Before reaching calmer waters the ship of state encountered further squalls, arising partly from a radical social readjustment which had begun with the Licinian-Sextian legislation. These laws had in practice abolished the outstanding political differences between the orders, and the patricians were forced to hand over the helm to a new nobility, composed partly of themselves and partly of plebeians. But while this exclusive body absorbed many of the older plebeians, there grew up in the place of the latter a new populace in Rome with fresh demands. The old contrast between patricians and plebeians gave place to a coalition of the moderates of both parties, while at one extremity there remained a small right wing of patricians, at the other an urban proletariat.
The creation of this new patricio-plebeian nobility was caused by the decline of the patricians, whose gentes were steadily decreasing in number, and by the increasing political influence and numbers of the plebeians, which were due to the large annexations of territory, the extension of Roman citizenship in Italy, the attraction of the capital and the value of the plebeians in war. Their leaders gradually fused with the more moderate patricians and formed a new caste during the second half of the fourth and the beginning of the third centuries. Outstanding figures were the patrician P. Valerius Publicola and Q. Fabius Rullianus, and the plebeian Q. Publilius Philo, P. Decius Mus and his son, C. Marcius Rutilus and M’. Curius Dentatus. The number of plebeian families to attain to the consulship varied at different times: when the office was first opened to them it was monopolized by a few; during the decade after 340 eight new gentes were admitted to the charmed circle, but then the numbers lessened until the last decade of the century when more novi homines were successful. It is uncertain to what extent families from Latin and Campanian cities shared this privilege of office: Tusculum gave Rome the Fulvii and Ti. Coruncanius and indeed more consular families than any other municipality.8 Many Latins doubtless settled in Rome, where they enjoyed the rights of commercium and intermarriage and where by residence they could claim full citizenship. But a large number of them probably belonged to the poorer classes and had little prospect of or desire for office, and many, being landless, would be enrolled in one of the four urban tribes where their voting power was restricted since the constituency was larger than those of the rustic tribes.
In contrast to the new nobility was the steadily increasing urban population, which included these poorer Latins and indeed all the humbler artisans that were attracted to the capital. Many half-citizens (cives sine suffragio) and strangers would take up residence in Rome, as economic conditions and the growth of small industries increased the importance of the city. A large part of this urban populace consisted of freedmen. The manumission of slaves was becoming common, especially as many were prisoners of war who were often as civilized as their masters. As early as 357 a government tax of 5 per cent was levied on manumission and, although a freedman (libertus) could not officially be enfranchised, his sons (libertini) could, and the liberti were doubtless often able to circumvent the law. As most of the libertini would be engaged in industry rather than in possession of land, they too would be included in the four urban tribes; possession of land, which was not a necessary qualification for registration on the citizen-roll and the tribes, probably alone entitled a man to registration in a rustic tribe.
The first attempt to improve the position of this urban population was made by Appius Claudius, one of the outstanding personalities of early Rome, at a time when the Romans needed to mobilize their resources against the Samnites and Etruscans. The censorship of Appius in 312 was memorable for his public works and political independence. He improved the water supply by building the first of the Roman aqueducts, which brought water from the Sabine Hills to the increasing population of the city, and he constructed one of the great military roads, with which Rome secured her hold on Italy, the Via Appia between Rome and Capua. (He later built a temple to Bellona, the goddess of war, in the Campus Martius, where the Senate often met, especially to receive victorious generals and foreign ambassadors.) Though a patrician, he attempted to win over the landless urban population by distributing these humiles throughout all the tribes (i.e. rustic as well as urban), and by allowing each man to register his property where he chose. This reform gave the landless (but not necessarily poor) population an advantage over the landholders of the rustic tribes, who might not always be able to leave their farms and come to Rome in sufficient numbers to assert their will in public business, whereas previously they had easily been able to outvote the four urban tribes. Appius’ measure won him the support of the proletariat and the extreme patricians at the expense of the new nobility. He is said to have given further offence to the nobility in revising the list of the Senate, a right which recently had been transferred to the censors from the consuls by a lex Ovinia. He admitted the sons of freedmen to the Senate, but they were promptly rejected by the consuls of the next year, if they were in fact ever admitted. But now that the curule magistracies were open to them and they had a voice in the assemblies they might reach the Senate through a magistracy: for instance, Cn. Flavius, aedile in 304, was the son of a freedman. The reform of Appius provoked considerable opposition and it was repealed by the censors of 304, Q. Fabius Maximus Rullianus and P. Decius Mus, leaders of the new nobility.9 The proletarians and libertini were again confined to the four urban tribes, and landed property came back into its own. Appius’ career, which seems more typical of a Cleisthenes or Pericles than an early Roman statesman, was checked for the moment, though he crossed swords with the new nobility more than once in the first decade of the next century.
Cn. Flavius, a magistrate’s clerk (scriba) and the son of a freedman, who was elected aedile in 304, published a legal handbook of phrases and forms of procedure (legis actiones) and posted up in the Forum a calendar of the dies fasti and nefasti, showing the court days. The traditional account presents many difficulties, since inter alia the calendar already had been included in the Twelve Tables. According to Pliny, Flavius was acting with the help of Appius; but Pomponius relates that Flavius stole the book of legis actiones from Appius, who had composed it, and presented it to the people who promptly elected him tribune, senator and curule aedile. Though the law was common to both orders, magistrates could often block proceedings on technical grounds, through their more intimate, if not exclusive, knowledge of the precise and intricate phraseology. Perhaps by publishing for the first time, or more probably by making widely known these forms of procedure, the ius civile Flavianum marks a real step in the equalization of the orders.
In the year 300 the struggle of the orders entered its penultimate phase. The consul M. Valerius Maximus passed a law which defined and confirmed the right of appeal to the people against a capital sentence; the judicial and coercive powers of the magistrates in the city were checked. At the same time two tribunes, Cn. and Q. Ogulnius, despite the opposition of Appius Claudius, carried a law to enlarge the priestly colleges and throw them open to plebeians. The number of pontiffs was raised from five (probably) to nine by the inclusion of four plebeians; and the four patrician augurs received five plebeian colleagues. Thus the plebeians won a majority in the lesser of the colleges, and later even in the college of pontiffs, where they were assigned another post some time between 292 and 218. Thus the plebs had won their way into the very heart of the camp of the patricians, who retained the monopoly only of the offices of interrex, rex sacrorum and flamen. Some time after 293 a Lex Maenia extended the clause of the Publilian law of 339 which decreed that the sanction of the patres must be given beforehand to legislative enactments; such preliminary sanction was now made necessary in elections, so that the privileges of the patrician members of the Senate were reduced to pure formality.
About 287, at the end of the Samnite wars, the final scene of the drama was enacted. Unfortunately our knowledge of it is small in comparison with its importance. Troubles arising from debt provoked the last secession of the plebs, who withdrew over the Tiber to the Janiculum. A plebeian, Q. Hortensius, was appointed dictator and carried a law that the resolutions of the plebeian assembly (plebiscita) should have the force of law and be binding on the whole community. Thus the right first claimed by Valerius and Horatius more than a hundred and fifty years earlier was at last conceded. The Lex Hortensia has been called the final triumph of democracy at Rome. The people were sovereign. At the time when the Romans were completing the unification of Italy, the struggle of the orders was ended.