The territory of Capua and the neighbouring towns, which was annexed as domain in 543, had for the most part practically passed into private possession during the following unsettled times. In the last years of the sixth century, when in various respects, especially through the influence of Cato, the reins of government were drawn tighter, the burgesses resolved to resume the Campanian territory and to let it out for the benefit of the treasury (582). The possession in this instance rested on an occupation justified not by previous invitation but at the most by the connivance of the authorities, and had continued in no case much beyond a generation; but the holders were not dispossessed except in consideration of a compensatory sum disbursed under the orders of the senate by the urban praetor Publius Lentulus (c. 589).(34) Less objectionable perhaps, but still not without hazard, was the arrangement by which the new allotments bore the character of heritable leaseholds and were inalienable. The most liberal principles in regard to freedom of dealing had made Rome great; and it was very little consonant to the spirit of the Roman institutions, that these new farmers were peremptorily bound down to cultivate their portions of land in a definite manner, and that their allotments were subject to rights of revocation and all the cramping measures associated with commercial restriction.

It will be granted that these objections to the Sempronian agrarian law were of no small weight. Yet they are not decisive. Such a practical eviction of the holders of the domains was certainly a great evil; yet it was the only means of checking, at least for a long time, an evil much greater still and in fact directly destructive to the state--the decline of the Italian farmer-class. We can well understand therefore why the most distinguished and patriotic men even of the conservative party, headed by Gaius Laelius and Scipio Aemilianus, approved and desired the distribution of the domains viewed in itself.

The Domain Question Before The Burgesses

But, if the aim of Tiberius Gracchus probably appeared to the great majority of the discerning friends of their country good and salutary, the method which he adopted, on the other hand, did not and could not meet with the approval of a single man of note and of patriotism. Rome about this period was governed by the senate. Any one who carried a measure of administration against the majority of the senate made a revolution. It was revolution against the spirit of the constitution, when Gracchus submitted the domain question to the people; and revolution also against the letter, when he destroyed not only for the moment but for all time coming the tribunician veto-- the corrective of the state machine, through which the senate constitutionally got rid of interferences with its government--by the deposition of his colleague, which he justified with unworthy sophistry. But it was not in this step that the moral and political mistake of the action of Gracchus lay. There are no set forms of high treason in history; whoever provokes one power in the state to conflict with another is certainly a revolutionist, but he may be at the same time a discerning and praiseworthy statesman. The essential defect of the Gracchan revolution lay in a fact only too frequently overlooked--in the nature of the then existing burgess-assemblies. The agrarian law of Spurius Cassius(35) and that of Tiberius Gracchus had in the main the same tenor and the same object; but the enterprises of the two men were as different, as the former Roman burgess-body which shared the Volscian spoil with the Latins and Hernici was different from the present which erected the provinces of Asia and Africa. The former was an urban community, which could meet together and act together; the latter was a great state, as to which the attempt to unite those belonging to it in one and the same primary assembly, and to leave to this assembly the decision, yielded a result as lamentable as it was ridiculous.(36) The fundamental defect of the policy of antiquity --that it never fully advanced from the urban form of constitution to that of a state or, which is the same thing, from the system of primary assemblies to a parliamentary system--in this case avenged itself. The sovereign assembly of Rome was what the sovereign assembly in England would be, if instead of sending representatives all the electors of England should meet together as a parliament--an unwieldy mass, wildly agitated by all interests and all passions, in which intelligence was totally lost; a body, which was neither able to take a comprehensive view of things nor even to form a resolution of its own; a body above all, in which, saving in rare exceptional cases, a couple of hundred or thousand individuals accidentally picked up from the streets of the capital acted and voted in name of the burgesses. The burgesses found themselves, as a rule, nearly as satisfactorily represented by their de facto representatives in the tribes and centuries as by the thirty lictors who de jure represented them in the curies; and just as what was called the decree of the curies was nothing but a decree of the magistrate who convoked the lictors, so the decree of the tribes and centuries at this time was in substance simply a decree of the proposing magistrate, legalised by some consentients indispensable for the occasion. But while in these voting-assemblies, the -comitia-, though they were far from dealing strictly in the matter of qualification, it was on the whole burgesses alone that appeared, in the mere popular assemblages on the other hand--the -contiones---every one in the shape of a man was entitled to take his place and to shout, Egyptians and Jews, street- boys and slaves. Such a "meeting" certainly had no significance in the eyes of the law; it could neither vote nor decree. But it practically ruled the street, and already the opinion of the street was a power in Rome, so that it was of some importance whether this confused mass received the communications made to it with silence or shouts, whether it applauded and rejoiced or hissed and howled at the orator.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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