7

General Strike

IT WAS THE STRANGEST SPECTACLE SEEN SINCE THE foundation of Rome. A long stream of families could be observed leaving the city in what looked like a general evacuation. They walked southward and climbed a sparsely populated hill, the Aventine, which stands across a valley from the Palatine, the site of Romulus’s first settlement. They were, broadly speaking, the poor and the disadvantaged—artisans and farmers, peasants and urban workers. They carried with them a few days’ worth of food. On arrival they set up camp, building a stockade and a trench. There they stayed quietly, like a weaponless army, offering no provocation or violence. They waited, doing nothing.

This was a mass protest, one of the most remarkable and imaginative in world history. It was like a modern general strike, but with an added dimension. The workers were not simply withdrawing their labor; they were withdrawing themselves.

Of course, some people remained—the rich and those members of the lower classes who for one reason or another could not or would not join their fellows, but Rome was half deserted. The Senate was at its wits’ end. What should, or could, be done if one of Rome’s numerous enemies among its neighbors in central Italy seized the moment and launched an attack? Were the rabble planning violence after a pretense of passivity, and if so how should the Senate respond? Were those who had stayed put secretly mutinous or not, a fifth column? How could civil war be avoided?

As has been noted, all citizens had to buy their own military equipment. Only the wealthy could afford the heavy armor of the legionary soldier and everyone else served as light-armed troops and skirmishers. So, in a set-piece battle with the lower classes, affluent supporters of the status quo were likely to carry the day. But such a victory would be counterproductive. Rome could not survive on the strength of the rich alone. Every state needs its workers.

The ruling élite felt very alone. The decision was taken to send an embassy of older and more tolerant senators to parley with the protesters and persuade them to end their secession, as it was called, and come home. Their spokesman was a former consul, Gaius Menenius Agrippa, a man of moderate views.

He entered the temporary camp on the hill and addressed the crowd. According to ancient sources (as ever, prone to an amusing fiction), he issued no threats and made no concessions. In fact, he appeared to speak off the point, for he launched into a fable:

Once upon a time, the members of the human body did not agree together, as they do now, but each had its own thoughts and words to express itself. All the various parts resented the fact that they should have the worry and trouble and sheer hard work of providing everything for the belly, which remained idly among them, with nothing to do except enjoy the pleasant things they gave it.

The discontented members plotted together that the hand should carry no food to the mouth, that the mouth should accept nothing that was offered it and that the teeth should refuse to chew anything. Because of their anger they tried to subdue the belly by starvation only to find that they all and the entire body wasted away. From this it was that clear that the belly did indeed have a useful service to perform. Yes, it receives food, but, by the same token, it nourishes the other members and gives back to every part of the body, through its veins, the blood it has made by the process of digestion. On this blood we live and thrive.

Menenius Agrippa compared this intestine revolt of the body to the current political crisis and the People’s rage against the state of things, and persuaded his hearers to change their minds. Negotiations opened to find a settlement that the secessionists would accept.

WHAT, THEN, WAS their complaint? These were no revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the constitution. In its first years of freedom, the Republic went through an economic crisis. What caused the slump is uncertain, but a series of military reverses may have had something to do with it. (See the following chapter.) There seem also to have been food shortages. Another long-standing problem was land hunger. Freehold properties for peasants were very small, although they had access to publicly owned land, ager publicus, for grazing or cultivation; however, the rich and powerful tended to control public land, ruthlessly crowding out the smallholder. Archaeologists tell us that fewer public buildings were put up at this time: a Temple of Mercury, the god of business, was a telling exception, but he was to be placated at a time of commercial failure.

But perhaps the itchiest cause of discontent was identified by Cicero. “The People, freed from the domination of kings, claimed a somewhat greater measure of rights,” he noted, adding sourly, “Such a claim may have been unreasonable, but the essential nature of the Republic often defeats reason.”

The poor were burdened with debt and arbitrary treatment by those in authority; they sought redress. Many had reached a point where the only thing they owned with which to repay their debts was themselves—their labor, their bodies. In that case, they were able to enter into a system of debt bondage, known as nexum, literally an interlacing or binding together. In the presence of five witnesses, a lender weighed out the money or copper to be lent. The debtor could now settle what he owed. In return he handed himself over—his person and his services (although he retained his civic rights). The lender recited a formula: “For such and such a sum of money you are now nexus, my bondsman.” He then chained the debtor, to dramatize his side of the bargain.

This brutal arrangement did not in itself attract disapproval, for it did provide a solution, however rough-and-ready, to extreme indebtedness. What really aroused anger was the oppressive or unfair treatment of a bonded slave. The creditor-owner even had the right to put him to death, at least in theory. Livy tells the story of a victim, an old man, who suddenly appeared one day in the Forum. Pale and emaciated, he wore soiled and threadbare clothes. His hair and beard were unkempt. Altogether, he was a pitiable sight. A crowd gathered, and learned that he had once been a soldier who commanded a company and served his country with distinction. How had he come to this pass? He replied:

While I was on service during the Sabine war, my crops were ruined by enemy raids, and my cottage was burnt. Everything I had was taken, including my cattle. Then, when I was least able to do so, I was expected to pay taxes, and the result was I fell into debt. Interest on the borrowed money increased my burden; I lost the land which my father and grandfather had owned before me, and then my other possessions. Ruin spread like an infection through all I had. Even my body wasn’t exempt, for I was finally seized by my creditor and reduced to slavery—no, worse, I was hauled away to prison and the torture chamber.

Uproar followed, and any senator who happened to be in the Forum quickly made himself scarce. Other bonded men identified themselves. When the mob surrounded the Senate House and demanded that the consuls convene the Senate, it began to look as if a popular insurrection was under way. The consuls complied, but it proved difficult to persuade enough nervous senators to turn up and make a quorum.

When the meeting eventually started, news arrived that a Volscian army was marching on the city. There was no alternative but to meet the mob’s demands. One of the consuls issued an edict to the effect that it would be illegal to fetter or imprison a Roman citizen and so prevent him from enlisting for service and, second, to seize or sell the property of any soldier on active duty. This calmed opinion and the protesters willingly joined a military force that marched out of Rome to confront and defeat the invaders.

This did not end the matter, thanks to a contemptuous and choleric consul, Appius Claudius, founder of an immigrant Sabine family that won a name over the centuries for high-handedness. He insisted on pursuing debtors with the utmost rigor of the law, and gave no consideration to the riots that resulted. Leaders of the People began meeting secretly at night to plan their response.

This was the background of the general strike and the withdrawal to the Aventine, which took place in 494, a little more than ten years after the expulsion of Superbus. Those involved saw themselves as members of a gathering called the plebs. In later centuries, the word came to include everyone who was not a patrician or a nobleman—the common people as a whole. But, at this early stage, the evidence suggests that it signified a political or campaigning movement, recruited from the masses but not identical with them. It was not unlike a trade union, but representing all crafts and workplaces.

And, like a trade union, the plebs wasn’t interested in the armed overthrow of the state or in a constitutional upheaval. It did not set itself in opposition to the dominant patrician class. It existed simply to protect and advance the interests of its members, the plebeians. This it did with extraordinary success. The consuls and the Senate had lost their nerve, at least for the time being.

The leadership understood the need to organize. A special assembly was created, the concilium plebis, or Plebeian Council, which voted on tribal lines. At this time, the Roman population was (probably) divided into twenty-one local tribes, to which citizens belonged by virtue of residence. The plebeians decided on resolutions by tribe, with each tribe exercising one vote (a fairer system than voting by centuries in the comitia centuriata). The council’s enactments—plebiscita, whence our plebiscite—were not binding on the Republic itself but were difficult for the consuls and the Senate to ignore. As time passed, the plebs became a state within a state.

The negotiations with Menenius Agrippa and the other senatorial envoys saw a further strengthening of the influence of the plebs. It was agreed that the concilium plebis could elect extra-constitutional officials (probably two in the first instance), tribuni plebis, or tribunes of the plebeians. (By the middle of the fifth century, their number had risen to, and remained at, ten.) The first tribunes to take office were Lucius Sicinius Vellutus, the leader of the encampment on the Aventine, and Lucius Junius Brutus, a vain and pretentious man who so admired the Republic’s first consul that he added the cognomen Brutus so that he could share the same name.

The tribunes’ task was to defend the interests of plebeians within the city’s pomerium. They drew their authority from a lex sacrata, a solemn oath taken by the plebs that they would obey their tribunes and defend them to the death. Anyone who harmed them would be sacer.

This rich and potent word has two definitions, one positive and the other negative. It can signify sacred or holy, consecrated to a deity; thus, the via Sacra, a street that led into the Forum, translates as the Sacred Way. Or it can mean consecrated to a deity fordestruction. In this sense, the nearest synonym in English is the much weaker accursed or impious. The sentence Sacer esto—“Be accursed”—was pronounced on a man who by his actions harmed the gods. Such a person was forfeit to the gods, and when he died he fell under their unforgiving care. Anyone who killed him was fulfilling a holy task, committed no crime, and was free of blood-guilt. This was a fearful spell, and it enveloped the tribunes in the invisible but inviolable armor of sacrosanctity.

It was an armor that enabled them to defend plebeians from oppression by the rich and powerful and from arbitrary treatment by a magistrate by bringing them auxilium, assistance. This meant that a tribune could intervene in person and rescue a put-upon ordinary citizen. He enforced his will by coercion, coercitio. He could fine, imprison, or execute anyone who challenged his authority or, even, merely bad-mouthed him. If he was confronted with force, he could threaten the terrifying consequences of the lex sacrata. As one contemporary scholar has neatly put it, this was “lynch law disguised as divine justice.”

At first, the authority of the tribunes was extralegal and formed no part of the Roman constitution. Many unreconciled patricians refused to recognize the new plebeian institutions, and it was not for another two decades that a law gave the plebs the official right to hold its own meetings and elect its own officers. In the middle of the century or later, the tribunes won their greatest and unparalleled power—the right to “intercede” in the business of government. Intercessio, as previously noted, was a polite word for “veto.” A tribune could quite simply cancel any act by an elected official (except a dictator, until the year 300), any law, and any election. He had the authority, if he so wished, to bring the state to a standstill.

EVEN WHEN THE first secession was over (it is unreliably reported that there were to be more of them until a last one in about 287), the plebeians maintained their link with the Aventine. In fact, the hill became a memorial to the plebeian cause, a center for activism and a symbolic alternative city, an anti-Rome. In 493, a couple of years after the crisis, a temple to Ceres, the goddess of grain and fertility, was built. It had been vowed a few years earlier during a famine, and soon became a plebeian stronghold.

The shrine was a small but competitive copy of the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest, which could be seen in the distance. The resemblance can have been no accident. Like its counterpart on the Capitol, it was built in the old Etruscan manner, with deep eaves and colorful terra-cotta statues on the roof; there were chambers for three divinities, housing not only a statue of Ceres but also one of her daughter, Proserpina, and Father Liber, an Italian version of the Greek god of fertility and wine, Dionysus. It was a rich endowment where many works of art were assembled over the years. The walls were decorated with frescoes, and a famous painting of Dionysus, looted from Greece in the second century, was displayed there.

The plebs used the building for distributing food to the poor during times of shortage, and (along with the neighboring Temple of Diana, whose cult was especially popular with slaves) it was a safe sanctuary for runaways. Temple administrators were appointed, who reported to the tribunes; they were called aediles (after the Latin for temple, aedes).

The aediles soon had an addition to their job description. The consuls and the Senate understood that one way of preserving their power was to ban information about their activities. No reports of their proceedings were published, and the consuls suppressed or even falsified senatorial decrees. By the middle of the fifth century, pressure from the plebs opened up the proceedings of government to general scrutiny. The aediles were authorized to take charge of all the records of the plebs, of the People’s Assemblies, and of the Senate, which they archived at the Aventine, “so that nothing that was transacted should escape their notice.”

IN THE REPUBLIC’S early days, the surviving lists of consuls, the fasti, show that men who were not of the patrician class could be, and were, elected to the chief magistracy. But as time passed the consulship became in practice a patrician prerogative—a bitter response, perhaps, to the advances made by the plebs. The plebs reacted strongly, and what had begun as a campaign against unfair treatment gradually turned into a political struggle between the patrician aristocracy, with its inherited authority and control of the state religion, and the rest of society, spearheaded by the plebeians. It was at this point that plebs came to mean “the People.”

This growing antagonism is well illustrated by an exemplary story of unbending pride and its consequences. Once again, it is an incident that tells a symbolic truth; we do not know how much, if any of it, actually took place. Gnaeus Marcius, a patrician, was a brave soldier and in his youth won the Civic Crown. This treasured honor, a garland of oak leaves, was awarded to anyone who saved the life of a fellow citizen in battle.

In the early fifth century, a war broke out with the Volsci in the south, constant as ever in their belligerence. The Romans laid siege to the enemy town of Corioli. All at once, a Volscian force appeared on the scene and, simultaneously, there was a sortie from the town. Marcius happened to be on guard at the time. He took a specially selected body of men and not only drove back the sally but managed to enter the town himself. He seized a firebrand and threw it into some houses overhanging the city wall. The flames and the wailing of women and children convinced the Volscians outside that Corioli was lost and they withdrew from the fray. The Roman army turned its attention back to the siege, and the town was soon theirs.

The consul in command showered praise on Marcius and, as a reward for his valor, offered him one-tenth of the captured booty—equipment, men, horses—before it was shared out, as was the practice, among the soldiers. He declined, saying fiercely that that would be a payment, not an honor. He accepted only a single horse, and asked that a prisoner, who was a Volscian guest-friend, be released. In response, the consul awarded him the cognomen of Coriolanus, to mark his leading role in the victory.

Back in Rome, Coriolanus stood for the consulship. His distinguished military service made it highly probable that he would be elected. He canvassed for votes in the Forum as candidates were expected to do, and made a good impression by showing off his battle scars. Unfortunately, on election day he made a pompous entry into the Forum accompanied by the Senate and crowds of patricians, and the popular mood swung against him.

Furious at having been rejected, Coriolanus decided to punish the voters. He surrounded himself with some arrogant and showy young patricians and did his best to annoy the tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius. He taunted them: “Unless you stop disturbing the Republic and stirring up the poor by your speeches, I’ll not oppose you with words but with actions.” There was a food shortage, and when a large delivery of grain arrived from Sicily the People assumed that it would be sold cheaply. Coriolanus spoke out against the proposition. “Any such measure on our part would be sheer madness,” he said. “If we are wise, we shall take their right to have Tribunes away from the People, for it makes the Consulship null and void, and divides the city.”

Wiser heads among the nobility felt that Coriolanus was going too far, but he was carried away by his hotheads. The tribunes impeached him at an Assembly, but he refused to come and answer the charges. When the aediles tried to arrest him, patricians drove them away. Evening put an end to the disturbances.

The next day, crowds again gathered in the Forum. The alarmed consuls gave reassurances about the price of market supplies, and the mood in the square lightened. Brutus and Sicinius, however, insisted that Coriolanus should answer accusations that he wantedto abrogate the powers of the People and had offered violence to the aediles. They calculated that either he would humiliate himself by apologizing or, more likely, he would do or say something unforgivable.

They knew their man, and his ungovernable temper. When Coriolanus appeared, he spoke with his habitual scorn and scuffles broke out. Once again, he was whisked away by patricians. It was agreed by all sides that there should be a proper trial. Coriolanus was indicted for planning to usurp the government and appeared before the popular Assembly, which acted as a jury. The prosecution was unable to prove its case and dropped the charge, but another last-minute allegation of wrongful distribution of campaign spoils was added. This threw the accused, who was not immediately ready with an answer. The Assembly voted its verdict by tribes, and Coriolanus was found guilty by a majority of three. He was sentenced to perpetual banishment.

Determined to avenge himself, he left Rome for the Volscian capital, where he volunteered his services. The Volsci were delighted and commissioned Coriolanus, with full powers, to lead an expedition against his former homeland. He carried all before him and soon appeared at the head of the Volscian army outside the gates of Rome. It seemed that the Republic was doomed.

Inside the city all was confusion. The plebs, unnerved, were eager to rescind their sentence, while the Senate, reluctant to pardon treason, rejected the proposal. An embassy was sent to the Volscian camp and a truce agreed, but Coriolanus insisted on harsh terms.The stalemate was broken when his mother, Volumnia, accompanied by his wife, Vergilia, with his children, unexpectedly appeared before him. She pleaded with him to spare the city and negotiate an equal settlement.

He stood stock-still and wordless for some time. “Why have you nothing to say?” asked Volumnia. “It would have been a mark of a son’s respect for his mother to give me what I asked without the need for any pressure. Since I can’t persuade you, I must use my last resource.” With that, she and his wife and children flung themselves onto the ground at his feet, in a humiliating act of self-abasement.

“What have you done to me, mother?” he replied, lifting her up. “You have won. You’ve saved Rome, but you’ve finished me.”

And so she had. As she requested, Coriolanus signed a peace and the Volsci returned home with their now discredited Roman commander. He began giving an account of his conduct of the war before a Volscian assembly, when some men, enraged by his betrayal, cut him down. Not a single person present came to his aid.

BY THE MIDDLE of the fifth century, the conflict between the patricians and the plebs was the major domestic political issue confronting the Republic. Livy has a conservative politician complain, “You were elected as Tribunes of the plebs, not enemies of the Senate.” True enough, but the times were changing. The class of patricians began to react against the advances made by the plebs by transforming themselves into an exclusive hereditary caste with a monopoly on government. Richer non-patricians who had served as consuls in the early years of the Republic found themselves squeezed out. They, in turn, reacted to the patricians’ reaction by joining with the plebs and forming a united front. This union of forces should not be allowed to conceal the fact that the two groups ultimately had different objectives—one sought access to fair treatment, and the other access to high office.

A leading statesman, three times a consul, Spurius Cassius, fell foul of the growing and mutual antipathy. An able negotiator, he brought about a durable peace with thirty Latin cities, the famous Foedus Cassianum (see the next chapter on this page); its text could still be seen and read in Cicero’s day, cut into a bronze column behind the speakers’ platform in the Forum.

Cassius supported the plebeian cause and was the first to put forward a land-reform program. This was unforgivable to the nobles, in possession, as they were, of an unfairly large quantity of ager publicus. In 485, Cassius was accused of seeking to be king, in what looks like a thin case, but once his father had given evidence against him he was found guilty of this most heinous offense against the Republic and put to death. He was declared sacer to Ceres, patron saint of the plebs. It is rather odd that the plebeian leadership did not rescue him from patrician attack, but perhaps the tribunes weren’t self-confident enough to defend him. His house was pulled down, and word has it that the land was never built on again. Livy writes that in his day the site was supposedly the open space in front of the Temple of Tellus, the goddess of Mother Earth. As luck would have it, it commanded a fine view of that populist hill, the Aventine.

For a while, the democratic process was stymied. Beneath the surface, though, pressure began to build toward another explosion. Having won a victory over the records of the Senate, the tribunes pursued their struggle for greater governmental transparency. One of the means by which oligarchies keep power in their hands is by controlling the legal system. In Rome, the laws were not published. They were in the care of the pontifices, who kept them under lock and key as sacred books, and only patricians were allowed to read them. In 462, a tribune launched an attempt to prevent the consuls from acting arbitrarily and demanded that legislation governing the powers of the consuls be fully disclosed. The campaign soon widened to embrace all the Republic’s laws. Magistrates and the Senate mounted a spirited resistance, but in 451 both sides, exhausted by the long quarrel, came to a very remarkable agreement.

The constitution was suspended and the posts of consul and tribune were abolished—but for one year only. A new Board of Ten, the decemvirs, or decemviri legibus scribundis (that is, “ten men for writing the laws”), took charge of the state; they were given plenary powers, and there was no right of appeal against their decisions. Their task was to review, codify, and then publish Rome’s laws. This they did, producing Ten Tables of laws. The next year, the first slate of decemvirs, all of them patricians, retired and were replaced by another, which included some plebeians. Only one man was reappointed: Appius Claudius, grandson of the founding immigrant, with whom he shared the same high temper. The second Decemvirate published two additional Tables and ran into a storm of protest when it decided not to retire at the end of its year but to remain in office for a third year.

This is all very mysterious. Why hand over the Republic and its constitution to a group of people who are in effect a commission of inquiry into one particular topic? They would have been able to get on with their work much more easily if they were not at the same time tasked with running the country. On the other hand, it may be that the decemvirs were meant to be a permanent reform, presumably bringing the plebeians and their “state within a state” inside the constitution. In that case, the election, after one year, of a new college makes perfect sense (although one wonders why the first decemvirs were all patricians). The main problem here is that the literary sources insist that the new magistrates had a temporary role and were to hand over power to consuls and tribunes when their legal review was complete; according to them, the second college was elected only because the first one had not done its job to everyone’s satisfaction.

It is evident that the ancient historians were confused, and modern scholars have indulged themselves with ingenious speculations. The most plausible solution of the riddle—that is, the account that explains most of the data and is consistent with the realities of political life—is that the Decemvirate was intended as a permanent new system of government and that the legal codification was the first major item on its agenda.

One way or another, the reform failed. Livy writes: “The Decemvirate, after a flourishing start, soon proved itself a barren tree—all wood and no fruit—so that it did not last.” His account of what happened next is one of the finest episodes in his long history, although (as ever) it is unclear how much of it is fact and how much fiction or imaginative reconstruction.

After elections were held for the second year, the new decemvirs, informally headed by Appius Claudius, took office. Once in place, they behaved brutally and irresponsibly, and it was whispered that they had bound themselves by oath to hold no more elections and to retain their power indefinitely. One of their two additional legal Tables included a ban on intermarriage between patricians and plebeians—tantamount to a declaration of war by the former against the latter.

The date for new elections in May 450 (then the beginning of Rome’s political year) came and went. Technically, the decemvirs’ term was over, but no new magistrates were nominated. Appius and his colleagues continued in power as if nothing untoward were happening.

A declaration of war by the Sabines and then the Aequi transformed the situation. The shaken decemvirs, well aware of their unpopularity, had no alternative but to consult the Senate. Lucius Valerius Potitus, a senior patrician who sympathized with the plebs, called for an open debate on the political situation, and an angry senator, Marcus Horatius Barbatus, said that the decemvirs were “ten Tarquins.” A motion was put to take no action on Appius’s proposal to raise troops, on the grounds that he held no official position. Eventually, though, after more hard words the Senate gave way and raised no objection to the holding of a levy.

THE WAR WENT badly, and disaffection spread among the soldiery. However, the final crisis, when it came, was neither military nor political in character. As with the fall of the kings, it apparently stemmed from a sex scandal. Appius fancied a beautiful young woman from a plebeian family. The daughter of Lucius Verginius, a serving centurion in the army, she was the fiancée of a former tribune, Lucius Icilius. Roman girls married young, and we may assume that she was in her early teens. She resisted Appius’s blandishments, so he decided on an ingenious kind of compulsion.

He told a dependent or client of his to claim Verginia as his slave and seize her. One morning, the man laid hands on her in the Forum as she was on her way to school. He claimed that, like her mother before her, she was his slave and instructed her to follow him. The girl was dumbstruck with shock and fear, but her nurse had her wits about her and shouted for help. A crowd quickly gathered.

Appius, who was sitting on a nearby platform presiding over a law court, saw that abduction was now out of the question. He therefore summoned Verginia to appear before him and assured everyone that the affair was completely aboveboard. He had excellent evidence, he said, that she had been stolen from his house, where she was born, and palmed off on Verginius.

The mood in the Forum grew ugly, and Appius reluctantly agreed to postpone the hearing until Verginius could be recalled from the front. He insisted that in the meantime Verginia should be cared for by the claimant. By this time, Icilius had arrived and after angry exchanges Appius gave way again and surrendered the girl to her fiancé. The following morning, father and daughter appeared before the court. The proceedings had hardly begun when Appius interrupted and gave his judgment. Verginia was a slave and should be handed over to her rightful owner.

Supporters standing around the girl refused to let her go. An officer of the Decemvirate blew a trumpet for silence, and Appius spoke. “I have incontrovertible evidence,” he said, “that throughout last night meetings were being held in the city for seditious purposes. I have therefore brought an armed escort with me to check disturbers of the peace. It will be wiser to keep quiet. Lictor, clear the crowd. Let the master through to take possession of his slave.”

Until this point, Verginius had been loudly protesting, but he now changed tack. He apologized to the decemvir for his behavior. “Let me question the nurse here, in my child’s presence,” he said. “Then if I find I am not her father, I shall understand and be able to go away in a calmer frame of mind.” Permission was granted, and he led the two women to a row of shops, called New Shops, near the shrine of Venus Cloacina, tutelary spirit of the Cloaca Maxima, the drain that crossed the Forum.

He then grabbed a knife from a butcher. “This is the only way to make you free,” he said, stabbing his daughter to the heart. “Appius, may the curse of this blood rest on your head forever.”

Undismayed, the decemvir summoned Icilius. The crowd was now at fever pitch. Valerius and Horatius joined the press around the young man and ordered the lictors to refuse service to Appius, as he had no official position. At this point, the decemvir’s nerve failed him and, afraid for his life, he wrapped his head in his cloak and disappeared into a nearby house.

The decemvirs refused to resign, and the Senate could not make up its mind what to do. A Roman army in the field made it up for them. They returned to the city and encamped on the Aventine, where they were joined by much of the civilian population. This second secession did the trick. The decemvirs resigned, hoping not to be punished. Appius, though, remarked, “I know well enough what is coming to us.”

He was right. The old constitution was restored. New consuls, Horatius and Valerius, who, in Cicero’s words, “wisely favored popular measures to keep the peace,” were elected, and so was a full roster of tribunes and aediles. Appius was summarily flung into jail. He appealed to the People and a trial was agreed. He kept up the typical haughty manner of a Claudian, but he could sense the rising anger in the city as the day of the hearing approached. He decided not to face his day in court and killed himself.

For a Roman, suicide was an appropriate act in the face of a hopeless situation—nulla spes. But a Claudian was expected to show contempt for circumstance, and Appius’s family pretended that he had died a natural death. His son was in charge of the funeral arrangements, and asked the tribunes and the consuls to convene an Assembly in the Forum, as was the custom with the famous dead, at which he could deliver a eulogy. Permission was refused.

THE FATE OF the decemvirs had important consequences. First of all, it offered future generations a striking moral and human example. Verginius joined Brutus as another heroic killer of his own offspring—bloodshed as virtus. On this occasion, the lesson to be drawn is the high priority the Roman family placed on the purity of its daughters. Sex with an unmarried and freeborn young woman was absolutely prohibited, because it interfered with the hereditary bloodline. (By contrast, going to bed with a non-citizen, whether male or female, was acceptable, if not exactly admirable, behavior).

The collapse of the Decemvirate and the second secession marked a further triumphant phase in the advance of the plebs. The consuls had three important laws passed by the official, constitutional general assembly, the comitia centuriata. The first one endorsed the sacrosanctity of the tribunes of the People and perhaps their power of veto; until now, their status had been guaranteed only by an oath taken by the extraconstitutional concilium plebis, the Plebeian Council. In future, the Republic itself would stand guarantor of the tribunes’ safety. The state within a state had at last joined the state.

The second law concerned citizens’ right of appeal. The basic principle had been dealt with in 509, but the decemvirs had been created specifically without a right of appeal against their decisions. The loophole had to be plugged, and Valerius and Horatius prohibited the Republic from bringing into being any new magistrates not subject to appeal.

Finally, and most controversially, proposals approved by the Plebeian Council were given the force of law, although probably on condition of some kind of external validation. This was a significant advance, for it will be recalled that the council voted by tribes and not according to the unfair division into centuries, which heavily favored the voting power of the wealthy.

ALTHOUGH THE DECEMVIRS came to grief, they had a signal achievement of which they could be justly proud—the Twelve Tables (as the Ten plus the Two came to be called). These codified customary law into statutes, and opened the administration of justice to public scrutiny, at least in principle. Livy writes that they are “still today the fountainhead of public and private law, running clear under the immense and complicated superstructure of modern legislation.” Cicero recalls having to learn them by heart when he was a schoolboy.

Curiously, for a document so highly valued and widely distributed, no text has come down to us. A number of quotations survive here and there in an archaic Latin, but one cannot be quite sure how accurately they have been remembered and how characteristic they are of the whole. The plebs quickly ensured the repeal of the offensive ban on marriage between noble and commoner, but the rest of the Twelve Tables were well received. A strengthening of the rights of wives moderated the domestic despotism of patria potestas, a father’s authority over his family. Other rules facilitated the emancipation of slaves and regulated inheritance, debt, and nexum, interest on loans, contracts, and conveyancing. Extravagance was discouraged.

The emphasis was on day-to-day exchanges between individuals, and there is little concerning the relation of the individual and the community. Thus: “A man might gather up fruit that was falling down onto another man’s farm,” and “Let them keep the road in order. If they have not paved it, a man may drive his team where he likes.”

The sheer strangeness of some of Rome’s early laws puzzles the mind. Here is the grisliest: “Where a party is delivered up to several persons, on account of a debt, after he has been exposed in the Forum on three market days, they shall be permitted to divide their debtor into different parts, if they want to do so; and if anyone of them should, by the sharing out, receive more or less than he is entitled to, he shall not be responsible.” This means, literally, what it says: if there was more than one creditor, they were entitled to cut a debtor’s body into different bits, the shares reflecting the amounts of debt owed.

Shylock would have felt vindicated, with Portia straining for the quality of mercy.

THESE WERE FAMOUS victories for the People, but it was soon obvious that the game was not yet over. Within a few years, there was another dramatic but mysterious upheaval. In 444, the consuls were swept away and replaced by military tribunes with consular powers (tribuni militum consulari potestate). In any given year, there were not fewer than three of these new officials, and often as many as six.

The purpose of this reform is hidden in fog. Some sources say it was a compromise by the patricians, who refused to accept that a consul could be a plebeian but would not object in the case of a governing committee; unfortunately for this theory, plebeians were seldom elected to the new posts, at least at the outset. Others claim that Rome needed more than two army commanders; so why, as sometimes happened, were tribunes elected in years when there was no campaigning to be done? And why did the Republic switch unexpectedly from year to year between tribunes and consuls? The second explanation is perhaps the more convincing, if we add a probable increase in official domestic duties. We should also remember that the decision whether or not tribunes were to be elected, and if so how many, had to be taken in the year preceding the period of office. So guesswork, well-informed, doubtless, but sometimes off the mark, would have been the order of the day.

The struggle between the rich and the poor, the nobility and the People, the patricians and the plebs, called the Conflict of the Orders, had a century and more yet to run. But despite setbacks for the popular cause, most Romans could see that the pendulum of power was swinging irreversibly toward the plebs.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!