The Wrongs of the Poor
Now that the war against Tarquin was over, the Romans fancied that they would be able to enjoy a little peace. They were greatly mistaken, however; for as soon as peace was made abroad, trouble began at home.
There were, as you have already heard, two large classes of Roman citizens: the patricians, or nobles, and the plebeians, or common people. They remained distinct, generation after generation, because no one was allowed to marry outside his own class.
The patricians alone had the right to be consuls and senators; they enjoyed many other privileges, and they owned most of the land.
The plebeians, on the other hand, were given only a small share in the government, although they were called upon to pay a large part of the taxes. They suffered much from the patricians, who considered them not much better than slaves. Of course this state of affairs was not pleasant for the plebeians; still they remained very quiet until matters grew much worse.
As the plebeians were obliged to pay taxes, they had to have money; and, when their farms did not yield enough, they were forced to borrow from the patricians. The patricians were always ready to lend money, because the laws were in their favor. Thus if a plebeian could not pay his debts, the lender could seize the poor man's farm, and even sell the man himself as a slave.
The patricians were very cruel; they often kept the poor debtors in prison, and beat and illtreated them constantly. The plebeians were so indignant at all this that they finally rebelled, and, when war broke out with the Volscians, they refused to go and fight.
The consuls coaxed and threatened, but the plebeians would not stir. When asked why they would no longer go with the army, they answered that since the patricians claimed all the spoil taken in war, they might do all the fighting.
To pacify the plebeians, the magistrates promised to make laws in their favor as soon as the war was over, if they would only fight as usual; so the men took up their arms and went to battle. But, when the war was ended, the magistrates made no changes in favor of the plebeians, and allowed the patricians to illtreat them as much as ever.
The discontent had reached such a pitch that it was very evident some outbreak would soon take place. One day an unhappy debtor escaped from prison, and, rushing out into the Forum, showed his bruises to the people, and began to tell them his pitiful tale.
He said that he was a plebeian, and that he had run into debt because, instead of cultivating his farm, he had been obliged to leave home and go with the army. Scarcely was one war over than another began, and at that time the Roman soldiers received no pay. Although he fought hard, and could show the scars of twenty battles, he had gained nothing for it all except a little praise.
Then, upon returning home, a patrician put him in prison, because he could not pay the money he owed. The debtor had been treated with the most horrible cruelty, and would probably have died there had he not succeeded in making his escape.
Now there had been several cases like this, even before the war with the Volscians. This time, however, the plebeians were so indignant at the sight of the man's bruises, and at the hearing of his wrongs, that they all marched out of the city, vowing that they would never come back until they were sure of fair treatment.
After leaving Rome, the plebeians camped upon a neighboring hill, which was afterwards known as Sacred Mountain. When they were gone, the patricians, who had so illtreated them, began to feel their absence. As the patricians scorned all work, and never did anything but fight, they were sorely taken aback when there were no farmers left to till their ground, no market men to supply their tables, and no merchants from whom they could buy the articles they needed.
The senate saw that it was impossible to get along without the plebeians. One message after another was sent, imploring them to return; but the people said that they had suffered enough, and would never again trust in promises, since they would not be kept.