Ancient History & Civilisation


Tradition records that the legislation brought forward by Valerius and Horatius, the consuls who in 449 BC replaced the decemvirs, was a landmark in the history of the orders: the right of appeal was restored, plebiscita were given the force of law, and the sacrosanctity of the tribunes was reaffirmed. But, although modern writers have been busy removing the ancient landmarks, it is nonetheless possible to retain the view that by a secession in 449 the plebs forced the patricians to recognize in law the rights of the tribunes, which hitherto they had been forced to recognize only by custom. This was a great victory. Further, although it is improbable that the decrees of the people were really given the force of law, the plebs may have asserted their right to issue laws, just as previously they had asserted the rights of their tribunes; but the patricians were not yet ready to yield to this fresh plebeian attack.20 Thus the plebs had finally established their state within the state and had obtained a clear exposition of the law. It remained for them to claim greater social equality and for their leaders to storm the stronghold of the patrician magistracies. During this siege the two opposing forces were gradually welded into one.

In 445 a tribune named Canuleius launched an attack on both the social and political fronts. He forced through a law repealing the statute of the Twelve Tables which prohibited intermarriage between the two classes; it was decreed that children should be enrolled in the gens of their father, whatever form of marriage had been contracted by the parents. Though the patrician rite of confarreatio was left untouched, the inclusion of sons of plebeian women in patrician gentes undermined the religious claim of the patricians that their clans alone were acceptable to the divine powers. Canuleius’ colleagues then proposed that the consulship should be opened to the plebeians. To parry this thrust the Senate virtually abolished the office by decreeing that ‘military tribunes with consular power’ should be appointed in place of consuls; these officials, who at first numbered three, might be patricians or plebeians. Probably one of the military tribunes first elected in 445 was a plebeian, but plebeian representation was very slight before 400.21 The device was a compromise: the appointment of a larger number of high officials may have answered the military needs of the day, but a real political concession had been wrested from the patricians.

At the same time the patricians, seeing their monopoly of office threatened, strove to retain some control by dividing the functions of the chief magistracy. Hitherto the consuls had been responsible for maintaining the census or roll of citizens; it was now decided to appoint special censors. It has been suggested that the ‘Servian’ reforms belong to this date and that censors were created to deal with the new classification of the citizens. Although the origin of this reform is found in the regal period, it is not improbable that the system of classes and centuries was extended at this date. Thus the establishment of the censorship allowed the consuls or military tribunes more freedom from civil affairs, and the patricians to cling to their prerogatives: for whether or not the censorship was closed to plebeians by law, no plebeian held the office for nearly a century (351). There were two censors, appointed first in 443; ten years later their period of office was fixed at eighteen months. It is uncertain how often they were appointed in the early days, but later they took office every five years, when they solemnly purified the people by a lustrum (‘cleansing’), a ceremony at which a pig, a sheep and a bull were led in a three-fold procession and then sacrificed while a sacred fire was rekindled. At first the censors’ duties were to register all citizens and their property and to assign them to the due tribes and centuries. They also made up a list of those liable to cavalry service (the equites), and later were empowered by a Lex Ovinia (before 312) to revise the list of the Senate. Gradually they acquired a general oversight over public morals and became responsible for leasing state contracts, as an Office of Works. These various wide powers soon endowed the censors, who lacked imperium, with an authority and dignity that raised their office to one of the most honourable in the state: it came to be regarded as the climax of a successful public career.22

The necessity to delegate business had resulted in the creation of the quaestors (p. 72). In 421 their number was raised to four and the office was opened to plebeians, and in 409 three out of the four quaestors were plebeians. Their functions were largely financial and they did not receive imperium, so that the patricians perhaps regarded this concession as small. But it was the thin end of the wedge. Later the quaestorship became the first step in an official career and gave the right to a seat on the Senate.

Thus during the fifth century the plebeians had wrested many concessions from the patricians. In civil law the two orders were equal. Socially, the right of intermarriage was affirmed despite patrician tactics. Politically, the plebeian institutions were recognized, although they did not yet form part of the constitution; the power of the tribunes increased. The patricians were still entrenched behind their religious privileges and maintained their leadership in the Senate and assemblies. Towards the end of the century the plebeians slackened in their demands, partly because there was less unity of purpose among the rich and poor members of their order; partly because the energy of many of their leaders was distracted by the foreign wars against the Aequi, Volsci and Etruscans. When the Gauls sacked Rome in 390, therefore, a fair unanimity had been established in domestic affairs. But the distress of the aftermath fanned the embers once more into a fierce blaze, which finally destroyed the patrician monopoly of government.

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