CHAPTER VII. THE COMITIA TRIBUTA AND THE AGRARIAN LAWS.
The next gain made by the plebeians was the annual appointment from their own ranks of two officers, called AEDILES. [Footnote: The word "Aedile" is derived from Aedes, meaning temple.] These officers held nearly the same position in reference to the Tribunes that the Quaestors did to the Consuls. They assisted the Tribunes in the performance of their various duties, and also had special charge of the temple of Ceres. In this temple were deposited, for safe keeping, all the decrees of the Senate.
These two offices, those of Tribune and Aedile, the result of the first secession, were filled by elections held at first in the Comitia Centuriáta, but later in an assembly called the COMITIA TRIBÚTA, which met sometimes within and sometimes without the city walls.
This assembly was composed of plebeians, who voted by "tribes" ( tributa, meaning composed of tribes), each tribe being entitled to one vote, and its vote being decided by the majority of its individual voters. [Footnote: These "tribes" were a territorial division, corresponding roughly to "wards" in our cities. At this time there were probably sixteen, but later there were thirty-five. The plebeians in the city lived mostly in one quarter, on the Aventine Hill.]
The Comitia Tribúta was convened and presided over by the Tribunes and Aediles. In it were discussed matters of interest to the plebeians. By it any member could be punished for misconduct, and though at first measures passed in it were not binding on the people at large, it presently became a determined body, with competent and bold leaders, who were felt to be a power in the state.
The aim of the patricians was now to lessen the power of the Tribunes; that of the plebeians, to restrain the Consuls and extend the influence of the Tribunes. Party spirit ran high; even hand to hand contests occurred in the city. Many families left Rome and settled in neighboring places to escape the turmoil. It is a wonder that the government withstood the strain, so fierce was the struggle.
The AGRARIAN LAWS at this time first become prominent. These laws had reference to the distribution of the PUBLIC LANDS. Rome had acquired a large amount of land taken from the territory of conquered cities. This land was called AGER PUBLICUS, or public land.
Some of this land was sold or given away as "homesteads," and then it became AGER PRIVÁTUS, or private land. But the most of it was occupied by permission of the magistrates. The occupants were usually rich patricians, who were favored by the patrician magistrates. This land, so occupied, was called AGER OCCUPÁTUS, or possessio; but it really was still the property of the state. The rent paid was a certain per cent (from 10 to 20) of the crops, or so much a head for cattle on pasture land. Although the state had the undoubted right to claim this land at any time, the magistrates allowed the occupants to retain it, and were often lenient about collecting dues. In course of time, this land, which was handed down from father to son, and frequently sold, began to be regarded by the occupants as their own property. Also the land tax (TRIBÚTUM), which was levied on all ager privátus, and which was especially hard upon the small plebeian land-owners, could not legally be levied upon the ager occupátus. Thus the patricians who possessed, not owned, this land were naturally regarded as usurpers by the plebeians.
The first object of the AGRARIAN LAWS was to remedy this evil.
SPURIUS CASSIUS, an able man, now came forward (486?), proposing a law that the state take up these lands, divide them into small lots, and distribute them among the poor plebeians as homes (homesteads). The law was carried, but in the troublesome times it cost Cassius his life, and was never enforced.