Such a crisis in the position of parties occurred after the fall of the decemvirate. It had now become perfectly clear that the tribunate of the plebs could never be set aside; the plebeian aristocracy could not do better than seize this powerful lever and employ it for the removal of the political disabilities of their order.

Throwing Open Of Marriage And Of Magistracies-- Military Tribunes With Consular Powers

Nothing shows so clearly the defencelessness of the clan-nobility when opposed to the united plebs, as the fact that the fundamental principle of the exclusive party--the invalidity of marriage between patricians and plebeians--fell at the first blow scarcely four years after the decemviral revolution. In the year 309 it was enacted by the Canuleian plebiscite, that a marriage between a patrician and a plebeian should be valid as a true Roman marriage, and that the children begotten of such a marriage should follow the rank of the father. At the same time it was further carried that, in place of consuls, military tribunes--of these there were at that time, before the division of the army into legions, six, and the number of these magistrates was adjusted accordingly-with consular powers(1) and consular duration of office should be elected by the centuries. The proximate cause was of a military nature, as the various wars required a greater number of generals in chief command than the consular constitution allowed; but the change came to be of essential importance for the conflicts of the orders, and it may be that that military object was rather the pretext than the reason for this arrangement. According to the ancient law every burgess or --metoikos-- liable to service might attain the post of an officer,(2) and in virtue of that principle the supreme magistracy, after having been temporarily opened up to the plebeians in the decemvirate, was now after a more comprehensive fashion rendered equally accessible to all freeborn burgesses. The question naturally occurs, what interest the aristocracy could have--now that it was under the necessity of abandoning its exclusive possession of the supreme magistracy and of yielding in the matter--in refusing to the plebeians the title, and conceding to them the consulate under this singular form?(3) But, in the first place, there were associated with the holding of the supreme magistracy various honorary rights, partly personal, partly hereditary; thus the honour of a triumph was regarded as legally dependent on the occupancy of the supreme magistracy, and was never given to an officer who had not administered the latter office in person; and the descendants of a curule magistrate were at liberty to set up the image of such an ancestor in the family hall and to exhibit it in public on fitting occasions, while this was not allowed in the case of other ancestors.(4) It is as easy to be explained as it is difficult to be vindicated, that the governing aristocratic order should have allowed the government itself to be wrested from their hands far sooner than the honorary rights associated with it, especially such as were hereditary; and therefore, when it was obliged to share the former with the plebeians, it gave to the actual supreme magistrate the legal standing not of the holder of a curule chair, but of a simple staff-officer, whose distinction was one purely personal. Of greater political importance, however, than the refusal of the -ius imaginum- and of the honour of a triumph was the circumstance, that the exclusion of the plebeians sitting in the senate from debate necessarily ceased in respect to those of their number who, as designated or former consuls, ranked among the senators whose opinion had to be asked before the rest; so far it was certainly of great importance for the nobility to admit the plebeian only to a consular office, and not to the consulate itself.

Opposition Of The Patriciate

But notwithstanding these vexatious disabilities the privileges of the clans, so far as they had a political value, were legally superseded by the new institution; and, had the Roman nobility been worthy of its name, it must now have given up the struggle. But it did not. Though a rational and legal resistance was thenceforth impossible, spiteful opposition still found a wide field of petty expedients, of chicanery and intrigue; and, far from honourable or politically prudent as such resistance was, it was still in a certain sense fruitful of results. It certainly procured at length for the commons concessions which could not easily have been wrung from the united Roman aristocracy; but it also prolonged civil war for another century and enabled the nobility, in defiance of those laws, practically to retain the government in their exclusive possession for several generations longer.

Their Expedients

The expedients of which the nobility availed themselves were as various as political paltriness could suggest. Instead of deciding at once the question as to the admission or exclusion of the plebeians at the elections, they conceded what they were compelled to concede only with reference to the elections immediately impending. The vain struggle was thus annually renewed whether patrician consuls or military tribunes from both orders with consular powers should be nominated; and among the weapons of the aristocracy this mode of conquering an opponent by wearying and annoying him proved by no means the least effective.

Subdivision Of The Magistracy-- Censorship

Moreover they broke up the supreme power which had hitherto been undivided, in order to delay their inevitable defeat by multiplying the points to be assailed. Thus the adjustment of the budget and of the burgess--and taxation-rolls, which ordinarily took place every fourth year and had hitherto been managed by the consuls, was entrusted as early as the year 319 to two valuators (-censores-), nominated by the centuries from among the nobles for a period, at the most, of eighteen months. The new office gradually became the palladium of the aristocratic party, not so much on account of its financial influence as on account of the right annexed to it of filling up the vacancies in the senate and in the equites, and of removing individuals from the lists of the senate, equites, and burgesses on occasion of their adjustment.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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