CHAPTER I. ANTECEDENTS OF THE REVOLUTION.
[Why complaints about the Public Land became louder at the close of the second century B.C.] As long as fresh assignations of land and the plantations of colonies went on, this discontent could be kept within bounds. But for a quarter of a century preceding our period scarcely any fresh acquisitions of land had been made in Italy, and, with no hope of new allotments from the territory of their neighbours, the people began to clamour for the restitution of their own. [Previous agrarian legislation. Spurius Cassius.] The first attempt to wrest public land from possessors had been made long before this by Spurius Cassius; and he had paid for his daring with his life. [The Licinian Law.] More than a century later the Licinian law forbade anyone to hold above 500 'jugera' of public land, for which, moreover, a tenth of the arable and a fifth of the grazing produce was to be paid to the State. The framers of the law are said to have hoped that possessors of more than this amount would shrink from making on oath a false return of the land which they occupied, and that, as they would be liable to penalties for exceeding the prescribed maximum, all land beyond the maximum would be sold at a nominal price (if this interpretation of the [Greek: kat' oligon] of Appian may be hazarded) to the poor. It is probable that they did not quite know what they were aiming at, and certain that they did not foresee the effects of their measure. In a confused way the law may have been meant to comprise sumptuary, political, and agrarian objects. It forbade anyone to keep more than a hundred large or five hundred small beasts on the common pasture-land, and stipulated for the employment of a certain proportion of free labour. The free labourers were to give information of the crops produced, so that the fifths and tenths might be duly paid; and it may have been the breakdown of such an impossible institution which led to the establishment of the 'publicani.' [Composite nature of the Licinian law.] Nothing, indeed, is more likely than that Licinius and Sextius should have attempted to remedy by one measure the specific grievance of the poor plebeians, the political disabilities of the rich plebeians and the general deterioration of public morals; but, though their motives may have been patriotic, such a measure could no more cure the body politic than a man who has a broken limb, is blind, and in a consumption can be made sound at every point by the heal-all of a quack. Accordingly the Licinian law was soon, except in its political provisions, a dead letter. Licinius was the first man prosecuted for its violation, and the economical desire of the nation became intensified. [The Flaminian law.] In 232 B.C. Flaminius carried a law for the distribution of land taken from the Senones among the plebs. Though the law turned out no possessors, it was opposed by the Senate and nobles. Nor is this surprising, for any law distributing land was both actually and as a precedent a blow to the interests of the class which practised occupation. What is at first sight surprising is that small parcels of land, such as must have been assigned in these distributions, should have been so coveted. [Why small portions of land were so coveted.] The explanation is probably fourfold. Those who clamoured for them were wretched enough to clutch at any change; or did not realise to themselves the dangers and drawbacks of what they desired; or intended at once to sell their land to some richer neighbour; or, lastly, longed to keep a slave or two, just as the primary object of the 'mean white' in America used to be to keep his negro. [Sidenote: Failure of previous legislation.] On the whole, it is clear that legislation previous to this period had not diminished agrarian grievances, and it is clear also why these grievances were so sorely felt. The general tendency at Rome and throughout Italy was towards a division of society into two classes - the very rich and the very poor, a tendency which increased so fast that not many years later it was said that out of some 400,000 men at Rome only 2,000 could, in spite of the city being notoriously the centre to which the world's wealth gravitated, be called really rich men. To any patriot the progressive extinction of small land-owners must have seemed piteous in itself and menacing to the life of the State. On the other hand, the poor had always one glaring act of robbery to cast in the teeth of the rich. A sanguine tribune might hope permanently to check a growing evil by fresh supplies of free labour. His poor partisan again had a direct pecuniary interest in getting the land. Selfish and philanthropic motives therefore went hand in hand, and in advocating the distribution of land a statesman would be sure of enlisting the sympathies of needy Italians, even more than those of the better-provided-for poor of Rome.