Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

How the Plebeians Won their Rights

The preceding stories of gods and kings and heroes are told of the first two hundred and fifty years after the supposed date of the founding of Rome, that is, from 753 B. C. to 496 B. C. In one way they are false. For instance, there never was a god Mars to be the father of Romulus and Remus; and no nation ever suddenly gave up fighting and began to spend the time in cultivating the ground, as the legends say was done in the days of Numa. Indeed, there is no authentic history of Rome with definite dates until at earliest 390 B. C. Nevertheless, even in the most impossible of these stories there is always some bit of truth for a foundation. By searching for this, we learn that Rome was founded by the Latins to protect them from the Etruscans; that after much hard fighting, two other villages united with the Romans, took the level space between the two hills for their forum, or public square, and built on the Capitoline Hill a strong citadel, or fort, which should serve to defend them both; and that later they were joined by other settlers who lived on the Caelian Hill. Rome is said to have been founded 753 B. C. A century and a half later, the city walls, then nearly five miles in length, inclosed seven hills, the Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, Aventine, Palatine, and Capitoline. That is why Rome is often spoken of as the seven-hilled city.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The chief reason why Rome grew so rapidly was because it had so excellent a location. There were other groups of hills in Italy and other settlements on them, but in these other groups, the hills were higher and farther apart, and the settlements could be independent of one another and did not have to unite; therefore they increased in size slowly. In another way the location of Rome was most desirable. It was beside the Tiber, and for that reason the Romans could carry on trade with all the districts through which the Tiber and its branches flowed. Moreover, it was far enough from the sea to be safe from the attacks of pirates. No other town in Italy had so many advantages.

There was one great disadvantage, however, and this was that the people were not united. Servius Tullius had done a good deal to bring them together when he admitted all land-owners to the army, but the old distinction of patricians and plebeians was by no means forgotten, and the patricians still had many privileges which were not shared by the plebeians.

In all the fighting between the Romans and the friends of Tarquinius, the plebeians had suffered most. When there was warfare in the summer, most of the patricians could have their land cared for by slaves; but the plebeian had to go to the army and leave his farm with no one to cultivate it or gather in the crops. He was fortunate if the enemy did not destroy the crops altogether, steal the cattle, and burn the house. The plebeian was required to pay taxes, but he received no pay for his service in the army, and no one thought of asking the state to make good his losses. The result was that the plebeian must either starve or borrow of some patrician.

Borrowing was dangerous business in Rome. If a man did not pay his debt within thirty days of the appointed time, the law was that he should be imprisoned, loaded down with chains, and fed on bread and water for thirty days. If he did not pay then, he might be sold as a slave or even put to death. One day, fifteen years after Tarquinius was driven out, an old man came into the forum. His clothes were nothing but rags, and he was thin and pale. The people gathered around him. "I know him," said more than one of them. "He was an officer and a brave soldier. See on his breast the scars of his wounds." The old man told them his pitiful story. "While I was in the army," he said, "the enemy destroyed my crops, drove away my cattle, and burned my house. I had to pay a tax, and the only thing to do was to borrow money. I could not repay it, and my creditor beat me. Behold!" He threw off his robe from his shoulders, and the crowd saw the bloody marks of the whip. The plebeians were furious. "Call the senate together," they demanded, "and make laws that are just to us." The senators were so frightened that they did not know whether there was more danger in staying at home or going to the senate house, but at length they came together and began to discuss what should be done. Suddenly some Latin horsemen galloped up to the city. "The enemy is at hand!" they cried. "Call out the army." But the plebeians would not be called out. "Why should we fight for Rome?" they demanded, "when warfare brings us nothing but debt and ruin? Let those fight who gain by war." One of the consuls promised that if they would join the army, he would propose a just law for debtors. The plebeians trusted him, and the enemy was driven away; but the other consul, Appius Claudius, led the senate to refuse to make any change in the laws. Then the plebeians were angry indeed. "Why should we stay in Rome?" they said to one another. "Why not leave the city and found a city of our own?" They decided to do this, and one day they set out for a hill a few miles away and made ready to build themselves houses.

Then the patricians were disturbed, for they had lost the cultivators of the ground. "Let them go," said Appius Claudius scornfully; "we have no need of the rabble." Fortunately, the other chief men were wiser, and it was decided to send three patricians to try to persuade them to return. But they would not be persuaded. Then Menenius Agrippa told them a little story. "Once upon a time," he said, "the members of the body resolved that they would no longer support the belly, which did nothing at all, but lay at ease while they toiled. 'We will not carry it,' said the feet. 'We will do no more work for it,' cried the hands. 'And we will not chew a morsel for it, even if food is placed between us,' declared the teeth. They kept their word, and the belly suffered, but they suffered with it, and soon they, too, began to waste away."

The plebeians understood the meaning of the fable. They talked together, and finally they said to the patricians, "We will return to Rome if you will agree, first, to forgive the debtors who cannot pay; second, to free those who have been made slaves; and, third, to have two tribunes appointed to see that the patrician magistrates do not wrong us." The patricians agreed to these terms, and they and the plebeians made a treaty as formally as if they had been two nations. The hill where this meeting was held received the name of the Sacred Mountain. At its summit an altar was built and sacrifices were offered to Jupiter.

It was not long before the number of plebeian tribunes was increased to ten; and, moreover, plebeian aediles were also chosen who aided the tribunes and cared for the streets and public records, and superintended the public games.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


It was a great gain to the plebeians to have tribunes, but their troubles were not over by any means. Many of them were exceedingly poor, and those whose debts had been forgiven had nothing to make a start with, and were almost as wretched as they had been in the first place. This was all the harder to bear because the patricians had a large amount of property which the plebeians felt ought fairly to be shared with them. This property was in land which had been taken in war. The plebeians said, "We have fought to win the land, and we ought to have a part of it." This was not so easy a thing to bring about, because the patricians held possession of it and were not at all inclined to give it up. They cultivated it or used it for pasturage of their flocks and herds as they chose. They were supposed to pay the state for its use, but the collectors were patricians and seldom troubled them. If the owner of flocks and herds can have free pasturage for them, he can hardly help becoming rich. The patricians, then, were growing richer, while the plebeians were growing poorer. The plebeians could not even get employment on the land, for they were liable to be called away to war at any moment; and the patricians naturally preferred slaves who could be kept at their work.

Some, even among the patricians, saw how unfair this was, and one of them, Spurius Cassius, proposed that the patricians be obliged to pay a fair rental for the land which they were using, and that part of the state lands be divided into small farms and given to needy Romans and Latins. Then there was anger among the patricians. "Spurius Cassius is trying to make himself popular and become king," they declared; and even the plebeians were not especially grateful, for, although the Latins had become their allies, they did not like the idea of giving them Roman lands. This land law, or Agrarian Law, may possibly have been passed, but it was never carried out.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Nevertheless, the plebeians were slowly increasing in power. Their next gain came about by the passing of a law proposed by the tribune, Publilius. The tribunes had always been elected by the assembly of the centuries. Each century had one vote; but as more than half the centuries were made up of wealthy men, no one who would not be inclined to favor the rich rather than the poor could become a tribune. Publilius proposed that the tribunes be elected by a plebeian assembly of tribes, or meeting of plebeians who were landowners. In this assembly of tribes which he proposed, every vote would be of the same value. This law was finally passed, and now the plebeians were free to elect their own tribunes. They had nothing to do with making the laws; but if they did not obey those made by the patricians, the tribunes could protect them from unjust punishment.

The Romans had a great respect for law, but the laws of Rome had never been written. An unjust judge could declare that the law said whatever he wished it to say, and the accused man had no way of proving that the judge was false. "Give us written laws," demanded the plebeians. "Put them up in the forum, that every man may know if he is breaking them." The patricians refused this demand, and they continued to refuse it for ten long years. The plebeians persisted, and at the end of that time the patricians yielded. Instead of consuls and tribunes, ten men, the decemviri, were chosen to rule the state and also to decide what the laws were. This was done. The laws were engraved on tablets of bronze, and these tablets, the "Twelve Tables," were set up in the forum where everyone could read them. Copies of the laws were made to use in the schools, and every boy had to learn them by heart.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The Romans meant to elect new decemviri each year, but a proud and insolent man named Appius Claudius, grandson of the Appius Claudius who so despised the plebeians, contrived to get himself reelected and to make the other nine yield to whatever he chose to do. He suspected that a brave old soldier was plotting against him, and he had the old man murdered. He wanted to get possession of a free-born maiden named Virginia, and therefore he declared as a judge that she was the slave of one of his followers. Then her father caught up a knife and plunged it into her heart.

"This is the only way," he cried, "to keep you from slavery and shame." With the bloody knife still in his hand, he and a great company of citizens hastened to the army and told the terrible story. Then the soldiers left their generals and marched straight back to the city. Once more the plebeians went forth to the Sacred Mountain; and now Appius Claudius was in terror, for they declared that they would not return unless more power and better protection were given them, and they demanded that he and the other decemviri be burned alive. They finally agreed, however, to return, provided they might have tribunes again. Eight of the "wicked ten" were banished. Appius Claudius and one other committed suicide.

The plebeians had their tribunes; and a little later the "Valerio-HoratianLaws," so named from the consuls Valerius and Horatius, who secured their passage, gave the tribunes the right to sit at the door of the senate house, listen to whatever went on, and say, Veto (I forbid it), to any measure of which they did not approve. More than this, they decreed that whatever resolutions the plebeian assembly of tribes passed should become laws. This was in 449 B. C.

The plebeians were gaining in power rapidly. They could pass resolutions which would become laws; they could elect their own tribunes, and those tribunes could listen to whatever went on in the senate house. Before long, they were allowed to marry among the patricians. There was one office, that of consul, which the patricians were determined they should never hold. They did succeed, however, in holding a new office, that of "military tribune with consular power," which was really almost the same as that of consul. The patricians could not prevent this, but they elected some new patrician officers called censors and gave them much of the power which the consuls had held. These censors not only numbered the people and took an account of their property, but they had a right to reduce the rank of a man if they decided that he had been cruel to his family, or extravagant, or dishonest, or was in any way unworthy. They could also increase his taxes, for they could set whatever valuation they chose upon his vineyards and olive trees and carriages and jewels and slaves. Indeed, while the censor held office and wore his scarlet robe, he was almost as independent in his way as a dictator.

The plebeians had felt that it was a victory when they had won the right to be military tribunes with consular power, but now that these censors held so much of the "consular power," they kept on with the fight to become consuls; and at last a law was passed which really gave them more power than the patricians, for it decreed that one consul must be a plebeian, and both might be. For a while the plebeians had to keep close watch to hold on to their rights, but by 300 B. C. the struggle had come to an end, and patricians and plebeians had equal rights in the state.


The authentic history of Rome begins in 390 B. C., but there is a foundation of truth in the early legends.

Rome had an excellent location, but a disunited people. The plebeians suffered greatly in the wars. They seceded to the Sacred Mountain, but returned on the promise: 1, that their debts should be forgiven; 2, that those who had been made slaves should be set free; 3, that two tribunes should be appointed to defend their rights.

The number of tribunes was increased to ten, and plebeian aediles were also chosen. The plebeians were refused a share in the land taken in war. A law was passed that the tribunes should be elected in the assembly of tribes.

The plebeians demanded written laws; and instead of consuls and tribunes, decemviri were chosen to ascertain what the laws were and set up the "Twelve Tables" in the forum.

Enraged at the crimes of Appius Claudius, the plebeians again withdrew to the Sacred Mountain, but returned on being promised tribunes. The Valerio-Horatian Laws gave these tribunes the right to listen to whatever went on in the senate and veto whatever measures they chose. It also provided that measures passed by the plebeian assembly of tribes should become laws. The plebeians were soon allowed to marry into patrician families and to hold the office of "military tribune with consular power." Then the patricians elected censors, who held much of the consular power. The plebeians finally won the right to become consuls, and by 300 B.C. patricians and plebeians had equal rights in the state.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • A plebeian tells how much he suffered from war.
  • One of the plebeians tells the story of the secession to the Sacred Mountain.
  • Spurius Cassius explains and defends his law.