CHAPTER V. THE ROMAN CONSTITUTION.
Beside this Romanus populus, which constituted the ruling class under kings, was another body, made up of conquered people. In early times their number was small, nor did they appear as a distinct class until the reign of Tullus Hostilius. After the subjection of Alba, the head of the Latin Confederacy, great numbers were transferred to Rome, and received settlements on the Caelian Hill, and were kept under submission to the patricians. As the Roman conquests extended, their numbers increased, until they formed the larger part of the population. They were called plebs, or commonalty, and had no political privileges whatever. They had not even the right of suffrage; but they were enrolled in the army, [Footnote: Liv., i. 33. Dionys., iii. 31. ] and made to bear the expenses of the state. At first they were not allowed to intermarry with the patricians. Their oppression provoked resistance. The struggle which ensued is one of the most memorable in Roman history. The haughty oligarchy were obliged gradually to concede rights. These rights the plebs retained. First they gained a law which prevented patricians from taking usurious interest. They secured the appointment of tribunes for their protection. Soon after they had the right of summoning before their own Comitia tributa any one who violated their rights. In 449 they had influence sufficient to establish the Connubium, by which they could intermarry with patricians. In 421 the plebeians were admitted to the quaestorship. Then, after a fierce contest, they were made decemvirs. Their next right was the dignity of the consulship, and led to the dictatorship. In 351 they secured the censorship, and in 336 the praetorship. Political distinctions now vanished. The possession of a share of the great offices created powerful families, and these were incorporated with the aristocracy. The great privilege of securing tribunes was the first step to political power, and the most important in the constitutional history of the state. And it was the tribunes who gradually usurped the greatest powers. They assumed the right, in 456, of convoking even the Senate. They also had the right to be present in the deliberations of the Senate; as their persons were inviolable, they interceded against any action which a magistrate might undertake during his term of office, and even a command issued by a praetor. They could compel the Senate to submit a question to a fresh consultation, and ultimately compelled the consuls to appoint a dictator. Their power grew to such a height that they acquired the right of proposing to the Comitia tributa, or the Senate, measures on nearly all the important affairs of the state, and finally were elected from among the Senators themselves.
[Advancement of Plebeians.]
Through the institution of tribunes, and other circumstances, especially the increase of wealth, the plebeians, originally so unimportant and insignificant that they could not obtain admission into the Senate, nor the high offices of state, nor the occupancy of the public lands, ultimately obtained all the rights of the patricians, so that gradually the political distinctions between patricians and plebeians vanished altogether, 286 B.C., and the term populus was applied to them as well as to the patricians. [Footnote: Liv., iv. 44; v. 11,12. Cicero de Repub., ii. 37.]
[Gradual increase of their power.]
These rights were only secured by bitter and fierce contests. The plebeians, during their long struggle, did not seek power to gratify their ambition, but to protect themselves from oppression. Nor was the power which they obtained abused until near the close of the Republic.
But while they ultimately were blended, politically, with the patricians, still the latter monopolized most of the great offices of the state until the time of Cicero, and socially, always were preeminent. Yet there were many noble plebeian families who were blended with the aristocratic class. Aristocracy survived, after the political distinctions between the two classes were abrogated. Rome was never a democracy. Great families, whether patrician or plebeian, controlled the State, either by their wealth or social connections. The Roman nobility was really composed of all the families rendered illustrious by the offices they had filled. And as the great officers were taken generally from the Senate, that body was particularly august.
[The prerogative of Senators.]