Page images
PDF
EPUB

495-449 B.C.

the sound sense of the population. Evidence is also furnished by the Servian constitution that even in the regal period of Rome there were small cottagers and garden proprietors, with whom the mattock took the place of the plow. In addition to the ordinary farmers, it is clear from the same constitution that large landed proprietors had also come into existence--partly perhaps from the numerical inequality of the members of the various clans, when the clan-lands were divided among the members; partly, too, from the great influx of mercantile capital into Rome. But, as we cannot suppose that there were many slaves at this time, by whose labor such large estates were afterwards worked, we must conclude that a landowner assigned lots to tenants of such portion of his estate as he could not farm in person. Such tenants were composed of decayed farmers, clients, and freedmen, and formed the bulk of the agricultural proletariate. They were often free men, and were then called “tenants on sufferance" as their possession was only held at the pleasure of the owner. For this usufruct of the soil the tenant did not necessarily pay rent in kind, and, when he did, his position was not quite the same as that of the lessee of later times. The relation between the landlord and his tenants was all the closer, because the landlords did not employ middlemen, but lived themselves on their estates, and took the greatest interest in the welfare of those dependent on them; their lodging in the city was only for business purposes, and for avoiding, at certain seasons, the un. healthful atmosphere of the country. Such slaves as were employed were, as a rule, of Italian race, and must have occupied very different relations towards their masters from those held by Syrians and Celts in later days. It was from these large landowners, and the system above described, that there sprang up in Rome a landed, and not an urban, nobility; and further, these tenants-on-sufferance were of the greatest service to the state, in furnishing trained and intelligent farmers to carry out the Roman policy of colonization. A sharp line divided arable from pasture land. The latter belonged to the state and not to the clan, and was consequently not subjected to the distribution, which has been described above. The state used such land for its own flocks and herds which were intended for sacrifices and other purposes, and which were kept up by cattle-fines; and such land was also used by individuals who paid a certain tax (scriptura) for the right to graze their cattle on the common pasture. This right was a special privilege of the burgess, and was

495-449 B.C.

never granted to a plebeian, except under extraordinary circumstances. In the regal period such common pasture land was probably not extensive, and, as a rule, any conquered territory was parceled out as arable land, originally among the clans, and then among individuals. This description of land tenure in the earliest period now allows us to resume our history at the point of our digression.

Although the new government at Rome passed certain measures—such as the reduction of port-dues; the state-purchase of corn and salt, so as to supply the citizens at reasonable prices, the addition of a day to the national festival, the limitation of the magisterial power of fining,—which seemed intended for the good of the more numerous and less wealthy classes, unfortunately such regulations were exceptional. The object of the kings had probably been to check the power of capital and increase the number of farmers. The object of the new aristocratic government was to destroy the middle classes, and especially the smaller independent farmers; and thus to develop the power of the capitalists, and of large landowners, and to increase the number of the agricultural proletariate. Out of this action on the part of those in power arose the evil influence of the capitalists. The extension of the financial province of the state treasury to such matters as the purchase of grain and salt caused the state to employ agents, or middlemen, to collect its indirect revenues and more complicated payments. These men paid the state a set sum, and farmed the revenues for their own benefit. Thus there grew up a class of tax-farmers and contractors, who, in the rapid growth of their wealth, in their power over the state, to which they appeared to be servants, and in the absurd and sterile basis of their moneyed dominion, are completely on a parallel with the speculators on the stock-exchange of the present day.

The mismanagement of the public land brought out these evils most clearly. The patricians now claimed the sole right of the use of the public pasture and state lands: a right which, as shown above, belonged by law to every burgess. Although the senate made exceptions in favor of the wealthy plebeian houses, the small farmers and tenants-on-sufferance, who needed it most, were excluded from the common pasture. Moreover, to oblige men of their own order, the patrician quaestors gradually omitted to collect the pasture-tax, and thus diminished the state revenues. And further, instead of making fresh assignations of land, acquired by conquest,

495-449 B.C.

to the poorer citizens, the ruling class introduced a pernicious system of what was practically permanent occupation, on the condition of the state receiving from the occupier one-tenth of corn, or one-fifth of oil and wine. Thus the system of “precarium,” or tenure-onsufferance, above described, was now applied to the state lands; and not only did this tenure become permanent, but it was allowed only to the privileged patricians and their favorites; nor was the collection of the fifths or tenths enforced with more rigor than that of the pasture-tax. Thus the smaller landholders were deprived of the usufructs which were their right as burgesses, were more heavily taxed in consequence of the lax collection of the revenues from the use of the public land, and lost the old outlet for their energies, which had been provided by the assignations of land. Added to these evils was the system of working large estates by slaves, which at this time was introduced, and which dispossessed the small agrarian clients, or free laborers. Moreover, owing to the enforced absence from his farm in time of war, and the exorbitant taxation and other state-imposed works which war entailed, the farmer often lost possession of his farm, and was reduced to the position of bondsman, if not slave, of his creditor. This creditor was often a capitalist, to whom speculation in land offered a new and lucrative field; if left as nominal proprietor, and actual possessor of the farm, the debtor was perhaps saved from utter ruin, but was demoralized by the consciousness that his person and estate really belonged to another, and that he was entirely dependent on his creditor's mercy. The misery and distress caused by these evils threatened to annihiliate the middle class of smaller farmers, and matters were not long in coming to a crisis. About 495 B.C. a levy was called for. Owing to the exasperation produced by the strict enforcement of the law of debt, the farmers refused to obey. One of the consuls, Publius Servilius, induced them to do so, by suspending the law and liberating the imprisoned debtors. On their return from the field of victory, the other consul, Appius Claudius, enforced the debtor-laws with merciless rigor. The war was renewed in the following year; and this time the authority attaching to the dictatorship and the personal popularity of the dictator, Manius Valerius, were found necessary to win over the reluctant farmers. Victory again was with the Roman army; but on its return the senate refused to agree to the reforms proposed by the dictator. On the news of this refusal reaching the army, arrayed

495-449 B.C.

outside the city gates, the whole force left its general and encampment, and marched to a hill between the Tiber and the Anio. This celebrated secession, to what was afterward called “the sacred mount (Mons Sacer), was terminated by the mediation of the dictator and the submission of the senate. The consequences of the movement undertaken by the multitude without a settled leader, and accomplished without bloodshed, were felt for many centuries. It was the origin of the tribunate of the plebs.

The following were the chief characteristics of the tribunate. The two tribunes were of plebeian rank, and elected by the plebeians assembled in curies. Their power was confined to the city's limits, and thus could not oppose the military imperium of the consul, which was all-powerful outside those limits, nor the authority of the dictator, whether exercised inside or outside the city. Within these limits the tribunes stood on an equal and independent footing with the consuls, and had the right to cancel any command, issued by a magistrate, upon a formal protest from the burgess aggrieved by such a command. This power of intercession made it possible for the tribunes to bring the ordinary administration and execution of the law to a deadlock while an appeal against the sentence of a judge or decree of the senate was being investigated. Their judicial powers, owing to the vague and ill-defined laws touching offenses against order, and crime against the community, were alike extensive and arbitrary. They could by their messengers summon before them any burgess, even the consul, arrest him on refusal, imprison him, or allow him bail pending investigation, and finally sentence him to death or the payment of a fine. An appeal from their sentence was heard, not by the whole body of burgesses, but by the whole plebeian body, and the tribunes defended themselves before this assembly in case of such an appeal. Out of this right of defense sprang the right of holding assemblies of the people, and addressing them on other matters, a right expressly guaranteed to the tribunes by the Icilian law of 492 B.C., which rendered liable to severe punishment anyone who interrupted a tribune while speaking, or who bade the assembly disperse. They could take the vote of the people at such meetings, and the "plebiscites," or resolutions thus passed, soon came to have a force and validity which did not properly belong to them. Lastly, the persons of the tribunes were declared inviolable, and the man who laid hands on them was counted accursed in the sight of gods and men.

495-449 B.C.

This outline of the tribunician power serves to show that it was really a copy of the consular power. In both cases the Roman check of intercession, or veto, plays a prominent part; as one consul could veto his colleague, so one tribune could thwart the other. The special power of vetoing the consul, or any other state magistrate, belonged to the tribune, in virtue of his position as protector and counsel of the plebs. Again, the duration of office was limited to a year in both cases, and in both cases the holder of the office could not be deposed. Further, in their criminal jurisdiction, two aediles were associated with the tribunes, just as two quaestors had been attached to the consuls; but the consul submitted to the prohibition of the tribune, while the tribune was unrestricted by any such prohibition from the consul. Still, although a copy, the tribunician power presented a contrast to the consular. It was essentially negative, while that of the consuls was essentially positive. The consuls alone were magistrates of the Roman people, as being elected by the whole burgess-body, and not merely by the plebeians. Therefore the consul alone had the outward insignia of office; the tribune lacked official attendants and the purple-bordered robe, and had no seat in the senate. Thus in this remarkable institution absolute prohibition was in the most stern and abrupt fashion opposed to absolute command; the quarrel was settled by legally recognizing and regulating the discord between rich and poor.

It remains for us to consider what was the political value of the tribunate. Springing as it did from the miseries caused by overtaxation, the baleful system of credit, and the pernicious occupation of the state lands, it yet put no stop to these evils. The reason of this is simply that the wealthy plebeians had as much interest in these abuses as the patricians. The good that the office might do in individual cases of hardship, and in helping plebeians to gain admission to state offices, was more than counterbalanced by the evil of rendering the administration of criminal law subject to the party passion of politics. For party purposes, too, the tribunes could employ their power to veto, and throw out of gear the machine of state, and thus pave the way for that very tyranny which they were created to render impossible. In the latter days of the republic we shall find that this was the very course they pursued; and the odium thus incurred found expression in the contemptuous definition of the tribunate as a “pestiferous power, the offspring of sedition, with sedition for its end and aim." The events which followed the insti.

« PreviousContinue »