The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 2/Institution and Fall of the Decemvirate in Rome

186624The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol. 2 — Institution and Fall of the Decemvirate in RomeHenry G. Liddell


B.C. 450


(When wars and pestilence had laid a heavy burden upon the Roman people, there appears to have been a period in which internal commotions and civil strife were stilled, and the quarrels of patricians and plebeians gave way to temporary truce. On the inevitable renewal of the old struggle the college of tribunes adopted a measure favorable to the plebeians in so far as it provided means for checking the abuse of power on the part of consuls in punishing members of that class in connection with the prosecution of suits against them.

The passage of this measure had the effect of reopening former conflicts, the patrician elements becoming greatly alarmed at what they regarded as a fresh encroachment upon their hereditary rights. The contest was long and bitter, each side either bringing forward or rejecting again and again the same measures or the same representatives.

Finally, compromises were made, and in the year B.C. 452 a commission of ten men, called decemvirs, constituting the Decemvirate, was chosen, consisting wholly of patricians, who entered with great efficiency upon the discharge of legislative duties which resulted in the production of a new code. This was approved by the senate and by the popular representatives, and was published in the form of ten copper plates or tables, which were affixed to the speaker's pulpit in the Forum. Among the new decemvirs appointed in the year B.C. 450 were several plebeians, the first official representatives of the entire people who were chosen from that class.)

The patrician burgesses endeavored to wrest independence from the "plebs" after the battle of Lake Regillus; and the latter, ruined by constant wars with the neighboring nations, being compelled to make good their losses by borrowing money from patrician creditors, and liable to become bondsmen in default of payment, at length deserted the city, and only returned on condition of being protected by tribunes of their own; they then, by the firmness of Publilius Volero and Lætorius, obtained the right of electing these tribunes at their own assembly, the "Comitia of the Tribes." Finally the great consul Spurius Cassius endeavored to relieve the commonalty by an agrarian law, so as to better their condition permanently.

The execution of the Agrarian law was constantly evaded. But on the conquest of Antium from the Volscians, in the year B.C. 468, a colony was sent thither, and this was one of the first examples of a distribution of public land to poorer citizens; which answered two purposes—the improvement of their condition, and the defence of the place against the enemy.

Nor did the tribunes, now made altogether independent of the patricians, fail to assert their power. One of the first persons who felt the force of their arm was the second Appius Claudius. This Sabine noble, following his father's example, had, after the departure of the Fabii, led the opposition to the Publilian law. When he took the field against the Volscians, his soldiers would not fight, and the stern commander put to death every tenth man in his legions. For the acts of his consulship he was brought to trial by the tribunes M. Duillius and C. Sicinius. Seeing that conviction was certain, the proud patrician avoided humiliation by suicide.

Nevertheless the border wars still continued, and the plebeians suffered much. To the evils of debt and want were added about this time the horrors of pestilential disease, which visited the Roman territory several times at that period. In one year (B.C. 464) the two consuls, two of the four augurs, and the curio Maximus, who was the head of all the patricians, were swept off—a fact which implies the death of a vast number of less distinguished persons. The government was administered by the plebeian aediles, under the control of senatorial interreges. The Volscians and Aequians ravaged the country up to the walls of Rome; and the safety of the city must be attributed to the Latins and Hernici, not to the men of Rome.

Meantime the tribunes had in vain demanded a full execution of the Agrarian law. But in the year B.C. 462, one of the Sacred College, by name C. Terentilius Harsa, came forward with a bill, the object of which was to give the plebeians a surer footing in the state. This man perceived that as long as the consuls retained their almost despotic power, and were elected by the influence of the patricians, this order had it in its power to thwart all measures, even after they were passed, which tended to advance the interests of the plebeians. He therefore no longer demanded the execution of the Agrarian law, but proposed that a commission of ten men (decemviri) should be appointed to draw up constitutional laws for regulating the future relations of the patricians and plebeians.

The Reform Bill of Terentilius was, as might be supposed, vehemently resisted by the patrician burgesses. But the plebeians supported their champion no less warmly. For five consecutive years the same tribunes were reelected and in vain endeavored to carry the bill. This was the time which least fulfils the character which we have claimed for the Roman people—patience and temperance, combined with firmness in their demands. To prevent the tribunes from carrying their law, the younger patricians thronged to the assemblies and interfered with all proceedings; Terentilius, they said, was endeavoring to confound all distinction between the orders. Some scenes occurred which seem to show that both sides were prepared for civil war.

In the year B.C. 460 the city was alarmed by hearing that the Capitol had been seized by a band of Sabines and exiled Romans, under the command of one Herdonius. Who these exiles were is uncertain. But we know, by the legend of Cincinnatus, that Cæso Quinctius, the son of that old hero, was an exile. It has been inferred, therefore, that he was among them, that the tribunes had succeeded in banishing from the city the most violent of their opponents, and that these persons had not scrupled to associate themselves with Sabines to recover their homes. The consul Valerius, aided by the Latins of Tusculum, levied an army to attack the insurgents, on condition that after success the law should be fully considered. The exiles were driven out and Herdonius was killed. But the consul fell in the assault, and the patricians, led by old Cincinnatus, refused to fulfil his promises.

Then followed the danger of the Æquian invasion, to which the legend of Cincinnatus, as given above, refers. The stern old man used his dictatorial power quite as much to crush the tribunes at home as to conquer the enemies abroad.

One of the historians tells us that in this period of seditious violence many of the leading plebeians were assassinated (as the tribune Genucius had been), and to this time only can be attributed the horrible story, mentioned by more than one writer, that nine tribunes were burned alive at the instance of their colleague Mucius. Society was utterly disorganized. The two orders were on the brink of civil war. It seemed as if Rome was to become the city of discord, not of law. Happily, there were moderate men in both orders. Now, as at the time of the secession, their voices prevailed, and a compromise was arranged.

In the eighth year after the first promulgation of the Terentilian law, this compromise was made (B.C. 454). The law itself was no longer pressed by the tribunes. The patricians, on the other hand, so far gave way as to allow three men (triumviri) to be appointed, who were to travel into Greece, and bring back a copy of the laws of Solon, as well as the laws and institutes of any other Greek states which they might deem good and useful. These were to be the groundwork of a new code of laws, such as should give fair and equal rights to both orders and restrain the arbitrary power of the patrician magistrates.

Another concession made by the patrician lords was a small installment of the Agrarian law. L. Icilius, tribune of the plebs, proposed that all the Aventine hill, being public land, should be made over to the plebs, to be their quarter forever, as the other hills were occupied by the patricians and their clients. This hill, it will be remembered, was consecrated to the goddess Diana (Jana), and though included in the walls of Servius, was yet not within the sacred limits (pomoerium) of the patrician city. After some opposition the patricians suffered this Icilian law to pass, in hopes of soothing the anger of the plebeians. The land was parcelled out into building-sites. But as there was not enough to give a separate plot to every plebeian householder that wished to live in the city, one allotment was assigned to several persons, who built a joint house flats or stories, each of which was inhabited—as in Edinburgh and in most foreign towns—by a separate family.

The three men who had been sent into Greece returned in the third year (B.C. 452). They found the city free from domestic strife, partly from the concessions already made, partly from expectation of what was now to follow, and partly from the effect of a pestilence which had broken out anew.

So far did moderate counsels now prevail among the patricians, that after some little delay they agreed to suspend the ordinary government by the consuls and other officers, and in their stead to appoint a council of ten, who were, during their existence, to be intrusted with all the functions of government. But they were to have a double duty: they were not only an administrative, but also a legislative council. On the one hand, they were to conduct the government, administer justice, and command the armies. On the other, they were to draw up a code of laws by which equal justice was to be dealt out to the whole Roman people, to patricians and plebeians alike, and by which especially the authority to be exercised by the consuls, or chief magistrates, was to be clearly determined and settled.

This supreme council of ten, or decemvirs, was first appointed in the year B.C. 450. They were all patricians. At their head stood Appius Claudius and T. Genucius, who had already been chosen consuls for this memorable year. This Appius Claudius (the third of his name) was son and grandson of those two patrician chiefs who had opposed the leaders of the plebeians so vehemently in the matter of the tribunate. But he affected a different conduct from his sires. He was the most popular man of the whole council, and became in fact the sovereign of Rome. At first he used his great power well, and the first year's government of the decemvirs was famed for justice and moderation.

They also applied themselves diligently to their great work of law-making, and before the end of the year had drawn up a code of ten tables, which were posted in the Forum, that all citizens might examine them and suggest amendments to the decemvirs. After due time thus spent, the ten tables were confirmed and made law at the Comitia of the Centuries. By this code equal justice was to be administered to both orders without distinction of persons.

At the close of the year the first decemvirs laid down their office, just as the consuls and other officers of state had been accustomed to do before. They were succeeded by a second set of ten, who, for the next year at least, were to conduct the government like their predecessors. The only one of the old decemvirs reelected was Appius Claudius. The patricians, indeed, endeavored to prevent even this, and to this end he was himself appointed to preside at the new elections; for it was held impossible for a chief magistrate to return his own name, when he was himself presiding. But Appius scorned precedents. He returned himself as elected, together with nine others, men of no name, while two of the great Quinctian gens, who offered themselves, were rejected.

Of the new decemvirs, it is certain that three—and it is probable that five—were plebeians. Appius, with the plebeian Oppius, held the judicial office, and remained in the city; and these two seem to have been regarded as the chiefs. The other six commanded the armies and discharged the duties previously assigned to the quæstors and ædiles.

The first decemvirs had earned the respect and esteem of their fellow-citizens. The new Council of Ten deserved the hatred which has ever since cloven to their name. Appius now threw off the mask which he had so long worn, and assumed his natural character—the same as had distinguished his sire and grandsire, of unhappy memory. He became an absolute despot. His brethren in the council offered no hinderance to his will; even the plebeian decemvirs, bribed by power, fell into his way of action and supported his tyranny. They each had twelve lictors, who carried fasces with the axes in them the symbol of absolute power, as in the times of the kings; so that it was said, "Rome had now twelve Tarquins instead of one, and one hundred and twenty armed lictors instead of twelve!" All freedom of speech ceased. The senate was seldom called together. The leading men, patricians and plebeians, left the city. The outward aspect of things was that of perfect calm and peace, but an opportunity only was wanting for the discontent which was smouldering in all men's hearts to break out and show itself.

By the end of the year the decemvirs had added two more tables to the code, so that there were now twelve tables. But these two last were of a most oppressive and arbitrary kind, devoted chiefly to restore the ancient privileges of the patrician caste. Of these tables, it should be observed that they were made laws not by the vote of the people, but by the simple edict of the decemvirs.

It was, no doubt, expected that the second decemvirs also would have held comitia for the election of successors. But Appius and his colleagues showed no such intention, and when the year came to a close they continued to hold office as if they had been reelected. So firmly did their power seem to be established that we hear of no endeavor being made to induce them to resign.

In the course of this next year (B.C. 449), the border wars were renewed. On the north the Sabines, and the Æquians on the northeast, invaded the Roman country at the same time. The latter penetrated as far as Mount Algidus, as in B.C. 458, when they were routed by old Cincinnatus. The decemvirs probably, like the patrician burgesses in former times, regarded these inroads not without satisfaction; for they turned away the mind of the people from their sufferings at home. Yet from these very wars sprung the events which overturned their power and destroyed themselves.

Two armies were levied, one to check the Sabines, the other to oppose the Æquians, and these were commanded by the six military decemvirs. Appius and Oppius remained to administer affairs at home. But there was no spirit in the armies. Both were defeated; and that which was opposed to the Æquians was compelled to take refuge within the walls of Tusculum.

Then followed two events which were preserved in well-known legends, and which give the popular narrative of the manner in which the power of the decemvirs was at last overthrown.


In the army sent against the Sabines, Siccius Dentatus was known as the bravest man. He was then serving as a centurion; he had fought in one hundred and twenty battles; he had slain eight champions in single combat; had saved the lives of fourteen citizens; had received forty wounds, all in front; had followed in nine triumphal processions, and had won crowns and decorations without number. This gallant veteran had taken an active part in the civil contests between the two orders, and was now suspected, by the decemvirs commanding the Sabine army, of plotting against them. Accordingly they determined to get rid of him; and for this end they sent him out as if to reconnoitre, with a party of soldiers, who were secretly instructed to murder him. Having discovered their design, he set his back against a rock and resolved to sell his life dearly. More than one of his assailants fell and the rest stood at bay around him, not venturing to come within sword's length, when one wretch climbed up the rock behind and crushed the brave old man with a massive stone. But the manner of his death could not be hidden from the army, and the generals only prevented an outbreak by honoring him with a magnificent funeral.

Such was the state of things in the Sabine army.


The other army had a still grosser outrage to complain of. In this there was a notable centurion, Virginius by name. His daughter Virginia, just ripening into womanhood, beautiful as the day, was betrothed to L. Icilius, the tribune who had carried the law for allotting the Aventine hill to the plebeians. Appius Claudius, the decemvir, saw her and lusted to make her his own. And with this intent he ordered one of his clients, M. Claudius by name, to lay hands upon her as she was going to her school in the Forum, and to claim her as his slave. The man did so; and when the cries of her nurse brought a crowd round them, M. Claudius insisted on taking her before the decemvir, in order, as he said, to have the case fairly tried. Her friends consented; and no sooner had Appius heard the matter than he gave judgment that the maiden should be delivered up to the claimant, who should be bound to produce her in case her alleged father appeared to gainsay the claim. Now this judgment was directly against one of the laws of the twelve tables, which Appius himself had framed; for therein it was provided that any person being at freedom should continue free till it was proved that such person was a slave. Icilius, therefore, with Numitorius, the uncle of the maiden, boldly argued against the legality of the judgment, and at length Appius, fearing a tumult, agreed to leave the girl in their hands on condition of their giving bail to bring her before him next morning; and then, if Virginius did not appear, he would at once, he said, give her up to her pretended master. To this Icilius consented, but he delayed giving bail, pretending that he could not procure it readily; and in the mean time he sent off a secret message to the camp on Algidus, to inform Virginius of what had happened. As soon as the bail was given, Appius also sent a message to the decemvirs in command of that army, ordering them to refuse leave of absence to Virginius. But when this last message arrived, Virginius was already halfway on his road to Rome; for the distance was not more than twenty miles, and he had started at nightfall.

Next morning, early, Virginius entered the Forum, leading his daughter by the hand, both clad in mean attire. A great number of friends and matrons attended him, and he went about among the people entreating them to support him against the tyranny of Appius. So when Appius came to take his place on the judgment seat he found the Forum full of people, all friendly to Virginius and his cause. But he inherited the boldness as well as the vices of his sires, and though he saw Virginius standing there ready to prove that he was the maiden's father, he at once gave judgment, against his own law, that Virginia should be given up to M. Claudius till it should be proved that she was free. The wretch came up to seize her, and the lictors kept the people from him. Virginius, now despairing of deliverance, begged Appius to allow him to ask the maiden whether she were indeed his daughter or not. "If," said he, "I find I am not her father, I shall bear her loss the lighter." Under this pretence he drew her aside to a spot upon the northern side of the Forum, afterward called the "Nova Tabernce" and here, snatching up a knife from a butcher's stall, he cried: "In this way only can I keep thee free!"—and so saying, stabbed her to the heart. Then he turned to the tribunal and said, "On thee, Appius, and on thy head be this blood!" Appius cried out to seize "the murderer," but the crowd made way for Virginius, and he passed through them holding up the bloody knife, and went out at the gate and made straight for the army. There, when the soldiers had heard his tale, they at once abandoned their decemviral generals and marched to Rome. They were soon followed by the other army from the Sabine frontier; for to them Icilius had gone, and Numitorius; and they found willing ears among men who were already enraged by the murder of old Siccius Dentatus. So the two armies joined their banners, elected new generals, and encamped upon the Aventine hill, the quarter of the plebeians.

Meantime the people at home had risen against Appius, and after driving him from the Forum they joined their armed fellow-citizens upon the Aventine. There the whole body of the commons, armed and unarmed, hung like a dark cloud ready to burst upon the city.

Whatever may be the truth of the legends of Siccius and Virginia, there can be no doubt that the conduct of the decemvirs had brought matters to the verge of civil war. At this juncture the senate met, and the moderate party so far prevailed as to send their own leaders, M. Horatius Barbatus and L. Valerius Potitus, to negotiate with the insurgents. The plebeians were ready to listen to the voices of these men; for they remembered that the consuls of the first year of the Republic, when the patrician burgesses were friends to the plebeians, were named Valerius and Horatius; and so they appointed M. Duillius, a former tribune, to be their spokesman. But no good came of it; and Duillius persuaded the plebeians to leave the city, and once more to occupy the Sacred Mount.

Then remembrances of the great secession came back upon the minds of the patricians, and the senate, observing the calm and resolute bearing of the plebeian leaders, compelled the decemvirs to resign, and sent back Valerius and Horatius to negotiate anew.

The leaders of the plebeians demanded: First, that the tribuneship should be restored, and the Comitia Tributa recognized; secondly, that a right of appeal to the people against the power of the supreme magistrate should be secured; thirdly, that full indemnity should be granted to the movers and promoters of the late secession; fourthly, that the decemvirs should be burnt alive.

Of these demands the deputies of the senate agreed to the three first; but the fourth, they said, was unworthy of a free people; it was a piece of tyranny, as bad as any of the worst acts of the late government; and it was needless, because anyone who had reason of complaint against the late decemvirs might proceed against them according to law. The plebeians listened to these words of wisdom, and withdrew their savage demand. The other three were confirmed by the fathers, and the plebeians returned to their quarters on the Aventine. Here they held an assembly according to their tribes, in which the pontifex Maximus presided; and they now, for the first time, elected ten tribunes—first Virginius, Numitorius, and Icilius, then Duillius and six others: so full were their minds of the wrong done to the daughter of Virginius; so entirely was it the blood of young Virginia that overthrew the decemvirs, even as that of Lucretia had driven out the Tarquins.

The plebeians had now returned to the city, headed by their ten tribunes, a number which was never again altered so long as the tribunate continued in existence. It remained for the patricians to redeem the pledges given by their agents Valerius and Horatius on the other demands of the plebeian leaders.

The first thing to settle was the election of the supreme magistrates. The decemvirs had fallen, and the state was without any executive government.

It has been supposed, as we have said above, that the government of the decemvirs was intended to be perpetual. The patricians gave up their consuls, and the plebeians their tribunes, on condition that each order was to be admitted to an equal share in the new decemviral college. But the tribunes were now restored in augmented number, and it was but natural that the patricians should insist on again occupying all places in the supreme magistracy. By common consent, as it would seem, the Comitia of the Centuries met and elected to the consulate the two patricians who had shown themselves the friends of both orders: L. Valerius Potitus and M. Horatius Barbatus. Thus ended the government of the decemvirate.

Footnotes edit

  1. Dionysius is the authority for this legend.