The New Laws
It is much to be regretted that all the Romans were not as good and simple and unselfish as Cincinnatus; but the fact remains that there were many among them who thought only of themselves, and did not care what happened to the rest. The patricians, in particular, were much inclined to pride themselves upon their position and wealth, and to show themselves both haughty and cruel.
As they oppressed their poorer neighbors, the plebeians grew more and more discontented, until the senate saw that they would again rebel if something were not quickly done to pacify them. There was now no Menenius to plead with the plebeians, and the senators remembered only too clearly how useless all their long speeches had been.
To avoid an open outbreak, the senators therefore proposed to change the laws. In the first place, they sent three men to Athens, which was also a republic; here they were to study the government, and to get a copy of the laws of Solon, which were the most famous in all the world.
When the three men came home, they brought with them the laws of the Athenians, and of many other nations. Ten men were then elected to read them all, and choose the best for the new Roman code of laws. When adopted, the new laws were to be written upon brazen tablets, and set up in the Forum, so that all the people could read them whenever they pleased.
The ten men, or Decemvirs as they were called, were granted full power for a year. They were very careful to be just in judging between the patricians and plebeians, and they soon won the people's confidence and respect.
The authority which they thus held pleased them so much that they wanted to keep it. At the end of the year, the laws were written on the brazen tablets, and set up in the Forum; but the men pretended that their work was not yet done, and asked that decemvirs should be elected for a second year.
The people believed them, and the election took place; but only one of the ten men, Appius Claudius, was chosen again. The new rulers were not as careful as the first; in fact, they were very proud and wicked, and soon began to act like tyrants.
Strange to say, Appius Claudius was more unpleasant than all the rest. While he severely punished all the Romans who did not mind the laws, he paid no attention to these laws himself. He took whatever suited him, did anything that he liked, and treated the people with great cruelty.
One day, while sitting in the Forum, he saw a beautiful girl, called Virginia, pass by on her way to school. She was so pretty that Appius took a fancy to her, and made up his mind to have her for his slave, although she was the daughter of a free Roman citizen.
After making a few inquiries, he found that Virginius, the girl's father, was away at war. Thinking that Virginia would have no one to protect her, he called one of his clients, said that he wanted the girl, and gave the man the necessary directions to secure her.
Now the clients at Rome were a kind of plebeians who belonged to certain families of patricians, and always worked for them. The client of Appius Claudius, therefore, promised to do exactly as he was told. When Virginia crossed the Forum, on the next day, he caught her and claimed her as one of his slaves.
The girl's uncle, however, sprang forward, and said that his niece was not a slave. He appealed to the law, and finally succeeded in having the girl set free, on condition that she should appear before Appius Claudius on the next day, when the matter would be decided in court.
Virginia's uncle knew that there was some plot to get possession of the beautiful girl intrusted to his care. Without losing a moment, therefore, he sent a messenger to her father, imploring him to come home and save his daughter from falling into the hands of wicked men.