The Republic Matures: The Roman Republic Was Not Built in a Day, but Was the Product of Generations of Reform and Even Some Serious Reverses

By Bonta, Steve | The New American, October 18, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Republic Matures: The Roman Republic Was Not Built in a Day, but Was the Product of Generations of Reform and Even Some Serious Reverses


Bonta, Steve, The New American


This is the second installment in a series of articles on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.

About 15 years after the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 B.C., an apparition appeared one day in the Roman Forum. It was no phantom or divine portent, though, but a flesh-and-blood figure, a pale and emaciated old man dressed in rags who soon attracted a large crowd of curious onlookers. Displaying a chest covered with battle scars, the wild-haired old man announced that he had fought bravely for Rome during the war with the Sabines. Then, to gasps of indignation, he displayed his back to his audience. It was covered with hideous scars and wounds, some of them very recent, from tortures received in debtors' prison.

He had, he explained to the onlookers, been deprived of his livelihood. Having served in many wars, he was unable to cultivate his lands. Enemy armies had burnt his property and driven away his cattle. Worse still, he had been assessed crippling taxes, which he could only pay by taking on heavy debt. As a result, he had lost his property and had been delivered to "a house of correction and a place of execution" as punishment.

The man's story was by no means unusual. Rome, despite having ousted the cruel Etruscan monarch Tarquin the Proud, remained an oligarchic state ruled by the aristocratic patricians. The plebeians or underclass remained disenfranchised, with little representation in Roman government (all senators and consuls were patricians), but providing the bulk of Rome's military forces. Most plebeians depended for their livelihood on farming, an activity that was frequently disrupted by warfare. Moreover, the new lands annexed by Rome as spoils of war were invariably parceled out to patricians, widening the gap between the urban gentry, who controlled the machinery of state and exploited the laws to amass more and more wealth, and the rural underclass, who were systematically divested of their landholdings by war, debt and heavy taxes.

Discontent and Reforms

Popular resentment boiled over that day in the Forum, as the wretched old man's testimony reminded the assembled masses of the injustices of Rome's class-based system of government. Before long Rome was in complete turmoil, as angry mobs demanded political representation and even threatened to assassinate the consuls. The Roman Republic, in spite of its many strengths, had serious flaws that only drastic reforms could mend.

Before long, the exasperated plebeians emigrated en masse from Rome to a nearby mountain in what has come to be known as the First Plebeian Secession. They demanded more active representation in the republican government, and were rewarded with the creation of the office of the tribune, a special magistrate who represented the plebeians. There were originally two tribunes, but more were added with the passage of time. The tribunes held veto power over laws, elections and actions of all magistrates except dictators, who in the Roman Republic were appointed for six-month spans to lead Rome through extreme military crises.

Unfortunately, another cause of plebeian discontent, the inequity of property laws, particularly regarding newly acquired territory, was never adequately addressed. An early attempt at a so-called "agrarian law," which would reform the division of public land, was attempted by a consul named Spurius Cassius. His proposal was blocked by patrician influence, however, and Cassius himself was eventually tried and executed for alleged treason. During the later history of the republic, the absence of a just "agrarian law" resurfaced periodically. Eventually, during the administrations of the Gracchi in the Second Century B.C., this contentious issue became the spark that lit the fuse leading to a long series of civil wars--wars that ended with the rise of the Caesars.

The Need for Written Laws

Even with the tribunes in place, the plebeians chafed under another form of legal abuse. …

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