Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Mr Blair has promised to 'listen to the people'. Would a Roman-style tribunus plebis, 'tribune of the plebs', help him to do so? The early years of the Roman republic (traditional foundation date 509 BC) were characterised by stormy relationships between the ruling patrician families and the non-patrician plebs. In 494 BC the plebs set up their own assembly, separate from the patrician Senate, and appointed their first tribunes 'to counter the power of the consuls' (Cicero). In time this plebeian assembly with its tribunes became fully assimilated into the republican system; decisions of the plebs became binding on the whole population, and the tribunes were installed as members of the Senate with the power of veto over any Senate business. Polybius, the second-century BC Greek historian of Rome, says of these tribunes: 'They are bound to do what the people resolve and chiefly to focus on their wishes'.

A dramatic example of tribunicial power is offered by Tiberius Gracchus. As Rome had conquered its neighbours across Italy, it had annexed their territory as ager publicus - 'state-owned land'. Here the Romans built new cities, or assigned, sold or rented the land to individuals who applied to work it (a grant of land was a much-prized reward for military service). …

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