Roman Empire > Roman Empire History > From The Battle Of The Lake Regillus To The Decemvirate - b.C. 498-451

From The Battle Of The Lake Regillus To The Decemvirate - b.C. 498-451

The history of Rome for the next 150 years consists internally of the struggles between the Patricians and Plebeians, and externally of the wars with the Etruscans, Volscians, Æquians, and other tribes in the immediate neighborhood of Rome.

The internal history of Rome during this period is one of great interest. The Patricians and Plebeians formed two distinct orders in the state. After the banishment of the kings the Patricians retained exclusive possession of political power. The Plebeians, it is true, could vote in the Comitia Centuriata, but, as they were mostly poor, they were outvoted by the Patricians and their clients. The Consuls and other magistrates were taken entirely from the Patricians, who also possessed the exclusive knowledge and administration of the law. In one word, the Patricians were a ruling and the Plebeians a subject class. But this was not all. The Patricians formed not only a separate class, but a separate caste, not marrying with the Plebeians, and worshiping the gods with different religious rites. If a Patrician man married a Plebeian wife, or a Patrician woman a Plebeian husband, the state refused to recognize the marriage, and the offspring was treated as illegitimate.

The Plebeians had to complain not only of political, but also of private wrongs. The law of debtor and creditor was very severe at Rome. If the borrower did not pay the money by the time agreed upon, his person was seized by the creditor, and he was obliged to work as a slave. Nay, in certain cases he might even be put to death by the creditor; and if there were more than one, his body might be cut in pieces and divided among them. The whole weight of this oppressive law fell upon the Plebeians; and what rendered the case still harder was, that they were frequently compelled, through no fault of their own, to become borrowers. They were small landholders, living by cultivating the soil with their own hands; but as they had to serve in the army without pay, they had no means of engaging laborers in their absence. Hence, on their return home, they were left without the means of subsistence or of purchasing seed for the next crop, and borrowing was their only resource.

Another circumstance still farther aggravated the hardships of the Plebeians. The state possessed a large quantity of land called Ager Publicus, or the "Public Land" This land originally belonged to the kings, being set apart for their support; and it was constantly increased by conquest, as it was the practice on the subjugation of a people to deprive them of a certain portion of their land. This public land was let by the state subject to a rent; but as the Patricians possessed the political power, they divided the public land among themselves, and paid for it only a nominal rent. Thus the Plebeians, by whose blood and unpaid toil much of this land had been won, were excluded from all participation in it.

It was not to be expected that the Plebeians would submit to such grievous injustice. The contest was twofold. It was a struggle of a subject against a ruling class, and of rich against poor. The Plebeians strove to obtain an equal share not only in the political power, but also in the public land.

The cruelty of the Patrician creditors was the most pressing evil, and led to the first reform. In B.C. 494 the Plebeians, after a campaign against the Volscians, instead of returning to Rome, retired to the Sacred Mount, a hill about two miles from the city, near the junction of the Arno and the Tiber. Here they determined to settle and found a new town, leaving Rome to the Patricians and their clients. This event is known as the Secession to the Sacred Mount. The Patricians, alarmed, sent several of their number to persuade the Plebeians to return. Among the deputies was the aged Menenius Agrippa, who had great influence with the Plebeians. He related to them the celebrated fable of the Belly and the Members.

"Once upon a time," he said, "the Members refused to work any longer for the Belly, which led a lazy life, and grew fat upon their toils. But receiving no longer any nourishment from the Belly, they soon began to pine away, and found that it was to the Belly they owed their life and strength"

The fable was understood, and the Plebeians agreed to treat with the Patricians. It was decided that existing debts should be canceled, and that all debtors in bondage should be restored to freedom. It was necessary, however, to provide security for the future, and the Plebeians therefore insisted that two of their own number should be elected annually, to whom the Plebeians might appeal for assistance against the decisions of the Patrician magistrates. These officers were called Tribunes of the Plebs. Their persons were declared sacred and inviolate; they were never to quit the city during their year of office; and their houses were to remain open day and night, that all who were in need of help might apply to them. Their number was soon afterward increased to five, and at a later time to ten. They gradually gained more and more power, and obtained the right of putting a veto upon any public business. At the Sacred Mount the Plebeians also obtained the privilege of having two Ædiles of their order appointed. These officers had at a later time the care of the public buildings and roads, and the superintendence of the police of the city.

Emboldened by this success, the Plebeians now demanded a share in the public land. And in this they found an unexpected supporter among the Patricians themselves. Sp. Cassius, one of the most distinguished men in the state, who had formed the league between the Romans, Latins, and Hernicans, brought forward in his third consulship a law, by which a portion of the public land was to be divided among the Plebeians (B.C. 486). This was the first Agrarian Law mentioned in Roman history. It must be recollected that all the Agrarian laws dealt only with the public land, and never touched the property of private persons. Notwithstanding the violent opposition of the Patricians, the law was passed; but it was never carried into execution, and the Patricians soon revenged themselves upon its author. In the following year he was accused of aiming at the kingly power, and condemned to death. He was scourged and beheaded, and his house razed to the ground.

We now turn to the external history of Rome. Under the kings Rome had risen to a superiority over her neighbors, and had extended her dominion over the southern part of Etruria and the greater part of Latium. The early history of the republic presents a very different spectacle. For the next 100 years she is engaged in a difficult and often dubious struggle with the Etruscans on the one hand, and the Volscians and Æquians on the other. It would be unprofitable to relate the details of these petty campaigns; but there are three celebrated legends connected with them which must not be passed over.

1. CORIOLANUS AND THE VOLSCIANS, B.C. 488. - C. Marcius, surnamed Coriolanus, from his valor at the capture of the Latin town of Corioli, was a brave but haughty Patrician youth. He was hated by the Plebeians, who refused him the consulship. This inflamed him with anger; and accordingly, when the city was suffering from famine, and a present of corn came from Sicily, Coriolanus advised the Senate not to distribute it among the Plebeians unless they gave up their Tribunes. Such insolence enraged the Plebeians, who would have torn him to pieces on the spot had not the tribunes summoned him before the Comitia of the Tribes. Coriolanus himself breathed nothing but defiance; and his kinsmen and friends interceded for him in vain. He was condemned to exile. He now turned his steps to Antium, the capital of the Volscians, and offered to lead them against Rome. Attius Tullius, king of the Volscians, persuaded his countrymen to appoint Coriolanus their general. Nothing could check his victorious progress; town after town fell before him; and he advanced within five miles of the city, ravaging the lands of the Plebeians, but sparing those of the Patricians. The city was filled with despair. The ten first men in the Senate were sent in hopes of moving his compassion. But they were received with the utmost sternness, and told that the city must submit to his absolute will. Next day the pontiffs, augurs, flamens, and all the priests, came in their robes of office, and in vain prayed him to spare the city. All seemed lost; but Rome was saved by her women. Next morning the noblest matrons, headed by Veturia, the aged mother of Corolanus, and by his wife Volumnia, holding her little children by the hand, came to his tent. Their lamentations turned him from his purpose. "Mother," he said, bursting into tears, "thou hast saved Rome, but lost thy son!" He then led the Volscians home, but they put him to death because he had spared Rome. Others relate that he lived among the Volscians to a great age, and was often heard to say that "none but an old man can feel how wretched it is to live in a foreign land"

The Environs of Rome
The Environs of Rome

2. THE FABIA GENS AND THE VEIENTINES, B.C. 477. - The Fabii were one of the most powerful of the Patrician houses. For seven successive years one of the Consuls was always a Fabius. The Fabii had been among the leading opponents of the Agrarian Law; and Kæso Fabius had taken an active part in obtaining the condemnation of Sp. Cassius. But shortly afterward we find this same Kæso the advocate of the popular rights, and proposing that the Agrarian Law of Cassius should be carried into effect. He was supported in his new views by his powerful house, though the reasons for their change of opinion we do not know. But the Fabii made no impression upon the great body of the Patricians, and only earned for themselves the hearty hatred of their order. Finding that they could no longer live in peace at Rome, they determined to leave the city, and found a separate settlement, where they might still be useful to their native land. One of the most formidable enemies of the republic was the Etruscan city of Veii, situated about twelve miles from Rome. Accordingly, the Fabian house, consisting of 306 males of full age, accompanied by their wives and children, clients and dependents, marched out of Rome by the right-hand arch of the Carmental Gate, and proceeded straight to the Cremera, a river which flows into the Tiber below Veii. On the Cremera they established a fortified camp, and, sallying thence, they laid waste the Veientine territory. For two years they sustained the whole weight of the Veientine war; and all the attempts of the Veientines to dislodge them proved in vain. But at length they were enticed into an ambuscade, and were all slain. The settlement was destroyed, and no one of the house survived except a boy who had been left behind at Rome, and who became the ancestor of the Fabii, afterward so celebrated in Roman history. The Fabii were sacrificed to the hatred of the Patricians; for the consul T. Menenius was encamped a short way off at the time, and he did nothing to save them.

3. CINCINNATUS AND THE ÆQUIANS, B.C. 458. - The Æquians in their numerous attacks upon the Roman territory generally occupied Mount Algidus, which formed a part of the group of the Alban Hills in Latium. It was accordingly upon this mount that the battles between the Romans and Æquians most frequently took place. In the year 458 B.C. the Roman consul L. Minucius was defeated on the Algidus, and surrounded in his camp. Five horsemen, who made their escape before the Romans were completely encompassed, brought the tidings to Rome. The Senate forthwith appointed L. Cincinnatus dictator.

L. Cincinnatus was one of the heroes of old Roman story. When the deputies of the Senate came to him to announce his elevation to the dictatorship they found him driving a plow, and clad only in his tunic or shirt. They bade him clothe himself, that he might hear the commands of the Senate. He put on his toga, which his wife Racilia brought him. The deputies then told him of the peril of the Roman army, and that he had been made Dictator. The next morning, before daybreak, he appeared in the forum, and ordered all the men of military age to meet him in the evening in the Field of Mars, with food for five days, and each with twelve stakes. His orders were obeyed; and with such speed did he march, that by midnight he reached Mount Algidus. Placing his men around the Æquian camp, he told them to raise the war-cry, and at the same time to begin digging a trench and raising a mound, on the top of which the stakes were to be driven in. The other Roman army, which was shut in, hearing the war-cry, burst forth from their camp, and fought with the Æquians all night. The Dictator's troops thus worked without interruption, and completed the intrenchment by the morning. The Æquians found themselves hemmed in between the two armies, and were forced to surrender. The Dictator made them pass under the yoke, which was formed by two spears fixed upright in the ground, while a third was fastened across them. Cincinnatus entered Rome in triumph only twenty-four hours after he had quitted it, having thus saved a whole Roman army from destruction.

In reading the wars of the early Republic, it is important to recollect the League formed by Spurius Cassius, the author of the Agrarian Law between the Romans, Latins, and Hernicans. This League, to which allusion has been already made, was of the most intimate kind, and the armies of the three states fought by each other's sides. It was by means of this League that the Æquians and Volscians were kept in check, for they were two of the most warlike nations in Italy, and would have been more than a match for the unsupported arms of Rome.

Tarpeian Rock
Tarpeian Rock
Roman Empire History

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