It was an innovation with a momentous bearing on the whole public life of the Roman community, when in 605, on the proposal of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, a standing senatorial commission (-quaestio ordinaria-) was instituted to try in judicial form the complaints of the provincials against the Roman magistrates placed over them on the score of extortion. An effort was made to emancipate the comitia from the predominant influence of the aristocracy. The panacea of Roman democracy was secret voting in the assemblies of the burgesses, which was introduced first for the elections of magistrates by the Gabinian law (615), then for the public tribunals by the Cassian law (617), lastly for the voting on legislative proposals by the Papirian law (623). In a similar way soon afterwards (about 625) the senators were by decree of the people enjoined on admission to the senate to surrender their public horse, and thereby to renounce their privileged place in the voting of the eighteen equestrian centuries.(2) These measures, directed to the emancipation of the electors from the ruling aristocratic order, may perhaps have seemed to the party which suggested them the first step towards a regeneration of the state; in fact they made not the slightest change in the nullity and want of freedom of the legally supreme organ of the Roman community; that nullity indeed was only the more palpably evinced to all whom it did or did not concern. Equally ostentatious and equally empty was the formal recognition accorded to the independence and sovereignty of the burgesses by the transference of their place of assembly from the old Comitium below the senate-house to the Forum (about 609). But this hostility between the formal sovereignty of the people and the practically subsisting constitution was in great part a semblance. Party phrases were in free circulation: of the parties themselves there was little trace in matters really and directly practical. Throughout the whole seventh century the annual public elections to the civil magistracies, especially to the consulship and censorship, formed the real standing question of the day and the focus of political agitation; but it was only in isolated and rare instances that the different candidates represented opposite political principles; ordinarily the question related purely to persons, and it was for the course of affairs a matter of indifference whether the majority of the votes fell to a Caecilian or to a Cornelian. The Romans thus lacked that which outweighs and compensates all the evils of party-life--the free and common movement of the masses towards what they discern as a befitting aim--and yet endured all those evils solely for the benefit of the paltry game of the ruling coteries.

It was comparatively easy for the Roman noble to enter on the career of office as quaestor or tribune of the people; but the consulship and the censorship were attainable by him only through great exertions prolonged for years. The prizes were many, but those really worth having were few; the competitors ran, as a Roman poet once said, as it were over a racecourse wide at the starting-point but gradually narrowing its dimensions. This was right, so long as the magistracy was--what it was called--an "honour" and men of military, political, or juristic ability were rival competitors for the rare chaplets; but now the practical closeness of the nobility did away with the benefit of competition, and left only its disadvantages. With few exceptions the young men belonging to the ruling families crowded into the political career, and hasty and premature ambition soon caught at means more effective than was useful action for the common good. The first requisite for a public career came to be powerful connections; and therefore that career began, not as formerly in the camp, but in the ante-chambers of influential men. A new and genteel body of clients now undertook--what had formerly been done only by dependents and freedmen--to come and wait on their patron early in the morning, and to appear publicly in his train. But the mob also is a great lord, and desires as such to receive attention. The rabble began to demand as its right that the future consul should recognize and honour the sovereign people in every ragged idler of the street, and that every candidate should in his "going round" (-ambitus-) salute every individual voter by name and press his hand. The world of quality readily entered into this degrading canvass. The true candidate cringed not only in the palace, but also on the street, and recommended himself to the multitude by flattering attentions, indulgences, and civilities more or less refined. Demagogism and the cry for reforms were sedulously employed to attract the notice and favour of the public; and they were the more effective, the more they attacked not things but persons. It became the custom for beardless youths of genteel birth to introduce themselves with -eclat- into public life by playing afresh the part of Cato with the immature passion of their boyish eloquence, and by constituting and proclaiming themselves state-attorneys, if possible, against some man of very high standing and very great unpopularity; the Romans suffered the grave institutions of criminal justice and of political police to become a means of soliciting office. The provision or, what was still worse, the promise of magnificent popular amusements had long been the, as it were legal, prerequisite to the obtaining of the consulship;(3) now the votes of the electors began to be directly purchased with money, as is shown by the prohibition issued against this about 595. Perhaps the worst consequence of the continual courting of the favour of the multitude by the ruling aristocracy was the incompatibility of such a begging and fawning part with the position which the government should rightfully occupy in relation to the governed. The government was thus converted from a blessing into a curse for the people. They no longer ventured to dispose of the property and blood of the burgesses, as exigency required, for the good of their country.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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