The overthrow of the kings of Rome did not relieve the people from all their oppression. The inhabitants of that city had long been divided into two great classes, the Patricians, or nobles, and the Plebeians, or common people, and the former held in their hand nearly all the wealth and power of the state. The senate, the law-making body, were all Patricians; the consuls, the executors of the law, were chosen from their ranks; and the Plebeians were left with few rights and little protection.
It was through the avarice of money-lending nobles that the people were chiefly oppressed. There were no laws limiting the rate of interest, and the rich lent to the poor at extravagant rates of usury. The interest, when not paid, was added to the debt, so that in time it became impossible for many debtors to pay.
And the laws against debtors had become terribly severe. They might, with all their families, be held as slaves. Or if the debtor refused to sell himself to his creditor, and still could not pay his debt, he might be imprisoned in fetters for sixty days. At the end of that time, if no friend had paid his debt, he could be put to death, or sold as a slave into a foreign state. If there were several creditors, they could actually cut his body to pieces, each taking a piece proportional in size to his claim.
This cruel severity was more than any people could long endure. It led to a revolution in Rome. In the year 495 b.c. , fifteen years after the Tarquins had been expelled, a poor debtor, who had fought valiantly in the wars, broke from his prison, and—with his clothes in tatters and chains clanking upon his limbs—appealed eloquently to the people in the Forum, and showed them on his emaciated body the scars of the many battles in which he had fought.
His tale was a sad one. While he served in the Sabine war, the enemy had pillaged and burned his house; and when he returned home, it was to find his cattle stolen and his farm heavily taxed. Forced to borrow money, the interest had brought him deeply into debt. Finally he had been attacked by pestilence, and being unable to work for his creditor, he had been thrown into prison and cruelly scourged, the marks of the lash being still evident upon his bleeding back.
This piteous story roused its hearers to fury. The whole city broke into tumult, as the woeful tale passed from lip to lip. Many debtors escaped from their prisons and begged protection from the incensed multitude. The consuls found themselves powerless to restore order; and in the midst of the uproar horsemen came riding hotly through the gates, crying out that a hostile army was near at hand, marching to besiege the city.
Here was a splendid opportunity for the Plebeians. When called upon to enroll their names and take arms for the city's defence, they refused. The Patricians, they said, might fight their own battles. As for them, they had rather die together at home than perish separate upon the battle-field.
This refusal left the Patricians in a quandary. With riot in the streets and war beyond the walls they were at the mercy of the commons. They were forced to promise a mitigation of the laws, declaring that no one should henceforth seize the goods of a soldier while he was in camp, or hinder a citizen from enlisting by keeping him in prison. This promise satisfied the people. The debtors' prisons were emptied, and their late tenants crowded with enthusiasm into the ranks. Through the gates the army marched, met the foe, and drove him in defeat from the soil of the Roman state.
Victory gained, the Plebeians looked for laws to sustain the promises under which they had fought. They looked in vain; the senate took no action for their redress. But they had learned their power, and were not again to be enslaved. Their action was deliberate but decided. Taking measures to protect their homes on the Aventine Hill, they left the city the next year in a body, and sought a hill beyond the Anio, about three miles beyond the walls of Rome. Here they encamped, built fortifications, and sent word to their lordly rulers that they were done with empty promises, and would fight no more for the state until the state kept its faith. All the good of their fighting came to the Patricians, they said, and these might now defend themselves and their wealth.
The senate was thrown into a panic by this decided action. When the hostile cities without should learn of it, they might send armies in haste to undefended Rome. The people left in the city feared the Patricians, and the Patricians feared them. All was doubt and anxiety. At length the senate, driven to desperation, sent an embassy to the rebels to treat for peace, being in deadly fear that some enemy might assail and capture the city in the absence of the bulk of its inhabitants.
The messenger sent, Menenius Agrippa Lanatus, was a man famed for eloquence, and a popular favorite. In his address to the people in their camp he repeated to them the following significant fable;
"At a time when all the parts of the body did not agree together, as they do now, but each had its own method and language, the other parts rebelled against the belly. They said that it lay quietly enjoying itself in the centre, while they, by care, labor, and service, kept it in luxury. They therefore conspired that the hands should not convey food to the mouth, the mouth receive it, nor 'the teeth chew it. They thus hoped to subdue the belly by famine; but they found that they and all the other parts of the body suffered as much. Then they saw that the belly by no means rested in sloth; that it supplied instead of receiving nourishment, sending to all parts of the body the blood that gave life and strength to the whole system."
It was the same, he said, with the body of the state. All must work in unity, if all would prosper. This homely argument hit the popular fancy. The people consented to treat for their return if their liberties could be properly secured. But they must now have deeds instead of words. It was not political power they sought, but protection, and protection they would have.
Their demands were as follows: All debts should be cancelled, and all debtors held by their creditors should be released. And hereafter the Plebeians should have as their protectors two officials, who should have power to veto all oppressive laws, while their persons should be held as sacred and inviolable as those of the messengers of the gods. These officials were to be called Tribunes, and to be the chief officers of the commons as the consuls were of the nobles.
This proposition was accepted by the senate, and a treaty signed between the contesting parties, as solemnly as if they had been two separate nations. It was an occasion as important to the liberties of Romans as the treaty signed many centuries afterwards on the field of Runnymede, between King John and his barons, was to the liberties of Englishmen, and was held by the Romans in like high regard. The hill on which the treaty had been made was ever after known as the Sacred Mount. Its top was consecrated and an altar built upon it, on which sacrifices were made to Jupiter, the god who strikes men with terror and then delivers them from fear; for the people had fled thither in dread, and were now to return home in safety.
Thus ended the great revolt of the people, who had gained in the Tribunes defenders of more power and importance than they or the senate knew. They were never again to suffer from the bitter oppression to which they had been subjected in preceding years. As for Lanatus, to whose pleadings they had yielded, he died before the year ended, and was found to have not left enough to pay for his funeral. Therefore the Plebeians collected funds to give him a splendid burial; but the senate having decreed that the state should bear this expense, the money raised by the grateful people was formed into a fund for the benefit of his children.