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OF THE DISSENSIONS BETWEEN THE PATRICIANS
AND PLEBEIANS IN ROME, WITH THE CONSEQUENCES THEY HAD UPON THAT STATE.
Having in the foregoing Chapter confined myself to the proceedings of the commons only, by the method of impeachments against particular persons, with the fatal effects they had upon the state of Athens; I shall now treat of the dissensions at Rome, between the people and the collective body of the patricians or nobles. It is a large subject, but I shall draw it into as narrow a compass as I can.
As Greece, from the most ancient accounts we have of it, was divided into several kingdoms, so was most part of Italy * into several petty commonwealths. And as those kings in Greece are said to have been deposed by their people upon the score of their arbitrary proceedings; so, on the contrary, the commonwealths of Italy were all swallowed up, and concluded in the tyranny of the Roman emperors. However, the differences between those Grecian monarchies, and Italian republics, were not very great : for, by the account Homer gives us of those Grecian princes who came to the siege of Troy, as well as by several passages in the Odyssey, it is manifest, that the power of these
princes in their several states was much of a size with that of the kings in Sparta, the archon at Athens, the suffetes at Carthage, and the consuls in Rome: so that a limited and divided power seems to have been the most ancient and inherent principle of both those people in matters of government. And such did that of Rome continue from the time of Romulus, though with some interruptions, to Julius Cæsar, i when it ended in the tyranny of a single person. During which period (not many years longer than from the Norman conquest to our age) the commons were growing by degrees into power and property, gaining ground upon the patricians, as it were, inch by inch, till at last they quite overturned the balance, leaving all doors open to the practices of popular and ambitious men, who destroyed the wisest republic, and enslaved the noblest people that ever entered upon the stage of the world. By what steps and degrees this was brought to pass, shall be the subject of my present inquiry.
While Rome was governed by kings, the monarchy was altogether elective. Romulus himself, when he had built the city, was declared king by the universal consent of the people, and by augury, which was there understood for divine appointment. Among other divisions he made of the people, one was into patricians and plebeians: the former were like the Barons of England some time after the conquest; and the latter are also described to be almost exactly what our commons were then. For they were dependents upon the patricians, whom they chose for their patrons and protectors, to answer for their appearance, and defend them in any process : they also supplied their patrons with money in exchange for their protection. This custom of patronage, it seems, was very ancient, and long practised among the Greeks.
Out of these patricians Romulus chose a hundred to be a senate, or grand council, for advice and assistance to him in the administration. The senate therefore originally consisted all of nobles, and were of themselves a standing council, the people being only convoked upon such occasions, as by this institution of Romulus fell into their cognizance : those were, to constitute magistrates, to give their votes for making laws, and to advise upon entering on a war. But the two former of these popular privileges were to be confirmed by authority of the senate; and the last was only permitted at the king's pleasure. This was the utmost extent of power pretended to by the commons in the time of Romulus; all the rest being divided between the king and the senate; the whole agreeing very nearly with the constitution of England for some centuries after the conquest.
After a year's interregnum from the death of Romulus, the senate of their own authority chose a successor, and a stranger, merely upon the fame of his virtue, without asking the consent of the commons; which custom they likewise observed in the two following kings. But in the election of Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king, we first hear mentioned, that it was done populi impetratâ venia; which indeed was but very reasonable for a free people to expect; though I cannot remember, in my little reading, by what incidents they were brought to advance so great a step. However it were, this prince, in gratitude to the people, by whose consent he was chosen, elected a hundred senators out of the commons, whose number, with former additions, was now amounted to three hundred.
The people having once discovered their own strength, did soon take occasion to exert it, and that by very great degrees. * For at this king's death, who was murdered by the sons of a former, being at a loss for a successor, Servius Tullius, a stranger, and of mean extraction, was chosen protector of the kingdom by the people, without the consent of the senate; at which the nobles being displeased, he wholly applied himself to gratify the commons, and was by them declared and confirmed no longer protector, but king.
This prince first introduced the custom of giving freedom to servants, so as to become citizens of equal privileges with the rest, which very much contributed to increase the power of the people.
Thus in a very few years the commons proceeded so far, as to wrest even the power of choosing a king entirely out of the hands of the nobles ; which was so great a leap, and caused such a convulsion and struggle in the state, that the constitution could not bear it; but civil dissensions arose, which immediately were followed by the tyranny of a single person, as this was by the utter subversion of the regal government, and by a settlement upon a new foundation. For the nobles, spited at this indignity done them by the commons, firmly united in a body, deposed this prince by plain force, and chose Tarquin the Proud; † who, running into all the forms and methods of tyranny, after a cruel reign, was expelled by a universal concurrence of nobles and people, whom the miseries of his reign had reconciled,
* Alluding to the great rebellion, and protectorship of Oliver Cromwell.
t James II.
When the consular government began, the balance of power between the nobles and plebeians was fixed anew : the two first consuls were nominated by the nobles, and confirmed by the commons; and a law was enacted, That no person should bear any magistracy in Rome, injussu populi, that is, without consent of the commons.
In such turbulent times as these, many of the poorer
citizens had contracted numerous debts, either to the richer sort among themselves, or to senators and other nobles : and the case of debtors in Rome for the first four centuries, * was, after the set time for payment, that they had no choice but either to pay or be the creditor's slave. In this juncture, the commons leave the city in mutiny and discontent, and will not return but upon condition to be acquitted of all their debts; and moreover, that certain magistrates be chosen yearly, whose business it shall be to defend the commons from injuries. These are called tribunes of the people, their persons are held sacred and inviolable, and the people bind themselves by oath never to abrogate the office. By these tribunes, in process of time, the people were grossly imposed on to serve the turns and occasions of revengeful or ambitious men, and to commit such exorbitances, as could not end but in the dissolution of the government.
These tribunes, a year or two after their institution, kindled great dissensions between the nobles and the commons on the account of Coriolanus ; a nobleman, whom the latter had impeached, and the consequences of whose impeachment (if I had not confined myself to Grecian examples for that part
* Ab urbe condita.