Fall Of The Decemvirs

The end of the decemvirate is involved in much obscurity. It only remained--so runs the story--for the decemvirs to publish the last two tables, and then to give place to the ordinary magistracy. But they delayed to do so: under the pretext that the laws were not yet ready, they themselves prolonged their magistracy after the expiry of their official year--which was so far possible, as under Roman constitutional law the magistracy called in an extraordinary way to the revision of the constitution could not become legally bound by the term set for its ending. The moderate section of the aristocracy, with the Valerii and Horatii at their head, are said to have attempted in the senate to compel the abdication of the decemvirate; but the head of the decemvirs Appius Claudius, originally a rigid aristocrat, but now changing into a demagogue and a tyrant, gained the ascendancy in the senate, and the people submitted. The levy of two armies was accomplished without opposition, and war was begun against the Volscians as well as against the Sabines. Thereupon the former tribune of the people, Lucius Siccius Dentatus, the bravest man in Rome, who had fought in a hundred and twenty battles and had forty-five honourable scars to show, was found dead in front of the camp, foully murdered, as it was said, at the instigation of the decemvirs. A revolution was fermenting in men's minds; and its outbreak was hastened by the unjust sentence pronounced by Appius in the process as to the freedom of the daughter of the centurion Lucius Verginius, the bride of the former tribune of the people Lucius Icilius--a sentence which wrested the maiden from her relatives with a view to make her non-free and beyond the pale of the law, and induced her father himself to plunge his knife into the heart of his daughter in the open Forum, to rescue her from certain shame. While the people in amazement at the unprecedented deed surrounded the dead body of the fair maiden, the decemvir commanded his lictors to bring the father and then the bridegroom before his tribunal, in order to render to him, from whose decision there lay no appeal, immediate account for their rebellion against his authority. The cup was now full. Protected by the furious multitude, the father and the bridegroom of the maiden made their escape from the lictors of the despot, and while the senate trembled and wavered in Rome, the pair presented themselves, with numerous witnesses of the fearful deed, in the two camps. The unparalleled tale was told; the eyes of all were opened to the gap which the absence of tribunician protection had made in the security of law; and what the fathers had done their sons repeated. Once more the armies abandoned their leaders: they marched in warlike order through the city, and proceeded once more to the Sacred Mount, where they again nominated their own tribunes. Still the decemvirs refused to lay down their power; then the army with its tribunes appeared in the city, and encamped on the Aventine. Now at length, when civil war was imminent and the conflict in the streets might hourly begin, the decemvirs renounced their usurped and dishonoured power; and the consuls Lucius Valerius and Marcus Horatius negotiated a second compromise, by which the tribunate of the plebs was again established. The impeachment of the decemvirs terminated in the two most guilty, Appius Claudius and Spurius Oppius, committing suicide in prison, while the other eight went into exile and the state confiscated their property. The prudent and moderate tribune of the plebs, Marcus Duilius, prevented further judicial prosecutions by a seasonable use of his veto.

So runs the story as recorded by the pen of the Roman aristocrats; but, even leaving out of view the accessory circumstances, the great crisis out of which the Twelve Tables arose cannot possibly have ended in such romantic adventures, and in political issues so incomprehensible. The decemvirate was, after the abolition of the monarchy and the institution of the tribunate of the people, the third great victory of the plebs; and the exasperation of the opposite party against the institution and against its head Appius Claudius is sufficiently intelligible. The plebeians had through its means secured the right of eligibility to the highest magistracy of the community and a general code of law; and it was not they that had reason to rebel against the new magistracy, and to restore the purely patrician consular government by force of arms. This end can only have been pursued by the party of the nobility, and if the patricio-plebeian decemvirs made the attempt to maintain themselves in office beyond their time, the nobility were certainly the first to enter the lists against them; on which occasion doubtless the nobles would not neglect to urge that the stipulated rights of the plebs should be curtailed and the tribunate, in particular, should be taken from it. If the nobility thereupon succeeded in setting aside the decemvirs, it is certainly conceivable that after their fall the plebs should once more assemble in arms with a view to secure the results both of the earlier revolution of 260 and of the latest movement; and the Valerio-Horatian laws of 305 can only be understood as forming a compromise in this conflict.

The Valerio-Horatian Laws

The compromise, as was natural, proved very favourable to the plebeians, and again imposed severely felt restrictions on the power of the nobility. As a matter of course the tribunate of the people was restored, the code of law wrung from the aristocracy was definitively retained, and the consuls were obliged to judge according to it. Through the code indeed the tribes lost their usurped jurisdiction in capital causes; but the tribunes got it back, as a way was found by which it was possible for them to transact business as to such cases with the centuries. Besides they retained, in the right to award fines without limitation and to submit this sentence to the -comitia tributa-, a sufficient means of putting an end to the civic existence of a patrician opponent.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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