The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them. — Mark Twain

Story of Rome - Arthur Gilman




The Roman Runnymede

The establishment of the republic marked an era in the history of Rome. The people had decreed, as has been said, that for them there never should be a king, and the law was kept to the letter; though, if they meant that supreme authority should never be held among them by one man, it was violated many times. The story of Rome is unique in the history of the world, for it is not the record of the life of one great country, but of a city that grew to be strong and successfully established its authority over many countries. The most ancient and the most remote from the sea of the cities of Latium, Rome soon became the most influential, and began to combine in itself the traits of the peoples near it; but owing to the singular strength and rare impressiveness of the national character, these were assimilated, and the inhabitant of the capital remained distinctively a Roman in spite of his intimate association with men of different origin and training.

The citizen of Rome was practical, patriotic, and faithful to obligation; he loved to be governed by inflexible law; and it was a fundamental principle with him that the individual should be subordinate to the state. His kings were either organizers, like Numa and Ancus Marcius, or warriors, like Romulus and Tullus Hostilius; they either made laws, like Servius, or they enforced them with the despotism of Tarquinius Superbus. It is difficult for us to conceive of such a majestic power emanating from a territory so insignificant. We hardly realize that Latium did not comprise a territory quite fifty miles by one hundred in extent, and that it was but a hundred miles from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic. It was but a short walk from Rome to the territory of the Etruscans, and when Tarquin found an asylum at Caere, he did not separate himself by twenty miles from the scene of his tyranny. Ostia was scarcely more distant, and one might have ridden before the first meal of the day to Lavinium, or Alba, or Veii, or to Ardea, the ancient city of the Rutuli. It is important to keep these facts in mind as we read the story of the remarkable city.

All towns were built on hills in these early days, for safety in case of war, as well as because the valleys were insalubrious, but this is not a peculiarity of the Romans, for in New England in the late ages of our own ancestors they were obliged to follow the same custom. On the tops and slopes of seven hills, as they liked to remind themselves, the Romans built their city. They were not impressive elevations, though their sides were sharp and rocky, for the loftiest rose less than three hundred feet above the sea level. Their summits were crowned with groves of beech trees and oaks, and in the lower lands grew osiers and other smaller varieties.

The earlier occupations of the Roman people were war and agriculture, or the pasturage of flocks and herds. They raised grapes and made wines; they cultivated the oil olive and knew the use of its fruit. They found copper in their soil and made a pound (as) of it their unit of value, but it was so cheap that ten thousand ases were required to buy a war horse, though cattle and sheep were much lower. They yoked their oxen and called the path they occupied a jugerum (jugum, a cross-beam, or a yoke), and this in time came to be their familiar standard of square measure, containing about two thirds of an acre. Two of these were assigned to a citizen, and seven were the narrow limit to which only one's landed possessions were for a long time allowed to extend. In time commerce was added to the pursuits of the men, and with it came fortunes and improved dwellings and public buildings.

Laziness and luxury were frowned upon by the early Romans. Mistress and maid worked together in the affairs of the household, like Lucretia and other noble women of whom history tells, and the man did not hesitate to hold the plow, as the example of Cincinnatus will show us. Time was precious, and thrift and economy were necessary to success. The father was the autocrat in the household, and exercised his power with stern rigidity.

Art was backward and came from abroad; of literature there was none, long after Greece had passed its period of heroic poetry. The dwellings of the citizens were low and insignificant, though as time passed on they became more massive and important. The vast public structures of the later kings were comparable to the task-work of the builders of the Egyptian pyramids, and they still strike us with astonishment and surprise.

The religion of these strong conquerors was narrow, severe, and dreary. The early fathers worshipped native deities only. They recognized gods everywhere—in the home, in the grove, and on the mountain. They erected their altars on the hills; they had their Lares and Penates to watch over their hearthstones, and their Vestal Virgins kept everlasting vigil near the never-dying fires in the temples. With the art of Greece that made itself felt through Etruria, came also the influence of the Grecian mythology, and Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva found a shrine on the top of the Capitoline, where the first statue of a deity was erected. The mysterious Sibylline Books are also a mark of the Grecian influence, coming from Cumae, a colony of Magna Graecia.

During the period we have considered, the city passed through five distinct stages of political organization. The government at first, as we have seen, was an elective monarchy, the electors being a patriarchal aristocracy. After the invasion of the Sabines, there was a union with that people, the sovereignty being held by rulers chosen from each; but it was not long before Rome became the head of a federal state. The Tarquins established a monarchy, which rapidly degenerated into an offensive tyranny, which aroused rebellion and at last led to the republic. We have noted that in Greece in the year 510 B.C., the tyranny of the family of Pisistratus was likewise overturned.

During all these changes, the original aristocrats and their descendants firmly held their position as the Populus Romanus, the Roman People, insisting that every one else must belong to an inferior order, and, as no body of men is willing to be condemned to a hopelessly subordinate position in a state, there was a perpetual antagonism between the patricians and the plebeians, between the aristocracy and the commonalty. This led to a temporary change under Servius Tullius, when property took the place of pedigree in establishing a man's rank and influence; but, owing to the peculiar method of voting adopted, the power of the commons was not greatly increased. However, they had made their influence felt, and were encouraged. The overturning of the scheme by Tarquin favored a union of the two orders for the punishment of that tyrant, and they combined; but it was only for a time. When the danger had been removed, the tie was found broken and the antagonism rather increased, so that the subsequent history for five generations, though exceedingly interesting, is largely a record of the struggles of the commons for relief from the burdens laid upon them by the aristocrats.

The father passed down to his son the story of the oppression of the patricians, and the son told the same sad narrative to his offspring. The mother mourned with her daughter over the sufferings brought upon them by the rich, for whom their poor father and brothers were obliged to fight the battles while they were not allowed to share the spoil, nor to divide the lands gained by their own prowess. The struggle was not so much between patrician and plebeian as between the rich and the poor. It was intimately connected with the uses of money in those times. What could the rich Roman do with his accumulations? He might buy land or slaves, or he might become a lender; to a certain extent he could use his surplus in commerce; but of these its most remunerative employment was found in usury. As there were no laws regulating the rates of interest, they became exorbitant, and, as it was customary to compound it, debts rapidly grew beyond the possibility of payment. As the rich made the laws, they naturally exerted their ingenuity to frame them in such a way as to enable the lender to collect his dues with promptness, and with little regard for the feelings or interests of the debtor.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to form a proper conception of the magnitude of the wrongs involved in the system of money-lending at Rome during the period of the republic. The small farmers were ever needy, and came to their wealthy neighbors for accommodation loans. If these were not paid when due, the debtor was liable to be locked up in prison, to be sold into slavery, with his children, wife, and grandchildren; and the heartless law reads, that in case the estate should prove insufficient to satisfy all claims, the creditors were actually authorized to cut the body to pieces, that each Shylock might take the pound of flesh that he claimed.

At last the severity of the lenders overreached itself. It was in the year four hundred and ninety-five, B.C., that a poor, but brave debtor, one who had been at the very front in the wars, broke out of his prison, and while the wind flaunted his rags in the face of the populace, clanked his chains and told the story of his calamities so effectually in words of natural eloquence, that the commons were aroused to madness, and resolved at last to make a vigorous effort and seek redress for their wrongs in a way that could not be resisted. The form of this man stands out forever on the pages of Roman history, as he entered the forum with all the badges of his misery upon him. His pale and emaciated body was but partially covered by his wretched tatters; his long hair played about his shoulders, and his glaring eyes and the grizzled beard hanging down before him added to his savage wildness. As he passed along, he uncovered the scars of near twoscore battles that remained upon his breast, and explained to enquirers that while he had been serving in the Sabine war, his house had been pillaged and burned by the enemy; that when he had returned to enjoy the sweets of the peace he had helped to win, he had found that his cattle had been driven off, and a tax imposed. To meet the debts that thronged upon him, and the interest by which they were aggravated, he had stripped himself of his ancestral farms. Finally, pestilence had overtaken him, and as he was not able to work, his creditor had placed him in a house of detention, the savage treatment in which was shown by the fresh stripes upon his bleeding back.

At the moment a war was imminent, and the forum—the entire city, in fact—already excited, was filled with the uproar of the angry plebeians. Many confined for debt broke from their prison houses, and ran from all quarters into the crowds to claim protection. The majesty of the consuls was insufficient to preserve order, and while the discord was rapidly increasing, horsemen rushed into the gates announcing that an enemy was actually upon them, marching to besiege the city. The plebeians saw that their opportunity had arrived, and when proud Appius Claudius called upon them to enroll their names for the war, they refused the summons, saying that the patricians might fight their own battles; that for themselves it was better to perish together at home rather than to go to the field and die separated. Threatened with war beyond the gates, and with riot at home, the patricians were forced to promise to redress the civil grievances. It was ordered that no one could seize or sell the goods of a soldier while he was in camp, or arrest his children or grandchildren, and that no one should detain a citizen in prison or in chains, so as to hinder him from enlisting in the army. When this was known, the released prisoners volunteered in numbers, and entered upon the war with enthusiasm. The legions were victorious, and when peace was declared, the plebeians anxiously looked for the ratification of the promises made to them.

Their expectations were disappointed. They had, however, seen their power, and were determined to act upon their new knowledge. Without undue haste, they protected their homes on the Aventine, and retreated the next year to a mountain across the Anio, about three miles from the city, to a spot which afterwards held a place in the memories of the Romans similar to that which the green meadow on the Thames called Runnymede has held in British history since the June day when King John met his commons there, and gave them the great charter of their liberties.

The plebeians said calmly that they would no longer be imposed upon; that not one of them would thereafter enlist for a war until the public faith were made good. They reiterated the declaration that the lords might fight their own battles, so that the perils of conflict should lie where its advantages were. When the situation of affairs was thoroughly understood, Rome was on fire with anxiety, and the enforced suspense filled the citizens with fear lest an external enemy should take the opportunity for a successful onset upon the city. Meanwhile the poor secessionists fortified their camp, but carefully refrained from actual war. The people left in the city feared the senators, and the senators in turn dreaded the citizens lest they should do them violence. It was a time of panic and suspense. After consultation, good counsels prevailed in the senate, and it was resolved to send an embassy to the despised and down-trodden plebeians, who now seemed, however, to hold the balance of power, and to treat for peace, for there could be no security until the secessionists had returned to their homes.

The spokesman on the occasion was Menenius Agrippa Lanatus, who was popular with the people and had a reputation for eloquence. In the course of his argument he related the famous apologue which Shakespeare has so admirably used in his first Roman play. He said:

"At a time when all the parts of the body did not, as now, agree together, but the several members had each its own scheme, its own language, the other parts, indignant that every thing was procured for the belly by their care, labor, and service, and that it, remaining quiet in the centre, did nothing but enjoy the pleasures afforded it, conspired that the hands should not convey food to the mouth, nor the mouth receive it when presented, nor the teeth chew it. They wished by these measures to subdue the belly by famine, but, to their dismay, they found that they themselves and the entire body were reduced to the last degree of emaciation. It then became apparent that the service of the belly was by no means a slothful one; that it did not so much receive nourishment as supply it, sending to all parts of the body that blood by which the entire system lived in vigor."

Lanatus then applied the fable to the body politic, showing that all the citizens must work in unity if its greatest welfare is to be attained. The address of this good man had its desired effect, and the people were at last willing to listen to a proposition for their return. It was settled that there should be a general release of all those who had been handed over to their creditors, and a cancelling of debts, and that two of the plebeians should be selected as their protectors, with power to veto objectionable laws, their persons being as inviolable at all times as were those of the sacred messengers of the gods. These demands, showing that the plebeians did not seek political power, were agreed to, the Valerian laws were reaffirmed, and a solemn treaty was concluded, each party swearing for itself and its posterity, with all the formality of representatives of foreign nations. The two leaders of the commons, Caius Licinius and Lucius Albinius, were elected the first Tribunes of the People, as the new officers were called, with two Aediles to aid them. They were not to leave the city during their term of office; their doors being open day and night, that all who needed their protection might have access to them. The hill upon which this treaty had been concluded was ever after known as the Sacred Mount; its top was enclosed and consecrated, an altar being built upon it, on which sacrifices were offered to Jupiter, the god of terror and deliverance, who had allowed the commons to return home in safety, though they had gone out in trepidation. Henceforth the commons were to be protected; they were better fitted to share the honors as well as the benefits of their country, and the threatened dissolution of the nation was averted.

Towards the end of the year, Lanatus, the successful intercessor, died, and it was found that his poverty was so great that none but the most ordinary funeral could be afforded. Thereupon the plebeians contributed enough to give him a splendid burial; but the sum was afterwards presented to his children, because the senate decreed that the funeral expenses should be defrayed by the state. (B.C. 494.)