Attempts were made to obviate the attack by other concessions. In the year 297 an increase of the tribunes from four to ten was sanctioned--a very dubious gain; and in the following year, by an Icilian -plebiscitum- which was admitted among the sworn privileges of the plebs, the Aventine, which had hitherto been a temple-grove and uninhabited, was distributed among the poorer burgesses as sites for buildings in heritable occupancy. The plebs took what was offered to them, but never ceased to insist in their demand for a legal code. At length, in the year 300, a compromise was effected; the senate in substance gave way. The preparation of a legal code was resolved upon; for that purpose, as an extraordinary measure, the centuries were to choose ten men who were at the same time to act as supreme magistrates in room of the consuls (-decemviri consulari imperio legibus scribundls-), and to this office not merely patricians, but plebeians also might be elected. These were here for the first time designated as eligible, though only for an extraordinary office. This was a great step in the progress towards full political equality; and it was not too dearly purchased, when the tribunate of the people as well as the right of appeal were suspended while the decemvirate lasted, and the decemvirs were simply bound not to infringe the sworn liberties of the community. Previously however an embassy was sent to Greece to bring home the laws of Solon and other Greek laws; and it was only on its return that the decemvirs were chosen for the year 303. Although they were at liberty to elect plebeians, the choice fell on patricians alone--so powerful was the nobility still--and it was only when a second election became necessary for 304, that some plebeians were chosen--the first non-patrician magistrates that the Roman community had.

Taking a connected view of these measures, we can scarcely attribute to them any other design than that of substituting for tribunician intercession a limitation of the consular powers by written law. On both sides there must have been a conviction that things could not remain as they were, and the perpetuation of anarchy, while it ruined the commonwealth, was in reality of no benefit to any one. People in earnest could not but discern that the interference of the tribunes in administration and their action as prosecutors had an absolutely pernicious effect; and the only real gain which the tribunate brought to the plebeians was the protection which it afforded against a partial administration of justice, by operating as a sort of court of cassation to check the caprice of the magistrate. Beyond doubt, when the plebeians desired a written code, the patricians replied that in that event the legal protection of tribunes would be superfluous; and upon this there appears to have been concession by both sides. Perhaps there was never anything definitely expressed as to what was to be done after the drawing up of the code; but that the plebs definitely renounced the tribunate is not to be doubted, since it was brought by the decemvirate into such a position that it could not get back the tribunate otherwise than by illegal means. The promise given to the plebs that its sworn liberties should not be touched, may be referred to the rights of the plebeians independent of the tribunate, such as the -provocatio- and the possession of the Aventine. The intention seems to have been that the decemvirs should, on their retiring, propose to the people to re-elect the consuls who should now judge no longer according to their arbitrary pleasure but according to written law.

Legislation Of The Twelve Tables

The plan, if it should stand, was a wise one; all depended on whether men's minds exasperated on either side with passion would accept that peaceful adjustment. The decemvirs of the year 303 submitted their law to the people, and it was confirmed by them, engraven on ten tables of copper, and affixed in the Forum to the rostra in front of the senate-house. But as a supplement appeared necessary, decemvirs were again nominated in the year 304, who added two more tables. Thus originated the first and only Roman code, the law of the Twelve Tables. It proceeded from a compromise between parties, and for that very reason could not well have contained any changes in the existing law of a comprehensive nature, going beyond the regulation of secondary matters and of the mere adaptation of means and ends. Even in the system of credit no further alleviation was introduced than the establishment of a--probably low--maximum of interest (10 per cent) and the threatening of heavy penalties against the usurer-penalties, characteristically enough, far heavier than those of the thief; the harsh procedure in actions of debt remained at least in its leading features unaltered. Still less, as may easily be conceived, were changes contemplated in the rights of the orders. On the contrary the legal distinction between burgesses liable to be taxed and those who were without estate, and the invalidity of marriage between patricians and plebeians, were confirmed anew in the law of the city. In like manner, with a view to restrict the caprice of the magistrate and to protect the burgess, it was expressly enacted that the later law should uniformly have precedence over the earlier, and that no decree of the people should be issued against a single burgess. The most remarkable feature was the exclusion of appeal to the -comitia tributa- in capital causes, while the privilege of appeal to the centuries was guaranteed; which admits of explanation from the circumstance that the penal jurisdiction was in fact usurped by the plebs and its presidents,(11) and with the tribunate there necessarily fell the tribunician capital process, while it was perhaps the intention to retain the aedilician process of fine (-multa-). The essential political significance of the measure resided far less in the contents of the legislation than in the formal obligation now laid upon the consuls to administer justice according to these forms of process and these rules of law, and in the public exhibition of the code, by which the administration of justice was subjected to the control of publicity and the consul was compelled to dispense equal and truly common justice to all.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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