The Fable of the Stomach
Now although the plebeians were so obstinate in their refusal to return to Rome, and although they openly rejoiced when they heard that the patricians were in distress, they were nearly as badly off themselves. They had managed to bring only a very little food with them, and, as they had no money, starvation was staring them in the face.
Both parties were suffering, and no one knew how to put an end to this distressing state of affairs. At last a wise Roman, named Menenius, offered to go and speak to the people and persuade them to come back to Rome.
The senators, who had made so many vain efforts, and had talked until they were tired, were delighted when they heard this offer, and bade Menenius go and do his best. This wise man, therefore, went to the Sacred Mountain, advanced into the midst of the crowd, and began to address them.
He had noticed that the poor people, who were very ignorant indeed, did not understand the long speeches made by the senators; so he began to tell them a simple story.
"My friends," said he, "all the different parts of the body once refused to work, saying that they were tired of serving the stomach. The legs said: 'What is the use of running about from morning till night, merely to find food enough to fill it?'
" 'We won't work for that lazy stomach either!' said the hands and arms. 'Legs, if, you'll keep still, we won't move either.'
" 'We are tired, too,' said the teeth. 'It is grind, grind, grind, all day long. The stomach can do its own work hereafter.'
"All the other parts of the body had some complaint to make about the stomach, and all agreed that they would not work any more to satisfy its wants. The legs ceased walking, the hands and arms stopped working, the teeth did not grind any more, and the empty stomach clamored in vain for its daily supply of food.
"All the limbs were delighted at first with their rest, and, when the empty stomach called for something to eat, they merely laughed. Their fun did not last very long, however, because the stomach, weak for want of food, soon ceased its cries. Then, after a while, the hands and arms and legs grew so weak that they could not move. All the body fell down and died, because the stomach, without food, could no longer supply it with strength to live.
"Now, my friends," continued Menenius, "this is just your case. The state is the body, the patricians are the stomach, and you are the limbs. Of course, if you refuse to work, and remain idle, the patricians will suffer, just as the stomach did in the story I told you.
"But, if you persist in your revolt, you will soon suffer also. You will lose your strength, and before long the body, our glorious Roman state, will perish."
The plebeians listened to this story very attentively, understood the illustration, and saw the sense of all that Menenius said. They began to realize that they could not get along without the patricians any better than the patricians could get along without them.
So, after talking the matter over a little, they all told Menenius that they were willing to go back to Rome. He was very glad when he heard this; and, to prevent them from again being used so badly, he made the senate give them officers who should look after their rights.
These new magistrates were called Tribunes. They had the right to interfere and change the decision of the consul or any other officer, whenever it was necessary to protect a plebeian from ill treatment. If a man was in debt, therefore, the tribune could excuse him from going to war; and, if the creditor was trying to make him a slave, the tribune could free him.
In later times, also, the tribunes were given a place near the door of the senate chamber. Before any new law could be put into effect, it had to be shown to them. In case they did not approve of the law, the tribunes could prevent its being adopted by saying "Veto," a Latin word which means "I forbid it."
This word is now used also in English, and you will see in your United States histories that the President has the right of veto, or of forbidding the passage of any law to which he objects. The tribunes were at first two in number, but later there were ten of them. They were always the friends of the people.
Two other officers were also elected by the plebeians. They were called Ædiles, and their duty was to help the tribunes, and also to care for the public buildings, to see that the Romans had clean houses and good food, and to look after the welfare of the poor people. Thus, you see, the plebeians were far better off than they had ever been before, and were now provided with magistrates whose sole business it was to look after their interests.