The Roman Republic Till The Invasion Of The Gauls

The Tarquins being expelled, political power fell into the hands of

the patricians, under whose government the city slowly increased in wealth

and population, but it was the heroic period of Roman history, and the

legends of patriotic bravery are of great interest.

The despotism of Tarquinius Superbus inflamed all classes with

detestation of the very name of king--the wealthy classes, because they

were de
rived of their ancient powers; the poorer classes, because they

were oppressed with burdens. The executive power of the State was

transferred to two men, called consuls, annually elected from the

patrician ranks. But they ruled with restricted powers, and were shorn of

the trappings of royalty. They could not nominate priests, and they were

amenable to the laws after their term of office expired. They were elected

by the Comitia Centuriata, in which the patrician power predominated. They

convened the Senate, introduced ambassadors, and commanded the armies. In

public, they were attended by lictors, and wore, as a badge of authority,

a purple border on the toga.

The Senate, a great power, still retained its dignity. The members

were elected for life, and were the advisers of the consuls. They were

elected by the consuls; but, as the consuls were practically chosen by the

wealthy classes, men were chosen to the Senate who belonged to powerful

families. The Senate was a judicial and legislative body, and numbered

three hundred men. All men who had held curule magistracies became

members. Their decisions, called Senatus Consulta, became laws--leges.

The Roman government at this time was purely oligarchic. The

aristocratical clement prevailed. Nobles virtually controlled the State.

Brutus, on the overthrow of the monarchy, was elected the first

consul B.C. 507 with L. Tarquinius Colatinus; but the latter was not

allowed to possess his office, from hatred of his family, and he withdrew

peaceably to Lavinium, and Publius Valerius was elected consul in his

stead--a harsh measure, prompted by necessity.

The history of Rome at this period is legendary. The story goes

that Tarquin, at the head of the armies of Veii and Tarquinii, seeking to

recover his throne, marched against Rome, and that for thirteen years he

struggled with various success, assisted by Porsenna, king of Etruria. The

legends say Horatius Cocles defended a bridge, single-handed, against the

whole Etrurian army--that Mamillus, the ruler of Tuscalum, fought a battle

at Lake Regillus, in which the cause of Tarquin was lost--the subject of

the most beautiful of Macaulay's lays--and that Mutius Scaevola attempted to

assassinate Porsenna, and, as a proof of his fortitude, held his hand in

the fire until it was consumed, which act converted Porsenna into a

friend. Another interesting legend is related in reference to Brutus, who

slew his own sons for their sympathy with, and treasonable aid, to the

banished king. These stories are not history, but still shed light on the

spirit of the time. It is probable that Tarquin made desperate efforts to

recover his dominion, aided by the Etruscans, and that the first wars of

the republic were against them.

The Etruscans were then in the height of their power, and were in

close alliance with the Carthaginians. Etruria was a larger State than

Latium, from which it was separated by the Tiber. It was bounded on the

west by the Tyrrhenian Sea, on the north by the Appenines, and the east by

Umbria. Among the cities were Veii and Tarquinii, the latter the

birthplace of Tarquinius Priscus, and the former the powerful rival of


In the war with the Etruscans, the Romans were worsted, and they

lost all their territory on the right bank of the Tiber, won by the kings,

and were thrown back on their original limits. But the Etruscans were

driven back, by the aid of the Latin cities, beyond the Tiber. It took

Rome one hundred and fifty years to recover what she had lost.

It was in those wars with the Etruscans that we first read of

dictators, extraordinary magistrates, appointed in great political

exigencies. The dictator, or commander, was chosen by one of the consuls,

and his authority was supreme, but lasted only for six months. He had all

the powers of the ancient kings.

The misfortunes of the Romans, in the contest with the Etruscans,

led to other political changes, and internal troubles. The strife between

the patricians and the plebeians now began, and lasted two centuries

before the latter were admitted to a full equality of civil rights. The

cause of the conflict, it would appear, was the unequal and burdensome

taxation to which the plebeians were subjected, and especially vexations

from the devastations which war produced. They were small land-owners, and

their little farms were overrun by the enemy, and they were in no

condition to bear the burdens imposed upon them: and this inequality of

taxation was the more oppressive, since they had no political power. They

necessarily incurred debts, which were rigorously exacted, and they thus

became the property of their creditors.

In their despair, they broke out in open rebellion, in the

fifteenth year of the republic, during the consulship of Publius Servilius

and Appius Claudius--the latter a proud Sabine nobleman, who had lately

settled in Rome. They took position on a hill between the Anio and Tiber,

commanding the most fertile part of the Roman territory. The patrician and

wealthy classes, abandoned by the farmers, who tilled the lands, were

compelled to treat, in spite of the opposition of Appius Claudius. And the

result was, that the plebeians gained a remission of their debts, and the

appointment of two magistrates, as protectors, under the name of tribunes.

This new office introduced the first great change in the condition

of the plebeians. The tribunes had the power of putting a stop to the

execution of the law which condemned debtors to imprisonment or a military

levy. Their jurisdiction extended over every citizen, even over the

consul. There was no appeal from their decisions, except in the Comitia

Tributa, where the plebeian interest predominated--an assembly representing

the thirty Roman tribes, according to the Servian constitution, but which,

at first, had insignificant powers. The persons of the tribunes were

inviolable, but their power was negative. They could not originate laws;

they could insure the equitable administration of the laws, and prevent

wrongs. They had a constitutional veto, of great use at the time, but

which ended in a series of dangerous encroachments.

The office of aediles followed that of tribunes. There were at first

two, selected from plebeians, whose duty it was to guard the law creating

tribunes, which was deposited in the temple of Vesta, They were afterward

the keepers of the resolutions of the Senate as well as of the plebs, and

had the care of public buildings, and the sanitary police of the city, the

distribution of corn, and of the public lands, the superintendence of

markets and measures, the ordering of festivals, and the duty to see that

no new deities or rites were introduced.

One year after the victory of the plebeians, a distinguished man

appeared, who was their bitter enemy. This was Caius Marcius, called

Coriolanus, from his bravery at the capture of a Volscian town, Corioli.

When a famine pressed the city, a supply of corn was sent by a Sicilian

prince, but the proud patrician proposed to the Senate to withhold it from

the plebeians until they surrendered their privileges. The rage of the

plebeians was intense, and he was impeached by the tribunes, and condemned

by the popular assembly to exile. He went over, in indignation, to the

Volscians, became their general, defeated the Romans, and marched against

their city. In this emergency, the city was saved by the intercession of

his mother, Volumnia, who went to seek him in his camp, accompanied by

other Roman matrons.

A greater man than he, was Spurius Cassius, who rendered public

services of the greatest magnitude, yet a man whose illustrious deeds no

poet sang. He lived in a great crisis, when the Etruscan war had destroyed

the Roman dominions on the right bank of the Tiber, and where the

Volscians and Acquians were advancing with superior forces. Rome was in

danger of being conquered, and not only conquered, but reduced to

servitude. But he concluded a league with the Latins, and also with the

Hernicians--a Sabine people, who dwelt in one of the valleys of the

Appenines, by which the power of Rome was threatened. He is also known as

the first who proposed an agrarian law. It seems that the patricians had

occupied the public lands to the exclusion of the plebeians. Spurius

Cassius proposed to the Comitia Centuriata that the public domain--land

obtained by conquest--should be measured, and a part reserved for the use

of the State, and another portion distributed among the needy citizens--a

just proposition, since no property held by individuals was meddled with.

This popular measure was carried against violent opposition, but when the

term of office of Cassius as consul expired, he was accused before the

curiae, who assumed the right to judge a patrician, and he lost his life.

He was accused of seeking to usurp regal power, because he had sought to

protect the commons against his own order. "His law was buried with him,

but its spectre haunted the rich, and again and again it arose from its

tomb, till the conflicts to which it led destroyed the commonwealth."

The following seven years was a period of incessant war with the

Acquians and Veientines, as well as dissensions in the city, during which

the great house of the Fabii arose to power, for Fabius was chosen consul

seven successive years, and even proposed the execution of the agrarian

law of Cassius, for which he was scorned by the patricians, and left Rome

in disgust, with his family, and all were afterward massacred by the

Veientines. But one of the tribunes accused the consuls for their

opposition of the tribunes for the execution of the agrarian law. He was

assassinated. This violation of the sacred person of a tribune created

great indignation among the commons, and Volero, a tribune, proposed the

celebrated "Publilian Law," that the tribunes henceforth, as well as the

plebeian aediles, should be elected by the plebeians themselves in the

Comitia Tributa. Great disorders followed, but the commons prevailed, and

the Senate adopted the plebiscitum, and proposed it to the Comitia

Curiata, and it became a law. This step raised the authority of the

tribunes, and added to Roman liberties.

The critical condition of Rome, from the renewed assaults of the

Acquians and Volscians, led to the appointment of another very remarkable

man to the dictatorship--L. Quintius Cincinnatus, a patrician, who

maintained the virtues of better days. He cultivated a little farm of four

jugera with his own hands, and lived with great simplicity. He summoned

every man of military age to meet him in the Campus Martius, and these

were provided with rations for five days. He then marched against the

triumphant enemy, surrounded them, and compelled them to surrender. He

made no use of his political power, and after sixteen days, laid down the

dictatorship, and retired to his farm, B.C. 458. All subsequent ages and

nations have embalmed the memory of this true patriot, who preferred the

quiet labors of his small farm of three and a half acres to the enjoyment

of absolute power.

But his victory was not decisive, and the Romans continued to be harassed

by the neighboring nations, and they, moreover, suffered all the evils of

pestilence. It was at this time, in the three hundredth year of the city,

that they sought to make improvements in their laws--at least, to embody

laws in a written form. Greece was then in the height of her glory, in the

interval between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, and thither a

commission was sent to examine her laws, especially those of Solon, at

Athens. On the return of the three commissioners, a new commission of ten

was appointed to draw up a new code, composed wholly of patricians, at the

head of which was Appius Claudius, consul elect, a man of commanding

influence and talents, but ill-regulated passions and unscrupulous

ambition. The new code was engraved upon ten tables, and subsequently two

more tables were added, and these twelve tables are the foundation of the

Roman jurisprudence, that branch of science which the Romans carried to

considerable perfection, and for which they are most celebrated. The

jurisprudence of Rome has survived all her conquests, and is the most

valuable contribution to civilization which she ever made.

The decemvirs--those who codified the laws--came into supreme power,

and suspended the other great magistracies, and ruled, under the direction

of Appius Claudius, in an arbitrary and tyrannical manner. Their power

came to an end in a signal manner, and the history of their fall is

identified with one of the most beautiful legends of this heroic age,

which is also the subject of one of Macaulay's lays.

Appius Claudius, who perhaps aspired to regal power, became

enamored of the daughter of a centurion, L. Virginius. In order to gratify

his passions, Claudius suborned a false accuser, one of his clients, who

was to pretend that the mother of Virginia had been his slave. Appius sat

in judgment, and against his own laws, and also the entreaties of the

people, declared her to be the slave of the accuser. Her father returned

from the army, and in his indignation plunged a dagger in her breast,

preferring her death to shame. The people and soldiers rallied around the

courageous soldier, took the capitol, and compelled the decemvirs to lay

down their office. The result of this insurrection was the creation of ten

tribunes instead of the old number, and ten continued to be the regular

number of tribunes till the fall of the republic. It was further decreed

that the votes of the plebs, passed in the Comitia Tributa, should be

binding on the whole people, provided they were confirmed by the Senate

and the assemblies of the curias and centuries. The persons of the

tribunes were declared to be inviolable, under the sanctions of religion,

and they, moreover, were admitted to the deliberations of the Senate,

though without a vote. Thus did the commons ascend another step in

political influence, B.C. 449. The next movement of the commons was to

take vengeance on Appius Claudius, who ended his life in prison.

The plebs, now strengthened by the plebeian nobles, who sought

power through the tribunate, insisted on the abrogation of the law which

prevented the marriage of plebeians with patricians. This was effected

four years later, B.C. 445. These then attempted to secure the higher

magistracies, but this was prevented for a time, although they acquired

the right of plebeians to become military tribunes, or chief officer of

the legions, but none of the plebeians arose to that rank for several


A new office of great dignity was now created, that of censors, who

were chosen from men who had been consuls, and therefore had higher rank

than they. It was their duty to superintend the public morals, take the

census, and administer the finances. They could brand with ignominy the

highest officers of the State, could elect to the Senate, and control,

with the aediles, the public buildings and works. There were two elected to

this high office, and were chosen from the patrician ranks till the year

B.C. 421, when plebeians were admitted. They were even held in great

reverence, and enjoyed a larger term of office than the consuls, even of

five years.

The commons gained additional importance by the opening of the

quaestorship to the plebeians, which took place about this time. The

quaestors virtually had charge of the public money, and were the paymasters

of the army. As these were curule officers, they had, by their office,

admission to the Senate. Another great increase of power among the

plebeians, about twenty years after the decemviral legislature, was the

right, transferred from the curiae to the centuries, of determining peace

and war.

While these internal changes were in progress, the State was in

almost constant war with the Volscians and Acquians, and also with the

Etruscans. The former were kept at bay by the aid of the Latin and

Hernican allies. The latter were more formidable foes, and especially the

inhabitants of Veii--a powerful city in the plain of Southern Etruria, and

the largest of the confederated Etruscan cities, equal in size to Athens,

defended by a strong citadel on a hill. The Veientines, not willing to

contend with the Romans in the field, shut themselves up in their strong

city, to which the Romans laid siege. They drew around it a double line of

circumvallation, the inner one to prevent egress from the city, the outer

one to defend themselves against external attacks. The siege lasted ten

years, as long as that of Troy, but was finally taken by the great

Camillus, by means of a mine under the citadel. The fall of this strong

place was followed by the submission of all the Etruscan cities south of

the Ciminian forest, and the lands of the people of Veii were distributed

among the whole Roman people, at the rate of seven jugera to each

landholder, B.C. 396.

But this event was soon followed by a great calamity to Rome--the

greatest she had ever suffered. The city fell into the hands of the

Gauls--a Celtic race. They were rather pastoral than agricultural, and

reared great numbers of swine. They had little attachment to the soil,

like the Italians and Germans, and delighted in towns. Their chief

qualities were personal bravery, an impetuous temper, boundless vanity,

and want of perseverance. They were good soldiers and bad citizens. They

were fond of a roving life, and given to pillage. They loved ornaments and

splendid dresses, and wore a gold collar round the neck. After an

expedition, they abandoned themselves to carousals. They sprung from the

same cradle as the Hellenic, Italian, and German people. Their first great

migration flowed past the Alps, and we find them in Gaul, Britain, and

Spain. From these settlements, they proceeded westward across the Alps. In

successive waves they invaded Italy. It was at the height of Etruscan

power, that they assumed a hostile attitude. From Etruria they proceeded

to the Roman territories.

The first battle with these terrible foes resulted disastrously to

the Romans, who regarded them as half-disciplined barbarians, and

underrated their strength. Their defeat was complete, and their losses

immense. The flower of the Roman youth perished, B.C. 390.

The victors entered Rome without resistance, while the Romans

retreated to their citadel, such as were capable of bearing arms. The rest

of the population dispersed. The fathers of the city, aged citizens, and

priests, seated themselves in the porches of their patrician houses, and

awaited the enemy. At first, they were mistaken for gods, so venerable and

calm their appearance; but the profanation of the sacred person of

Papirius dissolved the charm, and they were massacred.

The Gauls then attempted to assault the capital, but failed. But a

youth, Pontius Cominius, having climbed the hill in the night with safety,

and opened communication with the Romans at Veii, the marks of his passage

suggested to the Gauls the means of taking the citadel. In the dead of the

following night a party of Gauls scaled the cliff, and were about to

surprise the citadel, when some geese, sacred to Juno, cried out and

flapped their wings, which noise awakened M. Manlius, who rushed to the

cliff and overpowered the foremost Gaul. A panic seized the rest, and the

capitol was saved. At length, when the siege had lasted seven months, and

famine pressed, the invaders were bought off by a ransom of one thousand

pounds weight of gold. "The iron of the barbarians had conquered; but they

sold their victory, and by selling, lost it." They were subsequently

defeated by Camillus, and Manlius, surnamed Torquatus, from the gold

collar he took from a gigantic Gaul, and also by other generals.

The destruction of Rome was not a permanent calamity; it was a misfortune.

The period which followed was one of distress, but the energy of Camillus

reorganized the military force, and new alliances were made with the Latin

cities. Etruria, humbled and restricted within narrower limits, and

moreover enervated by luxury, was in no condition to oppose a people

inured to danger and sobered by adversity.

The subsequent fate of Manlius, who saved the city, suggests the

fickleness and ingratitude of a republican State. The distress of the

lower classes, in consequence of the Gaulish invasion, became intolerable.

They became involved in debt, and thus were in the power of their

creditors. Manlius undertook to be their defender, but the envy of the

patricians caused him to be accused of aspiring to the supreme power, and

he was, in spite of his great services, sentenced to death and hurled from

the Tarpeian rock. His error was in premature reform. But, in the year 367

B.C., the tribunes Licinius and L. Sextius secured the passage of three

memorable laws in the Curiata Tributa--the abolition of the military

tribunate, which had increased the power of the patricians, and the

restoration of the consulate, on the condition that one of the consuls

should be a plebeian; the second, that no citizen should possess more than

five hundred jugera of the public lands; and the third, that all interest

thus paid on loans should be deducted from the principal. These were

called the Licinian Rogations. But a new curule magistracy was created,

as a sort of compensation to the patricians, that of praetors, to be held

by them, exclusively. These political changes were made peaceably, and

with them the old gentile aristocracy ceased to be a political

institution. The remaining patrician offices were not long withheld from

the plebeians. But these political changes did not much ameliorate the

social condition of the poorer classes. The strictness of the Licinian

laws, the oppression of the rich, the high rate of interest, and the

existence of slavery, made the poor poorer, and the rich richer, and

prevented the expansion of industry. The plebeians had gained political

privileges, but not till great plebeian families had arisen. Power was

virtually in the hands of nobles, whether patrician or plebeian, and

aristocratic distinctions still remained. The plebeian noble sympathized

with patricians rather than with the poorer classes. Debt, usury, and

slavery began to bear fruits before the conquest of Italy.