The free divisibility of the soil always involved the risk of an insolvent agricultural proletariate; and under such circumstances, when all burdens were increasing and all means of deliverance were foreclosed, distress and despair could not but spread with fearful rapidity among the agricultural middle class.

Relations Of The Social Question To The Question Between Orders

The distinction between rich and poor, which arose out of these relations, by no means coincided with that between the clans and the plebeians. If far the greater part of the patricians were wealthy landholders, opulent and considerable families were, of course, not wanting among the plebeians; and as the senate, which even then perhaps consisted in greater part of plebeians, had assumed the superintendence of the finances to the exclusion even of the patrician magistrates, it was natural that all those economic advantages, for which the political privileges of the nobility were abused, should go to the benefit of the wealthy collectively; and the pressure fell the more heavily upon the commons, since those who were the ablest and the most capable of resistance were by their admission to the senate transferred from the class of the oppressed to the ranks of the oppressors.

But this state of things prevented the political position of the aristocracy from being permanently tenable. Had it possessed the self-control to govern justly and to protect the middle class--as individual consuls from its ranks endeavoured, but from the reduced position of the magistracy were unable effectually, to do--it might have long maintained itself in sole possession of the offices of state. Had it been willing to admit the wealthy and respectable plebeians to full equality of rights--possibly by connecting the acquisition of the patriciate with admission into the senate--both might long have governed and speculated with impunity. But neither of these courses was adopted; the narrowness of mind and short- sightedness, which are the proper and inalienable privileges of all genuine patricianism, were true to their character also in Rome, and rent the powerful commonwealth asunder in useless, aimless, and inglorious strife.

Secession To The Sacred Mount

The immediate crisis however proceeded not from those who felt the disabilities of their order, but from the distress of the farmers. The rectified annals place the political revolution in the year 244, the social in the years 259 and 260; they certainly appear to have followed close upon each other, but the interval was probably longer. The strict enforcement of the law of debt--so runs the story--excited the indignation of the farmers at large. When in the year 259 the levy was called forth for a dangerous war, the men bound to serve refused to obey the command. Thereupon the consul Publius Servilius suspended for a time the application of the debtor-laws, and gave orders to liberate the persons already imprisoned for debt as well as prohibited further arrests; so that the farmers took their places in the ranks and helped to secure the victory. On their return from the field of battle the peace, which had been achieved by their exertions, brought back their prison and their chains: with merciless rigour the second consul, Appius Claudius, enforced the debtor-laws and his colleague, to whom his former soldiers appealed for aid, dared not offer opposition. It seemed as if collegiate rule had been introduced not for the protection of the people, but to facilitate breach of faith and despotism; they endured, however, what could not be changed. But when in the following year the war was renewed, the word of the consul availed no longer. It was not till Manius Valerius was nominated dictator that the farmers submitted, partly from their awe of the higher magisterial authority, partly from their confidence in his friendly feeling to the popular cause--for the Valerii were one of those old patrician clans by whom government was esteemed a privilege and an honour, not a source of gain. The victory was again with the Roman standards; but when the victors came home and the dictator submitted his proposals of reform to the senate, they were thwarted by its obstinate opposition. The army still stood in its array, as usual, before the gates of the city. When the news arrived, the long threatening storm burst forth; the -esprit de corps- and the compact military organization carried even the timid and the indifferent along with the movement. The army abandoned its general and its encampment, and under the leadership of the commanders of the legions--the military tribunes, who were at least in great part plebeians--marched in martial order into the district of Crustumeria between the Tiber and the Anio, where it occupied a hill and threatened to establish in this most fertile part of the Roman territory a new plebeian city. This secession showed in a palpable manner even to the most obstinate of the oppressors that such a civil war must end with economic ruin to themselves; and the senate gave way. The dictator negotiated an agreement; the citizens returned within the city walls; unity was outwardly restored. The people gave Manius Valerius thenceforth the name of "the great" (-maximus-)--and called the mount beyond the Anio "the sacred mount." There was something mighty and elevating in such a revolution, undertaken by the multitude itself without definite guidance under generals whom accident supplied, and accomplished without bloodshed; and with pleasure and pride the citizens recalled its memory. Its consequences were felt for many centuries: it was the origin of the tribunate of the plebs.

Plebian Tribunes And Plebian Aediles

In addition to temporary enactments, particularly for remedying the most urgent distress occasioned by debt, and for providing for a number of the rural population by the founding of various colonies, the dictator carried in constitutional form a law, which he moreover --doubtless in order to secure amnesty to the burgesses for the breach of their military oath--caused every individual member of the community to swear to, and then had it deposited in a temple under the charge and custody of two magistrates specially appointed from the plebs for the purpose, the two "house-masters" (-aediles-).

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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