his side defeats the strong.’

But when the Decemvirate published their laws – the Twelve Tables – there was dismay. Much, for sure, was uncontroversial, and it was convenient to have it summarized in plain and simple Latin; there were laws here that would endure as long as Rome. The centrality of the family was affirmed, and the powers of fathers in relation to wives, sons and daughters defined. Property rights were protected, infringements classified, and procedures for obtaining redress set out. Ostentatious display at funerals was discouraged. Secret meetings were banned. There was much about the laws that seemed public-spirited. But the laws of property in the Twelve Tables knew no limits, and the rights of the creditor in relation to the debtor were absolute. ‘Unless they make a settlement,’ boomed the law, ‘debtors shall be held in bonds for 60 days. During that time, they shall be brought before the praetor’s court in the meeting place on three successive market days, and the amount for which they are judged liable shall be announced. On the third market day, they shall suffer capital punishment or be delivered up for sale across the Tiber.’ Just as shocking was the laconic injunction inscribed on Table XI: ‘Intermarriage shall not take place between plebeians and patricians.’ A closed caste society dominated by landlords and debt-collectors: this, it seemed, was the model city of the Decemvirate.

Plebeian Rome again rose in revolt. The Aventine was reoccupied for a great meeting of the Assembly of the Plebs, and the commons declared a renewed state of secession against the patricians. The Decemvirate, shedding its mask of propriety and impartiality, then announced it would remain in office to restore order and save the Republic. Its members brought their retinues on to the street to battle it out with the plebeian crowd. The state, whose frontiers were currently under attack, was in turmoil.

Now the real power of the plebeian movement revealed itself. Had the junta commanded sufficient physical force to suppress the protests, they would doubtless have done so and thereby earned the plaudits of the rest of the aristocracy. But it did not. Faced by what was, in effect, a revolt of the hoplite class, the decemvirs’ street fighters could make little headway. It was the Roman army itself that was in secession, and against it the junta could not win. Once this was clear, the Decemvirate’s support inside the wider ruling class collapsed. The decemvirs lost the confidence of the Senate and were promptly forced to resign their positions and retire to the backbenches. The victory sent a surge of radical expectation through the plebeian masses that the Senate dared not disappoint. New consuls, Lucius Valerius and Marcus Horatius, elected on a reform platform, introduced sweeping laws to recognize plebeian institutions and formalize the rights of commoners (c. 449 BC). First, tribunes of the plebs were recognized as Roman magistrates, their persons protected from harm by religious sanction, with a special right of veto over any measure they deemed to be against the interests of the commons. Second, the Assembly of the Plebs gained formal recognition, its decisions (plebiscita) henceforward having constitutional authority. Third, the common citizens earned a right of appeal to the popular assembly against any decision by a patrician magistrate. In combination, these measures signalled the end not just of the Decemvirate but of the patrician regime which had governed the Republic for 60 years. Rome remained an oligarchy: its executive (the consuls), its primary assembly (the Senate) and its leading priesthoods (pontifex maximus and rex sacrorum) remained patrician preserves. But, constitutionally, these could not rule alone; indeed, in the face of determined opposition, they could not rule at all, for the levers of power now in the hands of the tribunes were sufficient to halt government business. The patricians continued to govern, but subject to approval by plebeian officers and plebeian mass meetings. The Struggle of the Orders was not yet over; there were bitter battles yet to come; but a giant step had been taken towards a more inclusive and broad-based polity.

The compromise which ended the first stage in the Struggle of the Orders was pregnant with great events. Had the junta crushed the popular movement, Rome would have become a society of landlords and serfs. Instead, the popular victory launched it on quite another trajectory. By empowering, to a degree, the common citizen, the reformed constitution limited exploitation and preserved the small-farmer class from which Rome’s armies were raised. More than that: not only did the middling sort survive, they became stakeholders with a positive interest in fighting for a Republic that safeguarded their land and granted them a share in the spoils of war. It is no exaggeration to say that, without the plebeian movement, the Struggle of the Orders, and the Valerio-Horatian laws ofc.449 BC, the legions of the Roman Republic could never have embarked on world conquest.

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