It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare. — Edmund Burke

Stories from Ancient Rome - Alfred J. Church

Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity

So far we have seen how the Roman Commons struggled for liberty. The rich man was not to take advantage of the power which money put into his hands, was not to turn his poor neighbour into a slave; he was not to take to himself what by right belonged to all; the public land was not to be held by a few rich men; room was to be left for the humble homesteads of the poor.

These, it may be said, were demands for liberty. But this was soon seen not to be enough. As a matter of fact, a man cannot be really free unless he has a voice in the management of public affairs. If he is to live happily and contentedly under laws, he must have a share in the making of them. If they are framed for him by others, he is sure to find, or at the least to think, that they are oppressive and unfair. So he goes on to demand equality. When economic wrongs, injustices, that is, in the matter of property, had been set right, political grievances had to be redressed. After liberty had been secured, the next thing that was sought for was equality.

The Commons, as we have seen, had their Tribunes to defend them. The power of these magistrates was largely increased in the process of time, but for a while it was narrowly limited. They could prevent things from being done, but they could do little or nothing themselves. If the plebeians (plebeii and patricii  were the two classes of the Roman people) were to have a real share in the management of public affairs, they must have the right of being elected as magistrates. First the plebeians had to obtain the right of intermarriage with the patricians. For a time these mixed marriages took place, but were attended by certain disabilities. Then they were legalised. Children born of them were put on exactly the same footing as their fellow-citizens. The plebeian in the year 445 obtained the ius connubii  or "right of marriage." The important gain was that whereas before the children of a mixed marriage could not perform certain religious rites without which office could not be held, this disability was now removed. It will be observed that this was the first success, and in a way the most important of all. It cleared the way to equality.

The first magistracy that was thrown open to them was the Quæstorship, an office that was connected with the collecting and expending of the public money. This is what we should expect. Men who had to earn their own livelihood would have business habits which would make them useful in money matters.

The Quæstorship was only one step, and, except as a beginning, not a very important one; the great aim of the plebeian was the Consulship. This was not so easily gained. The first plebeian quæstor was appointed in 421 B.C. It was not till more than half a century later that the battle for the Consulship was won. And even then the victory was not complete. Year after year, under one pretence or another, the patricians contrived to make the election of a plebeian consul void. They discovered something irregular about it—the religious authorities were the judges in such matters, and these were still taken from the old families.

It was not till 342 B.C. that the rule was permanently established. After that date one of the Consulships was always reserved for a plebeian. In course of time the distinction between the two orders was almost forgotten. Old families died out; new ones acquired wealth and honour, dwelt in palaces as splendid as any that the old nobles possessed, and could show on occasion the busts of statesmen and soldiers as distinguished as any that figured in the oldest pedigrees.

During all this time there had been going on a great social change. The two Orders had been for a time kept as separate as two hostile nations which happened to dwell in close neighbourhood might have been. This was easy enough as long as the distinction between them was real, as long as a patrician was richer, better educated, better mannered than his plebeian neighbour. Even then personal feelings sometimes were stronger than their class barriers.

When these outward differences ceased to exist, and a plebeian could not be distinguished in look or manner or mode of life from a patrician, then the class separation ceased to exist. A few families probably kept up, more or less, the old exclusiveness; most of them dropped it.

The narrative is illustrated by one of those picturesque anecdotes which are so often attached to the history of a great movement. It would be a mistake to look in such incidents for the causes of important changes; that they are often the occasion cannot be doubted. Livy gives it under date of the year 374, when the plebeians had gained the legal right to office, but were often in practice excluded. The historian attributes this exclusion not to the pride of the patricians, but to the depressed condition of the plebeians, and then proceeds to tell his readers how a remedy was found.

"M. Fabius Ambustus was a man of weight in his own order and also among the Commons, because they did not regard him as one inclined to look down upon them. The elder of his two daughters was married to Servius Sulpicius, the younger to C. Licinius Stolo, a man of distinction, but a plebeian. The latter alliance had won for Fabius much popularity among the Commons. It so happened that the two sisters were amusing themselves with conversation in the house of Sulpicius, who was then a Tribune with consular power. Sulpicius coming home from the Forum, one of his lictors, according to custom, knocked at the door with his rod. The younger Fabia, not knowing what it meant, was frightened; her sister, surprised at her ignorance, could not help laughing. The laugh left a sting, for a woman is often touched by a trifle. At the same time, the crowd of attendants, and of people offering their services, made her envy her sister's position and repine at her own—there are few who are content to see their equals preferred to themselves. Her father saw her while the wound was yet fresh, and asked her whether all was well. She would have concealed the cause of her trouble; it seemed hardly kind to her sister or respectful to her husband. The father's affectionate inquiries, however, brought out the cause: she was unhappy because she had married into a house which no dignities or honours could enter. He consoled her with the assurance that she should shortly see in her own house the same honours which she had seen at her sister's."

[Illustration] from Stories from Ancient Rome by Alfred J. Church