Secession

In the ancient Roman Republic, meritorious generals who had won the field against inferior foes without significant danger to their own armies were not rewarded with a Triumph but simply an ovation. Thus in 71BC, Marcus Crassus received an ovation upon defeating Spartacus’ revolt as the senate did not want to elevate the crushing of a slave revolt to the level of a full Triumph. An act that would embitter Crassus for years.

The first recorded ovation was given in 503 BC to Publius Postumus Tubertus for his victory over the Sabines. However, his last major recorded act was a diplomatic mission to save Rome from its own people. In 494 BC, he became one of the 10 ambassadors the senate sent to entreat with its own people on Mons Sacer. Here is the story.

After overthrowing their own king in 509BC, the Romans adopted constitution designed to prevent any one man from raising himself to royalty. At the head, there were a pair of annually elected consuls. These men presided over the Senate and together with them exercised all executive power. In times of crisis, a Dictator could be selected whose word was considered unchallengeable for the duration of the crisis.

Just because power was not held by one man, we should not imagine that there was anything in Rome resembling a modern democracy. The Senators came from the wealthy Patrician aristocracy. But the majority of both the population and the army was composed of Plebians.

This was also a period of repeated war, as Rome one state among many in the Italian peninsula strove to assert itself. Wars require taxes and many Plebians were driven into debt. Thus upon returning from a victory over the Latins in 495BC, the army found a divided city.

Livy records an incident of an old army officer who threw himself into the forum. Showing his fragile frame, his wild beard and his many war wounds, he reminded the people of the many honours he had won in battle. Then he recounted how he his land had been pillaged in the war and how he had been driven into debt to pay his taxes. To pay his debt he had to sell his ancestral property and when he could pay no more, his creditors took him to prison where he was whipped.

The crowd threatened violence. The senate convened but could not arrive at a decision. Appius Regillensis, one of the consuls advocated strict measures while his colleague Servilius advocated consession.

At this point, the threat of a Volscian invasion forced the Senate to agree to Servillius’s demands. The Plebians had to be convinced to enrol and form an army to protect Latin lands. Servilius proclaimed that no Roman could be detained or imprisoned if he enrolled to fight. Further, while serving, his property could not be seized nor his children or grandchildren arrested. The debtors enlisted immediately.

The Roman army repulsed the Volsci and the Sabines under Servilius. Upon their return, rather than taking steps to redress their complaints, the Senate delivered the debtors to their creditors and arrested still more people. Servilius was reminded of the promises he had made, but he could not persuade the Patricians. He was thus in an unenviable position of being hated by both parties. Mob violence now erupted as the masses rose against the creditors paying no head to the Senate or the Consuls.

War continued with the Sabines and the senate tried to enrol a new army but was ignored by the Plebians. An enraged Appius blamed Servilius;s weakness and sought to impose order by force. The impasse continued till the end of the Consuls’ term.

By the following year, secret nightly meetings were being held. The senate resolved to enrol an army to distract the people from sedition, but no one responded to their call. As the situation escalated, Appius demanded the election of a dictator. The measure was supported. Appius himself was narrowly beaten for this post by the moderate Manius Valerius Maximus.

War again loomed and Valerius made an offer similar to Servilius’s offer a year earlier and raised 10 legions. The same story was repeated, the Roman army victorious on the field during war found itself routed during peace in the Senate. Valerius resigned in disgust.

The Plebians then called for a general secession and moved to Mons Sacer. The terrified Senate sent 10 ambassadors under the former Consul Agrippa Menenius Lanatus who was allowed into the Plebian Camp. There he gave his celebrated speech. Plutarch describes it thus.

“It once happened,” Menenius Agrippa said, “that all the other members of a man mutinied against the stomach, which they accused as the only idle, un-contributing part the whole body, while the rest were put to hardships and the expense of much labour to supply and minister to its appetites. The stomach, however, merely ridiculed the silliness of the members, who appeared not to be aware that the stomach certainly does receive the general nourishment, but only to return it again, and redistribute it amongst the rest. Such is the case,” he said, “ye citizens, between you and the senate. The counsels and plans that are there duly digested, convey and secure to all of you your proper benefit and support.”

A compromise was reached where a new office, of Tribune was created to represent the interests of the Plebians.

References

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_secessio_plebis

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publius_Postumius_Tubertus

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ovation

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/500s_BC_(decade)

[5] http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/coriolan.html

 

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