City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

Secession of the Plebeians

During all the long years after the founding of the city, Rome had been growing steadily, in spite of her many wars with her enemies. It was not only that her boys and girls grew up to be men and women with children of their own, and in this way the number of people in the city was increased; many persons came to Rome from other places and settled there. Sometimes they did this because the river Tiber made Rome a good place to carry on trade; sometimes they came because the hills of Rome made the city a strong place, where they could be safe from robbers. Sometimes, too, the Romans would conquer the people of another city in battle, and would bring them in a body to live at Rome. So, in many ways, the number of the people in the city grew, until it was said that, about the time that King Tarquin was driven out, there were as many as eighty thousand men in Rome, who could serve in war if there was need of them.

This was a good thing for Rome in some ways, but in one way it was bad. The new people and their children were not allowed to take part in the government, so the Romans came to be divided into two classes. The descendants of the old families were called patricians, and they alone could hold the offices and be priests. The descendants of the newcomers were called plebeians; and, though they could own property, and carry on business, and sometimes were allowed to vote, yet they could not be elected to any office and in other ways were not allowed the full rights of Roman citizens.

After King Tarquin was driven away from the city, the plebeians became worse off than they had been before. The patrician consuls and the patrician Senate used their power for the good of their own class. The patricians alone were allowed to use the public land, from which, you will remember, some was given to Horatius as a reward. But worst of all was the cruel law of debt, which was now enforced against the plebeians more harshly than ever before.

When a poor plebeian returned from fighting in the wars of his country, he might find that the crops on his little farm outside of Rome had been destroyed by the enemy, and his cattle had been driven off. Then he would be obliged to borrow money of some rich patrician to help pay his taxes and support his family until the next harvest could be gathered. But, if another war followed during the next summer, he would have to leave his farm again, and so could not pay his debt when he had promised. Then he might be seized and put into prison, and even sold as a slave, by the man to whom he owed the money.

In this way, many plebeians suffered from the harsh laws, and they became very much discontented. At last, one day, an old soldier appeared in the market-place at Rome, appealing to the people in his great misery. His clothes were soiled and torn, and his hair and beard had grown long and shaggy over his pale, thin face. But in spite of his pitiful appearance he was recognized as a man who had been a brave officer in the army, and on his body could be seen many scars which he had gained in battle.

"While I have been fighting in your wars," he cried, "the enemy have destroyed the crops upon my land; they have burned my house and driven off my cattle. The money which I was compelled to borrow, I could not pay back. So my farm has been taken from me; I have been thrown into prison; and see! here are the marks of the whip upon my back."

When the people heard his story and saw his wretched condition, a great tumult arose. The people rushed upon the houses of the patricians and set free the prisoners whom they found in them. Soon, from every side, men came running who had suffered like this brave man from the cruel laws of debt; and the market-place was filled with angry shouts.

In the midst of this trouble news came that their enemies, the Volscians, were on the march toward Rome. At first the plebeians refused to enlist in the army, which was called to go out to fight them. When they were promised, however, that the laws about debts should be changed, they gave in their names and marched out to the war. Then, when the Volscians had been defeated, and the war was over, the patricians refused to change the laws as they had promised. After a great deal of trouble, the plebeians at last determined to settle the matter for themselves. You have read that the Romans learned two things under their kings, to fight and to obey. They believed that they must obey their laws and their rulers even if they were cruel and unjust; and, although they were now greatly abused, they did not use their arms against the men who ruled them. Instead of killing and burning, the plebeians formed another plan.

"We cannot use force against our consuls," they said, "but we will leave the patricians to fight for themselves when the next army comes marching against the city. We will let them receive the wounds and bear the evils from which we have been suffering."

Then they marched out from the city, and set up an armed camp on the Sacred Mount, which was not far from Rome. There they waited quietly for many days, without attacking any one and taking only enough food from the people of the country to keep themselves from starving.

Meanwhile, in Rome the consuls and the Senate were filled with dismay. The main support of the state was gone, and the patricians began to realize how much they had depended upon the plebeians for the good of the city. There was nothing now to stand between them and an enemy, and they trembled to think what would become of Rome if an army should now come marching against it. When they heard that the men upon the Sacred Mount were talking of beginning a new city, as Romulus and his companions had done, they felt that they must give way, or else sacrifice themselves and their city. At last, they sent a man to the people to offer to make terms with them. He was a wise and eloquent man, and he had been chosen because he was beloved by the common people. The plebeians admitted him willingly to their camp, and listened eagerly to his message. He began by telling them a story.

"Once upon a time," he said, "the other parts of the human body began to grumble because they had all the work to do, while the stomach lay idle in their midst, and enjoyed the results of their labors. So they agreed that the hands should not carry food to the mouth, or the mouth receive it, or the teeth chew it. In this way, they thought to starve the stomach into submission. But soon they found that the different members, and even the entire body itself, began to grow weak and thin, and that, the more they starved the stomach, the weaker they all became. Then they began to see that the service of the stomach was by no means a small one; that it not only received nourishment, but supplied it to all the parts, and that the members of the body could not themselves live and do their work without it."

As you can easily see, the messenger meant to show the people, by this fable, that the inhabitants of a city form one great body, with each class depending upon every other for its welfare. The people listened patiently to him, and saw the truth in what he said. In the end, they returned to Rome, but only after the patricians had agreed that, from this time on, the plebeians should have a number of officers of their own, called Tribunes, to protect them.

These tribunes were given very high powers. When anything was being done, even if it were by the consuls themselves, the tribunes could step forth and say, "Veto!" which means, "I forbid it!" and at once it must stop. No one might harm a tribune in any way, and during the year that they held office, the tribunes always slept in their own houses in the city, with their doors open day and night, so that no one might seek their aid in vain.

With the tribunes to help them in their difficulties, the common people were relieved of many of their troubles. But still the struggle between the patricians and the plebeians lasted for nearly two hundred years longer, and did not cease until the plebeians had been given equal rights in the government with the patricians. Through all this long struggle there was very little bloodshed, and there was never war between the two classes. And often, when the struggle was at its fiercest, the patricians and plebeians would lay aside their quarrels, and march out, side by side, to fight the enemies of their city.

In this way the Romans learned something better than how to fight battles successfully, they learned how to govern themselves. The patricians always held out for their rights just as long as they could, but when they were beaten, they knew how to give way and make the best of it. From these struggles the whole people learned obedience and self-control, and so became fit to rule themselves, and other lands also, when they grew strong enough to conquer them.