Debt is, and always has been, a great difficulty in a people's life. It is impossible to carry on business without borrowing or lending money, but trouble is continually arising out of it.
There are in England at the present time thousands of cases every year of people who either will not or cannot pay what they owe. Some borrow with reasonable hopes of repaying and fail in their ventures; some do not think much about what they are doing, but get the money because they want or fancy that they want the things which may be bought with it; some deliberately deceive their creditors and borrow because they will not work.
In ancient times, and in England up to quite recently, the laws about debtors were very severe. Nowhere were they more severe than in Rome. When a man owed money and had no property which could be taken and applied in payment, he might himself be seized and put into what was called an ergastulum or workhouse and compelled to labour for the benefit of his creditors. There was even a provision in the law that his creditors might, if they thought fit, take his body and cut it up into pieces and so satisfy at least their revenge. It is said, however, that this provision was never actually carried out.
The law was very severe; many suffered by it, and were reduced to a condition very like slavery. The debtor was not actually a slave, for he could regain his freedom by paying what he owed; but till that was done a slave he practically was.
When times were hard, when the harvest was bad or the country wasted by war, this debt trouble became very serious. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that about fifteen years after the expulsion of the Kings, when Rome had been doing all she could to defend herself against many enemies, it came to a head.
This year there was a quarrel with the Volscians, and an army had to be raised to meet them in the field. It will be remembered that there was no standing army in those days; soldiers were enlisted when they were wanted.
The Forum or public square of the city where the consuls were sitting to receive the names of recruits, was crowded with people, when a man who had often served and had risen to the rank of centurion, appeared in its midst. He had been put into an ergastulum by his creditor, and had been there treated most cruelly. He showed the marks left by the scourge and the hot iron, while at the same time he could point to the honourable scars of wounds received in the service of his country. It was no fault of his, he declared, that he had failed to pay his debt. His farm had been laid waste, his cattle driven off by Sabine raiders.
The indignation of the people rose high; some of the workhouses were broken open and their inmates set free; senators and others who had the reputation of dealing harshly with their debtors were assaulted. No names were given to the consuls. But when tidings reached the city that the enemy were approaching, better thoughts prevailed, the more readily because some concessions were made; the chief of these was that no proceedings were to be taken against a debtor while he was serving in the field. When the fighting was over, there was a return to the old state of things.
Unfortunately, one of the consuls now elected belonged to the Claudian family, whose traditional policy it was to set themselves against popular liberties, and the following year the quarrel broke out again with even more violence than before. The people flatly refused to enlist, and this though the Volscians had actively taken the field. The Senate had recourse to a measure reserved for great emergencies and appointed a dictator.
The partisans of Claudius endeavoured to secure this office for him, but, happily, were not successful. A Valerius, member of a popular family, was appointed. He renewed the concessions made in the preceding year, and peace was, for the time, declared. But when the dictator, after a vain attempt to induce the Senate to make some permanent arrangement for the benefit of the debtors, resigned his office, the anger of the people became fiercer than ever. The army had not been disbanded, and the oath of obedience to the consul, as commander, was still binding. Some of the fiercer spirits would have found a way out of this difficulty by violence. "Slay the tyrant," they cried, "and we shall recover our freedom." Happily, their violent counsels did not find any favour with the majority.
The policy which they followed was one of "passive resistance." They marched, armed as they were, out of Rome, crossed the Anio, a river which flows into the Tiber, some seven miles above the city, and occupied an eminence which was afterwards called the Sacred Hill. They attacked no one; they threatened no one; but they said to the privileged classes—not in so many words, but by acts which were not less significant—"Give us our rights; do not take an unfair advantage of our needs—or fight your own battles; we will have nothing to do with a country in which life is not worth living."
To this argument the Senate had no answer. They could not use force—the movement was described as the "Secession of the People," and they could not do without them. All business was at a standstill, and, what was more serious, the city was defenceless. They had recourse to negotiation and compromise. They sent one of their number, Menenius Agrippa by name, a man highly esteemed for wisdom and the power of persuasive speech.
We are told that Agrippa put the argument which he had to address to his audience in the shape of a fable. "There was once," he said, "a dissension among the members of the human body. The working members, as the eyes, the hands, the feet, complained that they laboured for the benefit of the stomach, which remained idle, receiving the good things provided by the toil of others and doing nothing in return. They resolved to put an end to so unjust a state of things; they would work no more for this idler in the midst of them. But they found that this meant their own ruin. The idle stomach did work, in its turn: it assimilated what it received, and returned it to the members from which it came. If they starved it they were, in effect, starving themselves."
It is said that the people were so affected by this reasoning, that they returned to their homes and to their ordinary employments. Doubtless, some alteration of the debtors' condition took place. That the trouble was entirely removed must not be supposed. It remained, as it must remain as long as human nature continues to be the same, sometimes acute, sometimes dormant, according as times were bad or good.
The Law of the Twelve Tables, in which the frightful provision for the division of a debtor's body among his creditors is enacted, was later in date than the Secession. There can be no doubt, however, but that the plebeians made a great advance in their struggle for political equality. They secured the privilege of having magistrates of their own, the Tribunes of the People of whom we hear so much in Roman history. They were to be regularly appointed champions and guardians of liberty.
The powers of the Tribunes were very large. They could call any magistrate to account; they could fine and even imprison a consul; they could stop any proceeding; they could call an assembly of the people; they could protect any citizen that appealed to them. In order that they might be able to do these things without fear of consequences, they were guarded against any attack. The person of a tribune was sacred. Anyone who ventured to kill or injure him fell under a curse.
On the other hand their powers were narrowly limited. They could not propose a law; their position for a long time was purely negative, and their action was often impeded by the provision that they had to be unanimous. In early days this does not seem to have been imposed.
As time went on their powers became more developed and this provision was enacted. At the same time their number was greatly increased. This gave their opponents an opportunity of which they availed themselves. When there were ten tribunes, it was easy to find one who could be persuaded, or, it may be, bribed to help the aristocratic party. Yet, after all, the tribuneship was one of the great bulwarks of Roman liberty. It was a substantial and permanent result of the "Bloodless Revolution."