But this was not the real design of the tribunate. It was a concession wrung not from the politically privileged order, but from the rich landlords and capitalists; it was designed to ensure to the commons equitable administration of law, and to promote a more judicious administration of finance. This design it did not, and could not, fulfil. The tribune might put a stop to particular iniquities, to individual instances of crying hardship; but the fault lay not in the unfair working of a righteous law, but in a law which was itself unrighteous, and how could the tribune regularly obstruct the ordinary course of justice? Could he have done so, it would have served little to remedy the evil, unless the sources of impoverishment were stopped--the perverse taxation, the wretched system of credit, and the pernicious occupation of the domain-lands. But such measures were not attempted, evidently because the wealthy plebeians themselves had no less interest in these abuses than the patricians. So this singular magistracy was instituted, which presented to the commons an obvious and available aid, and yet could not possibly carry out the necessary economic reform. It was no proof of political wisdom, but a wretched compromise between the wealthy aristocracy and the leaderless multitude. It has been affirmed that the tribunate of the people preserved Rome from tyranny. Were it true, it would be of little moment: a change in the form of the state is not in itself an evil for a people; on the contrary, it was a misfortune for the Romans that monarchy was introduced too late, after the physical and mental energies of the nation were exhausted. But the assertion is not even correct; as is shown by the circumstance that the Italian states remained as regularly free from tyrants as the Hellenic states regularly witnessed their emergence. The reason lies simply in the fact that tyranny is everywhere the result of universal suffrage, and that the Italians excluded the burgesses who had no land from their public assemblies longer than the Greeks did: when Rome departed from this course, monarchy did not fail to emerge, and was in fact associated with this very tribunician orifice. That the tribunate had its use, in pointing out legitimate paths of opposition and averting many a wrong, no one will fail to acknowledge; but it is equally evident that, where it did prove useful, it was employed for very different objects from those for which it had been established. The bold experiment of allowing the leaders of the opposition a constitutional veto, and of investing them with power to assert it regardless of the consequences, proved to be an expedient by which the state was politically unhinged; and social evils were prolonged by the application of useless palliatives.

Further Dissensions

Now that civil war was organized, it pursued its course. The parties stood face to face as if drawn up for battle, each under its leaders. Restriction of the consular and extension of the tribunician power were the objects contended for on the one side; the annihilation of the tribunate was sought on the other. Legal impunity secured for insubordination, refusal to enter the ranks for the defence of the land, impeachments involving fines and penalties directed specially against magistrates who had violated the rights of the commons or who had simply provoked their displeasure, were the weapons of the plebeians; and to these the patricians opposed violence, concert with the public foes, and occasionally also the dagger of the assassin. Hand-to-hand conflicts took place in the streets, and on both sides the sacredness of the magistrate's person was violated. Many families of burgesses are said to have migrated, and to have sought more peaceful abodes in neighbouring communities; and we may well believe it. The strong patriotism of the people is obvious from the fact, not that they adopted this constitution, but that they endured it, and that the community, notwithstanding the most vehement convulsions, still held together.


The best-known incident in these conflicts of the orders is the history of Gnaeus Marcius, a brave aristocrat, who derived his surname from the storming of Corioli. Indignant at the refusal of the centuries to entrust to him the consulate in the year 263, he is reported to have proposed, according to one version, the suspension of the sales of corn from the state-stores, till the hungry people should give up the tribunate; according to another version, the direct abolition of the tribunate itself. Impeached by the tribunes so that his life was in peril, it is said that he left the city, but only to return at the head of a Volscian army; that when he was on the point of conquering the city of his fathers for the public foe, the earnest appeal of his mother touched his conscience; and that thus he expiated his first treason by a second, and both by death. How much of this is true cannot be determined; but the story, over which the naive misrepresentations of the Roman annalists have shed a patriotic glory, affords a glimpse of the deep moral and political disgrace of these conflicts between the orders. Of a similar stamp was the surprise of the Capitol by a band of political refugees, led by a Sabine chief, Appius Herdonius, in the year 294; they summoned the slaves to arms, and it was only after a violent conflict, and by the aid of the Tusculans who hastened to render help, that the Roman burgess-force overcame the Catilinarian band. The same character of fanatical exasperation marks other events of this epoch, the historical significance of which can no longer be apprehended in the lying family narratives; such as the predominance of the Fabian clan which furnished one of the two consuls from 269 to 275, and the reaction against it, the emigration of the Fabii from Rome, and their annihilation by the Etruscans on the Cremera (277). Still more odious was the murder of the tribune of the people, Gnaeus Genucius, who had ventured to call two consulars to account, and who on the morning of the day fixed for the impeachment was found dead in bed (281).

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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